Ditch the situps and do these core exercises instead

Woman looking in the mirror at the gym with weight rack behind her

Six-pack abs are a dream for many. However, in pursuit of those coveted abs, many people are actually going about it all wrong. Endless situps won’t give you ideal abdominals. In fact, situps may actually put you at serious risk for damage to your back.

The best approach to building strong abs is by starting with a strong core. Maintaining a strong core is one of the best lifestyle choices you can make to help avoid pain in your daily life. The central part of your body is responsible for stability and balance, meaning it makes it less likely you’ll fall and suffer an injury while engaged in physical activity. Powerful core muscles can also improve posture, helping prevent and alleviate spinal problems.

Which body parts make up the core?

The abdominal muscles get all the attention in pop culture when it comes to fitness goals. However, abs are only one part of the core that you need to focus on strengthening. Your core includes your stomach, hips, glutes, pelvis and lower back.

What functions do abdominal core muscles perform?

One way to think of the core muscles is to think of them as anti-movement muscles. They work in combination to prevent and control rotation. The abdominals are anti-back bending (extension) muscles, the lower back muscles are anti-forward bending (flexion) muscles, and the lateral trunk muscles are anti-side bending muscles.

The central part of your body has two primary responsibilities: stabilizing your torso and managing movement. Your core keeps you in an upright position against the forces of gravity, ground reaction forces, and momentum.

The problem with weak core muscles

During many daily tasks, the spine bends and rotates and the core muscles lengthen through various ranges of motion. These movements are usually small and coordinated with the hips. But if your core muscles are weak and if you have limited hip mobility, then your body will overcompensate to complete that movement. That results in the spine and lower back moving too much, for example, when squatting or lifting heavy objects, and puts you at greater risk for injury.

Situps may do more harm than good

When trying to build core strength, thousands of situps and other back-bending exercises are not ideal solutions. Many people fail to achieve the “almighty six-pack” and also, unfortunately, set themselves up for back problems.

As I tell my patients, research has shown that repetitive flexion or excessive extension of the spine — meaning, too much time spent bending forward or backward as you do in a situp motion — puts significant strain on your back. Repeatedly applying this type of pressure to your back can contribute to disc degeneration and injuries. 

When is back pain a serious issue?

Our society struggles to maintain good posture because we spend too much time bent over during our daily lives. Many people have jobs where they sit hunched over a desk, we often sleep in the fetal position, and we sit down to eat, study, read or watch TV.

All of this prolonged sitting, especially if hunched over with a rounded back, weakens the tissue of the discs. It also decreases the muscle activity of the core and places more compressive forces on the spine.

Our backs are already taking a beating throughout the day. Then, when we go to the gym and do situps and other back-bending exercises, we’re putting our backs through even more strain.

Changing up your workout routine is one way to reduce the chances of suffering a painful back injury.

Performing core exercises in an upright position is a better and safer way to enhance function and performance

The good news is that there’s an abundance of options available to strengthen your core muscles. You may not even notice that your core is getting a workout while you’re doing other things. Any exercise performed in an upright position activates the core. Your core muscles are put to work when you run, do pullups, squat or lift a weight over your head.

That being said, building a strong core, as well as learning the correct technique, is vital to avoid injuring yourself during these activities. Due to our prevalence of sitting too much, many people develop hip tightness and muscle imbalances that lead to compensatory patterns and poor core activation and control.

Alternative core exercises to build strength without situps

Let’s look at some alternative core exercises to replace some of the traditional situps that may be placing undue stress on your spine. 

Before beginning a new exercise regimen, it’s advisable to consult with your physician. In addition, stop immediately if you feel pain while attempting a specific exercise. 

Illustration of tall straight armband/cable pull-down
1. Instead of doing traditional situps, try this: tall straight armband/cable pull-down. Set an armband at shoulder height while standing up. Kneel on the ground while keeping your upper body straight and tall. Extend your arms and grasp both sides of the armband. Pull the armband down to your sides, hold there briefly, then return to the starting position. Perform 12 reps for three or four sets.
Illustration of supine alt band hip flex
2. Instead of bicycle sit-ups, do this: supine alt band hip flex. Place a band around the balls of your feet. Lay flat on your back with your knees and hips bent in a 90-degree position. Pull one knee toward your chest as you straighten the opposite leg. Alternate leg movements for a total of 20 repetitions. Perform three or four sets.
Illustration of standing medicine ball or weight plate rotations
3. Instead of sit-ups with rotations, do this: standing medicine ball or weight plate rotations. Stand with your feet shoulder-length wide. While holding a medicine ball or weight plate, extend your arms directly in front of you. Rotate your torso to one side WITHOUT moving your hips. Come back to the center, then rotate in the other direction. Count one rotation to both sides as a single rep. Pivot your feet to decrease lower back stress. Alternate rotations 20 times for three or four sets.
Illustration of farmer’s carry
4. Instead of standing side bends holding a weight, do this: farmer’s carry. Squat down and pick up a dumbbell in each hand. Pull your shoulder blades back and return to a standing position. You can walk the length of the gym or a hallway or you can also hold for time. Perform three or four sets.
Illustration of plank with arm and leg extensions
5. Instead of Superman exercises with back hyperextensions, do this: Get into a push-up position on the floor or on a bench. Lift your left arm and right leg at the same time, about 1-2 inches off the ground, then repeat with your right arm and left leg. Alternate 10-20 times for three or four sets.
Illustration of weighted bridges
6. Instead of trunk hyperextensions, do this: weighted bridges. Lie on your back with a barbell or other weight resting on your hips. Bend the knees and keep your feet flat on the floor. Lift your hips as far off the ground as you can. Slowly lower the hips back to the ground. Repeat for 12 reps for three or four sets.
Illustration of the runner's plank
7. Bonus core exercise: The runner’s plank. Get into the plank position: Face down with your forearms and legs on the ground. Your elbows should be placed directly under your shoulders. Lift your right leg and your right arm backward at the same time, as if you were running. Repeat on the left side. Hold for 10-30 seconds per side for three or four sets.

    Focusing on these exercises instead of situps can save your spine from a lot of unnecessary wear and tear. Plus, you’ll be training your core more appropriately for better function and strength.

    And one extra piece of advice: Core exercises will only get you so far in your journey to six-pack abs. Maintaining a nutritious diet and avoiding things like alcohol and excess sugar are essential for achieving your goal.

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