There was a time in exercise and sports training when everyone would attempt dozens of sit-ups in a minute and often did them back to back with push ups. When we think about that now, many fitness professionals cringe at the thought, but most people don’t really know why that seems old hat and even detrimental to performance and health.
Body weight training and military style ‘beasting’ meant that sometime around the 70s and 80s sit-ups became the go-to abs/core/torso/trunk exercise that people could do anywhere with no kit and no end of reps in sight. What began as part of a whole body strength/endurance boxing, martial arts and military conditioning tool spread into general fitness with everyone believing the hype that endless sit ups were the answer to ‘rock hard six pack abs’.
As more hyperbole and sales techniques led to increasing popularity, something else happened quite unrelated but equally as negative. We, as a human race started sitting longer, working at desks more often and for hours and hours. Becoming more and more hunched over our work, meals, children and so on. Technology improved so our computers and TVs encouraged even more seated, sedentary lifestyles.
Why is this a problem?
The above situation led to what we now call ‘bad posture’ (more on this later). Imagine a person sat hunched over a desk. Now imagine that person performing hundreds of sit ups. It doesn’t take long to see the same position occurring in both examples – shortened and overused anterior muscles, lengthened and often weak posterior muscles.
I will say that in terms of danger vs safety, sit-ups performed properly by someone with a healthy spine are not in and of themselves inherently damaging. The problem is that most people (whether they know it or not) do not get to 30 years old with a perfectly healthy spine. Data from recent research suggests that even in people experiencing no current symptoms, the integrity of the vertebrae, intervertebral discs, spinal chord etc is more often than not in some state of degeneration. This isn’t something to worry about, instead something to consider when training and exercising. It’s a case of managing risk.
Repeated forward flexion of the spine can be one (of the numerous) potential mechanisms by which we place more stress on the structures associated with our spines. So then, loads and loads of sit ups may not be the best and safest way to train the muscles of our abdomen and trunk.
What’s the alternative?
However, of course it isn’t enough to tell you what not to do! Trunk training is something that we highly recommend. We just do it slightly differently in light of the above.
Our trunks (everything from the hips to your neck) are designed to hold our major organs, support our oversized head (by evolutionary standards) and transfer forces from our legs for locomotion, so we don’t over rotate and fall over. The muscles are laid out in such a way that they create stability by criss-crossing, web-like around our midsection. When all the muscles in that area contract equally, what we see is actually no movement at all. Instead they form a supportive brace or pillar.
This leads us to train the muscles in the same way. By providing a training stress that the trunk must work against to prevent movement we are teaching the abs, obliques, lower back etc to work together to stabilise our spine and transfer force up the chain.
What exercises are best?
A few of our favourite exercises to achieve this are anti-rotation reaches (seen above), kneeling side planks, pallof presses & hand walkouts to name just a few (click on exercises to see video demonstrations). They can still be performed with little to no equipment but work on anti-rotation, anti side flexion, and anti flexion/extension. There are also numerous ways to progress and regress these exercises meaning whatever stage of fitness and training you are in, there will be an appropriate option for you.