The idea that sit-ups are bad for your back has been around a long time now, or so I thought. Stuart McGill first published his research condemning loaded spinal flexion exercises in 1998. Yet it’s nearly 2016 and still everytime I go into a gym I see multiple people doing “back breaking” sit-up type exercises so I thought I’d throw this blog out there and hopefully convert a few more people into some healthier habits for the spine.
Why are sit-ups bad? McGill’s research, along with several other researchers, show a gradual delamination of the annulus fibrosis connective tissue that forms the protective ringed layer of our intervertebral discs with repetitive lumar flexion. In simple terms think of the disc as being arranged like the rings of a tree, each lumbar flexion movement you do (even putting your socks on) will slightly damage the outer layers of these rings. Some people can get away with lots others breakdown quicker, thank your genetics for that part!
Therefore the more lumbar flexions you perform in a lifetime and especially if they are loaded with more weight/force like a sit up or lifting with a bent spine then the sooner your discs will wear out and bulge or herniate resulting in pain (when inflamed). You can’t and shouldn’t completely avoid lumbar flexion in everyday life but you’re supposed to go to the gym to make yourself healthier so why add more wear and tear to your back instead?
Sit-ups and similar exercises such as: hugging your knees to your chest, bending to touch your toes, V-sits (see picture above), oblique crunches, swiss ball crunches, bosu ball crunches, leg press machine and burpees all increase the degeneration of your lumbar discs. The same goes for bad technique on exercises like; squats, deadlifts, olympic lifts, lat pulldowns, seated rows, bench press, bicep curls, cycling, rowing, running, x-trainer etc. Hence why technique is paramount to safe, effective exercise.
So what exercises can you do instead? Well the second list of exercises in the above paragraph can all be done safely with good technique as mentioned already. As for the first list why not try any of the following; prayer stretch (child pose in yoga), cat stretch, McGill crunches, Bird dog, plank, side plank, rolling patterns, wood chops (cable), kettle bell swings, overhead squats, “stirring the pot“, prone rollouts, plank rotations, press ups, TRX exercises, alternate leg roman chair and battling ropes.
Many of the above exercises are trying to push you into lumbar (low back) extension, or in some cases, flexion. The aim is too resist this by stiffening all your abdominal and back muscles (not hollowing your spine like Pilates) to maintain a neutral spine, for example, the plank (see picture below). Please note I have seen many people do these exercises with extended lumbar spines which completely defeats the point of them, technique, technique, technique!
The last point with many of these exercises especially the ones with movement like squats, deadlift etc is that they require good hip and ankle mobility to reduce the load on your back and knees. If you are not sufficiently mobile in these areas I would strongly recommend working on that before you lift heavy weights or attempt to do “ass to grass” movements. There is no shame in putting some plates under your heels when squatting if your ankles/calves are too stiff.