Sit Ups and Crunches – To Do or Not To Do ?

Regularly in social media feeds I see exercise programs posted. It concerns me that Sit Ups and Crunches are still a component on a regular basis. (And not just a few but more often in large numbers like 100 in one set)

 My other concern is the likelihood that in many instances these sit ups and crunches are being performed in a group session where observation of poor form by the PT can become an issue. This raises the potential for injury!

My advice to you is it’s time to ask your trainer to justify their inclusion.

I rarely include crunches and ever more rarely include sit ups in my programs. WHY?

My own anecdotal evidence spanning over 20 years combined with common sense which in turn is supported by many highly experienced trainers and allied professionals plus of course fairly recent  research.

Anecdotal Evidence

Firstly as a Rugby League Coach and for a period of years a Coaching Director at a local club where coaches persisted in making players do countless sit ups with no posterior chain (particularly the glutes and lower back) exercises to balance the anterior work. This resulted in several players suffering lower back problems.

Secondly as a PT and Rehab Trainer I regularly see clients with muscle imbalances caused by both postural issues and poor exercise selection in their past where the posterior chain continued to be neglected and lower back issues exacerbated by this adherence to incorrect programming of exercise regime.

Related Posture Issues

These are caused to a large degree by modern ways of life where we sit for too long. (work place/driving/computers/TV & games etc.) This puts pressure on the lower back and surrounding muscles and joints. Obviously there can be a whole range of muscles effected as postural problems caused by too much sitting will force the body to adopt and adapt along its entire length. For the purpose of this article I will not confuse the issue by trying to cover all these potential problem areas.

Even consideration of the area most related to sitting as in glutes, hamstrings, quads and the core as a whole unit would be a large volume of work. In a nutshell, whilst adaptions will differ between individuals, the most common from my experience will be weakened glute muscles with incorrect firing patterns (particularly glute medius), tight hamstrings, weak and overworked lumbar multifidus, tight piriformis, tight overactive tensor fasciae latae and tight hip flexors.

I would estimate that 60% to 75% of people that walk through my front door list lower back pain (with no underlying injury) as an issue. The majority of these we fix via retraining both the activation and the firing sequence of posterior chain muscles (mainly hamstrings, glutes & lumbar multifidus) combined with stretching of TFL & hip flexors (Psoas is the main target due to its origin in the lumbar spine) Only then do we progress to planks and swiss ball rollouts, still in progressive variations to work the whole core in a more functional way. This is combined with standing based core work to be truly functional.

Remember, there is no one way. Each client can have different issues (particularly postural), some quite complex that will not be a quick fix and will require work on a lot more then mentioned above. As I said these are beyond the scope of this article as is an in depth explanation of the various drills and exercises used to retrain activation and firing patterns of relevant muscles. Examples of some of these are superman, hip raises, foot to ceiling, clams done correctly, side leg with twists, pelvic tilt drills etc.

In summary, I concede there will be a sections of the population (For example your fit, healthy trained athletes) that can do crunches and sit ups without harm due to a balanced program based on their specific training goals. Having said that, I also maintain that for the majority of us there is a better way and the continuation of inclusion of these sit ups & crunches may reflect either lazy programming or lack of research/knowledge.

COMMON SENSE – FOOD FOR THOUGHT

If sitting causes so many problems why include even more sitting into an exercise program. As a trainer I need to observe, address and fix, in conjunction with a good physio if necessary, the relevant muscle imbalances plus their firing patterns to ensure no harm to my client as we progress their goals in a functional way.