The quest for ‘6 pack abs’ is one of the most common pursuits for most individuals who embark on a fitness journey and the most commonly used tool for this is ‘the sit up’.
So because it is commonly used it must be the best thing to do right?
We are going to challenge this today by picking ‘the sit up’ apart bit by bit
Let’s start with the function of the abdominals as I believe this lack of understanding is where people fall into the trap of sub optimal training.
The primary role of the abdominals is work as part of a team to help stabilise our spine through movement or load and transfer force across the body. This group of muscles are often referred to as ‘the core’ which include both sets of abdominal muscles (rectus and transverse abdominis), internal and external obliques, Quadratus lumborum (QL), Erector Spinae, Psoas Major (often referred to as hip flexors), Diaphragm and your glute muscles. (insert picture)
So this begs the question, if all of these muscles work together to create efficient and safe movement why do we single out one of these and train it in isolation? If you train these cogs in the wheel in isolation you are going to create imbalances which will lead to certain structures becoming overloaded (which we will get to in a moment). Training the core is about fine tuning and control, isolating the abdominals with sit ups is like putting a Lamborghini engine into a Citron, eventually all that power is going to make something break. In everyday activities or sporting performance such as running, jumping, cycling, throwing etc… the core works together so this is how we should train it.
So let’s talk about what is happening to your back as you are doing sit ups. To complete the sit up it requires a amount of compressive force from our abdominals and hip flexors which create a high amount of force going through the joints and structures in our lower backs. When you combine this with the flexed spinal position a sit up puts you in with the high level of force created by the muscles this places a lot of pressure on our discs which sit in between each vertebrae. Repeating these multiple times a week for months on end puts you at a very high risk of causing a disc herniation which can lead to compression of our nerves.
There is no dispute to the claim that you will “feel the burn” in your abdominals and maybe even see some change in appearance to your abdominal muscles from doing sit ups. But ask yourself (or your PT) is this worth the eventual lower back pain that you will receive and the lack of carry over it will give you to your daily activities or sporting performance?