The sit-up is the grandfather of all ab exercises, but it might be hurting your spine. Neck pain while doing sit-ups or crunches is a good indicator that it's time to change your ab workout routine.
A modified sit-up can help address your neck pain, while a few alternative exercises can get you the results you want in your core without risking your spine.
Sit-Ups and Neck Pain
It's no wonder many people experience neck and back pain when doing a sit-up — when you perform a sit-up, your spine undergoes compression, putting pressure on the discs between your vertebrae.
Over many repetitions, this compression can result in swollen or herniated discs, which can be very painful. Any pain experienced while exercising can be a warning sign that something is wrong, and the neck pain associated with the movement should not be ignored.
Modified Sit-ups (in Moderation)
If the sit-up is a big part of your workout routine, slight modifications to the exercise can protect your neck and keep your pain at bay. You're likely performing your sit-ups in an incorrect way, which could be the root of your neck pain.
Stuart McGill, professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, recommends placing both hands beneath your lower back, with palms pressed into the floor, to support and cradle the spine.
Keep a soft carpet or exercise mat underneath you for more protection. Finally, when performing the sit-up, McGill recommends only lifting your head a few inches off the ground — that's enough to engage your abs.
Brad Schoenfeld, a professor of exercise science at Lehman College in the Bronx and author of "To Crunch or Not To Crunch" in Strength and Conditioning Journal calls for sit-ups in moderation. "Six or eight crunches would be plenty,” said Schoenfeld in an interview with the New York Times, “and only a few times a week.”
Any pain experienced while exercising can be a warning sign that something is wrong, and the neck pain associated with the movement should not be ignored.
A plank engages more of your core muscles, making it a suitable alternative for the sit-up. Andrew Bang, DC, of the Center for Integrative Medicine at The Cleveland Clinic recommends the plank as a full replacement for the sit-up.
HOW TO DO IT: To perform a plank, start by lying flat on your stomach, and lift your entire body up in a push-up position. Keep your body in a straight line from your feet to the top of your head.
Hold the position for one minute, or as long as you can manage without shaking or letting your hips sag. Variations of the plank, such as the side plank and bird dog, can add variety to your workout and engage every muscle in your core — making you stronger overall.
If your neck pain persists or worsens, discontinue all exercise immediately. Consult your doctor or physical therapist to make sure you've properly recovered from your injury before attempting any kind of ab exercise, including a modified sit-up.