Why Sit-ups Are Bad For Your Back and the Right Exercise To Try Instead

Thirty years ago, middle schoolers across the US were holding the feet of their partner and counting the number of sit ups completed. Physical education class would not have felt complete without fitness testing that included the painful crunches on the hardwood gym floor. No pain; no gain. Right? Maybe not…

While back pain can be problematic for any age group, middle-aged individuals may feel the pain more frequently and severely than their younger counterparts. According to Dr. Noah Finkel, spokesman for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, lifestyle choices are most likely the culprit. “Men and women in their 30s, 40s and 50s have a high incidence of back problems due to a combination of risk factors that typically appear in middle age,” he says. These risk factors can include:

  • Weight
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Sitting posture
  • Stress
  • Smoking
  • Exercise techniques

Frequently, these risk factors, along with the aging body, result in physical injury that causes pain in the back. Pain often stems from degeneration of the spinal canal; reduction in bone strength, muscle elasticity, and muscle tone; as well as the drier, less flexible discs between the vertebrae, all of which also contribute to more chances of injury in middle age.

One of the causes of back pain is a herniated or ruptured disc. This occurs when the padding between the vertebrae become compressed and bulge outward. Imagine a jelly donut. If you step on one side, the filling will squirt out of the other side. This is the same idea with a herniated disc. It can be caused by a traumatic accident, such as falling down onto your coccyx, or by a series of everyday motions that bend and wear at the disc’s structure.  One such motion that was once considered healthy, but could cause a ruptured disc, is the sit up. 

Are Sit-Ups Bad for You?

According to the Daily Mail, the US Army revamped the physical fitness test to exclude sit ups, which military advisers and personal trainers deemed as “dangerous because they put too much pressure on the spine.” The article also reports that a study showed 56 percent of all injuries endured during the old fitness test were because of the sit ups. 

Numerous representatives in fitness and medicine stand behind this move.

  • Stuart McGill, professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Canada, told the Daily Mail that sit ups can squeeze the discs of the spine, leading to a hernia, pressing on nerves, and causing pain.
  • Sit ups are “an antiquity of exercise best left in the dustbin of fitness history,” says Pete McCall, spokesman for the American Council on Exercise in an article in the Wall Street Journal. 
  • Creator of the P90X workout series, Tony Horton, says, “I really believe that the traditional, antiquated crunch has seen better days, and it’s time to make a change.”

What Exercise Replaced Sit-Ups?

So if we should avoid the sit up, which exercise will effectively reach those core muscles instead? 

According to fitness trainers and physicians, planks are better than sit ups ever were. And they are safe. 

While there are many varieties to the plank, the main exercise is to hold the body stiff in the upward motion of a push up. This will work the inner core muscles to lay the foundation of strong, defined abs. You can do it on your forearms, your palms, or on your side. You can do it on a flat surface, an incline, or a stability ball. You can do it while lifting an arm or a leg. The options – and the effects – are near endless. 

In addition to tightening core muscles, the plank can also improve posture, tone one’s belly, improve movement and coordination, and support back health. 

Gain Without Pain

No pain; no gain? Wrong. It is possible to attain a fit body without pain. In fact, if you feel pain while performing a fitness move, you are probably doing it wrong. Unfortunately, for years, sit ups and crunches were thought to be effective exercises for tightening stomach muscles, when in reality, they were causing more damage than good. 

Performing a correct plank, however, is safe and effective for any age or fitness level. Simply hold the pose as long as possible, extending the length or difficulty over time.

If you are feeling pain in your back following sit-ups, it may be time to visit your chiropractor. A chiropractor can help realign the vertebrae in your back, relieving pressure, reducing stress, and removing pain. Schedule an appointment online or call (256) 333-9429.

Thankfully, there’s no need to deal with pain anymore. And sit ups have gone the way of tube socks and eight-track tapes. 

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for in-person advice or care from a medical professional.