If you haven't already, it's time to remove sit-ups from your exercise routine. A stalwart of the 1960s, '70s and '80s, sit-ups were originally touted as the exercise of choice for whittling excess inches off the waistline. Yet even after spot-reducing was revealed as a myth, sit-ups maintained their popularity as a core strengthener.
Now even that claim has come under scrutiny. The sit-up targets one muscle (the rectus abdominus), which is responsible for bending the spine forward. Yet the body's midsection, often referred to as the core, is made up of several muscles that not only generate movement in numerous directions but also stabilize the spinal column.
The final myth - the one that claims sit-ups improve back health - has now also been exposed. In fact, some spine experts suggest that sit-ups actually put the spine at risk, making it not only an exercise that has little benefit, but one that may actually do more harm than good.
Leading the pack of experts who think sit-ups don't live up to their billing is Stuart McGill, a professor of spine mechanics at the University of Waterloo. According to McGill, all that bending of the spine isn't good for back health.
"Given that the sit-up imposes such a large compression load on the spine, the issue is not which type of sit-up should be recommended," McGill says in his book "Low Back Disorders" (Human Kinetics, $59). "Rather, sit-ups should not be performed at all by most people."
McGill says the goal of a core exercise is to challenge the muscles in a way that spares the spine. He also maintains that when it comes to the back, the idea is to improve muscular endurance before trying to improve strength.
David Campbell is an athletic therapist and osteopath. The co-owner of Concordia Sports Medicine and Physiotherapy and osteopath for the Montreal Canadiens, Campbell has seen his share of back problems. And while he admits that the old school approach to better back health included prescribing sit-ups, that's no longer the case.
"Sit-ups won't make your back any better," he said.
Campbell agrees with McGill that when it comes to the back, endurance is more important, at least initially, than strength. He also suggests that most back-pain sufferers lack good back mobility, which isn't helped by a steady diet of sit-ups.
David Snively is one of Montreal's top personal trainers. He prefers working the abs in a standing position, because it is more reflective of how we use our core muscles in everyday life.
Mimicking such movement patterns is referred to as functional training, which gets a big thumbs up from McGill, Snively and Campbell.
What about those who want to target the rectus abdominus? Is there an exercise that can take the place of a sit-up?
McGill suggests modifying the traditional sit-up so that it reduces the stress on the spine. His version of the sit-up starts by lying on your back, one leg straight and the other bent (the straight leg helps maintain the curve in the lower back and the bent leg reduces stress on the sciatica or piriformis). Place both hands under the small of the back. Lift the shoulder blades off the floor, hold for a couple of seconds and return to the starting position.
"Pretend the head and shoulders are propped on a scale," said McGill, describing the action when the shoulders are lifted off the floor.
"Just make sure that the weight on the scale weighs zero."
McGill says there is no one-size-fits-all ab exercise. Such variables as an individual's current back health, fitness level and training goals all come into play when choosing the right abdominal and core exercises. Also worth noting is that it takes more than one core exercise to achieve optimum spine health. The same can be said for those who are looking to improve athletic performance.
Quality core workouts consist of a variety of exercises, including those that build muscular endurance (stability exercises), teach proper movement patterns and, for the active individual, build strength.
Another goal to keep in mind is the importance of equalizing the muscular endurance and strength of all your supporting muscles so that no one muscle group overpowers another. Imbalance in the core muscles tends to pull the spine out of alignment, thereby increasing the risk of back pain and injury.
McGill also suggests that whatever exercise you are doing, the natural curve of the lower back should be maintained. That means avoid flattening the back or performing a pelvic tilt (tucking the hips under the belly button), which increases the stress on the spine.
Of course, for some of you, giving up the sit-up will be like kicking a habit. But faced with the mounting evidence that sweating through a set of sit-ups has little value beyond making you very good at sweating through a set of sit-ups, not to mention the stress it places on the spine, maybe you're finally ready to bid adieu to this old-school exercise.