"What exercises have you been doing?"
"I stretch, of course, but I do about 50 sit-ups each morning and evening. And, I do some push-ups, too. Oh, and I added some yoga a couple of weeks ago."
"So, how long have you been doing the sit-ups?"
"Oh....about 3 months I guess. I started right after I noticed some pain in my back. I read somewhere that weak stomach muscles caused back pain and I figured I probably had weak stomach muscles too."
"I see. So, how has your back felt since you started your new routine?
"Terrible. But, I think my stomach muscles are stronger. I guess it's one of those things that just takes time."
My friend is trying to do the right thing. Unfortunately, he may be doing things right, but not doing the right things. Sit ups are not the right thing to do for lower back pain. In fact, I would like to ban the exercise from every health club, gym, school and rehab facility in the world. It is easily in the top ten of the worst exercises for lower back pain.
How do I know this to be true? Do I have any proof or is it just my not-so-humble opinion? I have proof but someone else did the work.
Stuart McGill, PhD, a professor at The University of Waterloo, studied the effect of selected exercises on lower back muscle activity and spine pressure levels. Sit-ups was one of the exercises Dr. McGill and his colleagues analyzed. What they found was that a sit-up generates approximately 3500 Newtons of pressure or roughly 786 pounds of force. According to Dr. McGill and The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), pressures above 3300 Newtons correlates highly with more lower back injury and pain.
You may be thinking, "Well, I bend my knees when I do a sit-up. So, I'm okay."
Whoops. This exercise, often called a bent-knee sit-up, is second on the list for elevated spine pressures coming in at 3350 Newtons. Still too high.
If you want to challenge your abdominal (stomach) muscles but spare your spine, try the sideplank. This is one of the poses from yoga that is spine friendly yet muscle tough. This exercise is a yoga pose and I suggest the following to make it easier:
- Position yourself close to a wall. This will add some balance support.
- Instead of using your hand as a balance point, use your forearm. Place your elbow so it lines up under your shoulder.
- Hold the position as long as you can without losing your form or balance. Goal for males is 2 minutes and females is 1 minute.
Sit-ups have dangerously high levels of spine pressure, fail to work some of the most important muscles of your spine and can injure your back. Hmmm....still want to do sit-ups?
Make today count.
Chief Physical Therapist