There once was a time when your workout routine had to include sit-ups or crunches if you wanted firm abs and a slimmer waistline. However, researchers now know exercises like these have the potential to do more harm than good, especially if you’re among the 30 million or so Americans currently experiencing lower back pain for other reasons. Unlike other types of exercise, sit-ups and crunches force the spine into positions that don’t mimic movements most people normally make, which can contribute to unnecessary stress on the spine and nearby muscles. Here’s what you need to know.
What Can Sit-Ups and Crunches Do to Your Spine?
The movements required for sit-ups and crunches push the curved spine against the floor. The hip flexors (muscles that go from the thighs to the lower spine) are also worked a bit too much. Overworked hip flexors can become too tight, pull on the lumbar spine, and contribute to discomfort, sometimes to the point where spinal discs become herniated or damaged.
What Makes These Exercises Potentially Harmful?
Even if you opt to do sit-ups and crunches on a comfortable mat or other soft surface, the repetitious motions involved repeatedly compress and decompress the outer walls of spinal discs. Over time, such movements can accelerate the natural wear and tear on discs enough to irritate nearby nerve roots. Depending on the extent of the nerve compression, you may eventually need surgery for a herniated disc. Even the military agrees sit-ups may not be a smart way to work abs and flexors. The Army has phased sit-ups out of its fitness test requirements and routine fitness programs, and the Navy and Marines may soon do the same thing.
Are There Alternative Exercises That Are More Back-Friendly?
Fortunately, there are exercises that can effectively work the same muscles in a way that’s less stressful on the spine. Planks, which are the new go-to exercise for working the core muscle groups that support the spine in some way, result in a better balance of muscles in the back and front and on the sides. Unlike sit-ups and crunches, planks target more than just abdominal muscles. Similar in form to upward push-ups, planks work many of the soft tissues that connect the upper and lower body, the same ones that play a significant role in daily movements. Other exercise variations to consider instead of sit-ups and crunches include:
- Side planks to strengthen side back muscles (obliques) that take some of the weight off the lower spine
- Yoga poses that work similar muscles in a gentler, more natural way
- Water-based exercises that work the core without stressing joints
In an interesting side note, research reported by The Spine Journal suggests back pain may not be entirely linked to activities. Researchers say genetics can also play a role in how the spine will react to certain exercises. They recommend doing 60 reps per session and starting with 15 crunches. However, researchers advise against doing sit-ups first thing in the morning since the spine naturally lengthens overnight, making discs more susceptible to damage. However, if you are experiencing lingering back-related pain when doing sit-ups or crunches, it’s best to explore alternative exercises. If any type of exercise results in new or worsening spine-related pain, take a break to see your doctor or a Los Angeles spine surgeon.
If you’re experiencing chronic spine-related pain, get in touch with The Spine Institute. We specialize in a wide array of minimally invasive procedures, from artificial disc replacement to extreme lateral interbody fusion. Los Angeles patients can call 310-828-7757 today to learn more.