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Should you include sit-ups and crunches in your training?

Should you include sit-ups and crunches in your training?

These exercises have been a mainstay of physical conditioning routines for as long as physical conditioning has been around. We all know that one person that starts their day off with a hundred (or other arbitrary number) sit-ups or crunches. We’ve been told for countless years that the best way to train your ‘abs’ is to do sit-ups or crunches in any number of different varieties…. but is it really that simple?
Let’s look at the exercises themselves. At their heart, sit-ups and crunches are built around the action of flexion of the spine. When we lay supine (facing up), we are using gravity to provide resistance against this flexion action. This places load on our rectus abdominis (commonly referred to as the ‘abs’) and to a lesser degree, the obliques (1). With this in mind, we can correctly draw the conclusion that these exercises can be used to strengthen or condition the ‘abs’ (dependant on rep ranges etc), and even cause hypertrophy (increased muscle size) of the ‘abs’ if the load is appropriate. So far so good, right? But is repeated flexion necessary, or even healthy?
For a number of years now, a large number of trainers, strength coaches, and physiotherapists have been moving away from prescribing or recommending these exercises to clients. The driving reason behind this change is the research conducted by spine biomechanist Dr Stuart McGill and his team at the University of Waterloo, Canada, who used in vitro testing of pig spines (which are very similar to human spines) to demonstrate that repeated flexion of the spine is highly likely to lead to disc pathologies (1). McGill’s findings were that high numbers of flexion movements in the spine ultimately lead to disc injuries such as herniation.
Not all health and fitness trainers have subscribed to McGill’s findings. His major opponents consider his use of porcine cervical spines with no active muscular attachments as not being representative of the moving spine in a living human. One of the major threats to disc health during movements, is the compressive force created by the contraction of muscles acting on the spine. As the muscles pull the spine in various directions, the compression on the intervertebral discs shifts, and becomes uneven which can lead to disc herniation. Biomechanical modelling predicts that up to 18% of this compressive force can be offset by the presence of intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) during spinal flexion (2).
These arguments are for the most part theoretical however, with no conclusive clinical evidence to support them – leading us to the conclusion that right now, the best research we have on the effects of repetitive flexion of the spine is Stuart McGill’s. Factoring in McGill’s research, alongside the correlation of genetics and spinal degeneration (3), it’s difficult to justify the prescription of crunch type exercises when lower risk, more practical training approaches exist.
Some organisations (such as the ADF, Police Departments etc) have a requirement for members to perform sit-ups or crunches in workplace fitness assessments. Our advice in this situation would be to only program the required number of sit-ups/crunches required to get you through your fitness test, and ensure you have prescribed exercises to train your spinal extensors to balance out the number of flexions you are performing (deadlift variations are a great way to do this).
As always, having an experienced professional to develop your training programs is the best way to ensure you are keeping a balance in your exercise prescriptions, and performing the safest possible exercises to address your needs.
References:
(1) McGill SM. Low Back Disorders. Champagne, IL: Human Kinetics, 2002
(2) Stokes IA, Gardner-Morse MG, and Henry SM. Intra-abdominal pressure and abdominal wall muscular function: Spinal unloading mechanism. Clin Biotech (Bristol, Avon) 2010
(3) Battie ́ MC and Videman T. Lumbar disc degeneration: Epidemiology and genetics. J Bone Joint Surg Am 88(Suppl 2), 2006 
Life after Military Service: What does it mean for your health?

Life after Military Service: What does it mean for your health?

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Transitioning from military service to civilian life can hold many challenges for veterans and health matters can be at the forefront. Life in military service typically involves free medical, dental and health support with many systems in place including compulsory annual check-ups. This allows our service members to get on with doing their jobs without having to worry about when their next check-up is due; it is all organised for them, minimal planning necessary.

Difficulties can begin when veterans discharge from service. It is very common for them to let their medical and health support fall by the wayside.  They no longer have a system reminding them of when they are due for a check-up and on top of this, the services provided are no longer free. They also need to find themselves a network of medical and health practitioners, where previously these decisions would have been based purely on who was available at the base medical facility.

With this in mind, it is critical that veterans establish a consistent and reliable network of practitioners for their medical and health support. As part of this process, it is highly recommended that they schedule regular check-ups and reviews in advance. This will provide some semblance of familiarity for them, and will make it harder for veterans to become complacent about their health.

Military service also typically involves daily Physical Training (called ‘PT’) as part of the employment requirements. Usually PT would be conducted within units with military members training alongside their colleagues. Again, this format removes any responsibility from the members for the organisation of their own fitness training and the group dynamic aids in fostering military esprit de corps. Post-transition, they no longer have daily fitness training organised for them, and in many cases they may not have friends or colleagues involved in organised fitness training that they can participate in. Whilst organised group PT doesn’t have to be a part of a veteran’s life after service, it is still important that each veteran finds a form of physical activity to participate in. This could take the form of Personal Training, Group Fitness classes, organised sports or outdoor PT groups.

The issues we have discussed not only have a direct impact on a veteran’s physical health, but they can have lasting effects on mental health. In this era of high operational tempos for the Australian Defence Force, it’s not uncommon for veterans to complete a number of operational deployments to the world’s danger zones during their period of service. We have seen through a growing number of media reports and government statements that this is having a huge impact on the mental health of our veterans. These mental health issues are one of the major problems affecting our veteran community, and they must be part of any discussion regarding veterans’ health.

Another issue facing our veterans as they leave their service lives behind them is the loss of camaraderie that they experienced while in uniform. Upon discharge many veterans move back to their hometowns, or perhaps to a new city where a new job awaits them, effectively creating distance between themselves and the colleagues they had a unique bond with. This scenario leaves many of our veterans feeling as though they don’t belong or fit in with their new surroundings. Signing up to a local sports club, or an organised fitness program can assist with this transition by providing some sense of camaraderie and being part of a team, whilst keeping veterans physically active.

Whilst it’s not the goal of this blog to discuss mental health issues specifically, exercise has been clinically shown to provide positive benefits to mental health and we strongly urge all veterans to participate in a regular exercise program not just for the physical benefits, but the mental benefits as well.

In summary, it is highly recommended that all veterans follow this short list of very simple guidelines in order to maintain their health:

  • Establish a reliable network of medical and health practitioners
  • Schedule appointments, reviews and check-ups in advance
  • Participate in regular physical activity
  • Enjoy organised sport or some form of group activity
  • Make mental health a priority

Ash Sinclair

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