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Situps, Stability, and Specificity

It has been well established in modern spine research that situps, crunches, and other repeated spinal flexion maneuvers carry high risk for mechanical spine damage (McGill 1995).  Though pain and spinal damage are often poorly correlated, it’s rarely a good idea to voluntarily create additional damage outside the natural wear-and-tear of life and sport.  However, removing traditional crunching exercises often leaves people at a loss, almost like removing a trusted security blanket and the “burn” that accompanies a situp workout…

One fairly recent study directly compared the effects of core stability training versus situps.  Whereas situps train repeated spinal flexion, core stability seeks to minimize movement.  Childs (2009) studied 2616 soldiers whose physical fitness testing required a situp test.  Subjects were divided into two experimental groups: one group prepared for the situp portion with traditional situps; the other group used a core stability protocol without situps but which included planks, bridges, and other stability exercises.  Only healthy subjects were included in the study.   After twelve weeks, both groups retook their fitness test. 

In the post-test, both groups significantly improved their overall fitness scores and their situp performance.  Though no difference existed in total score improvements between groups, the core stability group increased its situp passing rate significantly more than the situp group.  Essentially, the core stability group achieved better situp results than the situp group without actually doing situps!    

Repeated lumbar flexion is clearly a suboptimal exercise choice.  But what happens if you must undergo repeated flexion for your sport, such as acrobatics, collision sports, or flip turns in swimming (of if you are tested on situps as soliders are?)  This study validates what many wise coaches have been saying for years: when certain moves are contraindicated yet are inherent to a specialized sport, it is possible to find exercises and activities that provide the same or more reward but with less risk. 

The SAID principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands) remains, but is not absolute, particularly with a gross motor skill.  Though it’s unclear if we’d see a similar result in a fine motor skill, this study may also have implications for motor learning too. Mimicking the desired activity in the gym is not always necessary for “sport-specific” carry over.  Here, the “sport” just happened to be situps.  When the event carries higher injury risk than reasonable alternatives, as was the case here, it behooves us to choose the alternative with less risk especially if it produces the same or better results.   

References

McGill SM.  The mechanics of torso flexion: situps and standing dynamic flexion manoeuvres.  Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 1995 Jun;10(4):184-192.

Childs JD, Teyhen DS, Benedict TM, Morris JB, Fortenberry AD, McQueen RM, Preston JB, Wright AC, Dugan JL, George SZ.  Effects of sit-up training versus core stabilization exercises on sit-up performance.  Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009 Nov;41(11):2072-83.

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