When Crunches and Sit Ups Don’t Work

Sit ups and Crunches Don’t Work

Oh, I know this may get some highly emotional reactions if you think they’re working for you. What you don’t know is that they’re doing damage you may not feel… yet. This episode is all about the science of core exercise for effective ab work, back pain prevention, and weight control. The truth is crunches and sit ups don’t work … favorably compared to dozens of other options that do have benefits without risk.

Today’s question comes from Karla who writes,

“I just turned 50 this month, In 2013 I fractured my L4 and L5. Since then I’ve had trouble finding exercise to help with my abs because I can’t do sit ups and crunches, what do you recommend? I work in an office at a desk 8 hours a day. “

She added, I’m am afraid to try anything. And I’m continuing to gain weight.”

Karla’s question hits one of my favorite topics. I want to address core and limiting beliefs about what works and what doesn’t. 

You see, I was in a horse-backriding accident in early June the summer before I was to begin grad school. In grad school my assistantship would have me teaching exercise clinic classes four days a week. I was planning to supplement that with some additional fitness instruction for friends opening a business. Suddenly, I was using a handicap sticker and barely shuffling to my summer classes. During those months of rehab I studied everything core and back care, and I have ever since. It was a learning experience I wouldn’t have chosen to have and I was very lucky then and in these last three decades – to have the empathy, wisdom, and understanding of injury and how to help so many avoid it.

crunches and sit-ups Karla may not feel lucky but inability to do crunches and sit ups is a blessing. All too often someone mistakenly things these are the holy grail of core exercise.

If fact, performing these two exercises are closely correlated to lower back injury. They aren’t the only risky core exercises (hyperextensions at the gym, rotary torso machines, forward flexion machines are big ones too) but because they are the most commonly done, the most frequently done, they do the most damage.

Whether you feel it or not it’s happening. For those us who have a thicker spine – risk is greater but it exists for all of us. The more you do forward flexion the more you’re accelerating your lower back vulnerability. It’s like this: you only have so many forward flexions in you. You’re accelerating your injury risk every time you do more. 

A Flipping 50 podcast interview with Dr. Stuart McGill will help you understand the core and what happens. Dr. McGill is a world-renowned back and core exercise expert. LISTEN NOW!

Muscles in Minutes

In today’s episode I’m sharingsome exercises that allow you to keep your back safe AND still tone, tighten, and flatten that belly. Sit-ups and crunches don’t work for anyone optimally. They carry a greater amount of risk than they offer reward. These are excellent exercises for anyone.*

  • Bracing
  • Planks – turn on and off repeats of 10 seconds
  • Single leg marches
  • Side leg – ball raise
  • Bird dog
  • Lying weight up and down
  • Standing weight press
  • Standing Weight up and down
  • Seated in a chair

*It is important that you know not every exercise is appropriate for every person. If you have a special condition ideally you’ve worked with an allied health practitioner on what your limits and guidelines are before attempting mainstream exercise. Always check with your physician.

When you have these strong foundation-building exercises down, you can always progress. But going too quickly to more difficult exercises sets you up for injury. 

crunches and sit ups don't workKarla mentioned gaining weight. Core exercises in general – not just crunches and sit ups –  are not going to help you lose weight, nor lose inches necessarily.

But something you may not suspect will help you lose weight. Here it is…

Overnight Success

Karla mentioned that the quality of the 6 hours of sleep she’s getting is a 5 on a 0-10 scale. Both her quality and quantity of sleep have room for improvement. No one but you – by testing – knows exactly how much sleep you need – but quality of that sleep we want as high as possible.

If you’re waking up naturally – feeling rested – the right hormones are in place to help you be at your optimal weight and reduce cravings that sabotage you! 

Next on this episode I headed into the kitchen for Minute Made ways to find ways to help Karla eat MORE and eat to sleep better!

Minute Made Meals

Knowing sit-ups and crunches don’t work toward reducing weight we head to the kitchen to explore that adage: abs are made in the kitchen. If you have anything in common with Karla there are three things you want to focus on here.

  1. Reduce inflammation by choosing the right foods. When you have a chronic condition or injury, think of food as medicine to help reduce inflammation. Do that both by eliminating foods that cause it (sugar, processed foods)

and increasing foods that reduce it (healthy fats like those in avocados, olive oil, flax oil or ground meal, chia seeds)

  1. Start with breakfast.

Smoothies are an easy way to begin. Get protein, fiber, healthy fat in first thing and studies show you’re more likely to choose healthfully at the next meal. That’s how important breakfast is to the rest of your day. Keep the sugar down and increase the greens and fiber.  Multiple studies show that weight loss is easier due to reduced cravings with a breakfast of 30-35 grams of high quality protein.

Here’s my Flipping 50 smoothie formula:

  • Greens – vary those so you don’t build up toxins from spinach every day
  • Protein source – paleo, plant, or whey
  • Berries – low in sugar and high in antioxidants
  • Fiber Boost (or chia or flax)
  • Healthy fat: Avocado is my favorite
  • Liquid

FLIP: you want to drink it all at once. So make it small enough (by adding less liquid and extras) if need be that you get the full serving of protein at that breakfast meal.

**Make this in your own kitchen and avoid smoothies out at a stand that feature fruit only or processed mixes full of sugars and chemicals that make your body store fat! My favorite 10 second smoothie chef secret is NutriBullet. Get yours with a Flipping 50 link and save $20 and up to $15 in shipping.

  1. Plan lunch ahead: no more fast food.

As a part of your routine make more dinner than you need and put those leftovers into a convenient-to-reheat glass container for lunch the next day.

Protein, healthy fat, and add a bit of healthy carbs like leftover spiralized sweet potato or berries for dessert.

Use glass containers… you can reheat safely in. Minimize your exposure to toxins in plastics as another way to reduce inflammation. Carry them to work in an insulated bag.

Lifestyle Activity Matters

Karla mentions something that’s true for many of us. She works 8 hours or more a day at a desk. Small things matter- little movement breaks. Let everyone believe you have a small bladder – even if you don’t – just so you can get up a few times in the morning and afternoon.

Mowing and working around the house are core exercise and movement that count too. Focus on what you’re doing. You’re potentially a more active person than you know.  How you think about what you’re doing matters. Studies show that if you think everything you do contributes to you being an active person the health benchmarks improve (weight, fat, blood pressure) where as women who do the same activity who tell themselves they are inactive and think, “this job is going to kill me” don’t have the same results. Your body is listening to what you’re thinking.

For Karla, it would be easy to think that she’s vulnerable or weak because of a past injury. What if instead she looked at how she’s gotten through the acute problem, recovered, and now is more aware of proper exercise so she could think of herself as stronger and more informed now to be better than ever? It changes everything when you reframe your thoughts.

The Key Flip of the Day:

It ALL counts… what you put in your mouth and the activity you CAN do all matter, and the way you think about it can have a big impact on the effectiveness of small habits too.

crunches and sit-ups
**Affiliate disclaimer: if you save using a Flipping 50 link I share I receive a small commission for the sale. I only share products I use and love and NutriBullet is definitely on the list of tools I use to make healthy living easier!
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Circumference outside of both arms, at the armpit

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