Roman chair situps are a core exercise used by old-time strongmen. Picture singlet-clad guys named Bartleby and Xavier hoisting round dumbbells over their heads, their handlebar mustaches waxed to perfection. Since strength training’s antiquity, the Roman chair situp was adopted by powerlifters, weightlifters, and eventually the general gym-goer. The exercise promises a beefy, strong core.
I’ll bet that a YouTube, or magazine, guru told you that Roman chair situps are crucial for building a strong core and chiseling your six-pack. Now you’re on the hunt for information about how and when to do them. It’s a fair quest. But read this article before your next YouTube search for Roman chair situp how-to videos. The future of your lumbar spine is at stake.
Yes, Roman chair situps look cool and feel tough, but their risk just isn’t worth their reward. Let’s talk about what happens when you perform them and how they’re horrible for your back. Then, let’s cover some alternative exercises.
What the Hell Is a Roman Chair?
According to the folks at the United States All-Round Weightlifting Association (USAWA), you’ve probably never seen one. USAWA members idolize old-timey strongmen like Bartleby and Xavier from the intro. They’re purists. True Roman chairs are fitness tanks. They have two foot rungs, a large padded platform, and a back safety pad for failed heavy situp attempts. (Click the link above to satiate your curiosity.)
There’s a common misconception that a leg lift chair is a Roman chair. You know, those machines that have dip handles, a pullup bar, and back and armrests for doing leg lifts. Nope, those aren’t Roman chairs.
The best approximations that you’ll find of a true Roman chair are the modern variations – horizontal back extension machines and glute-ham raise machines. You can also MacGyver your own by using a flat bench and a barbell with weight on it, as featured in the photos.
How To Do a Roman Chair Situp
Doing one is simple. While sitting up, lock your feet into a top support, which could be a barbell or padded support on a horizontal back extension machine. Once you’re locked in, recline until your body is in a straight line and horizontal to the ground. Then, return to the seated position without doing a crunch. I said simple; I did not say easy. Accomplishing all of those steps requires considerable strength. And Roman chair situps aren’t even worth it for folks who have that kind of strength.
What ACTUALLY Happens When You Do a Rep
You’ll indeed feel your abs contract while performing Roman chair situps. It’s also true that Roman chair situps could train your abs to perform their main function: maintaining a stable torso position. But the truth is, your abs are secondary to this exercise’s main actor, the hip flexors.
The main hip flexors are the iliopsoas complex. These muscles originate on the lumbar spine and insert on the femur, connecting the upper body to the lower body. They contract concentrically (shortening) when you attempt to raise your legs toward your torso. They also concentrically contract if you flex your torso toward your legs when they are horizontally locked in place. Your iliopsoas contracts eccentrically (lengthening) when you lean back so you don’t crack your noggin on the floor.
Your secondary hip flexor is a muscle that you likely know – the quad. Specifically, the rectus femoris. It assists the iliopsoas complex with hip flexing duties, while also working with the other quadriceps muscles to extend the knee.
Lowering yourself from the seated position to the reclined position causes your iliopsoas to tug hard on your lumbar spine, pulling it toward hyperextension. The same thing happens in reverse as the iliopsoas concentrically contracts to pull your torso back to the seated position from the reclined position. Your quads are also lighting up. The rectus femoris is following the iliopsoas lead, but it’s also working with the other quad muscles to maintain knee extension.
Your abs also work hard to stabilize your pelvis and spine; that’s why you feel an abdominal contraction during Roman chair situps. But if you pay close attention, you’ll feel the hip flexors and quads outworking the abs.
Roman Chair Situps: Risk vs. Reward
The main risk here is a low back injury. The constant tension on the hip flexors stresses the absolute bejesus out of them. Then they tighten. Then your movement abilities get worse. After that, other muscles do their damndest to pick help out the hip flexors. This culminates in increased low back injury potential while squatting, deadlifting, and other lower body movements. But wait, there’s more!
You could also suffer a direct hip flexor strain. That strain could cause a cascade that leads to a counter-strain injury of a low back muscle. If this happens, you’re left to gimp around for weeks on end without training. On top of that, tight hip flexors can cause pain by increasing spinal compression. That compression could exacerbate existing spinal disc issues, even ones you haven’t noticed yet.
Next up is a potential quadriceps strain. The rectus femoris is under constant tension while pulling double duty, keeping the knee in extension, and assisting in hip flexion. That, sports fans, is no bueno. It’s like chugging an energy drink, doing a shot, and then expecting your heart not to give you the middle finger. All of that tension puts the rectus femoris in a precarious position.
Considering the desired outcome of the exercise is a stronger core and better-defined abs, and the fact that Roman chair situps mostly target the hip flexors, the risks aren’t worth any potential rewards. Roman chair situps simply are not a great abdominal exercise. And there are better, less risky, ways to train your hip flexors, if that’s your goal.
What to do Instead
Let’s begin with the truth about abdominal muscle definition. You get visible abs from putting down your fork, not from doing core exercises. The old adage that abs are built in the kitchen is true. If you want to see your abs, dial in your nutrition.
So what kind of core training that won’t bang up your hips and back? Fortunately, we have a resource explaining how to do core exercises that will yield the best results and won’t result in injury.
And how about an exercise that targets your hip flexors and abs without all of the Roman chair situp’s nasty consequences? Check out the single-leg lowering video above. Bonus, it also improves hip mobility.
Keep your low back flat on the ground and slowly lower your leg while ensuring that it doesn’t rotate. The non-moving leg remains statue still. Use single-leg lowering during your warm-up or pair it with a deadlift movement. Do 3 to 5 sets of 4 to 6 reps per side.
Modern Roman chairs do have a productive use. Instead of doing situps, flip over and use the machine for another of its intended purposes: back extensions or glute ham raises.
Just forget the situps.