For years, nobody did anything to train the core. Then, thanks to an increasingly sedentary population and increased levels of athletic participation (and the desire to have a six-pack), people starting to work the core with specific exercises.
Initially, fitness and rehabilitation “specialists” encouraged these otherwise sedentary folks to do thousands of crunches and sit-ups – and we wound up with a generation with flexion-based back pain.
When I trained seriously for boxing all those years ago, I did thousands of sit ups and crunches before each fight with the ‘old school’ thinking that this would make my belly indestructible. Even out of the ring, walking down the beach with my six-pack on display wasn’t too shabby either… While sit ups and crunches helped me achieve those goals, the latest research has made me realise they also contributed to two decades of severe shoulder, neck, hip and lower back pain.
Dr Stuart McGill’s (known in strength training circles as the ‘godfather’ of the spine.) outstanding book “Low Back Disorders” was one of the first clinical-based texts that taught us sit-ups aren’t very good for our discs and that herniations and disc bulges result from repeatedly bending the spine. Dr. McGill has become famous for saying, “Wanna see a disc explode? Keep flexing at the spine.”
Further, sit-ups predominantly train the hip flexors and put a great amount of shear stress on the spine. Most of us sit down too much already and have tight hip flexors that we don’t need to shorten further! In addition, the psoas muscle, which is the most powerful of the hip flexors, originates on the anterior discs in your lower thoracic and part of your lumbar spine. The more we train (shorten) these muscles, the greater the likelihood of low back injury. Hence, glute strength is what we should be aiming for.
The argument is that crunches “aren’t that bad.” From a low back perspective, maybe – a properly executed crunch primarily moves at the thoracic spine, not the lumbar spine. Yet think about the body-wide effects of crunching – a crunch trains the rectus abdominus by pulling the rib cage down . When we pull the rib cage down, we increase the thoracic kyphosis and create a more hunchbacked posture. This sets off a cascade of events – we increase the kyphosis, thus losing t-spine extension. This consistently puts our scapulae in a poor position, not to mention putting our gleno-humeral joint at an increased risk for impingement as well. (Think neck and shoulder pain!!)
“We stopped teaching people to do crunches a long time ago,” says Dr. Richard Guyer, president of the Texas Back Institute. That’s because the “full flex” movement—the actual “crunch” part of crunches – puts an unhealthy strain on your back at its weakest point. The section with the most nerves (and most potential for nerve damage) is in the back of the spine, which is the very part that bends and strains during a sit-up.
Top Coach’s Health and Fitness tip:
In our opinion, Elite Training are clearly the best in the world when it comes to corrective exercise and strength training. Their outstanding “Complete Core Fitness” recommends : “If you want to get your lower back healthy, there are safer and more effective ways to train the core than performing sit-ups until you enjoy the unique dis-pleasure of a herniated disc. ” They highly recommend that you should first aim to front plank (correctly) for at least two minutes, side plank both sides for at least a minute, increase your glute strength and concentrate on one legged stability exercises before progressing any further in your exercise regime.
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