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Sit-Ups: How to Do Them Correctly and How They Can Make Your Entire Body Stronger

dynamic spiderman

This is a story all too familiar to plenty of people — you see your favorite movie star with rock-hard abs and think to yourself, "I'm going to get those too!" Over the next few days, you proceed to do nothing but sit-ups, hoping to get your own six-pack, only to injure yourself and quit.

What most people don't realize is that doing core exercises is just one component to getting well-defined abs. Worse, many don't even know how to do sit-ups correctly, which is one of the most basic core workouts. If you've been working out for some time now and you think your sit-ups can be improved (or you're just starting on your own fitness journey), this guide can whip you into top form to help you develop a strong core.

What Are Sit-Ups?

A sit-up is a bodyweight exercise consisting of lying down on the floor and curling your torso toward your thighs by using your rectus abdominis muscle. The main goal of this movement is to strengthen your entire core region, with a secondary benefit of improving lower back strength.1

Sit-ups are also used as a measure of fitness, and are done to evaluate the physical abilities of those who work in law enforcement or military.2 They are part of the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT), which is broken down into three parts:3

A 2-mile run

Maximum sit-ups in two minutes

Maximum push-ups in two minutes

You may be doing sit-ups as part of your regular exercise routine, or may have done them in the past. But are you actually doing them right? If you have doubts and want to perfect your sit-ups, then you've come to the right place.

What Muscles Do Sit-Ups Work?

To understand how a sit-up can benefit your health, you must first learn what muscles are involved in this exercise. Most people think that when you do a sit-up, only the center of the torso is involved, but there are other muscles at work to help you achieve your abdominal goals. Here are the muscles that are utilized when you engage your core:4

Rectus abdominis — This muscle is found at the central portion of the abdomen — rectus, which means straight, and abdominis, which refers to the abdominal area. It is the most powerful muscle that can help flex the spine to support a variety of everyday tasks.

The rectus abdominis is further broken down into other parts: the tendinous inscription and the linea alba. The first refers to the three horizontal fibers that separate the rectus abdominis into three different sections, while the second is a vertical line that runs down the center of the entire muscle. When the muscles are exercised properly, it can lead to defined abdominal muscles .

The various parts of the rectus abdominis work together to help move your spine to suit whatever task you need, including curling inward to perform a sit-up, or bending to either the left or right to do a spinal lateral flexion.

External obliques — These muscles are found at the left and right sides of your torso, and are overlaid on top of the rectus abdominis and the latissimus dorsi. They are responsible for producing spinal rotation (either left or right) depending on what movement you wish to do. When both are contracted simultaneously, spinal flexion is the result.

Internal obliques — As the name implies, the internal oblique muscles are found below the external obliques (making them closer to the stomach) and works to support the external obliques when rotating the spine.

Sit-Up Benefits That Will Grab Your Attention

Sit-ups are a mainstay in many core exercise regimens because they help build a stronger core, which can benefit your daily life in many ways. Some good examples include:

Improved stamina: — Training your core can actually have body-wide benefits that can improve your athletic performance in other aspects. In a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, runners who participated in core strength training had improved times in their 5,000-meter runs.5

Reduce risk of injury — In an interview in Fitness Magazine, Dr. Jane Cobler, a physical therapist at ATI Physical Therapy, notes that "abs are the foundation and platform from which the rest of your body moves and functions." She notes that strengthening this portion can lower the risk of muscle strain in other muscle groups.6

Prevent back pain — According to Harvard Health Publishing, 4 out 5 Americans struggle with lower back pain at one point in their lives. Strengthening your core can help mitigate this problem in the long run.7

Better stability — A strong core can help improve balance in athletic activities, which can result in improved response times. This means you can see better results in whatever sport you partake in.8

Better overall health — A regular exercise routine that involves sit-ups can help improve your body's overall well-being. According to a news report from ABC News Australia, those who exercised at least a total of 60 minutes per week reduced their risk of death by 20 percent, as well as a lowered risk of cancer by 24 to 27 percent.9

Warm Up First Before Doing Sit-Ups

Sit-ups, especially if you're a beginner, can be taxing on your core. To lower the risk of injury, warm up your muscles properly by performing the following exercises from Men's Health:10

Bear Crawl

1. Assume a crawling position on the floor with your knees bent and your back flat.

2. Engage your core and slowly move forward by lifting your opposite hand and leg. Example: lifting your right hand and left leg at the same time.

3. Crawl 10 yards forward, then reverse the pattern while crawling 10 yards backward.

bear crawl

Dynamic Spiderman (Spiderman With T-Reach)

1. Assume a push-up position on the floor. Your arms should be a little wider than your shoulders.

2. Squeeze your core, quads and glutes to stabilize yourself. Drive a leg to the outside of one hand, either your left or right, while keeping it parallel to your arm.

3. Rotate your core to the upward in the same direction of your bent leg.

4. Return your core to the normal position, then return your leg to the stretched position.

5. Perform 10 repetitions on each side, alternating directions on each rep.

dynamic spiderman

Body Saw

1. Start in a plank position. Make sure to place your toes on something slippery to reduce friction between the floor and your feet.

2. Engage your core to move your body back and forth. Use your shoulders as a fulcrum to facilitate the movement.

3. Perform 10 repetitions.

body saw

Sliding Inch Worm

1. Plant your hands on the floor while keeping your back and legs straight.

2. Use your arms to stretch your body, ending in a push-up position.

3. Tighten your core and glutes, then slowly pull your toes as far as you can.

4. Go forward 10 yards, then reverse the pattern and go 10 yards backward.

sliding inch worm

Bird Dog

1. Place your feet and knees on the floor with your back straight.

2. On one side of your body, extend your arms and legs at the same time without falling over.

NOTE: Perform five repetitions for the same-side movement. For opposite sides (left arm and right leg), do 10 repetitions.


bird dog

How to Do Sit-Ups Correctly

Now that you've performed the exercises outlined in the previous section, your abs have definitely warmed up, and you can now proceed to doing sit-ups.11 The basic sit-up, which every beginner must do correctly, is outlined below:

1. Starting position — On a padded surface, lie down with your knees slightly bent. Make sure your head, shoulders and back touch the floor while maintaining proper spinal curvature.

starting sit up position

2. Hand and arm placement — Beginners should place their hands on the floor with the palms facing down. Those who are at intermediate fitness levels should cross their arms at the chest, palms facing toward them. Advanced-level people can extend their arms behind their head with elbows bent. The hardest sit-up variation has the arms extended directly overhead, with the elbows locked and palms facing each other with fingers interlocked.

sit up hand and arm placement

3. Upward motion — Take a deep breath, then exhale and contract your abdominal muscles. Slowly lift your head, arms and upper back off the floor while keeping yourself straight. Remember that you should not move your arms. Stop once you hit a 45-degree angle, and then pause.

upward motion sit up

4. Downward motion — Inhale as you lower your upper back and shoulders towards the same starting position. Remember to keep your muscles contracted as you reach the ground.

downward motion

How Many Sit-Ups Should I Do in a Day?

To calculate the number of sit-ups you should do, simply perform as many sit-ups as you can for two minutes, then divide this number by three. For a complete sit-up workout, you must perform three sets of the number you just calculated.12


Number of Sit-ups in 2 minutes / 3 = Number of Sit ups you should do in a day

45 / 3 = 15 sit-ups x 3 reps per day

Please note that you should do three sets of your final computation (3 sets of 15 reps, for example)

What Is the Perfect Sit-Up?

Performing the perfect sit-up means you have to adhere to proper form. If you break form by using other muscles to assist in completing a repetition, that's considered cheating and you're not making the most of your exercise. Here are some important tips to follow when performing a basic sit-up to help achieve perfect form:13

Warm-up properly — Make sure to warm-up so that you can get every fiber in your abs to work. You can start by taking deep breath before stretching.

Go slow — Most people do sit-ups quickly, but this isn't ideal. Maximize your sit-up by taking three to four seconds to reach the top, stop for a second, and come back down roughly the same time it took you to get up.

Be aware of your breathing — Be mindful of your breaths to maximize tension as you perform sit-ups.

Don't use the neck muscles — It may be tempting to raise yourself with the assistance of your neck muscles, but don't do this. That's cheating and you're not doing a true sit-up.

Don't pull your elbows forward — Some sit-up variations require you to place your hands behind your head. This can tempt you to use your arms to pull yourself up, but this is considered cheating as well.

Types of Sit-Ups

Most people are familiar with the basic sit-up, wherein you lie with your back flat on the floor, knees bent, and then curl your core until you reach your thighs. While this exercise is effective in building core strength, your physical fitness will eventually plateau and you will need to challenge yourself to keep improving. If you feel that your sit-ups have peaked and you're going nowhere, you can try mixing things up with several other types of sit-ups.

Glute-Hamstring Developer (GHD) Sit-Ups

The GHD sit-up is a compound exercise that requires a higher level of fitness and a special chair to perform. To do this, you will need to set yourself on the GHD chair properly. Engage your core, hamstring and glutes, then lower your upper body with your arms extended over your head until they can touch the floor (or as much as you can), then return to the starting position.14

Jackknife Sit-Ups

Also known as a V sit-up, this exercise is for beginners who want to practice a new variation of the basic sit-up:15

1. Lie down flat on the floor and extend your legs, as well as your arms behind your head.

2. Exhale, then engage your core and curl until your arms and legs meet in a jackknife position.

3. Don't forget to raise your legs to a 35- to 45-degree angle to do a correct jackknife sit-up.

jack knife sit up

Roman Chair Sit-Ups

This advanced core exercise requires a special piece of equipment called the Roman chair. To perform the workout:16

1. Sit on the chair and make sure that your feet are secure.

2. Cross and fold your arms and place them in front of you.

3. Exhale, engage your core and slowly lower yourself to the ground, around 70 degrees.

4. As you come up, inhale and return to the starting position.

roman chair sit up

Weighted Sit-Ups

Once you've developed good core strength through regular sit-ups, you can amp up the difficulty by adding more weight:17

1. Hold a dumbbell firmly against your chest while you perform a regular sit-up.

2. Choose a weight that's challenging enough to allow you to do a full repetition without breaking good form.

weighted sit up

Decline Sit-Ups

This sit-up variation is slightly more advanced than a regular sit-up and requires a decline bench to perform correctly:18

1. Adjust the bench to a decline of 30 to 45 degrees, depending on your skill level.

2. Sit on the bench with your legs secured.

3. Place your arms on your chest in a cross then lower your torso back until you almost touch the bench.

decline sit up

Butterfly Sit-Ups

The butterfly sit-up is a beginner exercise that almost anyone with basic physical fitness can perform:19

1. Lie down on your back with your feet and heels together, then tuck them towards your buttocks.

2. Allow your shoulder blades and arms to make contact with the floor.

3. Curl back up and then touch the front of your feet with your hands.

4. Make sure that your shoulder passes the hip for a full repetition.

butterfly sit up

Army's Physical Fitness Test (APFT) Sit-Ups

The APFT sit-up gauges a cadet's core strength and endurance. Each trainee is required to pass a minimum score of 50 in this exercise to move onto Basic Combat Training.20 To pass the sit-up portion of the exam, males who belong to the following age groups must be able to hit a certain number of repetitions:21

Age Group Repetitions Needed to Pass
17 to 21 47
22 to 26 43
27 to 31 36
32 to 36 34
37 to 41 29

While the APFT sit-up is very similar to the basic sit-up, there are certain rules that must be followed in order to be scored properly and pass:22

You must lie on your back with your knees bent on a 45-degree angle. Feet can be together or up to 12 inches apart.

Another trainee will hold your ankles, and the heel of the foot must remain planted to the ground for the entire repetition.

Fingers must be interlocked behind the head. When pulling yourself up, your neck must be above the base of the spine. Back of the hands must touch the ground during the downward motion.

army's physical fitness test sit up

Medicine Ball Sit-Ups

The purpose of a muscle ball is to help activate other muscles that are not otherwise used during normal exercise. They are typically sold in various weights and sizes, so pick one that you can comfortably handle while doing sit-ups.23 Due to the weight of the ball, this is an advanced form of a sit-up, so a high level of physical fitness is required for this exercise.24 To do a sit-up while using a medicine ball:25

1. Lie down on the floor with your back straight and your knees bent to 90 degrees.

2. Place the medicine ball on top of your chest and hold it firmly.

3. As you raise your torso, keep the ball on your chest, crunching toward your knees.

3. Pause and then return to the original position.

medicine ball sit up

Bicycle Sit-Ups

The bicycle sit-up is a compound exercise that requires multiple muscles to perform correctly, namely your shoulders and legs:26

1. Lie on the floor and bend your knees and feet off the ground.

2. Inhale, contract your abs, exhale and lift one shoulder and elbow to cross them over to the opposite knee (Example: right elbow to left knee).

3. Return and repeat on the other direction.

bicycle sit up

Upside down Sit-Ups

Also called hanging or inverted sit-ups, an upside down sit-up is performed from a pull-up bar from a high height so that your body is hanging. To safely do this exercise, you will need special gym equipment called gravity boots to secure your feet on the bar and prevent yourself from falling.27 To perform an upside down sit-up:28

1. Position yourself on the hanging bar, locking your fit securely.

2. Curl your core as high as you can, using the hips and waist muscle to assist you.

3. Remember to bend your knees a little, as straight legs can reduce range of motion in your core.

Oblique Sit-Ups

Commonly known as the twist sit-up, the goal of this exercise is to target your obliques while crunching your core:29

1. Assume a starting sit-up position: Place both hands behind your head then do a full sit-up.

2. When you reach the top, twist your core using your oblique muscles so that one elbow reaches the opposite knee.

3. Untwist your core, lower yourself, and then repeat on the other side.

oblique sit up

Advanced Alternatives to Sit-Ups That You Can Try

While basic sit-ups are a mainstay of core exercises, eventually you will have to branch out to keep challenging yourself. If you think you've reached your peak with regular sit-ups, try out these variations for an even harder workout:

Russian twist — This exercise combines abdominal and oblique movements for a full core workout:30

1. Sit down on the floor with your feet flat on the ground and knees bent.

2. Grab a dumbbell or dumbbell (find a weight that can challenge you) and place it in front of your chest using both hands.

3. Lean back slightly and lift your knees and feet. Twist to the left while bringing the dumbbell beside your left hip.

4. Repeat on the other direction for a full repetition.

Shelf sit-ups — This is an advanced form of a weighted sit-up, requiring more muscle coordination throughout your body:31

1. Start in the bottom position of the sit-up (lying down), then lift your feet while keeping your shins parallel to the ground.

2. Perform a weighted sit-up using a medicine ball and when you get to the top position, place the ball on your shins.

3. Lower your body without the ball, come back up again and retrieve it.

Medicine ball throw — For this exercise, you will need a partner who will catch the medicine ball and return it to you:32

1. Start the exercise by sitting down and facing your partner. While holding the medicine ball, lower your lower torso with your hands over your head.

2. Tap the ball to the floor and throw it to your partner as you curl your core upwards.

3. Receive the ball and repeat the movement.

Do You Need a Sit-Up Bar to Do Sit-Ups?

As you can see in the different exercises outlined in this article, some sit-up variations require gym equipment to perform them properly, namely the Roman chair, decline bench, medicine ball and pull-up bar. These are likely available at your local gym.

There are also products to help you complete basic sit-ups at home, such as the sit-up bar. This device helps secure your feet properly while performing sit-ups, so you can maintain proper form without the need for a partner. A sit-up bar can be positioned across a door frame so that you can place your feet under it.33

When doing regular sit-ups at home or at the gym, invest in a high-quality exercise mat, as this will protect your back, keep you comfortable and avoid sweating onto the floor. There are different types to choose from, such as fabric or vinyl. Fabric mats are completely washable, but vinyl can only be cleaned by wiping it with a disinfectant. As a last resort, you may use a large towel or quilt as an exercise mat.34

Sit-Ups Versus Crunches

Crunches are an exercise that also targets the rectus abdominis. However, the main difference is that crunches only work the aforementioned muscle. Sit-ups, on the other hand, bring other muscle groups into play to help raise your entire torso off the ground.35 Since crunches are similar to sit-ups, you also develop a stronger core.36 It's up to you to choose how to incorporate crunches into your exercise routine along with regular sit-ups. To perform crunches, follow this procedure:37

1. Lie on your back with your feet flat and knees bent at 90 degrees.

2. Place your hands behind your head and interlock your fingers.

3. Concentrate and contract your rectus abdominis only to lift your shoulders off the floor.

4. Exhale and curl as hard as you can, but make sure that your lower back remains in contact with the ground and your shoulders lift to around 4 inches. Lower yourself, but still keep your core engaged.

5. Return to the starting position and inhale.

How to Do Sit-Ups for Beginners

Beginners who have not done sit-ups before should learn how to do them correctly first. This guide from Men's Journal features a detailed explanation on how novices should do sit-ups. It is highly recommended that you follow these steps to prevent injury. Don't forget to consult a personal trainer to check up on your form as well.38

1. On an exercise mat, lie flat on the floor while maintaining a 90-degree bend in your ankles. Keep your feet flat as well and slightly raise your arms off the floor.

2. Engage your core and raise yourself off the floor, but keep your buttocks and feet planted on the ground.

3. Maintain a smooth movement upward, then reverse the motion. The lower back should be up in the air as well.

More Safety Tips When Doing Sit-Ups

Approaching sit-ups in a systematic way will reduce your risk of developing back injuries. According to Harvard Health Publishing, sit-ups can cause back pain as they push your spine into the floor when you lie down. Strong hip flexor muscles can tighten the lower spine too much, causing pain as well.39 To help reduce your risk of injury, it's important to follow the instructions for each exercises correctly.

In a 2005 study published in Military Medicine, 56 percent of injuries received during the regular APFT came from the sit-up portion of the exam.40 Aside from incorrect form, another contributor to the problem is genetics, as it dictates who develops back pain or not.41 If you develop back pain due to sit-ups, it's best to look for other exercises to help strengthen your core.

Whether you're genetically predisposed to back pain or not, it's still important to adopt a regular stretching routine, as it can help improve flexibility by making your muscles more supple, as well as training your nervous system to tolerate muscle stretching further.42

Note, however, that stretching won't reduce muscle soreness the day after you exercise, a phenomenon commonly known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).43 This usually occurs after performing an exercise that challenges your body in a new way.44

If your abs feel sore the day after doing sit-ups, you should rest, eat healthy foods and stay hydrated.45 Don't worry, as DOMS is temporary and goes away after a few days. On your next exercise session, you'll realize that you're performing better than the last time because the muscles have repaired themselves, becoming stronger to adapt to the exercise you're doing.46

Develop a Stronger Core and a Healthier Body With Sit-Ups

Exercising your core is one of the most important strategies you can do to help improve your overall fitness and mobility — they're not done just to make you physically look good. Most people can benefit from sit-ups unless they have back problems that can severely impede them from safely performing this exercise.

Before working out, remember to do stretches and warm-up your entire body properly to reduce your risk of developing injuries. Consult with a doctor or a physical trainer to check if you can safely perform sit-ups (and their variations) without causing health problems.

Frequently Asked Questions About Sit-Ups

Q: Do sit-ups burn belly fat?

A: No, but it can help strengthen your core muscles. To burn belly fat, a combination of a healthy diet and exercise regimen is needed.47

Q: How many sit-ups a day should you do to get abs?

A: There's no specific answer when it comes to getting well-defined abs. Your fitness level will decide how much sit-ups you need to perform to get abs.

Q: What do sit-ups do for your health?

A: Sit-ups can help strengthen your core, which can benefit your overall health in many ways, such as improved stability.

Q: Can you do sit-ups while pregnant?

A: Yes, pregnant women can safely do sit-ups or crunches, but only up until they are 18 to 24 weeks into the pregnancy.48 Consult your obstetrician before doing this type of workout.

Q: Planks versus sit-ups: What's the difference?

A: Both planks and sit-ups engage your core and to help build abs. The difference is that sit-ups engage your outer muscles, while planks allow you to activate your inner core muscles.49

Q: Are sit-ups good for your health?

A: Studies claim that sit-ups can be good for your health, as long as they're done properly.

Q: How do you do sit-ups without hurting your back?

A: Warming up properly, using the right equipment and following the steps in performing sit-ups (and their variations) properly can help prevent lower back problems.

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