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Workout Wednesday: Are Crunches & Sit-Ups Good for You?


From a fairly young age, we’re taught that some of the best ways to build a strong core and get rock-hard abs include sit-ups and crunches. While those exercises do give your abs and other muscles a pretty good workout, they may also be harming your back and spine.

So, how do these exercises affect your spine? What exercises could you be doing instead? We break it down in today’s post!

The Good and Bad of Sit-Ups & Crunches

When I was in grade school, we were all forced (I say forced because nobody wanted to do it) take part in what was known as the President’s Challenge Youth Fitness Test (it’s been restructured and is called the Presidential Youth Fitness Program now). Even now, I get shivers up and down my spine whenever I think about it.

This horrifying and embarrassing test included a mile run, sit-ups, pull-ups, and a V-sit (if there were more exercises, I don’t remember them). When it was founded in 1966, things were a little different:

The original test was designed to encourage and prepare young Americans for the physical demands of military service. It included a softball throw said to mimic throwing a grenade; a broad jump later renamed the long jump; a shuttle run to test agility; and pull-ups designed to imitate a sailor climbing a ladder (Source).

I’m unsure of when sit-ups were added, but I still have flashbacks about how horrible I was at completing them. I also remember the one year I managed to complete 65 of them. My abs and my lower back hurt for days afterward.

Sit-ups hurt back then. When they were paired with crunches at track practice in high school, they hurt then, too. Let’s take a look at the why behind sit-ups and crunches being a bad idea.

How Crunches and Sit-Ups May Be Hurting You

These two exercises have been used by everyone from fitness gurus to military personnel for years, and while they do actually strengthen your abdominal muscles, there are great reasons to stop doing them.

Harvard Health Publications/Harvard Medical School explains it in a way we can all understand:

“…sit-ups are hard on your back they pushed your curved spine against the floor and work your hip flexors, the muscles that run from the thighs to the lumbar vertebrae in the lower back. When the hip flexors are too strong or too tight, they tug on the lower spine, which can create lower back discomfort” (Source).

A study that appeared in Clinical Biomechanics in 1995 discusses the effects of sit-ups on the spine:

“Both bent and straight leg sit-ups place over 3,000 N of force, or roughly 674 lbs. on the lower spine. This strain can eventually lead to bulging or herniated discs, compressed vertebrae and nerve damage” (Source).

It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? That’s a lot of pressure to be putting on your spine for the sake of a tighter stomach. Crunches and sit-ups mainly focus on working your rectus abdominus muscle, which is important. However, that ins’t the only muscle that makes up your core. As such, there are other exercises that may be better for you.

Planks: The New Gold Standard for Stronger Core Muscles

What pops into your head when you hear the word “plank”? Most people probably think of the fad that seemingly appeared out of nowhere a few years back. Facebook, Twitter, and every other social network was inundated with photos of people (mostly teens) “planking” on various objects in public.

Fitness buffs took the plank and made it their own. Not sure what it looks like? Take a look at the photo below:

Photo Credit: Bigstock
Photo Credit: Bigstock

The basic idea behind the plank is to assume a position and hold it for as long as possible. It looks simple, right? Depending on your core strength, planks can be tough. But why are they the new go-to for building stronger core muscles?

According to Harvard Health Publications/Harvard Medical School:

Planks recruit a better balance of muscles on the front, sides and back of the body during exercise than do sit-ups, which target just a few muscles (Source).

Another exercise that helps work your core muscles is the leg drop. Simply lie on your back and raise and lower both legs until your abdominal muscles burn. This exercise is shown in the photo below:

Photo Credit: iStock
Photo Credit: iStock

With these two exercises, you’ll work all of your abdominal muscles, rather than just a couple. Plus, you get the added benefit of not putting a ton of pressure on your lower spine. Win-win, right?

Do you have any other exercises you do in lieu of crunches and sit-ups? Please share them with us in the comments section below.

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