lumbar disc

Over the past few years there has been a changing of the guard when it comes to the philosophy of core exercises and strengthening the abdominal muscles. One exercise in particular has been at the core of the debate: the sit-up. Late in 2015, many major media outlets including TimeThe Wall Street Journal, and even the long standing fashion magazine Cosmopolitan, covered the story and have told the world that some top medical professionals and fitness professionals have denounced the sit-up.

Much of the recent coverage has come about from an editorial in Navy Times, an independent publication that covers the U.S. Navy, calling to banish the sit up from the physical-readiness test that sailors must complete twice per year. Due to the injury risk and lack of relevance to military work, the Canadian Armed Forces have also taken the sit-up out of its exercise testing.

Are sit-ups good for strengthening your core?

Roll out

Roll out

Sit-ups are good for one particular muscle, which is your rectus abdominis, the 6-pack muscle. Research has shown that exercises using an exercise ball are more effective at activating core musculature than the sit-up or crunch. The study showed the “roll out” and “pike” to be the most effective at activating upper and lower rectus abdominis, external and internal obliques, and latissimus dorsi muscles.

Verdict: the sit-up is not particularly good for strengthening your core.

Are sit-ups actually bad for your low back?



According to Stuart McGill, professor of spinal bio-mechanis at the University of Waterloo, sit-ups produce enough force in the spine to create disc buldges and disc herniations, which are common lumbar spine injuries and can be extremely debilitating. Professor McGill has performed numerous studies on mechanical force placed on the lumbar spine during exercise and daily activities. The sit-up exercise, which produces excess force combined with the repeated spinal flexion motion, can squeeze the vertebral discs to the point of damage of the disc fibres, which can result in a disc herniation of the nucleus causing nerve irritation and sciatic pain down the leg. 

Verdict: sit-ups can be bad for your low back and alternatives should be used.

What are the best core exercises instead of a sit-up?

As mentioned above, research has shown that the roll out and pike exercises on an exercise ball are effective for core strengthening. As well as those two, more traditional exercises include the front and side plank. Stir the pot is another exercise that is more challenging than a traditional front plank. When it comes down to it, customization of a core exercise program will provide the best results for each individual.

Verdict: make a game plan to switch your core and ab routine if it involves sit-ups. Consult with your medical or fitness expert if they are familiar with spinal disc injuries and exercise.

Contact our North Vancouver Chiropractic clinic to consult about your core exercise program and if it is right for you.