Why Sit-Ups are slowly destroying your lower back
Sit-ups have been a long-time staple in the world of physical fitness. After all, everyone’s dying for that beach body six pack, not to mention the desire for the abdominal and core strength that will come with it. The question is, how do we get it? And the obvious answer, for most, is the sit-up and the crunch. But, are these exercises silently killing our lower backs? Well, I think so. But don’t just take my word for it, why don’t we ask the ARMY. That’s right, the ARMY is dropping the sit-up and introducing a completely new physical test. The reason, to produce more functional and well rounded soldiers, to get a better look at how a soldier will perform in combat, and to SAVE MONEY ON INJURIES.
So, why are sit-ups bad for your back. Let’s start with the obvious and move forward. The most obvious is that your spine has pointy bones that stick out backwards, these are the hard bumps you feel if you run your fingers down the center of you back. When doing a sit-up, these little bones are being pushed into a hard floor, which can cause irritation in and of itself. Second, the sit-up, although coined and abdominal exercise, many times work the hip-flexors more than the abdominals. This can lead to a muscular imbalance where your hip flexors overpower your hip extensors. This becomes an issue because of the hip flexors attachment to the spine. So if the hip flexors are too tight, they can cause increased and unbalanced compression of the spine. Lastly, and in my opinion the most important, is the the spinal discs of the average person spends the majority of the day in a position of flexion and typically our lower back pain is aggravated by this position. So, to spend even more time repetitively flexing our spine doing sit-ups only adds to the problem.
Well if I can’t do sit-ups, what do I do?
The plank is the easy answer that most Chiropractors, Physical Therapists, Athletic Trainers and Personal Trainers should already know. But, I have more bad news for you, most of you are doing it wrong. But, we are going to fix that now and for good. The problem I commonly see with the plank are the absolute lack of engagement and intention. This lack of intention leads to all sorts of problems like spinal alignment, arched lower back, raised buttock, poor elbow alignment and poor shoulder alignment to name just a few. Another common issue with planking is the common desire to hold planks to and past the point of failure. Planking to failure commonly leads to these same types of errors that I have just listed.
Fix your form
Let’s start your journey on the road to the perfect plank. First things first, if you are going to do an exercise, you need to do it with intention and engagement. If you are not fully engaged in the exercise you are doing you are eventually going to get injured. Furthermore, if you are not fully engaged, you are going to miss out on the true benefits of the plank. Why waste your valuable time doing an exercise if you are not going to do it right and get the maximum benefit from it? To perfect our plank, let’s start by perfecting our form. Start by assuming the plank position with your forearms parallel to each other and flat on the floor. Your elbows should be directly underneath your shoulder joint, your neck should remain in a neutral position with your eyes looking straight at the floor, your toes should be on the floor, and your body should be in a straight line (think of drawing a straight line from your ear, to your shoulder, to your hip, to your knee and finally to your ankle). Next, let’s perfect our engagement technique. Do this by making fists with your hands and squeeze those fists hard, you should immediately feel a contraction in your forearms all the way to your upper arms and into you torso. Next, imagine pulling your elbows and your toes together, as if you are trying pull the floor together underneath you while keeping your body stationary. Take a deep breath and feel your lungs fill and your diaphragm pull down towards your pelvis, then brace and contract your core as if to protect yourself from a swift kick to the gut. By doing all these things you will feel a full body engagement that you are probably not used to feeling. This will take your plank to the next level.
Stop planking for minutes on end
But, we thought the longer you hold a plank the better the results. Wrong. If you know anything about russian olympic lifters and power athletes throughout the ’60’s and ’80’s you’d know that they set records of strength that remain untouched for the former weight-classes that they were in. Not only did their style of training produce unbeatable athletes but it also produced durable athletes. It produced athletes that were setting records all the way into their late 30’s without suffering from injuries. So, what was the secret of their training? The secret was that they rarely, if ever, trained past 90% of their one rep max (very rarely training to the point of failure). Typically, they trained at about 60%-80% of their maximum intensity and they usually trained with no more than 5 repetitions per. So, how do we relate this to planks? My recommendation is to perform your planks for a period of 10 seconds. If you feel like that is too much, then you will need to do less. Never do a set to failure, if you don’t have to juice for one more set then don’t do that set.
Greasing the groove
Now that you are all mad at me because I just took everything you ever thought about exercising and told you not to do it, let me explain why. We have all been conditioned to workout to failure, to go hard in the gym, to leave ourselves laying in a pool of sweat and feeling like jello at the end of our workouts. The days when we don’t walk out of the gym feeling completely run down, we tend to think we didn’t have a good workout. I want to introduce you all to Pavel Tsatsouline, founder and chairman of Strongfirst, Inc and godfather of the kettlebell. “Pavel is a former Soviet Special Forces physical training instructor, he became a Subject Matter Expert to the elite of US military and law enforcement, including the Marine Corps, the Secret Service, and the Navy SEALs. His training system has been implemented by special operations units in two countries closely allied with the US. Pavel founded StrongFirst, the “school of strength”, to bring “low tech/high concept” methods of achieving high performance and resilience to men and women from all walks of life, not just elite warriors and athletes”. 1 Pavel has coined the term “Greasing The Groove”. Simply put, greasing the groove means performing sets of a specific exercise multiple times throughout the course of the day with extended periods of rest in between sets. To grease the groove, pick a rep or time frame of about half of your maximum intensity. So, if we can perform a perfect plank for 20 seconds, we will perform a perfect plank for 10 seconds once per hour for the entire day. Greasing the groove allows you to not only build strength without injury, but it allows you to build a neurological groove that will teach your muscles to fire more effectively and efficiently. Sounds too good to be true right? Well, it’s not, and the hardest part about this type of practice is stopping when you are supposed to stop. You are meant to finish with more gasoline in the tank and that’s ok. You may even find that you are becoming stronger over the course of a day and that’s fine too, but once you notice you are starting to fatigue, you are done. Then when it’s time to see your progress, perform a set going close to 90% or just above, but don’t do this more than once every two weeks. Lastly, this type of practice can be done without interfering with your other training because you are not fatiguing yourself.