If I told you a certain exercise put nearly 700 pounds of compression on your lower back, would you ever do that exercise again?
If I told you that this exercise is still one of the most commonly used exercises in the world of fitness, would you be surprised?
You probably guessed by the headline, but you should probably stop doing so many dang sit ups!
Sit-ups once were considered a true measure of core strength and fitness. That is until fairly recently when this classic form of exercise has come under some scrutiny from doctors and fitness experts alike.
What’s the problem with sit ups?
Besides one study’s findings that sit-ups can put as much as 3000 N (roughly 670 pounds) of compression on the lower back, causing possible future pain and injury, another attack is that sit-ups fail to target all of the muscles in the core.
Yep. You, me, your mom and everyone has been doing sit ups for ages and they aren’t even effective!
Talk about disappointing.
What is the core?
The core is a loosely used term, but it actually includes quite a few muscles besides the ones that give you a coveted six pack.
Core muscles include all the stabilizing and prime mover muscles in your lower back, spine, abdominals, diaphragm, hips, pelvis, glutes, and some muscles in the upper leg.
Do sit ups work to actually develop a strong midsection? Not really. Sit-ups only target some of these muscles while neglecting the rest of your core.
Core strength is essential for a variety of essential activities including walking, twisting motions, and flexibility.
Even simple activities you do every day like carrying heavy bags of groceries demands some level of core strength and functionality.
Because the core is your center of gravity, the core is where much of your overall strength, flexibility, and power come from.
In case all of that just went over your head (no worries, it’s technical stuff!) to sum it up: Nearly every movement you do originates within the core.
Athletes and Core Strength
Understandably, core strength and stability is a critical component of sports performance.
The best athletes include exercises in their training routines to target all the core muscles.
If you examined the exercise programs of some of the best athletes in the world including Tiger Woods, Venus Williams, and Lindsey Vonn, you’ll find they are full of compound core strengthening exercises and void of sit-ups.
One study examining core strengthening exercise and ballet dancing performance found that six weeks of core strengthening exercise increased overall performance and core endurance.
The best core exercises focus on balance, stabilization, and use multiple muscles at a time. Generally, the more muscles you can utilize in a single exercise the better.
Using more muscles in a single exercise burns more calories, and teaches the muscles to better work together to keep you stabilized.
Why is stabilization important?
Developing the muscles responsible for stabilization is especially important, so important NASM has an entire training phase targeting the bodies stabilizers. DON’T IGNORE THEM!
Exercises in this phase include balance work and compound exercises that work several muscles at the same time.
For example take a common bicep curl and add a balance component to it by balancing on one foot.
You just took an exercise that isolated one muscle to an exercise that now requires multiple muscles in your balancing leg, your core, and bicep!
Nice work. 😉
Stabilization muscles lay the foundation for advanced training later on.
Stabilizers are what keep you from collapsing under a heavy squat, what assit you with balance, stop unwanted movement, prevent injury, give you nice posture, and improve lifting form.
Weak stabilization muscles can lead to added stress on the joints, muscle imbalances, and injury. Things (I would hope) you definitely want to avoid.
If there were exercises that could prevent injury and give you gorgeous posture, like model status, you would want to do those exercises, right?
Of course you would because you care about your health and happiness!
So if you shouldn’t do sit ups, what ab exercises should you do?
Excellent question my friend.
Have you heard of the plank? Yeah, I thought so.
The plank is one amazing ab exercise. As a personal trainer and your friend, I would strongly encourage you to start doing them!
Here are some of the benefits of planking. (Is that a word?)
- Utilizes nearly all of the muscles in the core, including the stabilization muscles.
- Improves balance, flexibility, and posture.
- Targets additional muscles in the legs, shoulders, arms, and neck.
- Tones and develops the muscles in the abdomen.
- Develops physical as well as mental strength and stamina.
11 Totally Awesome Plank Variations
Everyone has seen the traditional plank where you hold a push-up position on your hands, but have you heard of the reverse plank or suspended plank?
Different forms of the plank develop specific muscles and prevent boredom with the exercise. They also give your hip flexors a break. (Tight hip flexors can cause your abs to become weak.)
Ranked from easiest to hardest, check out these variations to test and improve your core strength!
1.Modified plank on knees: The easiest way to strengthen your core and a great exercise for beginners. Start in traditional plank position but on your knees instead of your toes.
2. Frontal/traditional plank: Traditional plank position holding your weight in top of the push-up position, supporting your weight on your hands and toes. Keep the butt down, and engage your abdominals by tilting the pelvis downwards. Engage the quads, squeeze the glutes, and drive the heels back for optimal muscle engagement.
3. Sphinx/elbow plank: similar to the traditional plank but your weight is supported on your elbows rather than your hands.
4. Reverse plank: This exercise puts more emphasis on the hamstrings and glutes. Keep the hips up and keep the legs straight.
5. Up-Down plank: combine the traditional and elbow plank in a quick moving, heart pumping exercise. Start in the traditional plank position and drop one arm at a time to the sphinx position on your elbows, then returning to the start position. Repeat this at a moderately fast pace for a certain repetition number or for time. This is a great shoulder burner too!
6. Side plank: If you want to work your obliques more, the side plank is the perfect exercise for you. Keep one arm and one foot firmly planted on the floor (use a wall to prevent slipping if necessary) keep the hips raised off the floor, and focus on squeezing your sides. Keep the other hand on your hip or raise it for a little extra challenge.
7. One legged plank: In the elbow plank position raise one leg a few inches off the ground. This requires extra balance on the grounded leg forcing the muscles to work harder to keep you stable.
8. Elevated plank: If you want to strengthen the shoulders, try out this variation. Keep your feet elevated on a bench or chair and elbows (harder) or hands (easier) grounded on the floor.
9. Balance plank on exercise ball: This variation really tests your balance and requires an exercise ball. Keep your hands and elbow on the ball in traditional plank position. Keep your back straight and engage the core, quads, and glutes.
10. Suspension plank: This exercise also requires some equipment and some mental toughness. Using a TRX band or suspension trainer, elevate your feet slightly off the ground while holding an elbow plank.
11. Medicine ball plank: Arguably the hardest variation of the plank exercise. Using a medicine ball (or 2 or 4) adds quite a bit of balance to the equation, requiring more muscle engagement. Start with keeping your hands on one ball then gradually try balancing your feet on one ball, working up to each hand and foot on a medicine ball.
With any of these variations, be sure to keep the back flat, hips up, and abdominals and legs engaged!
That’s fancy talk for squeeze yo butt and thighs, ok?
Final Thoughts: Do sit ups work?
There may still be a place for the common sit up for specifically targeting the rectus abdominis, I don’t think you have to completely shun it.
But there is and are better ways to develop the muscles in your midsection.
To prevent back pain and injury, better increase core strength and stabilization, as well as add some variety to your workout routine, start planking!
Do you have a favorite ab exercise? Share it in the comments!