Your abdominal muscles (in the front of your trunk, not in your back) do the real work when it comes to sit-ups. Many structures are of course still involved with this exercise, though, as with any movement. When someone tells me that sit-ups hurt his back my thought is that repeated joint activity (flexion) causes his back pain. With sit-ups, the spinal joints flex, or bend forward. If repeated muscle activity was the problem causing the pain, we’d expect the pain to be in the abdomen, where the muscles actually are.
Location of pain and provoking factors are just two pieces of the puzzle when it comes to diagnosing, but they do tell me two important things. One, in this scenario the person likely has the diagnosis of joint derangement (versus a muscle or other problem). And, two, it’s unlikely the person will need spinal flexion to get better, since it is clearly provocative. (Thus it’s more likely he’ll need another spinal direction to get his joints working properly again - and therefore be able to soon tolerate all the flexion in sit-ups.) -- Laura
Of course I am a proponent of general movement and general exercise, but a spectrum of attention to detail does exist. If you want to be smart about your mobility and/or exercise workouts, focus more on the movements that you get less in your day-to-day life, whatever that entails.
If, for instance, you sit all day, like many people do, then biking hunched over in the seated position might not be the best way to get exercise unless you’re smart about it and also move in the opposite direction. Likewise, if you sit most of the day, your hip is usually in neutral rotation or external rotation. If you have that knowledge coupled with an interest in above-average health or desire for athletic performance, you likely want to bias hip internal rotation movements in your exercise routine. (So much hip stuff I see on the Internet focuses heavily on moving hips into external rotation compared to internal rotation, which doesn't make much sense!)
This level of knowledge and personalization is certainly rarely taken into account with general classes (yoga, Pilates, Barre, etc.) - and it’s not expected to be. But if you want to be at the end of the spectrum designating excellent health, this information should be taken into consideration. The first general goal is simply to move. But a second goal is to be purposeful about how you move and focus on balance (eg balance between joint flexion/extension, internal/external rotation, and abduction/adduction). Our joints move in lots of different directions, though our everday routine is usually comprised of only some of them. Therefore, use the time you focus on exercise intentionally to help close any gaps. -- Laura
Biking and spinning usually involve a lot of spinal flexion. That's not bad, per se. But part of having healthy joints is understanding what makes them healthy. Joint mobility is a big part of joint health.
Except for the lower neck, which is extended to look up, the mid back and low back are usually flexed forward with these activities. Sitting upright is of course an option on a bike, but when people are going for speed or effort, they tend to adopt a hunched forward posture. As I say over and over, maintaining full mobility in your joints is paramount to health. If your joints are consistently in one direction or one position - and rarely if ever get moved in the opposite direction - you are much more likely to lose range of motion. Be smart about your activities and your joint mobility and significant injuries can largely be mitigated. -- Laura
So sit-ups flex your spine? So what? We flex our spine thousands of times a day and sit flexed an awful lot as well. As long as you (1) know how to discern if an activity (such as sit-ups) is harming you and (2) know how to correct it if it is, you are good to go. The best way to know if an activity is harming you outside of symptoms is ascertaining if it decreases your motion. (If we’re talking about the low back, that means flexion, extension, left sideglide, and right sideglide.)
I incorporate sit-ups into my workouts as well as other spinal flexion exercises. I like sit-ups with my legs straight and ones with my legs bent. But, what do I also do? I spend 10 seconds every day checking if I have my normal low back motion and also perform prophylactic movements. (I’m lying on my stomach propped on my elbows right now.) If I were just starting sit-ups, I would check right after to make sure they didn’t cause me to lose motion (they never did).
Are there certain things certain people can’t do? Of course. Sit-ups could hurt your back just like brushing your teeth could or a long car ride could; they’re not extra scary. By understanding the concepts of how to keep joints healthy, we don’t have to avoid nor fear specific exercises. I’m here to teach. -- Laura
I realize that it often feels good to stretch forward when your back or neck hurts. People even do it when it does hurt because they feel as though they’re getting a “good stretch” that “hurts so good” that they “need.” While I sometimes use forward bending of the spine as the foundation of therapy, it’s rare - under 10%. It does make sense that it can feel good, though! If you temporarily increase space and take pressure off a problem area, it can feel nice. My job, however, is deciding what patients need to achieve real, long-term success. By the time patients see me, they have usually already figured out on their own if something gives them short-term relief (certain stretches, heat, ice, meds, etc.). -- Laura
When reaching hard enough, will you feel pulling in your hamstrings? It’s likely. Tendons and muscles (unlike other structures) will usually allow you to eek out another centimeter in pursuit of your toes, which you’ll feel. But “feeling it there” does NOT mean that is necessarily the limiting factor. To touch your toes you’ll need sufficient hip mobility, low back mobility, and sciatic nerve length for starters, not to mention mid back mobility and even arm length! Whereas so many (I want to say most) fitness professionals and medical clinicians alike make assumptions such as this, I critically assess why someone cannot do something. We move your body in various ways repeatedly to understand the source of a complaint or functional deficit. And by the way: it’s usually not your hamstrings.
In general, those who strength train work opposing muscles - quads/hamstrings at the knee and biceps/triceps at the elbow, for example. Notwithstanding specific athletic performance needs (a very small population), it’s generally a good idea to balance muscle groups so that innate human biomechanics are not significantly thrown off.
In the same vein, joints should be worked in opposing directions. Knee extension/flexion and elbow extension/flexion, for example. In my book, the most important manifestation of this credo is with spine flexion/extension. While people perform many activities of spine flexion (forward bending), they rarely move into spine extension (backward bending). Considering only the gym, you see squats, burpees, deadlifts, sit ups, hamstring stretching (and more!) involving spine flexion. Only on rare occasions will you see a standing back bend or “cobra” or “upward dog” stretch on the floor. I have no problem with flexion; I just want balance. Public gyms provide a glaring example that people will attend to muscle balance but rarely joint - specifically spinal joint - balance, but this applies to everyday life as well. --Laura
Many, many bodily joints and tissues need to function well to be able to fully bend forward. Poor hamstrings, though … they always get blamed!
To regain forward bending ability, I hardly ever loosen patients’ hamstrings. However, say a patient did simply need looser hamstrings - then clinical care is hardly needed. (Stretching is not rocket science!) With consistent home stretching, hamstring length better consistently improve.
In almost all cases, forward bending is limited because lumbar structures are moving improperly. Usually it’s that the joints themselves are misaligned. In other cases, compressed/adhered/trapped nerves create nerve tension that limits this movement (with or without contemporary joint malalignment).
Forward bending (lumbar flexion) is usually restored once we get the patients’ lumbar structures moving properly again. Importantly, using forward bending to achieve this is beneficial in only a small group of patients. More commonly I utilize lumbar extension or sidegliding.
So why do people say they “feel it” in their hamstrings? It’s either that they’re actually feeling the sciatic nerve(s) pull or that, in attempting to bend further, their body eeeks out more motion in the only structures it can – muscles and tendons – so they “feel it” there. Expert mechanical clinicians know better. --Laura
Just as important as the mechanical therapy I provide to patients to eliminate their symptoms is the education I provide regarding how to keep their spines healthy in the future. A terrific analogy I've learned from mentors enlists teeth brushing. Just as we recognize the significance of keeping our teeth healthy via flossing, brushing, and dietary habits, we should acknowledge that devoting a few minutes a day to our spines is a worthy endeavor. My goal with patients in this educational arena has two facets.
The first is simply teaching people to be aware of the movements and positions our spines adopt on a daily basis. Unlike our peripheral joints which tend to get a fair amount of both bending and straightening throughout the day, when we look at spines, the majority of people in the US spend their days in an imbalance in favor of forward bending (flexion). (The upper neck, however, is often hanging out more in a backward bent (extension) posture. Why? Because our lower necks are stuck forward, and we need to see ahead!) To be sure, certain manual jobs, or desk jobs in which the computer monitor absolutely has to be to your side, create movement imbalances in other directions. Likewise for someone who takes hundreds of right-handed baseball or golf swings per day or throws overhead regularly. Once this observational ability sets in - which undoubtedly takes time - the plan of attack is straightforward: reduce the imbalance. This is akin to reducing your teeth's exposure to deleterious foods and drinks.
The second piece to keeping our spines healthy, and preventing re-injury, is intentional movement. As I tell my patients, just as you brush your teeth twice a day, give your spine some good, healthy movement twice a day. In the most common scenario, this translates to bending backwards - all the way backwards - about ten times twice a day. Sometimes it is rotation or even bending forward. My patients leave my care knowing what their specific movement is.
Like most people, over my lifetime, my spine scale was heavily tipped in favor of forward bending. Sitting slouched at desks over books, slumping "comfortably" into couches and chairs, and later bending over patients added up to a lot of spine flexion. Did I ever bend all the way backward? Maybe a handful of times. It's no wonder I injured myself. Once I learned to look at how we position ourselves, however, I adopted several changes to narrow the gap between the amount of my spine's flexion and extension. Firstly, I almost always sit with a lumbar roll which places my lower spine (except L5-S1, which remains in 60% flexion in sitting) in extension, or at least neutral. If I don't have something to support me, I sit up straight, slouching only occasionally. Secondly, I spend more time lying on my stomach propped up on elbows while reading, watching television, or using electronic devices. Thirdly, given the choice, I often choose to stand instead of sit; for example, I will stand when using my computer on my high counter or when out at places like bars or concerts.
As far as the second component - deliberate movements - I have two go-tos. A few times a month, I'll notice I need to rotate my spine to one side so I'll do that. Most days, though, I move my neck, mid back, and low back into extension a few times. This tallies up to roughly 5 minutes per day, which is a more than reasonable price to pay to keep what I call the "body's fuse box" working correctly. -Laura
I got to give my two cents for this article. My number one piece of advice made the cut: give your spine some extension (backward bending) to combat all the flexion (forward bending) you give it! All that flexion with workouts and daily life usually leads to an imbalance in your spine and injury.
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