How Overdoing Situps Can Cause Lower Back Pain

A ‘6-pack’ – the ultimate fit and healthy look!  One of the most common ways to go about getting your awesome abs is to perform loads of sit ups.  This must be one of the most common exercises performed in the gym, and judging by the photo below, in the armed forces as well (read my post on why your abs are important Part 1).

Image by the United States Navy and under Public Domain
Image by the United States Navy and under Public Domain

Most people are very careful about how they perform their sit ups to avoid straining their neck.  If your abdominal muscles are weak, it’s not uncommon to assist your sit up by using your momentum, which then leads you to pull on your neck which may end up with you experiencing some neck stiffness or even neck pain.  However, neck pain is not the only possible side effect from too many sit ups.  Have sit up enthusiasts considered that too many sit ups may also be placing them at risk of developing lower back pain?

How’s that you ask? Lower back pain?  Well, it’s like this:  Your body is a complex setup of biomechanical levers.  One of the most important levers is your spine.  Sit ups work the front part of your spine, pulling it forwards.  Counteracting this movement are the spinal extensor muscles.  Are you working them as well?  Are the forces acting on your spine balanced? (Read my post on how lower back pain works Part 1)

spinal lever
Image by CS Body Health cc. All Rights Reserved. 2016.










Do you know where your spinal extensor muscles are?  If you refer to the image below, you can see how long these muscles are and how far they extend along the length of the spine.  Are you performing any spinal extensor muscle exercises in the gym?  Do you know how?

"Longissimus muscle" modified by Uwe Gille under Public Domain
“Longissimus muscle” modified by Uwe Gille under Public Domain

If the muscles acting around your spine are unbalanced and your abs/ ‘6 pack’ is over worked in relation to the spinal extensor muscles, this may cause a constant slumping/slouching affect on your spine.  Too much bending of your spine will cause an increase in the compressive and shearing forces through your spine and especially on your spinal discs.  This may lead to premature wear and tear on these spinal discs (spinal cushions), which are in and of themselves weak in resisting bending and turning forces of the spine, too much of which may lead to lower back pain.  Some research puts the incidence of lower back pain due to injuries of the spinal disc at 65% of all incidence of lower back pain.

Furthermore, performing sit ups as a strengthening exercise for the abs/’6 Pack’ shows a lack of understanding for the real function of the rectus abdominus (click here to read more).  Sit ups are therefore not really functional and are also a high risk exercise for developing lower back pain.   What then would be a better exercise to strengthen your abs/ ‘6 Pack’/ Rectus abdominus functionally?  And would there be a way to simultaneously exercise the spinal extensor muscles and ensure balance of your spinal lever?  The answer is a resounding yes.  Read my post on using the plank as an exercise for more information.

Feel free to leave a question or comment.  I would love to hear from you.



McGill S. (2010).  Core Training: Evidence Translating to Better Performance and Injury Prevention.  Strength and Conditioning Journal, 32 (3), 33-46.

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