Think doing sit-ups and abdominal crunches will build a powerful core that will protect your low back? Think again! It is always surprising to me how long it takes the sports world to catch up to research. As a track and field/cross country coach, I still, at every single meet, see athletes static stretching right before they compete. If you’re guilty of that, that’s another blog for the future. And, I see a lot of athletes in my practice and when I start talking about core, I always ask what their coaches have them do, a common response is, “We do 400 ab crunches after practice every other day to build our cores.” Doing 400 ab crunches does one thing, puts you at risk for injury! There is pretty compelling research supporting how awful sit ups and ab crunches are for you. Yet, it is still so common in every sport for athletes to be doing these unnecessary exercises that puts their bodies at risk.
So, what does the research say? Stuart McGill, a spine biomechanics researcher at the University of Waterloo, did research that shows that a sit up places 764lbs of compressive force on your lumbar spine! I’m willing to bet that most people reading this blog can’t punch with 764lbs of force to give you a comparison. Dr. McGill did this research in the early 1990’s, yet most of the sports world, coaches, trainers, athletes, etc., are still oblivious. In his research McGill has found that the traditional sit up is a good way to cause a disc herniation in your low back. Whether you have a 6-pack or not is not a good indication of a strong core either. So what should you do to strengthen your core without causing harm?
A general rule of thumb is to not put the lower spine into flexion, meaning bending forward like you do in a sit-up or abdominal crunch. Instead you should focus on core exercises that promote stabilization instead of flexion. Examples of these types of exercises include bird dogs, side planks and stir the pot. There are many variations to these exercises and ways to increase the difficulty of them but it is always best to start with the basics. There is no one routine that is right for everyone as we are all built and operate uniquely. But if you stick with those types of core exercises, you’re going to be protecting your spine and your core. And, when it comes to potentially placing your spine at risk, you need to take it seriously. After all, the majority of disc herniations occur in the lumbar spine. Protect your low back and use Dr. McGill’s research in your training. If you do sit-ups or abdominal crunches, stop doing them immediately, I don’t want to see you in my office with a lumbar disc herniation anymore than you do.
-Dr. Brian Damhoff