Sit-Ups: Why They Should be Left Behind

One of the most common “go-to” exercises in countless work-out repertoires is the ever popular sit-up. It is an exercise that is ingrained in our minds from elementary school gym class fitness testing through sports team training programs, and even into adulthood when trying to reach the sometimes elusive six-pack abs. But the research reports are in, and this seemingly timeless exercise that has been the staple to many fitness routines has been pushed from its chiseled pedestal and has come crashing down. Let’s talk about why.

Traditional sit-ups put an excessive amount of force on the low back. Whether sit-ups are done with the legs extended or bent at the knees, research has shown that the psoas, a major player in hip flexion, pulls on the low back, adding compressive forces high enough to cause injury. The US National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health states that repetitive loading of the low back at levels equal to or higher than 3300 N (roughly equal to 730 lbs.) can result in low back injuries. According to the research done by Dr. Stuart McGill PhD, author of Low Back Disorders and professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo, this long popular type of sit-up exceeds the repetitive loading limit mentioned above.


So, what’s the big deal?

You may be thinking, that you’ve been doing sit-ups your entire life and haven’t had an injury, so what's the problem? My answer to this musing is that most low back injuries and disc herniations are not the result of one traumatic event. Rather, they fall into the category of repetitive stress injuries. With each sit-up or improper way of bending over to tie your shoe or pick up a heavy box, the low back is put in jeopardy, until finally the body cannot take the stress anymore. It’s the match in the powder barrel, or the last stroke. You’ve run out of flexion passes and you’re left with a low back injury that has seemingly come out of nowhere.


Now what?

Don’t worry, I’m not going to tear away one of your go to exercises without providing an alternative that is effective, safer, and low back friendly. The one that will be covered in this blog post, was developed by Dr. McGill himself. It is called the McGill Curl-Up. This modified version of your old favorite, the sit-up, helps to preserve a neutral spine, lowering risk of injury.


Steps for a McGill Curl-Up:

1. Lay on your back with one leg bent at the knee and one extended.

2. Place your hands under the low back, to help maintain a neutral spine position.

3. Keep the head and neck in a neutral position (no jutting out of the chin).

4. Curl up just enough to raise the shoulders off of the floor.

Even this version of a curl-up may not be the right fit for everyone. It is always best to talk with a health care provider who can assess how you move and find where your strengths and weaknesses are. From here, an individualized program can be developed to help you reach your personal goals in a safe and effective way.

Until Next Time,

Abby Scheer, DC


Talk with The Core about our individualized exercise programs. Change starts here.



McGill, S. (2007) Low Back Disorders: Evidence-Based Prevention and Rehabilitation. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.