Sit ups have always been a common exercise choice to target the mid-section during strength training protocols. Dreams of six pack abs have led many to perform this exercise regularly and at very high intensity.

They have often been seen as a safe and effective exercise to strengthen the abdominals but recently research in spinal health has shown that they may do more harm than good.

What is a sit up?


Before we talk about if sit ups are bad for your back or not, we need to talk about what a sit up is and what it is doing anatomically.

When performing a sit up you will target the hip flexors, rectus abdominus, transverse abdominus, tensor fascia latae, rectus femoris, sartorius, iliopsoas and the internal and external oblique.

The exercise usually begins with the individual laying on the ground, knees bent, and the objective is to lift your upper body off the floor and sit up.

Doesn’t sound so difficult right?

Well it’s really not and that’s a big part of why this exercise can be problematic for causing back pain and other spinal injuries.

When you perform a sit up, you have spinal flexion and the tightening effect of your hip flexors

This means a rounding effect of the spine which causes the compression of vertebrae which can cause pain and other injuries.

Dr Stuart McGill is one of the world’s leading minds in spinal research and development and has been performing studies on the long term effects of sit ups on spine. Studies have found that both bent and straight leg sit ups placed over 3,000 N of force, or roughly 674 lbs on the lower spine.

This can lead to the development of spinal injuries such as herniated discs or compressed nerves.

In addition to this being a dangerous movement for spine health it really does not effectively strengthen your abdominal muscles in a functional manner.

To target your midsection in a way that is functional and effective requires the use of bracing elements as well as acceleration and deceleration of movements.

This basically means we want our abdominals to turn on the keep the body stable, but also have them be able to absorb and assist force.


sit ups injure back_2Planking is a great way you can target the midsection in a safe and effective manner and trains the abdominals to brace and stabilize the spinal column.

1. Begin in a prone position by placing your elbows directly underneath your shoulders and support your weight on your forearms and toes. Keep your body straight at all times from head to toe.

This is the basic set of for performing a plank.

To ensure that you are correctly dividing the load it is important to apply additional muscle tension throughout the entire body.

2. Do this by performing a chain of commands from heel to elbow. Begin driving your heels down, contract the calf muscles, contract the quad muscles. Squeeze your butt, pull your abs in towards you spine and pull your elbows down towards your toes.

After you have turned on all the muscles your body may begin to tremble and shake. This means you have applied muscle tension.

3. Hold this position as long as you can maintain proper form and tension ratios. (10-40 Seconds) and repeat for 2-3 sets.

Side planks

Side planks will target the lateral stabilization muscles in the mid-section such as the transverse abdominus, oblqiue’s, quadratus lumborum.

Side planks are great for ensuring that you are successfully targeting your midsection at all angles which helps strengthen the core as a whole.

1. To perform a side plank begin lying down on your side with your legs straight.

2. Prop your elbow underneath your shoulder and support your weight on your forearm.

3. Raise your hips off the floor until your body has made a straight line from the ankles to the shoulders.

4. Hold this position until you have lost form or reached fatigue.

Rotational movements

If you have successfully learned to brace your mid-section with the above two movements then it is time to try and add another element to your abdominal training protocol.

Rotational movements will target the mid-section in a very functional manor as the muscles in the mid-section are designed to rotate as they decelerate or assist in force production.

Band or Cable Chops

To perform this exercise you will need a resistance band that is anchored to a solid structure or a cable machine.

1. Connect a standard handle to a tower and move the cable to the highest pulley position.

2. Standing laterally to the cable anchor, grab the handle with the outside hand and step away from the tower. Make sure your feet are positioned shoulder width apart with your knees slightly bent and arms fully extended as you hold the cable handle.

3. In a fluid and controlled motion pull the handle down and across your body to your front knee while rotating your torso along the same path.

It is important to remember to keep your back flat, arms straight and core engaged as you move through the motion.

4. Return to the neutral position in a slow and controlled manner.

Get some practice

After you have mastered this movement you can begin to experiment with different anchor points to change the muscle activation.

For example, a low to high chop with a low anchor point, a mid-level chop across the body, and any and every angle in between.

Once you have developed a significant amount of strength and coordination in these movements I would recommend you move more towards functional type abdominal exercises where there is additional movement or complexity of patterns.

But until that time, master these movements and get a stronger more functional mid-section to support you and your everyday lifestyle!

Connect with Expert Ryan Milton.

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