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Why Sit-Ups Won't Get Rid of Back Pain & Help You Lose Belly Fat

Why the “Sit-Up” Won’t Strengthen Your Back and Won’t Reduce Belly Fat


When interviewing and evaluating my patients who present with back pain, I always ask them if they have had a history of on/off back problems and what they have done to address their pain.

After reviewing what pain relief techniques, they have adopted over the years, we then review what exercise programs they have employed to reduce the occurrence of back pain. In some cases, my patients really don’t do anything specific as it relates to strengthening their back.  They report that they just simply resume their hobby or sport.  Then there are other select few patients who talk about doing sit-ups mixed in among a few stretches they picked up from the internet.  If this program worked effectively then likely they would not be sitting in my office discussing their low back pain. :)


So why are sit-ups bad for your back?

There are many variations to the sit-up. There are full-sit ups, military style, that we all did back-in-the-day, where we anchor our feet and sit all the up, then repeat over and over.

What is wrong with this style of sit-up is that we often recruit the hip flexors of the body to pull our trunks up, with very little strengthening taking place in the abdominal region or in the core.

Furthermore, rising up into a flexed position, with the back in a flexed position actually causes a significant amount of spine pressure, potentially exacerbating degenerative disc and joint conditions. 

Variations to the traditional full-sit-up are Ab Mat Sit-Ups and V-Sit-Ups, which both can have some value if focused on not allowing the repetitive flexion of the lumbar spine to achieve the range of motion needed to rise into a sitting position, which would require the trunk to be stabilized in a neutral position, while allowing the hip flexors to mobilized the trunk into a sitting position.

By stabilizing the core/lower back from co-contracting the abdominals, pelvic floor, glutes and spinal muscles, you are stimulating the muscles of the trunk to do what they were made for…keeping your spine protected and assisting in providing a strong source of stability.

Alternate options for “sit-ups” or crunches, are to allow the curl or crunch to take place from the thoracic region, focusing on the motion to occur around the chest bone vs. the belly button. Keep your eyes on the ceiling, keep your head in neutral and rise up towards the ceiling, just enough to clear your shoulder blades. Your focus is to curl your body at chest level while maintaining your low back in a neutral and braced position. Imagine that someone has attached a string to your nose and they are lifting your body up from this string.

With this type of “Ab” exercise you are strengthening your core. But this is only one exercise to achieve this stability. There are several more that can help you avoid back pain by strengthening your core, creating an “internal” corset to reduce spinal pressures. 


So why is it that sit-ups won’t reduce belly fat?

Now that we have reviewed why Full-Sit-Ups won’t strengthen your back, now let’s address why they won’t burn belly fat and give you a flat stomach.

There isn’t one exercise that can spot reduce body fat. Abdominal exercises can help you obtain a tighter core, which includes the abdominal region so what you will get is a subtle appearance of a flatter stomach.  But, without losing body fat on top of the abdominals, you will not see a change in the amount of fat around your belly. 

Only a personalized, structured and safe plan of diet and exercise will help you reduce belly fat.  A general rule is to have every meal include a protein, carbohydrate and fat in a ratio that is optimum for your body and your level of activity. Consulting with a dietician and/or nutritionist is your best way to determine the types of foods, ratio and quantity appropriate for you. I would strongly advise that you do not take advice from anyone that does not have these degrees or certifications. Your safety during dieting is of upmost importance and a good diet and weight loss plan will take into consideration your own comorbidities or additional medical conditions that need to be monitored during weight loss and exercise. 


In summary, when performing full-sit-ups, V-sit-ups or Ab-Mat-Sit-Ups, consider that if you have a pre-existing back problem, which may include degenerative and/or disc degenerative conditions, you may be doing more damage than good.  In addition, if you are trying to use these types of sit-ups to reduce belly fat, you are risking the stability and safety of your spine, in favor of an exercise that will not reduce your belly fat.


For any further recommendations and advice regarding a back-pain issue that you have had for years that just won’t seem to go away, please don’t hesitate to call for a free telephone consultation. We can review your history and current program to see what I can offer you to reduce the frequency and intensity of your back pain flares, and potentially eliminate your pain altogether. 


In regards to dieting, I can also offer you some local names/businesses that I trust who can help you in your quest for weight loss and achieving a healthier body.


Call today for more information and See what our client says about us.

Call Cindy at BodyFit Physical Therapy at 860-507-7365 or email at cindy@bodyfitphysicaltherapy.com.

PS: I am conveniently located in Avon CT. Currently at the Old Avon Village Shops until June 30th 2021. Then I will be moving into my new location at The Shop at Farmington Valley in Canton!