Why you should never do these core exercises again: sit-ups, side-bends, torso-twists, or arching backwards.
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sit-ups, side-bends, torso-twists, or arching backward through the spine, eventually lead to low back injury
The most recent scientific research on low-back injuries states that performing sit-ups, side-bends, torso-twists, or arching backward through the spine, eventually leads to low back injury if you perform these movements too repetitively, with too much weight, or hold those positions for a prolonged period of time. These motions, when performed as mentioned above, destroy the disc-shaped soft tissues (known as Intervertebral Discs as seen in Figure 1. below) between the bones of your spine.
Think of these disc-shaped soft tissues as jelly doughnuts. What would happen to a jelly doughnut if you gently pressed on one side, several times? It would develop a bulge on the side opposite the side you’re pushing on and eventually, the jelly would burst out that bulge. This is the same thing that happens to the disc-shaped soft-tissues between the bones of your spine during, for example, sit-ups. During a sit-up, you bend towards the front of the body, which makes the bones of the spine squish the front-side of the soft tissue discs (jelly doughnuts) between the spinal bones. With enough reps of sit-ups over time, those soft tissues will develop a bulge in the side opposite the squish (in the case of the sit-up, the bulge will develop on the rearward side of the disc) because of the repetitive squishing of the front side of the jelly doughnut-like discs during the sit-ups. This bulge is called a “bulging disc”. Pain may still be absent with a bulging disc, so you may keep doing sit-ups, and unknowingly, continue damaging your spine.
So, with more sit-ups comes more squishing of the front-side of the disc and in turn, bulging of the backside of the disc, which can eventually make the backside of the disc pop, causing the fluid within to leak out (each disc is–ironically–filled with fluid, just like a jelly doughnut). This popping is called a “herniated disc” (see Figure 3 below).
Now, with the disc herniated, pain is inevitable, if not immediate, because the jelly oozes out of the herniated disc onto the nearby spinal nerves causing them to malfunction. Spinal nerves control feeling, make things move, and make internal organs function. Think of the spinal nerves as the plug to your computer, if the plug is damaged, your computer will not function well, or not at all. So, when you damage the spinal nerves, the pain or health problems you experience, depend on which spinal nerves are affected, because each nerve controls a bodily function. For example, one of the most commonly damaged spinal nerves (especially with sit-ups) is the Sciatic nerve, located in the low-back. Damage to the Sciatic nerve leads to the ever so common numbness and tingling down the legs–the dreaded Sciatica—because the Sciatic nerves control the bodily function of muscle contraction in the legs. Sciatic pain is very debilitating and difficult to fix, and even with surgery, the pain may persist for a lifetime.
Now this doesn’t mean you should walk around like a robot all day never moving your spine. Just don’t bend, twist, side-bend, or arch backward through the spine too frequently throughout the day, or hold these positions for a prolonged period of time, or perform these motions while holding something very heavy. For example, avoid picking weeds from your lawn, as this requires a significant amount of repetitive spinal bending. Avoid getting on your hands and knees and scrubbing the floor, as this requires you to hold a bent spine for a prolonged period of time. And finally, avoid lifting objects you know are too heavy for you, such as a heavy tire or bag of ice-melting salt, as this requires spinal bending while lifting an overwhelmingly heavy load.
Unfortunately, often times, the response I get after providing the above information is: “well it doesn’t hurt when I do sit-ups so I’m going to keep doing them” or “how are you supposed to strengthen your abs then”? Or, “I really feel it in my abs when I do sit-ups”. My response is first; your low back may not hurt now from sit-ups, side-bends etc. but the damage caused by those movements occurs slowly, over time. So, one day the pain will start and never go away completely. Instead try planks, side-planks, bird-dogs, or dead-bugs for starters. All of these exercises keep the spine in “neutral” which is keeping the spine the same shape as if you were just standing in your normal posture. This neutral position is safe because it doesn’t squish the soft tissue jelly doughnuts in the spine, which is of paramount importance when trying to avoid spinal injuries.
your low back may not hurt now from sit-ups, side-bends etc. but the damage caused by those movements occurs slowly, over time. So, one day the pain will start and never go away completely.
So, the take-home-message of this post is: stop doing sit-ups, side bends, torso-twists, and arching backward through the spine as exercises, because these motions damage the spine and eventually lead to low back pain and a crappy life–a life where you can’t do what you want to do, because you’re in constant debilitating pain! Stick to planks, side-planks, bird-dogs, and dead bugs. Ditch the sit-ups, side-bends, twists, and backward arching exercises.
So, the take-home-message of this post is: stop doing sit-ups, side bends, torso-twists, and arching backward through the spine as exercises, because these motions damage the spine and eventually lead to low back pain and a crappy life
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“Low Back Disorders, Evidence-Based Prevention and Rehabilitation” 2nd Edition, By Dr. Stuart McGill.