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July 28, 2020 10 min read

Even if you’ve been living your life purposely avoiding all things fitness and working out, there is a next to zero chance that you’ve never heard of the sit-up. 

For some, it was the bane of gym class. For others, barely a movement worth considering. But whatever it was to you, its ubiquity is inarguable. From grade school gym classes to special forces entrance exams, the sit-up is a quick and dirty way to test the mettle of someone’s core.

All you need to do it is a floor and someplace to wedge your feet under, and voila—you have all the ingredients for a practical core workout.

But the commonality of the sit-up doesn’t mean that it’s easy, or even that we all know how to do it correctly.

Much like with crunches, neck pain is a common complaint, and that often causes people to ignore sit-ups completely. But it doesn’t have to be that way, and your post-sit-up-training body will thank you for bringing this terrific exercise back into your life. 

This is why we’ve taken a deep dive into the sit-up down below, looking into what makes it so effective, what muscles it targets, and how to do it properly so you can get the most out of it. Finally, we’ll check out some variations if you’re feeling feisty and want to up the ante. 

Why (Exactly) You Should Be Doing Sit-Ups 

While relatively simple to do, sit-ups come jam-packed with benefits.

For one, your core will be strengthened, tightened, and toned. By doing this, you reduce the risk of back and injuries—whether you’re just living your life normally or taking part in contact sports. The core is essential in so many different activities and movements, that you’ll be doing yourself a massive favor whenever you train that area.

A strong core also allows your pelvis, lower back, and hip muscles to work together in concert. This well-tuned movement helps especially when it comes to balance and stability in both daily life and sports.

Furthermore, doing sit-ups helps to loosen up any stiffness in your spine. Practicing the flexibility in your back will allow for greater mobility and the relief of tension in the area. Adding on to this is the fact that sit-ups (and the increased flexibility that come along with them) are great for preventing lower back pain and injuries.

Lastly, there is some evidence that has shown that certain abdominal exercises are beneficial for diaphragmatic pressure. Along with these other exercises are sit-ups. A great diaphragmatic pressure improves the functioning of the respiratory system, among other things. 

Two girls working out in a gym.

The Muscles that Sit-Ups Develop

While it’s never necessary to really know the physiology behind your body and the exercises you do, being conscious of the background muscle contractions and movements can improve your lifts and maximize your gains.

While sit-ups are a classic core workout, they work much more than just the core. In fact, they’re characterized as a multi-muscle movement that help tone the abdominals. What’s important to remember, however, is that sit-ups won’t get rid of that stubborn belly fat. There is no way to target fat on different parts of your body—not with sit-ups, and not with any other exercise. Of course, weight loss will be one of the benefits of any kind of consistent resistant training. 

The parts of your body that sit-ups work are:

  •         Abdominals
  •         Hip flexors
  •         Lower back
  •         Neck

In more detail, the abdominals, in this case, means both the lower and upper rectus abdominis, which serve to flex your spine as you roll up.

 The abdominis muscles are further helped by the obliques on the sides of your abs, activating another core muscle group. Furthermore, four of the muscles which aid in hip flexion happen to also be engaged in a properly done sit-up. This includes the:

  •         Sartorius tensor
  •         Fasciae latae
  •         Iliopsoas
  •         Rectus femoris

And lastly, one of your shin muscles (the tibialis anterior) is activated as well for stabilization purposes.

Of course, all of these benefits and muscle groups worked by sit-ups can only be felt and engaged if one does the form properly. And like we mentioned above, just because sit-ups look easy, doesn’t mean they don’t lack their own intricacies when it comes to proper form.

We’ll touch on this later as well, but neck pain is a common problem that people experience when attempting sit-ups. This is usually a symptom of a weak connecting muscle, but with the proper form and training, this uncomfortableness can be minimized and eliminated. Of course, a doctor should always have the first and final say.

Take Your Sit-Ups to the Next Level 

Follow these instructions and you’ll become a sit-up pro in no time at all. While no equipment is necessary, try to find a surface that’s firm yet won’t dig into your bag. For example, an exercise matt is a perfect tool to use for this exercise.

Furthermore, it’ll be helpful to wedge your feet under something to give yourself better leverage—especially if you’re just starting out. Try to find a cabinet with a space in the bottom or something similar to hook and brace your feet under. Or, ask a partner to hold your feet if you’ve got a person to spare.

  • Lie down on a firm surface on your back: You should be keeping your knees bent, preferably at a 90-degree angle—but keep your feet flat on the floor.
  • Put your hands beside your neck: You can also clasp them behind your neck to give it support, or even cross your arms across your chest. What this comes down to is difficulty. The former (putting your hands behind your neck) allows you to use more of your arm muscles in the movement.

This can be beneficial if you’re just starting with sit-ups, but otherwise, you should definitely avoid utilizing your arms (as tempting as it might be). It’s a better idea to either place your hands to the side of your neck or ears or across the chest.

  • Bend your hips and lift your torso: Carry this movement out in a smooth and steady motion, remembering to keep your feet flat on the floor at all times. While doing this exercise, remember to keep your core braced. You want to feel your abs and other muscles working to pick you up off the ground. Furthermore, try to get your body as close to your thighs as you can. You want to touch them if you’re able to with your range of motion.
  • Reverse the movement: Bend your hips once again and slowly and steadily lower yourself back to the starting position. Focusing on the eccentric movement in this step will make sure you’re not leaving any gains on the table—so for an added challenge, go back down relatively slowly (at least take 3 seconds).

Once your back on the ground, continue the movement for the desired amount of reps. However, try to consistently lower your upper back down to the ground all the way after each repetition. This will add another dimension to your ab workout since the movement will engage your muscles with movement (isotonic contractions) as opposed to engaging the muscle without movement (isometric contractions). 

Tips for Improving Your Sit-Up Game

While the above is a terrific introduction into how the movement looks like, there are several things to keep in mind in order to get the most out of the exercise. While there exist many variations of sit-ups, there also exist some best practices.

And even if you reckon you’re hitting it out of the park, there’s always some way to improve on what you already know.

Focusing on the Form

Like with almost any other exercise, slowing down the movement pays out in dividends.

Not only do your muscles have to work harder to go through the motions, but you’ll also be forced to concentrate on the positioning of your body—which in turn helps to prevent injuries.

Speed is very tempting for some of us, we’ll say that much. And speed is especially tempting when it comes to an exercise like sit-ups or push-ups since these are often timed for different fitness tests. If you are planning on doing a fitness test, go ahead and practice with speed as well. But going slow will help out more in the end than going fast.

This is because when someone speeds through an exercise, they’re allowing momentum and the body’s elasticity to take over. For example, if you’re doing push-ups pretty fast, you can feel that “bounce” at the bottom of the movement. It’s much harder to do them well and slower. We’ve talked about conscious calisthenics before, and sit-ups are a perfect example of how we can utilize focus and intention to improve your exercises.

In terms of sit-ups, try to visualize your core working to lift your torso all the way—especially during the beginning of the lift and at the very end.

Towards the end, you might be tempted to just fall flat on the back, but don’t do this. Instead, keep the movement slow and steady until your back is entirely resting flat on the floor. 

Don’t Use Your Hands! 

We already touched on this above, but it’s worth mentioning again so no one forgets.

While it’s technically okay to put your arms behind your head when you’re starting out or have a weaker core, try to minimize the amount of work your arms do. This is, after all, a core exercise. Bringing your arms into the mix will only have minimal benefits for your arms, and will take away a large portion of the engagement in your abdominals and other focus muscles.

Not to mention that bracing your neck against your hands can put more strain on your neck. Which brings us to….

Mitigating Back Pain During Sit-Ups 

Much like crunches, there are several reasons you might be experiencing back and neck pain while doing sit-ups—but you shouldn’t avoid this terrific exercise if you can potentially avoid the pain.

Before diving into the world of sit-ups, remember to always warm-up both your neck muscles and others you’ll be using during the movement. Form is also an important factor.

One of the reasons it’s advised to do sit-ups slowly (other than the additional gains) is to prevent people from jerking their necks as they raise their bodies off the ground. This places added and unnecessary stress onto your spine. If your core isn’t developed enough to complete a sit-up with its full range of motion, then it’s a good idea to work up to that with other core exercises. A good example would be doing planks before moving onto sit-ups.

There are also other ways that muscle weakness can cause neck and back pain during sit-ups. 

One of these muscles is the psoas muscle, which is a muscle that’s used during the sit-up and it pulls on the spine. The spine, however, should be stabilized and protected enough by your abdominal muscles to prevent the psoas from pulling your spine too far.

Pain during sit-ups can be a result of this psoas muscle and your abdominals not yet being strong enough to stabilize and hold the spine where it should be. While a doctor should always be consulted in cases such as this, it will usually (once again) come down to strengthening the abdominals before you can safely do sit-ups again.

Up Your Sit-Up Game

If you’re itching to not only do sit-ups but do a lot and more often, then this is how you improve them.

As with absolutely anything, practice makes perfect. Regularly doing this movement will (obviously) improve your sit-up game, but it’ll also improve any other exercises you do which utilize the same muscle groups.

To get a baseline for how many sit-ups you should be doing per workout session, test yourself on how many you can do in 2 minutes. Then, divide that number by 3 in order to figure out what’s a good amount of reps to do in each set. And every time you’re training, do 3 sets of the number of reps you calculated.

However, keep in mind that this is just the baseline. You want to test yourself every two weeks at the very least to see if you need to change your routine and add reps. If you’re not seeing improvements, that might be a sign of improper form or some other issue. Otherwise, it’s always an amazing motivation to see your development in hard numbers. 

But while sit-ups are useful on their own, they’re far from a well-rounded workout plan.

Not to mention all of the other muscle groups you should also be training, don’t forget to warm-up before every workout and do the proper stretches. Cardio is always a good idea to warm-up your body. And if you’re working the core on that day, do some bends and rotations for a few minutes to get that part of your body warmed up 

As a cool down, stretching is a good idea to keep you limber and injury-free.

Lastly, never forget to rest. Especially if you’re just beginning to work on your core muscles, always take a day in between workouts in order to allow your body to heal and develop. Proper sleep and rest are essential for not only a well-functioning body, but also developing muscles and strength.

A man working out in a gym.

Sit-Up Variations

While the sit-up is useful, it can get pretty boring so it’s always a good idea to have some variations in the back of your pocket to try out.

If you’re advancing quickly and want to try out something more difficult, incline bench sit-ups are the perfect way to go. With your feet above your head, your torso is forced to move that much further (and against gravity) to get to your thighs. If you’ve been cruising through regular sit-ups, this will definitely make you feel the burn again. Not to mention that you can always change the difficulty by increasing the angle of the incline.

On the other hand, you can do decline bench sit-ups. If you’re having trouble with the regular ones and your abdominals just aren’t where they should be in terms of strength, putting your feet below your upper body will allow gravity to work with you—effectively making sit-ups much easier.

Another option is the V sit-up. The benefit of doing this variation is that you’ll be further developing your strength, coordination, and especially your balance. This variation requires you to lay flat on the floor with your hands extended out behind you. When it comes time to engage your core, you need to simultaneously raise both your feet and your arms towards the ceiling.

Not enough of a challenge? Feel free to hold onto a dumbbell to really challenge your core strength. 

Sit-Ups Bring the Gains

The versatility and relative simplicity of sit-ups make them a terrific movement to do when you’re trying to eke out those extra gains with some ab exercises.

While the movement itself will do your body great good, always remember to do all the legwork behind the scenes. That means get enough protein in you, enough sleep, and never quit trying to improve.