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Q: What’s your stance on sit-ups?

7204-smart2Q: Situps are my guilty pleasure—I like to finish off every workout with about 50 reps. I find situps easy, and I’ve never had any problems with them. What is your stance on the exercise?

A: Guilty pleasures are usually associated with things like pizza, microbrewed beer or watching reruns of “Baywatch”—not situps. It’s certainly true that some individuals have a much easier time performing situps than others do, just as some individuals find deadlifts easier to perform than squats (and vice versa).

First, consider that your body proportions influence situp performance. A person who has a relatively short torso and long legs will probably find it much easier to do situps than someone with a long torso and short legs.

Although you haven’t had any problems with situps, many others have not been so fortunate. The controversy is that they may contribute to back pain. Situps require a strong contraction of the psoas, a hip flexor muscle that runs from the front of the upper thigh to the lower back. The contraction of this muscle not only tilts the pelvis anteriorly (i.e., forward and down), which may cause discomfort and pain by itself, but also creates large compressive forces on the disks.

Some trainers recommend bending the legs as a way to reduce the involvement of the hip flexors, but that simply works them through a shorter range of motion. One reason that many soft-tissue practitioners, such as those certified in Active Release techniques, have success with many back-pain patients is that their techniques can restore the psoas to its normal range of motion and so allow the pelvis to resume normal alignment.

It has been theorized that over time, situps can increase the risk of bulging disks or disk herniation. Stuart M. McGill, a professor at the University of  Waterloo and author of nearly 200 scientific papers on back pain, believes that the continual flexing of the spine with situps could deteriorate it and cause chronic pain and weakness. In that sense, you might say that every situp performed moves a trainee one rep closer to disk injury.

Now let’s talk about neck pain. The neck is about 7.5 percent of your bodyweight, assuming you’re not overweight. Performing high repetitions without allowing your head to rest on the floor between reps and pulling on your head with your arms, can easily result in neck strain. Using a Swiss ball can make the risk even greater, as it is easier for the neck to go into hyperextension.

The preponderance of evidence suggests that situps may do more harm than good, perhaps not immediately but eventually. As such, I cannot recommend them.

Editor’s note: Charles Poliquin is recognized as one of the world’s most suc-cessful strength coaches, having coached Olympic med-alists in 12 different sports, including the U.S. women’s track-and-field team for the 2000 Olympics. He’s spent years researching European journals (he’s fluent in English, French and German) and speaking with other coaches and scientists in his quest to optimize training methods. For more on his books, seminars and methods, visit   IM


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