Why Are We Still Doing Sit-ups and Crunches?
Myths (especially myths concerned with health and fitness) take a long time to die. As a sports chiropractor, over the past ten years I’ve seen many ridiculous fitness trends come and go, and it’s finally time for sit-ups and crunches – mainstays of core and abdominal training for decades – to go too, for the sake of the rest of your body.
It’s easy to see why they’ve persisted: they burn, and people often confuse ‘burning’ with effective exercise. Flying through a hundred sit-ups definitely feels like it does something, right? In fact it does: it greatly increases your risk of back injury.
The truth is that sit-ups are hard on your spine. They flatten the natural curvature of your lower back against the floor and engage your hip flexors, the muscles that run from your lumbar vertebrae in the lower back to the fronts of your thighs. When the hip flexors are tight and shortened, they tug on the lower spine and throw your pelvis out of proper alignment. Over time, this altered positioning combined with the repeated flexing motion, squeezes the discs in the spine. That combination eventually can cause discs to bulge, pressing on nerves and causing back pain, potentially leading to disc herniation.
If you’re driving or sitting at a desk (or worse, both) all day, your hips flexors are already shortened and tight. The average person already has poor postural habits that will eventually lead to chronic pain and injury, and ripping through sit-ups or crunches at the gym are only going to make that worse.
Even the US Navy has called for eliminating the sit-up from the physical fitness test sailors must pass twice each year, calling it “an outdated exercise today viewed as a key cause of lower back injuries.”
What To Do Instead?
So instead of sit-ups and crunches that force your spine into unnatural postures, replace them with exercises that mimic your natural alignment. My favorite are planks and side planks. It makes a huge difference: you want to exercise in ways that are consistent with how you regularly move your body. With planks and side planks you retain proper alignment – ears above shoulders above hips above ankles.
Planks also recruit a better balance of muscles on the front, back and sides of your body compared to sit-ups, which target just a few abdominal muscle groups (and your ‘core’ is more than just your abs!) Activities of daily living, as well as sports and recreational activities, require all your muscles to work together, not in isolation, so it makes sense to work abs in combination with other muscle groups.
But to be honest, most compound exercises are going to be hitting our core if we’re doing them correctly. Spot core conditioning is not nearly as effective as range-of-motion and strength training, which utilize your abs within the context of a full-body movement or static hold. Some of my favorite alternate options for activating your core within larger movement patterns include TRX, VIPR, front squats and kettlebell exercises.
As exercise science evolves, we need to let go of anything that causes more harm than benefit. And while it’s true that some exercises might be totally ok for some and dangerous for others, at this point everyone can safely remove sit-ups and crunches from their routine and not lose a thing.
Brookfield Sports Chiropractic
Whether you’re a pro athlete, weekend warrior or just looking to tone up, study after study shows that regular chiropractic care is an essential part of reaching your full potential. Ready to get stronger? To make an appointment at Ascent Chiropractic, call 262-345-4166 or schedule an appointment with our online scheduling app.