Sit ups are one of the most well known core exercises. In this article I will explain why they are not always the most effective core exercise selection for all populations and provide 5 variations seniors can use to progress their anterior core strength.
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Sit ups target the transverse abdominus , these are the muscles that we typically think of when we talk about abdominal muscles or the core. They have both an eccentric and a concentric phase and are often performed for a high number of repetitions. They can be very challenging for senior individuals who are looking to start their journey towards increasing core strength. I have already discussed 10 exercises that seniors can use in their core training, here I provide 5 exercises that seniors can use that are far more effective at strengthening the transverse abdominals and can be progressed logically over time.
I am not a massive fan of sit ups, so much so that they do not even feature in our exercise library of 1000+ exercises. Sit ups are sometimes good for more experienced individuals to perform during mixed model high intensity interval training at higher volumes, but they should not be used for core strength development.
Sit ups are usually performed with a swinging motion when the hands are lifted from the floor, so although they do target the abdominals, they do not isolate them as well as a huge variety of other core exercises that we use in the gym. This use of momentum reduces the amount of adaptation we are able to create with the sit up.
One key principle to successful training is to progressively make the exercises more difficult overtime, therefore allowing us to create continuous adaptations. The sit up offers little progression over time, other than the tuck up, but the jump in difficulty in these two exercises is too great and a vast array of other exercises will need to be used in between. Usually they are made more difficult through adding more and more repetitions, which becomes redundant quickly.
The sit up doesn’t encourage good hip and lower back positioning for progressing the strength of the abdominals. Unlike like the majority of anterior core exercises which require us to hold tight positions, the sit up often ends up looking more like people flailing about, not creating any adaptation. This is made worse by poor control of the downward (eccentric) phase as people get tired, so they start falling aggressively towards the floor.
I encourage all individuals, especially seniors who may struggle with sit ups, to use plank, deadbug and hollow hold variations like the ones seen in this article to develop a strong and robust core musculature. These exercises can be progressed over time and allow you to put emphasis on building great positions that will be applicable too many other movement in the gym.
The modified deadbug is the best exercises to start with if you are struggling to find easy exercise variations to begin you core strength training. This exercise involves slowly lowering the leg towards the floor and controlling this movement with the muscles of the abdominals. It is a great way to build both deadbug positioning and learn how to position the pelvis when performing anterior core exercises.
The deadbug hold is and isometric hold that is a progression to the modified deadbug, it requires the lower back to be held into the floor throughout, with the knees and hands towards the ceiling and the shoulders off the floor. This creates a high level of tension in the abdominals, so holding this position can be very challenging and help you generate a lot of adaptation in the abdominals if performed correctly.
The bent hollow hold is similar to the deadbug hold, but helps us understand the shoulder positioning, forcing the hands towards the feet ensures the shoulders are off the floor and the abdominals have high levels of tension. This exercise again puts emphasis on anti-extension, it forces us to resist against the extension of the spine by using the abdominals.
Deadbugs require the initial deadbug hold positioning, then the lowering of a foot and the opposite hand. This adds extra load to the anti-extension, making it more challenging than the deadbug hold when performed slowly with control. This will challenge your pelvic positioning, if you lift the lower back from the floor because you can no longer hold the position due to strength or fatigue, you need to build a stronger base using the isometric holds or aim to perform fewer repetitions.
As soon as the lower back is off the floor, there is a huge loss of tension in the abdominals and the exercise becomes redundant. As you can see in the video, and contrary to a lot of videos on the internet, the foot does not touch the floor, nor does the hand, the goal is for the foot and hand to finish where they would if you were performing a hollow hold . If you touch the floor with the foot or the hand you will automatically lose lower back positioning due to mobility issues.
The plank is another example of an excellent exercise that targets the anterior core through using anti-extension. This isometric hold is potentially the exercise that is performed with the worst form in the gym. It needs the back to be slightly rounded (posterior pelvic tilt) and the abdominals to be very tight, otherwise the exercise is an elbow endurance test and doesn’t challenge the abdominals at all. If the standard plank variation is too challenging, raise the elbows on a box or a bench and it will make the exercise much more approachable.
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This resource was written by Sean Klein. Sean Richard Klein has thousands of hours of coaching experience and a BSc in Sports Science with Management from Loughborough University. He owns a gym in Bayonne France, CrossFit Essor, which runs group classes and a Personal training studio.