Every few weeks, someone will tag me in a Facebook thread where people are arguing about the negative effects of sit-ups or crunches on posture. Typically, someone will claim that people are already sitting all day long and then question why would we dare put them into flexed postures during their training. They’ll also claim that performing sit-ups or crunches leads to negative postural adaptations such as kyphosis and forward head posture.

Trust me, I understand the sentiments. On weekends, when I don’t train myself or any clients, I tend to sit for much of the day trying to catch up on reading and writing. I can certainly feel the effects of such sitting on my body. Do this day in and day out, and I’m certain that it will have a negative impact on posture and function.

Sitting posture

However, luckily we have strength training to prevent these negative postural adaptations. I suppose that now is a good time for a disclaimer. Posture and pain are not well-correlated. You see people with the most jacked up posture in life who exhibit no pain whatsoever, people with “ideal” posture who are in pain, and everything in between.

I do feel that for optimum performance and function, one should pay attention to postural adaptations. To list an example, most powerlifters tend to exhibit internally rotated shoulders due to years of heavy bench pressing. In fact, many sports lead to postural adaptations, and while these are usually favorable for performance, they can sometimes be suboptimal for longevity. Therefore, I definitely feel that it’s important for lifters to pay attention to posture.

That said, if you simply conduct proper strength training and conditioning, posture almost always “takes care of itself.”

I do not feel that we should give too much concern about the individual postural effects of every single exercise and should instead just strengthen all the muscles in the body and focus on the postural effects of the entire regimen as a whole. For example, I’ve long heard from strength coaches and physical therapists that we should never strengthen the psoas. What do they think happens when we sprint? Sprinting requires extremely intense hip flexor contractions. I’ve long heard from strength coaches and physical therapists that we should never strengthen the upper traps. What do they think happens when we deadlift, farmer’s walk, and overhead press? Deadlifting and farmer’s walks require extremely intense upper trap contractions, as does overhead pressing. Do these same strength coaches and physical therapists want us to avoid running, deadlifting, carrying, and lifting overhead?

Strengthening muscles builds flexibility too! 

What many people fail to understand is that the dynamics of full range muscle contraction leads to the maintenance of flexibility. Hell, most studies that compare strength training to stretching show no differences in flexibility gains. In particular, eccentric contractions will prevent muscle shortening (it actually builds sarcomeres in series). This is why I like straight leg sit-ups off the glute ham developer (stopping at a torso parallel position) and crunches off a Swiss ball or an ab mat. However, make no mistake about it, if you play sports, you will be forced to strengthen these muscles.

If you train like an athlete, there’s simply no way to avoid working all the muscles!

Now, I want you to know that I’ve done my homework. I’ve studied spinal compressive and shear forces, along with muscle lines of pull, and other biomechanical topics. I’ve also trained for over 20 years, worked out with tons of different training partners, and trained hundreds of individuals myself.

These days, I don’t perform or prescribe a lot of abdominal/core exercise. Since you get a lot of overlap during full body exercises anyway, you don’t need that much stimulus to achieve impressive levels of core strength and stability. My favorite core exercises right now are the RKC plank, hollow rock hold, and band rotary hold.

However, when I had my Scottsdale personal training facility Lifts, every single client performed two abdominal exercises every day. We usually paired up a linear core exercise with a lateral/rotation exercise and did 1-2 sets of each. For example, straight leg sit-ups and 45 degree side bends, or weighted planks and side planks, or Swiss ball crunches and side crunches, or hanging leg raises and side bends, or foam roller abdominal holds and landmines, or ab wheel rollouts and Pallof presses. You get the point.

As you can see, we performed both dynamic as well as static abdominal movements. We had 40-50 clients coming in 2-5 times per week, and not a single lifter ever experienced pain or injury from any of these movements! If they were as dangerous as they’re purported to be, then I would have expected at least several incidents of pain and injury. Moreover, no client’s posture “eroded” over time. Contrarily, many of my clients started exhibiting “better” posture as they trained with me and my trainers.

Why? Because we strengthened the hell out of the backside of the body! Sure we did our pressing and trained our arms and abs/core. But we spent more time strengthening our glutes, hamstrings, erectors, traps, rhomboids, and rear delts. We performed all types of deadlifts, rows, hip thrusts, back extensions, chins, pulldowns, reverse hypers, good mornings, pendulum quadruped hip extensions, and more.

If you strengthen the entire body, including the traps, delts, bi’s, tri’s, pecs, lats, rhomboids, erectors, abs, obliques, glutes, hip flexors, quads, hams, adductors, and calves, the body tends to “fall in line.”

core

If you only trained the abs, maybe this would lead to kyphosis over time. If you only trained the hip flexors, maybe this would lead to anterior pelvic tilt. If you only did push-ups and pull-ups, maybe this would lead to shoulder internal rotation over time. But you don’t do this. You train your entire body. Because you read this blog, I know that you know the importance of strengthening the glutes and the whole darn posterior chain for that matter. So the abs and glutes balance out the erectors and hip flexors. The scapula retractors and rotator cuff muscles balance out the pecs. The rear delt balances out the front delt. The lower trap balances out the upper trap. The hams balances out the quads. The entire body is strengthened and posture, function, and performance is improved.

Posture isn’t the problem with most beginners; weakness is the problem! 

Weak abs, weak glutes, weak erectors, weak hamstrings, weak quads, weak pecs, weak arms, weak shoulders, weak hip flexors, weak lats, weak scapula retractors, and weak calves. They’re weak everywhere. You strengthen all the muscles through intelligent exercise selection, and voila! The body shores itself right up.

Short or long does not equal strong.

In the case of sitting, certain muscles will be held for long periods of time at long lengths (ex: erectors), and certain muscles will be held for long periods of time at short lengths (ex: psoas). They will gradually adapt in length to accommodate the persistent posture. However, this doesn’t make them weak or strong. Exercising makes them strong.

It’s all about balance!

The way I see it, if you’re going to claim that negative postural adaptations are occurring, then you need to back it up. I’m aware of no research that suggests that adhering to a well-balanced full body strengthening regimen leads to negative alterations in posture. Anecdotally, I can confidently claim that quite the opposite occurs. And if there is no published research on the effects of a balanced strength training program on postural adaptations, then we can then look to anecdotes to help us guide our decisions.

I give you the ultimate case study – Herschel Walker!

Check out the interview below. Herschel has done 3,500-5,000 sit-ups every day since he was a kid. He’s currently 51 years old. In fact, he credits this daily regimen for keeping him healthy and strong over the years.

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=46o0to59LIY]

For simplicity’s sake, if we assume that he started at the age 15 and performed 4,000 sit-ups per day, we’re looking at almost 1.5 million sit-ups per year and over 50 million sit-ups in his lifetime! 

50,000,000 sit-ups! 

Here’s a hilarious 1989 video where you can see how Herschel trains:

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OQ-v4M2q4jQ]

If you look at the pictures at the bottom of this article, I think you’ll agree that his posture looks just fine. It hasn’t eroded over the years. Sit-ups and crunches will not turn you into Quasimoto. Herschel has always made sure to train his entire body with sit-ups and push-ups along with exercises such as pull-ups, dips, sprints, squats, lunges, sled work, hill sprints, and carries.

I can already anticipate the opposing argument – “But Herschel is a freak!” Good point, except that we have thousands of these examples. Going with extreme cases, we have Manny Pacquiao, who does 2,000-4,000 sit-ups/crunches per day and has great posture.

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PTrgpZ9OUSY] [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=da8fbd9ivVc]

I’m not advising you to do thousands of sit-ups per day like these guys. What I am saying is that you do NOT need to fear doing 2 sets of 20 reps, using weight if need-be. 

Just like most bodybuilders, who still have good posture.

Just like most martial artists, who still have good posture.

Just like many Olympic athletes, collegiate athletes, and pro athletes, who still have good posture.

If Herschel can do 50 million sit-ups and not have poor posture, I’m pretty sure you can do 40 reps per day and be fine, as long as you use good form.

It’s time we stopped perpetuating this nonsense and simply advised people to train the entire body properly. 

You can do your sit-ups or crunches, just make sure you’re doing deadlifts, hip thrusts, and rows. Make sure you’re keeping your lumbar spine in mid-ranges and avoiding excessive lumbar flexion. This can be achieved by keeping the chest tall and pulling with the hip flexors in combination with the abs during sit-ups, and by only raising the torso to 30 degrees relative to the horizontal during crunches. Just do a couple of sets and don’t go overboard on the volume.

If you don’t like crunches and sit-ups, then don’t do them. There are plenty of other great abdominal exercises such as RKC planks, hollow body holds, and band rotary holds. Whatever you do, make sure you strengthen the posterior chain in concert.

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Herschel2

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44 Comments

  • GI Joe says:

    you don’t seriously believe that someone actually does 5000 sit/push up every day?
    that’s the single most dumbest thing I have heard in my life…
    claiming so is pathetic and actually believing it is just plain stupidity

    I’m not saying 40×3 sit-ups is going to make your back explode if you do them right but there is a reason professionals aren’t subscribing them to the general public anymore…

    also there is a big difference between 5000 sit-ups and 5000 crunches
    5000 sit-ups a day for a prolonged period of time wouldn’t necessarily cause postural changes (probably would though) but much rather destroy your lumbar spine

    • Bret says:

      Yes, I do believe it. Professionals? I know plenty who still prescribe them. Herschel’s and Manny’s spines seem okay to me.

      • GI Joe says:

        Of course Herschel’s spine is fine, that’s because he hasn’t really done 5000 sit-ups every day for a millennium like he claims, no one in their right mind would ever do that. Thats just a waste of time at best, herniated disc at worst…
        do you actually believe him?

        This Manny seems to be doing crunches, not sit ups, and he’s like 40 pounds going 1/125 of the ROM, so basicly he’s doing isometric training so he should be better of but still a childish way to train…

        • Fred says:

          @GI Joe — Herschel Walker also does something like 2000 push ups spread throughout the day and 1500 pull ups among a host of other exercises. This isn’t fantasy — he actually does these throughout the day, not in one hit.

          • will says:

            @GI JOE:

            He has been doing this since the 80’s. It has been well documented. Do your research and stop trolling.

        • Bret says:

          GI Joe – Herschel’s training regimen is infamous and has been discussed for several decades. I’ve never once considered that he could be making it all up. Did you see the video where he discussed his regimen? Just so we’re clear, you believe that he’s been fabricating his training regimen for decades over? I saw him on the show “The Apprentice” and he was an upstanding individual – the definition of integrity. I’d be very surprised if he was lying.

          As for whether this is the most optimal way to train…I’m in total agreement with you. I think he could just do a few sets of twenty per day and make them more challenging and have the same set of abs. However, he’s ripped to shreds at the age of 51, so maybe I should be listening to him haha!

        • So let’s say he only does 2000 situps. Or perhaps 1000. It has no bearing on the point of the article. Take home message is that the anti-spinal flexion bias has gone way too far from a practical standpoint. Bret makes a compelling case here. It’s consistent with the research and common sense logic. Instead of nitpicking, be thankful to be able to get quality info like this for free!

    • ddn says:

      Because Science™, Bret.

  • Shaun says:

    This is the first time I actually commented on one of your articles. As a young and upcoming therapist and strength coach I would agree with you in every way possible. Only this last month I did a paper on how to implement a TRX into core stabilization and I have endless evidence to support your article. Once you learn how to stabilize the core your posture would correct and the spine would be kept in the correct position. Sit ups just help in this are especially when done right. Once you get an understanding of the core anatomy then and only then would you really agree with your article. I do believe in 5000 sit ups a day which works out to about 208 each hour or approx 6 x 35 each hr.

    • Fred says:

      Yeah I think it’s actually 2000 odd situps throughout the day. Whichever way you slice it, that’s a butt load of situps. Combine that with 1500 pull ups and 2000 push ups. Legend.

  • AJ says:

    Train brazilian jiu jitsu and you’ll do all the crunches you’ll ever need. But it does come with a price. Many grapplers have crappy posture, and its because of the constant flexion. When your on your back, your doing hundreds of sit ups per class, unknowingly. And without a proper countering when enough extension, you end up hunched over. So, I think there should be a balance. I would not do 5,000 pushups in a day, even if I could, thats unbalanced.

    • Bret says:

      AJ – did you read the article? I agree with you. The few MMA and BJJ guys I’ve trained were given core stability and posterior chain exercises (no additional crunches and sit-ups). However, their instructors always made them do sit-ups/crunches during warm-ups. Plus as you mentioned all the flexion during sparring.

      I’m not suggesting people should train high volume flexion like this, I’m simply suggesting that you shouldn’t fear that a couple sets of sit-ups or crunches will make you kyphotic if you’re engaging in a well-balanced strength training regimen.

      • Christian MAC says:

        Honestly how on earth do you have the patience to write and respond to your article.

        I read this, and it seemed pretty clear what you were getting at.
        Im quiet sure some people just like conflict.

        Out of interest will you consider ones posture in your initial programming? Or do you simply ensure the exercise selectiom is evenly balanced?

        SMFR, followed by mobility, followed by “activation” as a warm up is all the rage and has been for some time. You’ve hinted in the past you don’t prescribe it but do you think a well balanced strength program will account for this as well???

  • Scotty says:

    GI Joe- why must you and people like you show up on a great article where someone is trying to help others out and educate the masses and just shit all over it? Many athletes, especially boxers are known for doing their own workouts that consist of thousands of push-ups and sit-ups. Definitely not the best way to train for that specific sport but why is it so hard to believe that someone would do that? And why is anyone who believes that automatically “stupid”? If you want people to respect your opinion you should try speaking in a professional manner about the subject instead of just insulting the people that are trying to help out. Why not contribute to the article with a better solution instead of slamming everyone?

  • Nigel says:

    Brett, love all you do. Most of my clients have flat spots in their spines and get very little benifit from trunk flexion until we mobilize lumbar and thoracic. I feel that it’s of the highest importance to achieve a perfect ‘c’ shape 20deg ext and 30deg flex through the trunk before ab axercises.

  • frank says:

    If you’ve ever listened to some of the other things Herschel has said over the years you might think a little differently. Lets just say he’s a few croutons short of a Caesar salad. He could be following that regimen, but I wouldn’t hang my hat on his word.

    • Robert Wynne says:

      Haha, nice analogy Frank! Honestly, that sentiment makes me believe his claim even more! Because only someone who’s “a few croutons short of a Caesar salad” would actually be OCD (i.e. “focused”) enough to actually do 5,000 situps/puhups a day for 30+ years. lol

  • .... says:

    Lets say he sleeps for 8h a night
    He’s awake for 16h
    That means he has to drop down and do 150 sit/push ups every half an hour when he’s awake, even if its middle of an actual workout
    Thinking that wouldn’t cause muscular imbalance is ridiculous
    To do that you must have the IQ of a popsicle

    Do you really think your heroes are who they say they are and not full of shit like everybody in todays society
    They are always giving you the middle finger under the table even tough they have their thumb raised in public
    If you don’r realize that you’re also full of shit, wake up, people lie all the time whats the big deal
    You probably think he’s all natural as well?

    • Bret says:

      Well I guess I have the IQ of a popsicle then… See how Herschel does them in the video? He just pumps them out and sort of does “partials” in that he hovers in the mid-range to keep constant tension without going all the way up or down. He could crank out thousands of these rather quickly IMO.

  • .... says:

    Also it’s like stating that repsing 50-60kg on the bench 5000 times every day doesnt cause any imbalance, doing 5000 reps of something every day for years will cause changes
    Most people in the western world dont even walk 5000 steps a day…

    • Bret says:

      Read the article! I’m not telling people to do 5,000 reps per day. Just to not be afraid of 40 reps twice per week. That’s not going to ruin anyone’s posture.

  • Ferg says:

    Hi,

    Doesn’t Stuart McGill suggest training for stability and using your flexions/extensions/rotations etc. only for your specified sport or daily activities?

    Cheers

    • Bret says:

      Yep. Stu feels that the vast majority of people should strengthen their cores via exercises such as stir the pot, side plank, bird dogs, McGill crunch, etc.

  • moss says:

    damn, this is one good article! your best to date.

    for abs, I normally do weighted decline sit-ups and weighted hanging knee raises.

    for the obliques, combo of suitcase dead-lift and suitcase carry cannot be beat!

    but as you implied, pillar pull-ups, push-ups, inverted rows, pillar dips, goblet squats, front squats, zercher squats, and the various loaded carries work the heck out of the “core”

  • joe joe says:

    I pretty much dislike this article, Bret.

    The thing we are talking about is movement tilt in training, and doing 2×20 reps of thoracic flexion 3x/week instead of thoracic extension is just a tilt in the wrong direction, because at the same time, the person could have done said reps of the opposite movement.

    Worse, after you tirade of thousands of words you even say this yourself in the last paragraph, although limited to the lumbar spine. not mentioning the thoracic spine when making an article about crunches and situps and boasting his “extensive anatomy homework”? lol

    a better article would have been: do a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio if your posture is crap, when you do this you can inculde situps and crunches, no problem. but the real article? NOT good!

    • Bret says:

      joe joe – two things:

      First, since the motions contain eccentric components, they’re not going to shorten your posture. Especially if you’re strengthening the opposite side.

      Second, I mention to just do a couple sets of abs/core at the end of the workout. This is after a lifter would do squats, deadlifts, hip thrusts, chins, rows, military press, bench press, farmer’s walks, etc.

      Every single one of these exercises strengthens the posterior chain (even bench press).

      Any good program is so heavily skewed toward strengthening the posterior chain that there’s no possible way that a couple sets of abs will somehow “overpower” the stimulus to the posterior chain. (or t-spine as you say)

      Nobody needs to worry about a couple sets of abs when their adhering to a proper strength training routine that includes lots of full body lifts. Look at the physiques of every bodybuilder, powerlifter, Olympic lifter, etc. They all do abs and none of them become kyphotic.

  • justin says:

    Bret:

    You put out an article stressing a really good point. There is no black and white answer to “Are crunches good or bad?” Its in the same group as squats/deadlift. My answer is “No Deadlift/crunches/squats don’t hurt your back/knees. The way YOU’RE doing it hurts your back/knees.” (Yes I stole Dan John’s footnote! So the f*** what!” I like the way you throw shades of gray to all these black and white trains of thoughts. Also I think most of the research articles you reference are really interesting. All this being said, to do all that you do and to still have time to respond to idiots arguing points that aren’t really that important is pretty impressive.

    Thanks for the research

    Justin Davis

  • pantherhare says:

    Surprised that so many people are missing the point of this article and focusing instead on Walker’s claims about the number of sit-ups he does each day (fyi, Walker also claimed to have only one meal a day of soup, salad, and bread and also has mental health issues). The point is, that some ab flexion exercises are not going to ruin your posture and that plenty of athletes do them a lot (and Bret is clear he doesn’t recommend going into the extreme) with no apparent negative effects on posture. Why is this controversial?

  • johnny says:

    Bret, I understand Hershel also performs 750-1500 pushups daily, in sets.

    Would you agree that given the way he looks and how athletic he is at 51, heck any age, the pushups do not damage his posture. Would it be ok if I copied his routine?

    Thanks!

  • Great points! I still implement situps and/or crunches every now and then in my clients workouts. It’s a move we do every day when going from lying to sitting!

  • Morten says:

    Hey Bret, thanks for the writing!

    I think it’s good that someone try to “unblame” the sit-up for causing all of the worlds problems. The idea that this exercise will certainly ruin your back and your posture is kind of outdated. Like you said, you don’t prescribe 5000 reps per day, but 50 reps won’t automatically ruin your back. Your body is built to move, and it should absolutely be able to withstand the strain caused by some sit-ups.

    A faulty/bad posture and pain will more likely develope because of sedentary work in unfavorable positions and a body in bad condition. The human body is highly adaptable, in other words, if you practice something over a LONG PERIODE of time, your body will most likely get better at performing it, meaning the tissues will endure more. AND, to finish of, I’m not saying I would prescribe 5000 sit-ups, and that’s nor what it says in the article. The take home point is that busting out some sit-ups won’t make you look like Quasimodo.

    “Whatever you do, make sure you strengthen the posterior chain in concert.” Bret’s ending!

  • Stephen Curtin says:

    Hey Bret, informative article as always. Have you considered gymnasts in this respect. Many gymnasts seem to have messed up posture, hyperkyphosis, forward head posture etc. I read that this is caused by their training the hollow body position for things like the planche and front lever. What’s your take on this?

  • Mitchell says:

    Sit Ups is a fantastic exercise for core stability. So are squats, deadlifts and strengthening the whole body, using proper form. I personally have no issues has far has posture is concerned because i always keep my back straight when exercising, siting down and walking. Has for Herschel, why would he lie ? He still has the mindset of a champion, so he will definitely not train the way most people would train.

  • Sifter says:

    I understand Bret’s good point, don’t be afraid of a couple of sets of situps if you are strengthening the posterior chain. Done.

    But I also have read quite a bit of work by another scientist who does this kind of research for a living, and who deals with back and joint problems for, among others, the US military: Dr. Jolie Bookspan.

    I believe she would suggest situps DO trend towards the damage zone on a continuum from ‘no damage’ to ‘damage’. While I claim zero expertise in this, didn’t Dr. Sahrmann also come out for planks and other practices that resist rotation, rather than performing anything that encourages flexion? These two women are not exactly lightweights in the field of exercise science and movement. Thoughts?

  • Does sit ups ruin your posture ? I think sit ups done right like with other exercises, helps improve your posture.

  • Mitchell says:

    Coming back to this article, what a great one to read once again.

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