Many of our patients are surprised to learn that sit ups can be bad for the low back. Sit ups and crunches are a common exercise done to strengthen the abdominal muscles, but researchers tell us that sit ups can damage the lumbar discs and they can even strengthen the wrong muscles.
During a sit up, the lumbar spine bends forward. This forward bending causes increased compression on the lumbar discs. The typical sit up creates about 700 pounds of compressive force on the intervertebral disc. Doing sit ups repetitively, over time can damage the lumbar discs. Over time, the disc begins to “wear out” and this can lead to disc bulging or herniation.
Another way sit ups may harm the low back is that they tend to work on a large group of muscles called the iliopsoas. The iliopsoas muscle has attachments at the front of the low back and at the hips. Making this muscle too strong or too tight can contribute to low back pain. Additionally, sit ups tend to work the middle abdominal muscles in isolation. Proper core exercises should train all of the regional muscles at the same time. Isolating two or three muscles does not improve the functional strength or endurance needed for physical activities.
Plank exercises are a much better way to strengthen the abdominal muscles. There are many types of plank exercises and most of them are designed to strengthen the abdominal muscles in the front and on the side of the trunk. Performing a plank while propped up on the forearms and toes strengthens the front abdominal muscles. Side planks strengthen the oblique abdominal muscles. The obvious advantage to doing plank-type exercises is that it places much less pressure on the spinal joints because the spine is in a neutral position. The abdominal muscles can be trained to very high levels with plank exercises. Here is an excellent video made by professor Stuart McGill that explains how to correctly perform some back exercises.
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