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Clément Golliet: “Sit-ups”

Clément Golliet: “Sit-ups”

Written by: Clement Golliet


***Clément is the Director of ACE Fitness overseeing the fitness component of all ACE Tennis High Performance programs. He also offers private and group fitness sessions for ACE and OTA players as required. Clément is a member of the Ontario Kinesiology Association and has a Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology from UQÀM – Université du Québec à Montréal. Accredited to use many different types of equipment including, but not limited to T-Rx, Kettle-bell and Viper Clément is a Certified personal trainer with “Pep” and has worked in a clinic with a multidisciplinary team as a kinesiologist in rehabilitation. His duty was to design programs for people with musculoskeletal injuries. A fitness coach for a variety of sports, such as basket-ball, soccer, track running and tennis. Clément’s main interests are in back rehabilitation, injury prevention, performance and biomechanics applied to sports physical conditioning. A high level basketball and cross country runner who has practiced resistance training for over 14 years Clément has a passion for sport.

Philosophy: Applying a methodical and biomechanics approach to physical conditioning, while sparing the joints and the musculoskeletal system is vital to an athletes success.

If you have any questions for Clement, he can be reached here.***


The Sit-up is one of the most used and well-known exercises. The sit-ups exercise and test has been widely performed, but does it have real benefits? Today there is enough data and scientific evidence available to do a critical analysis of its effectiveness and safety.

Typically the sit-up test can be described as follows: you start by lying on the back with the knees bent about 90 degrees and feet flat on the floor. You have to hold your hands crossed resting on top of your shoulders while the feet are held stationary by an assistant. Then you flex the hips and curl the upper body from the floor, including the head and the shoulders, until you reach your knees with your elbows. To go back to the starting position, it means extending the hips and lower the trunk, until the shoulder blades touch the mat. The score is recorded by the how many sit-ups are completed in 1 minute.

Firstly, many people do sit-ups just to work the rectus abdominals, but in reality they work the hip flexor as well. The sit-up involves a hip flexion which is made mostly by the hip flexors (psoas and iliacus, tensor fasciae latae, rectus femoris, sartorius muscle). They (rectus abdominals) do not span the hip joint; thus, it cannot be involved in the hip flexion motion. But the rectus abdominis and obliques can do a trunk flexion and can be involved primarily in the first degrees of the sit-up until the pelvis raises from the floor, as well as being involved to keep a round back during the rest of the motion. According to Lacote, if the low back starts curving during the sit-up, it means that the hip flexors (psoas and iliacus muscles) are strong comparatively to the rectus abdominis or it means simply that the rectus abdoninis are weak.

A very interesting study found that the lumbar compressive loads during a regular sit-up were greater than 3000N both with straight legs or bent knees. Other studies have identified that repeated flexion of an intervertebral disc is the mechanism that produces posterior herniations. And it has been demonstrated that shear forces (tow forces in opposite direction which make the vertebra slip) on the spine are significantly higher with a greater degree of lumbar flexion; therefore the risk of injury are greater for the spine.

Other studies have focused on the transfer of loads between lumbar tissues during the flexion-relaxation phenomenon. The lumbar extensor muscles are neutrally “relaxed” (myoelectric silence) during full flexion, so the whole load is transferred to the passive tissue (the interspinous and supraspinous ligaments), and results in stretching the lumbar erector spinae muscle. Data show that an average person with only 8 kg held in the hands can sustain almost 3000N in compressive load and about 755N of anterior shear force during a full flexion. Therefore, this puts the soft tissue highly at risk of injury.

Herniated disc appears to result from cumulative trauma with little concomitant load on the spine. So the easiest way to create herniation is repeated flexion motion with compressive loading. Some data show that some herniation is produced with 867N of load and an average of 22 000 and 28 000 cycles of spine flexion and with 1472N and 5000 to 9500 cycles of spine flexion. Don’t forget that a sit-up is over 3000N load on the spine. Then you can imagine what the stress on the spine is when the exercise is repeated several times on a regular basis.

Many people who sit all day at the office and perform exercises like sit-ups just after work, are at risk to create more back pain. Creep response of the lumbar spine during a prolonged full flexion is the cause. Sitting for a period of over 20 minutes increases the flexion spine by 5.5. It takes 30 minutes to recover half of the form of the stress put on the back (joint stiffness). Therefore, I do not recommend performing sit-ups in the half hour that follows a whole day sitting at a desk in front of a computer for example.

Also, it is not recommended to perform sit-ups in the morning, because spine flexion puts more stress at this time of the day. In the morning, the ligaments of the spine are tauter due to the disc fluid which has higher hydraulic pressure. 54% of loosened disc occur during the first 30 minutes after getting up from bed and the range of lumbar flexion is increased by 5 to 6 degree during the day.

In conclusion, I think that the sit-up is a poorly designed exercise for fitness. There is so much scientific data that proves it is hard for the back and can lead to discogenic injuries. Doing sit-ups on a regular basis (entailing lots of repetitions) at the wrong time of the day (morning or after sitting for a long period), even worse with a load, can be harmful.

I think it is very hard to justify why it is good to do this exercise. The statistics show that 80 % of the population will experience back pain in their life. People should be more careful about training and should develop a better fitness philosophy. 300 sit-ups every day won’t make you feel better but will do the opposite (please refer to my article on Spine Stability). If a few people will get away with it, most of them won’t.


McGill, Stuart. Low Back Disorders: Evidence-based Prevention and Rehabilitation. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2007. Print. pp96, pp46, pp 88 89 90, pp 102

Kendell, F. (2007). Les muscles. Bilan et étude fonctionnels, anomalies et douleurs posturales. Pradel (Ed.) France. pp 104

M.Lacote. A.M. Chevalier. Evaluation Clinique de la fonction musculaire. Maloine (2008) pp 264, 265, 270, 274.

McGill SM. The mechanics of torso flexion: situps and standing dynamic flexion maneuvers.

McGill SM. Kippers V. Transfer of loads between lumbar tissues during the flexion-relaxation phenomenon.

McGill SM. Brown S. Creep Response of the lumbar spine to prolonged full flexion.

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8 Responses to “Clément Golliet: “Sit-ups””

  1. 1
    jacques Says:

    Dominique nous a envoyé le lien; on nous a fait faire une fois ou deux ce genre d’exercice (si j’ai bien compris ta description) quand j’étais au lycée. Maintenant, j’ai mal au pied quand je marche une demie-heure…

  2. 2
    OTP Says:

    I did not quite understand the purpose of the article.

    Your conclusion that sit up is poorly designed exercise for fitness is not correct. You exercise and strengthen your muscles different ways.
    You also need to be physically ready for those exercises.
    Before you start sit ups your lower back has to be strong enough.
    Improperly performed sit ups or doing too many situps before the lower back is sufficiently developed can cause back pain. Back pain from sit ups is also possible because of pre-existing conditions that emerge during sit ups. Sit up is the only one of many exercises that strengthen your abdominal muscles. It is wrong to do situps every day and this is obvious.
    My main point is that there is nothing wrong with sit ups if they done properly and in time.
    Instead of what you said just explain your readers how to do sit ups properly and what pre-conditions they need.
    Your conclusion is like saying that do not do squads with weights because you can injure your knees or quadriceps without saying that before you start doing squads with weights you need strengthen your legs.
    Any exercise that is done improperly will eventually lead to injury.

  3. 3
    Clement Says:

    Thank you for your message and your interest in physical conditioning.

    I agree with you that we need to be physically ready and build a solid base to do exercises, even more so for explosive and strength training.

    You are saying that one needs to have a strong low back. This is indeed true. But during a sit up, having a strong back won’t help a lot due to the flexion-relaxation phenomenon. As explained in the article, the back extensor is not working (IMG silence), in particular at the end of the range of motion, therefore failing to protect the spine.

    You give the example of a squat which, if not done properly, can hurt the knee. This is true, but you can hurt your back as well if you don’t maintain it in a neutral spine position. This will be even more the case under a load.

    Your argument is that doing sit-up properly cannot hurt. The issue is precisely that sit ups, whether done properly or not, create spine flexion which is the injury mechanism causing herniation, event more so with load. This has been proven and I have mentioned a number of scientific references of very thorough and reliable researches done by the University of Waterloo.

    What needs to be understood is that the muscles of the legs, arms, shoulders and hips are designed to create force throughout a range of motions, resulting in movement. But on the other hand, muscles of the spine, core, torso are designed to do precisely the opposite, they stop movement. A stiff torso helps to transfer the force from the ground to the upper body. If your torso is not stiff, you lose energy.

    You say that you do not understand the purpose of the article. The purpose is to change the general approach about core strengthening to prevent injuries and enhance performance.

    Doing sit ups it is like smoking. Smoking is going to put the smoker at high risk of cancer. Doing sit ups puts the athlete at great risk to develop back troubles one day or the other.

    Thank you again for sharing your views. With best regards.

    Clément GOLLIET

  4. 4
    Arcluz Says:

    Really interesting M. Golliet.

    Your article and you comment are exactly wath the news studies report. Really Professional ! It will take time to change mind of people. Sit-up is one the most older and commun exercise in gym world. The work you do to educate people will pay one day.

    Two thumbs up.

    Arcluz team.

  5. 5
    Aiden Says:

    As I understand from my many years of fitness involvement, we would classify this sort of exercise as a PDF. (poorly designed exercise). I believe that if you are able to correctly perform this exercise, you will indeed have rock hard neck muscles by the end. I would also recommend a tall sharp object placed gently on top of the head to make the lower abdominal regions more engaged.

  6. 6
    OTP Says:

    Hi Clement,

    if you find Stuard McGill video on the youtube you can see how he advises to do the sit ups the right way. You may call it crunches or something else but it still kind of a sit up.
    What I am trying to say is that any athlete will have cycles where he will change between exercises. Sit up is one of them. If you doing it with the straight back nothing will happen. The traditional full sit-up is not a bad exercise. Obviously if someone has neck back or other body parts problem it is not advised to use sit up.

    My example with squats was just to make a point. It is obvious that it can lead to many other problems if not performed correctly.

    If the purpose of the article is to change the general approach about core strengthening to prevent injuries and enhance performance then it would be logical if you provide list of exercises which can replace the sit ups to strengthen the core.

    Since you publish your articles on you need to remember that your articles are screened by young athletes who come to their own conclusions and do whatever they think is right based on what they understood.

  7. 7
    clement Says:

    Mcgill do a curl-up with the hands supporting the lumbar spine to avoid spine flexion and keep the neutral spine. I suggest you to read the Book, Low Back Disorders. Which will help you to understand the logic of all the mecanic of the spine and the approach used.
    Thanks you for your kind suggestion about the exerices.

    With best regards.

    Clement Golliet .

  8. 8
    Omega Stasser Says:

    Que tal buen amigo, ami me encantaria saber en que lugar puedo suscribirme para obtener las ultimas entradas de este blog, me gusta mucho. un saludo

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