Are you still doing sit ups in the hope of achieving a strong core?
Sit ups are often performed as a core muscle exercise. However research continually shows that they are not effective at building core strength. Old habits die hard and in the fitness industry sit ups, crunches, roll ups, roll downs etc… have been around for as long as people have been exercising. But, this doesn’t mean that they are good or effective!
Core muscles are those which hold your body together, giving it strength by binding around your trunk. They support your spine and strengthening them can significantly reduce back pain. I would include in core muscles those around the shoulder girdle. They have a big impact on posture which, if poor, can cause the shoulders to slump forward and eventually result in pain. Recent research has also added new muscles as essential for core stability, known as gluteals. This complex muscle group lies across your butt and holds your pelvis stable.
So back to sit ups, what happens to your body during the exercise?
Your shoulders round into a position very similar to that seen in the office chair slump, the slouched driving position or the collapse on the sofa rounding. In other words, good posture across the shoulder girdle is completely lost. When this was first performed I don’t suppose we were living a life of sitting and slouching so possibly the postural issues we see today were not as prevalent.
Your spine is curled forward. For some this may feel good and indeed be beneficial but for many the compressional force on the intervertebral discs will aggravate previous injuries such as herniations (slipped disc) or prolapsed discs. Measuring this compressional force is something we’ve only been able to do in recent years, and it is huge when performing a sit up. When I first taught these exercises the fitness industry was oblivious to these potential dangers.
Once you get almost half way up, your hip flexors become the main workers to stabilise and complete the movement, to bring you up to sitting. These are also shortened by a sedentary lifestyle and if not specifically stretched they pull the pelvis out of alignment causing back pain.
This brings us onto the new core muscles, the gluteals. Generally weak (despite years of tums and bums classes!) and difficult to activate, yet essential for good posture and a strong core. In those who perform lots of crunches the hip flexors, hamstrings and rectus femoris (thighs) tend to be strong but these muscles work in a vertical plane. In these people the gluteals are likely not to work at all, yet they provide all the essential diagonal support for the pelvis.
If you are looking for a strong core, the exercises you need are those which use the gluteals and the stabilizing abdominals, not the sit up muscles.
If you’re tempted to go for a ‘6 pack’, remember that it can only be achieved by over developing the muscles so they push out through the fascia, which is there to hold them together. For a female to develop a 6 pack, as well as the muscle development she also needs a BMI well below that recommended for good health.
For effective exercise advice look for an instructor with a good understanding of spinal load during exercise, preferably with a specific low back qualification and an interest in functional fitness and posture.
Why do you need strong 'glutes'?
When new people join a class or come to me with back pain they are usually completely unaware of their glute muscles. The glutes are quite likely to be weak and tight, which sounds like an odd combination.
Strengthening the muscle and stretching it so it can function correctly is an essential part of keeping your body working effectively and without pain.
- Keeping correct alignment
Strong glutes can protect you from injury and reduce the impact of arthritic pain by providing support to the spine and pelvis. They also give correct alignment throughout the body helping to protect the knees from uneven wear, keep the feet lined up reducing problems with the achilles and plantar fascia.
- Support when walking or running or weight training
The glute muscles stabilise your pelvis while you run or walk. They help with hip extension and forward propulsion. If they fail to engage correctly the work falls to the hip flexors which are less able and become tight quickly. This puts stress onto the lumbar spine giving back pain. Strong glutes help give correct positioning when weight training, especially during squats, so your knees are protected. They also help with protecting your back when bending to pick up items from the floor or gardening.
- Injury prevention
If your glutes are not strong, your entire lower body alignment may become out of balance causing injuries such as achilles tendinitis, shin splints, knee pain and leading to tight ITB which runners are particularly susceptible to. When the glutes are not strong enough to do their job, other muscles not as well designed for the job take over. While in everyday life it is usually the back which suffers, in those who train at a higher level the muscle imbalance is more pronounced leading to increased risk of injury.
The glutes are one of the largest muscle groups in the body. If trained it can produce an enormous amount of power. By strengthening this muscle you will be able to move with less stress on your skeletal structure. This is of enormous benefit as bones become less strong with age and affected by degenerative conditions.
So, to keep active and move with ease - get your glutes working!
- Reduction in back pain
To simplify the effect strong glutes have on back pain visualise your spine. It runs from the back of your head to your pelvis (hip bones). Your pelvis sits like a t junction at the bottom of your spine. Below this are your glutes, providing support to everything above it – hips and spine. Once you move they are powering from behind you enabling you to move easily with less effort. The other muscle groups, abdominals, quads and hip flexors are at the front of your body and while they are essential for movement and stability they are not nearly so well placed to provide power as the glutes.