The death of the sit-up
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Jan 20, 2016  |  Vote 0    0

The death of the sit-up

The Canadian Armed Forces has thrown out dated fitness testing in favour of real-world tasks


The Canadian Armed Forces recently dropped the decades-long staple of school gym class and elite athletic training alike from its fitness testing and replaced it with exercises that better simulate real-world tasks. The change has caused the U.S. military to sit up and take notice.

1. OUTDATED: Canadian military personnel used to do sit-ups, push ups, grip strength tests and running — exercises based on a program developed in the 1970s, says Patrick Gagnon, the Forces’ senior manager of human performance. Gagnon led a team to update testing based, in part, on “cutting-edge research” conducted by low-back-injury expert Stuart McGill, a professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo. The sit-up was an early casualty.

2. AT RISK: “We figure out how the spine works and how it becomes injured. That’s our foundation,” says McGill, whose 30 years in this field included calculating the loads on the spine from sit-ups (and other exercises and activities) that potentially damage the lower back. His studies agree with others that have found people have a greater chance, statistically, to develop a back disorder if the spine is repeatedly put under force from muscles contracting to hold it in a bent position.

3. UNDER PRESSURE: McGill was consulted by the U.S. military regarding the rationale for and safety of personnel doing speed sit-ups during fitness testing. “We measured the loads on the spine with each sit-up. (The spine loads) were right on the limit noted by us (and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the United States) as causing damage over time and with repetition,” says McGill, author of Back Mechanic.

4. BIGGER’S NOT BETTER: McGill describes the spine during sit-ups like this: “If you take a thin willow branch and bend it back and forth, you won’t damage it. But if you took a thicker branch and bent it to the same angle, it would damage right away . . . That’s why bigger, thicker spines get hurt much sooner doing a sit-up. Disc bulges are the main concern since they result from repeated simultaneous compression and bending the spine.”

5. FORCE EVALUATION: After 2 ½ years of study, the new FORCE Evaluation testing began rolling out in 2013. More than 400 physical duties performed by our Armed Forces over the previous 20 years were studied in creating new ways to measure “minimum requirements of common soldiering tasks,” says Gagnon.

6. SANDBAGGERS: Military work comprises much lifting, hauling and dragging of materials to, for instance, build sandbag walls or remove casualties from dangerous areas. The new evaluation has four components, three involving sandbags. In one test, a 20-kilogram sandbag must be lifted one metre off the ground 30 times in 3 ½ minutes. That’s 600 kilograms in total. It requires upper-body strength to manipulate the sandbag and core strength to enable lifting and pushing, says Gagnon.

7. NAVAL GAZING: Gagnon’s team has collaborated with its U.S. counterparts (army and air force) to develop new fitness standards as the Americans review opening up combat roles for women. (Canadian women have held combat roles for decades). In December, an editorial in Navy Times called for revamped testing and to “deep-six the sit-up, an outdated exercise today viewed as a key cause of lower back injuries.”

8: SIT-UP WORTHY: McGill says every exercise is a tool to achieve a goal. “If (your goal) is to become faster, stronger, or if it’s to become injury-resilient and have less pain in life and make yourself generally fit to enjoy life, then the answer is don’t do sit -ups,” he says. Exercises such as planks, he notes, are safer for lower backs and better engage core muscles.

“But if you’re a UFC fighter or a jiu-jitsu master and you have to do groundwork to fight an opponent off your back, you should probably do a few sit-ups.”

Toronto Star

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