99% of readers have already gasped. “What?” No sit up? “But, my kid does it in PE every week.” “I grew up with them!” And, the best: “The some in the military still use them as part of their physical readiness test.”
At Fitness on the Run (FOR), we believe the tools you use should create the greatest effects with minimal risk to the joints. Are you aiming to have a flat belly? Or are you aiming to drive the golf ball 300 yards? Are you working your core to create stability for longevity? Or all three?
It is a celebratory sign when I found the biggest names in fitness online and there are no signs of crunching. Instead to get a strong core, the majority suggest an array of tension building, muscle toning movements like the plank, plank up downs, mountain climbers and standing and kneeling ball slams instead. Ha, just like we do at FOR!
Add to this the 2015 Editorial in the Navy Times, an independent publication that covers the U.S. Navy, called for banishing the sit-up from the physical readiness test sailors must pass twice a year. The editorial says, “It’s well past time, for example, to deep-six the sit-up, an outdated exercise today viewed as a key cause of lower back injuries. Experts say there are better measures of core strength that have the added advantage of being less prone to cheating. The plank, for example, more accurately measures core strength and because its done by holding the body arrow straight while resting only on the toes and forearms it does not subject muscles to strain by motion.”
So, why are we all losing our faith in the sit up or crunch?
There are a number of reasons:
- Your back isn’t shaped for the curling, or flexion, motion.
- When done improperly, it can use mostly hip flexors and trigger use of the lower back.
- It puts the spine into an overloaded situation creating a domino effect on your disc health.
- They activate rectus abdominis muscle (the front and center of the abs), while the internal and external oblique abdominis muscles are considered to be more important to lumbar stability, a primary goal of core work.
- Fibers of the disks slowly delaminate, accelerating degenerative disc disease. The scaffolding holding the fibers together soften with each repetition, reducing the resilience of the disk to any load.
Wait…what does that mean??
To fully embrace a fitness program means YOU take control. The responsibility of your movements, inside and outside of the gym, is on you. Choosing to understand the long-term impact of exercise on your physical health (beyond the effects of body composition) can be hugely rewarding and open up a world of possibilities. To do this, it is necessary to educate yourself on how the body works.
Here is a little anatomy lesson.
So, let’s study the area of the body with which so many Americans are obsessed: the core. Most researchers consider the core to be the corset of muscles and connective tissue that encircle and hold the spine in place. Others would include multi-joint muscles, like the latissimus dorsi and psoas that pass through the core, linking it to the pelvis, legs, shoulders, and arms. And, given the synergy with the pelvis, the gluteal muscles are also considered to be essential components as well by many.
If the “core” starts at the top of your head and ends at the tip of your toes, it brings a world of possibility to your exercise program and to the menu items available to strengthen (and yes trim) your abs. No joke. Utilizing this amazing body of which God has blessed you in its entirety and to its full potential requires a total body effort.
There was a time in the fitness industry where we were taught – by respectable organizations, publications and very smart people – to train isolated muscle groups. Upper body on Mondays, lower body on Wednesdays, Chest and back Thursday, Core and Cardio on Saturdays was prescribed by many in fitness.
We’ve come a long way learning everything in our bodies – muscles, joint, tendon, ligament – is connected. Learning how to properly move in functional ways (i.e. utilizing large muscle groups first) as one body – not separate parts – gives us a greater sense of body awareness, stability and ultimately unimaginable strength.
Dr. Stuart McGill is like the Tom Ford to many in the fitness community, including me. McGill is to the back and core what Vin Scully is to baseball announcers. He is a world renowned expert in low back disorders, author of multiple books and professor at the University of Waterloo and Director of the Spine Biomechanics Laboratory. He has authored many books, including Low Back Disorders: Evidence Based Prevention and Rehabilitation and has established himself as the premier voice for core development. Dr. McGill has spent his professional life testing, experimenting and collecting data to help us train smarter.
In one of his many landmark pieces of research, Dr. McGill found that one crunch or traditional sit-up generates at least 3,350 newtons (the equivalent of 340 kg) of compressive force on the spine. The U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health states that anything above 3,300 newtons is unsafe. So, why would you do it? And, why sets upon sets of them?
McGill asserts the effect on the discs is greater with repeated bending. He says, “The heavy-boned spines adapted for lifting don’t protect against bending. When the compressive load is lower, multiple bending causes a weakening effect.”
When you crunch or sit up, you are already putting your spine in a loaded position. It seems weird I know because you aren’t holding anything so how can there be a “load”? The compressive force is great on the spine, specifically the nucleus of it. It requires no weight beyond our own bodyweight to create what he calls an “overloaded” state.
So, the repeated movement along with the load are disasters waiting to happen. Combine crunching with our daily activities of slouching, sitting in the car/train/bus and/or sitting at a desk. Well, you know what happens next.
Ian Crosby of the Calgary Fire Department saw the shift from the sit up test first-hand. He’s on a committee of the International Association of Fire Fighters that establishes criteria for the make-or-break fitness test. A few years ago, they reviewed the annual sit-up test, which involved doing steady crunches in time to a metronome. The problem, for Crosby, is that anyone being assessed “will train to get better. And that involves repeated bouts of sit-ups.” So last year, after talking to Dr. McGill and other experts, the IAFF dropped the sit-up in favor of the prone plank—basically a static push-up that will leave the unfit trembling with fatigue.
Did I hear push up for core strength? Now, that’s FOR style!
For those who believe sit-ups are the only key to strong abdominals, Crosby points to research that shows the new movements can be just as effective in improving core strength.
How do we propose to get your core in tip top condition?
Because the core includes so many muscle groups, we approach the core with the whole body in mind. The abs are not working in isolation. They are working along with the gluts, the hips, the pelvis, etc. Physical Therapist, Dr. Joe Heiler adds another reason: “The abdominal muscles don’t work in isolation so attempting to train them in that fashion is asking for trouble.”
So, instead of crunching, try movements that require you to brace your belly (pull your belly button to your spine) when you perform them like the squat, the carry, the push up, the plank, the plank to push up, the slow mountain climber, the bird dog, stir the pot. The key is how you “use” your body during exercise. Learning how to use your core correctly is the nirvana of training. The options are endless!