3 Reasons To Stop Doing Sit-ups
The army fitness test used to consist of 2 minutes of push ups, 2 minutes of sit-ups, and a 2 mile run. It has since changed to include numerous events and thankfully, after much protest, they eliminated what I felt to be the most useless event (and dangerous); the sit-up. (Unfortunately, the Air Force still uses the sit-up but the movement isn't as harmful as the way we did it when I was still in the Army).
My goals for every fitness test in the Army were A) to score higher than all the soldiers that were on my team B) secondary goal was to have the highest score in my company and C) to hit a perfect 300 score. Alas, my best score ever was a 299. I always fell just short of a perfect score in at least one event.
Because of my high PT score, I was tasked with running remedial physical training each month for the people who were not passing the fitness test. At drill each month I would work with the group of soldiers needing to pass the fitness test at 4 AM on Saturday and Sunday then send them home with a simple training program to improve their running and pushups in between drills. The one event I never had them train specifically was the sit-up. Instead, I would teach them how to plank, dead bug, and farmers carry to truly work their core. The sit-up, the crunch, and the bicycle kick are useless exercises and have the potential to actually cause more harm than good. Thankfully, the Army and other branches of service have begun moving away from the sit-up as a tested event, and have begun moving towards more relevant tests of core strength and endurance. Here are three reasons why you should eliminate them as well.
1) They don't work your abs or your core like you think they do.
All the exercises listed above don't work your abs the way people think they do. The prime muscles worked in sit ups, crunches, and bicycle kicks are your hip flexor muscles (the muscles that generally flex your thigh towards your trunk). Yes, doing sit ups and crunches will hit your abdominal muscles to a certain degree, but they are nowhere near as effective at isolating them as other exercises and the majority of the movement taxes the iliopsoas muscles (hip flexors). Doing a lot of crunches may make you tired and give you sore abs, but that does not necessarily equate to a good workout.
2) Your abs don't work that way.
Sit ups and crunches attempt to work the abdominals by flexing the trunk of the body repetitively. This is not the primary responsibility of the trunk and abdominal muscles. The main function of what we commonly refer to as the "core" is to isometrically stabilize the spine in an upright posture. Isometric contractions mean that the muscle is contracted and working, but is not creating any movement of the joints. To better understand what isometric is, grab a weight and hold it in your hand with your elbow bent 90 degrees. This is an isometric hold for your bicep. Now, I want you to think about going to the airport and carrying a suitcase in your right hand. Imagine you're carrying the suitcase through the airport and you're trying to balance your body and maintain your posture. This is an example of your core muscles having to work isometrically to stabilize your spine and posture. This is the main function of your core muscles that we should be targeting when we "train abs." NOT flexion and extension of the trunk.
3) They're bad for your back.
Flexion and extension at the waist creates a great deal of pressure on the lumbar spine and ultimately the discs and joints of the lumbar spine. Most of the flexion and extension of our body's should be occurring at the hips so that you can use the big muscles intended for that movement, the glutes and hamstrings while the "abs" maintain posture. Repetitive flexion at the waist during sit ups has been shown to possibly increase pressure on the discs by as much as 700 pounds per repetition. The reason the Army got away from doing sit-ups as part of the fitness test is because of the potential it had for causing low back injuries. This reason alone should be enough motivation to avoid sit ups.
2 Simple exercises to perform instead of sit-ups.
1) Planks. The plank is proven time and time again to be an effective core and abdominal exercise. The best part about front and side planks is that they train the core in the exact way your core is supposed to function; stabilizing posture and stabilizing the spine. Try to build up to a minute in both the front plank and side plank.
2) Farmer's carry. Carrying weight is the ultimate test of core strength. People often ask me what muscles they're working when they do a farmer's carry. My answer is "all of them." Walking with weight in your hand could be considered the most "functional" and accessible exercise we have available to us. Just grab a light weight, hold it at your side (or sides) and start walking. Repeat this often and try to increase the amount of weight you're carrying. If you're a regular gym goer, try to incorporate this into your training 1-2 times per week.