Sit ups are bad for your back. Many of you will read that statement and agree. Some of you will disagree. The question becomes, “which of you is correct?” I will attempt to answer that question, and some of you, depending on which way you look at it, may be surprised.
I remember when I first heard that sit ups were bad for me, and I needed to switch to crunches. I was much younger then, and I did not have the experience or knowledge that I do now. It was in an infomercial for a piece of exercise equipment that was designed to help you do a crunch without straining your neck. I could not figure out what the big deal was with sit ups at the time. I had been doing them since the first day I exercised, and my back never hurt at all. I was also a teenager so joint pain was not exactly a common occurrence. I listened to what the infomercial guy had to say, and it made sense, but I never stopped doing sit ups. Why? Because my back never hurt from doing them so his point of view never applied to me.
He said that sit ups caused the lower back to strain, and that they put stress on the lower back so if you were one of the many people who had this problem then YOU needed to stop doing sit ups and buy his machine. I personally was not one of the people he was talking to so I never listened to his advice. Over the years I heard many people on many occasions speak to the negatives of sit ups, and I never listened. Why? They never gave me any proof to the claims. The thing that people have held onto over the years is the stress that can be put on the back by two things during a sit up.
The first is the hip movement. The hip flexors are pretty active during the majority of a sit up’s range of motion, which causes the hips to move slightly. The belief has been that this hip movement causes instability in the lower back, and that causes pain. If you’ve ever been doing a set of sit ups and noticed that you are moving across the floor then you have experienced this hip movement.
The second is the weight that is put on your lower spine at the top of the movement. When you have sat all the way up your spine is in an erect position without the support of its base, the lower lumbar. This is said to put stress on the spine in a way that can be dangerous because the spine is in an awkward position to be holding the weight of the upper body.
So is it true? Are sit ups bad for you based on the two things I just mentioned? My answer is no, not entirely. The first point has merit except for one thing, and that is the body is designed to move that way. The hips have a range of motion that includes movement in a front to back manner so it’s not out of the ordinary to ask them to flex that way. The issue comes from the position of the body on the ground and the weight the lower spine is required to manage when you move your hips that way. Sit ups can be done without all the moving of the hips, so eliminating that movement will eliminate any risk. Before you start your sit up you can lift your hips off the ground slightly and roll them forward. This subtle move will lock the hip complex in place, allowing you to do sit ups without moving across the room.
The second point is valid in that the spine is not meant to be bent forward with the lower lumbar underneath the upper spine while supporting the body’s weight. So what do you do? The answer again is to simply adjust the movement. When I first learned to do a sit up I was told to reach forward over my knees with my chin. That’s the area that creates the issues and should be avoided. Instead of reaching forward with your head you simply keep your back straight with your chest out as you reach your peak position. Keeping the chest out will make it uncomfortable and difficult to overextend at the top of the movement and put the back in a weak position. You will notice that you do not come all that close to your knees anymore, and you should also feel less strain on the lower back.
There are some things that need to be addressed outside of changing the movement. If you already suffer from lower back pain, poor flexibility, bad posture, weak abdominals, weak lower back muscles, or a previous injury, then you probably should not do a full sit up. There are a lot of other abdominal exercises to take advantage of without risking further injury to your back. In some cases you may just need to strengthen your overall core area and build up to doing sit ups. Some of you may find that by making the proper form adjustments, you will no longer have pain in your back when doing sit ups and can begin adding them to your routine.
As with all exercises, a sit up may not be the best choice for everyone, but it also should not have to stay on a list of outcasts for being misunderstood. Many people do sit ups their entire life without any issues, and athletes have been using them from the beginning. The athlete’s world never bought into the idea that a sit up was bad for you, and they have always used them to strengthen their entire range of motion for many things like running, jumping, and throwing. You want to train your muscles through a complete range of motion as much as you can, and the full sit up is a good way to allow some of the abdominal muscles to get that type of work.
So there I said it. I like sit ups and believe they can be a beneficial exercise. Do I believe they are well rounded or all that’s needed to give you a strong stable core? Not at all because they only work to improve a specific range of motion but it won’t kill you to do some good old fashioned sit ups.