I can't do a Sit Up

I have a confession.  I can't do a sit up.  I mean, I can do a sit up.  But, it is either reeeaallllyyyy slow, or involves some pretty aggressive arm flailing.  You know, like way up over you head and then....wooosh...throw your arms forward until you are upright...?? I can usually hide my lack of sit up ability, but I was totally exposed in a Core class that I took the other day.  The goal of the exercise that I utterly failed at was to lie with your feet on the ground, knees bent, and crunch up until your shoulders and upper ribs were off the floor.  I got my shoulders up, and then was 100% stuck.  Despite the ridiculous amount of effort my poor abs were putting in, my torso was not curling up any further.

Not. Having. It.

You know what I blame (besides my utter lack of commitment to actually practicing situps)?  Crunches.


I grew up in the generation of "core training" and "don't do sit ups, they'll hurt your back".  Well, guess what?  The era of curling only your upper body up off the floor did more damage than good (despite all of the beautiful pictures out there of men and women with six-packs in a semi-crunch pose...). I did crunches for pretty much all of my adolescence through my 20's.  Now I have a strong abs and my back hurts and I can't do a sit up.  (Be honest.  Can you?  Without help of any kind?  Knees bent...just sit up.  Try it.)

If you can, well done.  You're amazing. (Seriously)  And one of very few.  If you can't, you're probably like me.  A victim of the crunch.

Why has the crunch (i.e. "core training") led to such a huge problem?  Because it wasn't training the right muscles.  Well, at least it wasn't training all of them.  Of course your abdominal muscles are important to be able to do a sit up, but you know what's more important?  Your iliospoas - a.k.a your hip flexors.


(There are others, of course...your hips are complex...but we're going to stick with the biggie for now).

Your iliospoas, or hip flexor, is a pairing of two muscles - the iliacus and the psoas.  They connect your low back (T12-L5) to the front of your femur bone.  When the iliospoas contracts, your leg goes up, or flexes.  If you don't actively use them, they get tight and weak.  It's actually pretty easy to let this happen, because your quads also flex your thigh.  So, if you have strong leg muscles, you can compensate for weak hip flexors.  This is what happened to me.

How can you tell if you have weak hip flexors?  Two pretty obvious ways.  1) If, when you are standing upright, your butt sticks out behind you and your low back arches, you most likely have weak/tight hip flexors.  2) If you are pretty active but still have low back pain (although the hamstrings are often blamed) you more likely have weak/tight hip flexors.

anterior pelvic tilt

You could also try a test.  Stand up as straight as you can and pull one knee up into your chest.  Let it go, and see if you can hold it up without leaning backward or letting your knee come down  (you may want to do this in a mirror or get someone to watch you).  If you have to lean back or your leg comes down a lot, you definitely have weak/tight hip flexors.

So, what do you do?

There are several exercises you can use to strengthen this muscle.

1) Lay on your back, one leg bent and one straight.  Raise your straight leg to 90 degrees and then lower, slowly.

2) Stand up straight and bring your knee up to your chest (like you did in the above test).  Let it go and hold as long as you can without leaning back.  You can make it harder with a tall box like Mike Boyle does in the video below.

To get a more dynamic, explosive action from your hip flexor try these.

1) Lunge back, push off your front leg and drive the back leg forward and up into your chest (also an amazing exercise to put into a circuit).

2) Do a high knees run from one end of the room to the other, keeping your back upright (it's so hard if you have weak/tight hip flexors).

3) DO SIT UPS.  (With a bent knee sit up, the iliopsoas is going to be the prime mover of hip flexion).

You should also stretch your hip flexors, but stretching alone is not going to fix the problem.  You'll just a have a weak, slightly less tight hip flexor (and still be embarrassed in Core class...)


Move: 'How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body'...???

A recent NYTimes magazine article, 'How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body' describes the physical terrors awaiting all who head to the mat for a little asana practice.   Popped ribs (what is that, anyway?), nerve damage (to a kid who sat in a kneeling position all day....every day), and even stroke....stroke??!!

Unfortunately, it appears to be nothing more than another over-blown, self-promoting manifesto in a string of articles published recently by 'wellness' or 'science' journalists peddling books or products.  Spinning with one pound weights will send you to the ER with a broken back!  Sugar is toxic and insulin is the devil hormone!  Obesity is forever....yup, you're screwed.  Really?  No!! When did we get so damn gullible?

 I practice yoga.  I've been working at it for about 10 years.  I'm not an instructor, but I do have some solid education and a few certifications that qualify me to comment on the safety of movement.  Can you get hurt on the mat?  You better believe it!  I don't know what 'popped ribs' are (I actually don't think there is such a thing....),  but you certainly can strain intercostals (the little muscles in between your ribs) or overstretch tendons by forcing your way into poses that you have no business being in.  I mean, I could try to get my foot over my head, but I'm pretty damn sure it would do something really bad to my hips, shoulders, neck, well, all of the things.  But come on, people, we have to take a bit of responsibility for our own actions, including not attempting things we are not ready for (remember 'Flow'?).

But, this isn't a post about yoga or even stretching for that matter (that will come....patience, people).  It's about reading between the lines of the 'health journalists' that all feel the need to scream louder than one another for ratings or book deals.  (I'm looking at you, Carrie Bradshaw....)


In '..Wreck' the author cited individual case studies from the 1970's and then states that "...the consumer product safety commission showed that the number of emergency room admissions related to yoga went from 13 in 46 in 2002".  The author also writes that 4 million people were practicing yoga in 2001.  Ok, so even if the amount of practitioners stayed steady between 2000-2002, the percentage of injury went from 0.00000325% to 0.0000115%.   Hmmm....clearly very unsafe.

According to the CDC 57,007 youth football players were admitted to the ER for concussion alone last year.  But, there really aren't too many parents out there pulling their sons off the gridiron.  In fact, popwarner football boasted that a record breaking 250,000 five to fourteen year olds were on the field in 2010.  I'm not bashing football.  I work with football players in the weight room all time time and I love the sport.  We just need to keep these ridiculous yoga 'facts' in perspective.

The bottom line is, get out there and be active!  Listen to your body.  Set fitness goals that are within reach.  And stop reading articles by screaming, generally unqualified, authors trying to scare you from practicing yoga, running on dirt paths, or exercising at all.

Your body needs to move!  So find something that makes you want to keep pushing, and get on it!