Why Sit-Ups Are Killing Your Back

Why are sit-ups so popular? Why do I think they do us more harm than good? Find out below why they are bad for your back, who can do them and a few alternatives you can try at home instead. 


Sit-ups should make sense right? You want to tone up that midriff and you see the fitness people on TV show you how to do them. Not only that, but they have been around for decades. There is enough social proof to show they work, or so it seems. 

Who remembers the ab cradle, or has a sit-up bench? Even Christiano Ronaldo has got in on the act with his futuristic "electronic ab pads". I like Ronaldo as an athlete, but he has had a shocker here... I can also tell you that he didn't get his abs using that junk. 

I can see the appeal of ab crunches to the masses. They are easy"ish" to do and require minimal equipment. You can also get a great burn out them quickly which makes you feel like you are doing some good. I used to do loads of them myself as that was the best way to get "abs". Or so I thought.

Will they help you burn fat off your midriff and get toned abs? Bad news folks, unfortunately not. In fact, they may actually be doing us far more harm than good. 

Here's why...

We have connective tissue called fascia that acts a bit like support frame for our muscles, ligaments and bones. It's like a strong plastic film that wraps around us. It starts at the top of the head and finishes at the bottom of the feet.

Whatever position we adopt for a short period of time our body will adapt to. The fascia does this to economise our energy expenditure. 

So, for example, when we sit down and type at our desk, we rely on "fascial hang" to save energy and focus it on the important stuff. Getting what is in our mind onto the computer screen as quickly as possible. The more distractions we have, the poorer the quality of work we produce is. 

As a result of this adopted posture, the fronts of our bodies "shorten" and the fascia on the back of our bodies "lengthens". The expression for this is called "locked long and locked short. "

So if we do this for 6-8 hours a day, 5 or 6 days a week, we will develop a posture that replicates our environment. In this case a "Golemesque" posture. (That's Golem from Lord of the Rings I am referencing). 

From sitting all day long, the liquid in our spinal discs gets pushed to the back. By doing sit-ups or even worse, weighted sit-ups, we are loading and encouraging more pressure on that lower part of the spine. This increases the risk of "bulging discs" or "slipped discs" from repetitive strain. 

So by adding sit-ups to this, we continue to encourage the shortening of our hip flexors, the fascia at the front of the body and the neck. This encourages more rounding. I would also like to add that our hip flexors, which are heavily used in sit-ups, attach to the lower part of the spine (lumbar spine) which can encourage an unwanted arch that can pinch the discs in the spine. 

Putting that all together, sit-ups encourage worse posture, put unnecessary pressure on the lower back and do not have any effect on burning belly fat at all. (That's diet related). 

So what should you do instead?

The following are a good start

1. Planks (30 seconds is enough)
2. Side Plank- (30 seconds a side is enough)
3. Dead Bugs
4. Weighted Carries (Lift a heavy enough weight to challenge you, whilst allowing you to perform the best posture possible whilst moving). 

Each of these is effective because they encourage the best posture possible for the spine. They force our spinal stabilisers (multifidus) as well as the whole core complex to engage and hold a safe position whilst we perform these exercises. 

I personally prefer to keep the plank holds for no more than 30 seconds simply because they get boring for most people. If I want to make it harder I simply add a bit of weight. (DB's, weight plate or weighted vest if you have one). 

Essentially everything works as a unit as opposed to one isolated muscle group. 

In my opinion, the only people that are qualified to do sit-ups are bodybuilders who have high levels of mind/ muscle control. Which means they can isolate the "rectus abdominis" muscle group and keep a strong stable spine throughout the sit-up. They are also at such a high level physically that they are adding to already exceptional physiques. 

Sit-ups for recreational exercisers like you and me are a no-no. Full body workouts are far more efficient and have great benefits to them.

Save your back and swap sit-ups for any of the 4 options mentioned earlier. You will thank me later. 


Patrick Fallis Profile Picture 2016.jpg

Patrick Fallis...

is a freelance personal trainer and nutrition coach based in Kensington, London, UK. He is the founder of Leaner and works one on one with his clients which include financiers, lawyers and executives. He has a relaxed approach to diet and lifestyle.

Patrick loves to play 5 a side football, dodgeball and is an infamous ice cream critic in his spare time.