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Fitness // Sit-ups: How to Do Them Correctly

STORY AT-A-GLANCE:

  • 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
  • To understand how a sit-up can benefit your health, you must first learn what muscles are involved in this exercise
  • Learn about the different types of sit-ups, and how to do them properly to help prevent injuries and maximize your workout results

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 situps, 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 situps correctly, which is one of the most basic core workouts. If you’ve been working out for some time now and you think your situps can be improved (or you’re just starting on your own fitness journey), this guide can help whip you into top form to develop a strong core.

What Are Situps?

A situp 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

Situps 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 situps in two minutes
  • Maximum pushups in two minutes

You may be doing situps 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 situps, then you’ve come to the right place.

What Muscles Do Situps Work?

To understand how a situp can benefit your health, you must first learn what muscles are involved in this exercise. Most people think that when you do a situp, 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:

  • Rectus abdominis — Most people are familiar with this muscle, as it is often called the “abs.” It begins at the sternum and ends at the pubic bone, and is largely involved in flexing your torso by closing the gap between your ribs and pelvis.4
  • External obliques — These muscles are found at the left and right sides of your torso, and are responsible for helping to rotate or bend it to the side. Interestingly, the external obliques are the largest abdominal muscles.5
  • Internal obliques — As the name implies, the internal oblique muscles are found below the external obliques (making them closer to the stomach) and work to support the external obliques when rotating the spine, as well as to help with deep breathing when needed.6

Situp Benefits That Will Grab Your Attention

Situps 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 bodywide 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.7
  • Reduce risk of injury — In an interview in Fitness Magazine, 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.8
  • Prevent back pain — According to Harvard Health Publishing, 4 out of 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.9
  • 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.10
  • Better overall health — A regular exercise routine that involves situps 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%, as well as a lowered risk of cancer by 24% to 27%.11

How to Do Situps Correctly

Before doing situps, you must stretch your muscles properly to reduce your risk of injury. Performing these five warm-up exercises from Men’s Health can help prepare your core muscles for your main workout:12

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.

Dynamic Spiderman (Spiderman With T-Reach)

  1. Assume a pushup 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 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.

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.

Sliding Inch Worm

  1. Place your hands on the floor with your back at an angle.
  2. Walk your legs backward and stretch your body forward using your core while, ending in a pushup position.
  3. Tighten your core and glutes, then slowly pull your toes to your body as closely as you can.
  4. Go forward 10 yards, then reverse the pattern and go 10 yards backward.

Bird Dog

  1. Place both hands, 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.
  3. Perform five repetitions for the same-side movement. For opposite sides (left arm and right leg), do 10 repetitions.

How to Do Basic Situps

Once you’re done warming up, you can now safely perform situps. Follow this procedure:13

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.

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 situp variation has the arms extended directly overhead, with the elbows locked and palms facing each other with fingers interlocked.

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 your torso arrives at a sitting position, and then pause.

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.

How Many Situps Should I Do in a Day?

To calculate the number of situps you should do, simply perform as many situps as you can for two minutes, then divide this number by three. For a complete situp workout, you must perform three sets of the number you just calculated.14

What Is the Perfect Situp?

Performing the perfect situp 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 situp to help achieve perfect form:15

  • Warm up properly — Make sure to warm up so you can get every fiber in your abs to work. You can start by taking deep breath before stretching.
  • Go slow — Most people do situps quickly, but this isn’t ideal. Maximize your situp 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 breathing to maximize tension as you perform situps.
  • 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 situp.
  • Don’t pull your elbows forward — Some situp 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 Situps

Most people are familiar with the basic situp, 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 situps have peaked and you’re going nowhere, you can try mixing things up with several other types of situps.

Glute-Hamstring Developer (GHD) Situps

The GHD situp is a compound exercise that requires a higher level of fitness and a special chair to perform. To do this, you will need to sit on the GHD chair properly, and follow this procedure from BoxLife Magazine:16

  1. Engage your core, hamstring and glutes.
  2. Start with your torso perpendicular to the floor. Lower your upper body (keep your arms close to your chest) until it is parallel to the ground (or as much as you can).
  3. Return to the starting position by pushing your toes into the footplate and pulling yourself up with your hamstrings.

Jackknife Situps

Also known as a V situp, this exercise is for beginners who want to practice a new variation of the basic situp:17

  1. Lie down flat on the floor and extend your legs, with 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 situp.

Weighted Situps

Once you’ve developed good core strength through regular situps, you can amp up the difficulty by adding more weight:18

  1. Hold a dumbbell firmly against your chest while you perform a regular situp.
  2. Choose a weight that’s challenging enough to allow you to do a full repetition without breaking good form.

Decline Situps

This situp variation is slightly more advanced than a regular situp and requires a decline bench to perform correctly:19

  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.

Butterfly Situps

The butterfly situp is a beginner exercise that almost anyone with basic physical fitness can perform:20

  1. Lie down on your back with your feet and heels together, then tuck them toward 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 shoulders pass the hips for a full repetition.

Army’s Physical Fitness Test (APFT) Situps

The APFT situp 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.21 To pass the situp portion of the exam, males who belong to the following age groups must be able to hit a certain number of repetitions:22

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 situp is very similar to the basic situp, there are certain rules that must be followed in order to be scored properly and pass:23

  • 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 on the floor 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.

Medicine Ball Situps

The purpose of a medicine ball is to help improve muscle activation, depending on the exercise performed. They are typically sold in various weights and sizes, so pick one that you can comfortably handle while doing situps.24 Due to the weight of the ball, this is an advanced form of a situp, so a high level of physical fitness is required for this exercise.25 To do a situp while using a medicine ball:26

  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.
  4. Pause and then return to the original position.

Bicycle Situps

The bicycle situp (sometimes called bicycle crunch) is a compound exercise that requires multiple muscles to perform correctly, namely your shoulders and legs:27

  1. Lie on the floor and bend your knees with your feet lifted slightly off the floor.
  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). Note that the elbow doesn’t have to touch the knee — the key motion is twisting your core.
  3. Return and repeat in the other direction.

Upside Down Situps

Also called hanging or inverted situps, an upside down situp is performed from a pullup 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.28 To perform an upside down situp:29

  1. Position yourself on the hanging bar, locking your feet 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 Situps

Commonly known as the twist situp, the goal of this exercise is to target your obliques while crunching your core:30

  1. Assume a starting situp position: Place both hands behind your head and then do a full situp.
  2. When you reach the top, twist your core using your oblique muscles so one elbow reaches the opposite knee.
  3. Untwist your core, lower yourself, and then repeat on the other side.

Advanced Alternatives to Situps That You Can Try

While basic situps 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 situps, try these variations for an even harder workout:

Russian twist — This exercise combines abdominal and oblique movements for a full core workout:31

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

2.Grab a dumbbell or medicine ball (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 in the other direction for a full repetition.

Shelf situps — This is an advanced form of a weighted situp, requiring more muscle coordination throughout your body:32

1.Start in the bottom position of the situp (lying down), then lift your feet while keeping your lower legs parallel to the ground.

2.Perform a weighted situp 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:33

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 upward.

3.Receive the ball and repeat the movement.

Do You Need a Situp Bar to Do This Workout?

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

There are also products to help you complete basic situps at home, such as a door gym. You can secure your feet properly while performing situps using this device, so you can maintain proper form without the need for a partner. A door gym can be positioned across a door frame so you can place your feet under it.34

When doing regular situps at home or at the gym, invest in a high-quality exercise mat that you can use wherever you exercise. That’s because shared gym equipment can harbor microbes (including antibiotic-resistant ones) that may potentially spread disease.35

 

Crunches are exercises that also target the rectus abdominis. However, the main difference is that crunches only work the abdominis. Situps, on the other hand, bring other muscle groups into play to help raise your entire torso off the ground.36 Since crunches are similar to situps, you also develop a stronger core.37 It’s up to you to choose how to incorporate crunches into your exercise routine along with regular situps. To perform crunches, follow this procedure:38

  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 Situps for Beginners

Beginners who have not tried doing situps should learn how to do them correctly first. This guide from Men’s Journal features a detailed explanation on how novices should do situps. 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.39

  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 Situps

Approaching situps in a systematic way will reduce your risk of developing back injuries. According to Harvard Health Publishing, situps 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.40 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% of injuries received during the regular APFT came from the situp portion of the exam.41 Aside from incorrect form, genetics can also contribute to the problem, as they may make you more predisposed for risk of developing back pain.42 If you develop back pain due to situps, it’s best to look for other exercises to help strengthen your core.

Whether your genes influence your 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.43

Note, however, that stretching won’t reduce muscle soreness the day after you exercise, a phenomenon commonly known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).44 This usually occurs after performing an exercise that challenges your body in a new way.45

If your abs feel sore the day after doing situps, you should rest, eat healthy foods and stay hydrated.46 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.47

Develop a Stronger Core and a Healthier Body With Situps

Exercising your core is one of the most important strategies you can implement to help improve your overall fitness and mobility — it’s not done just to make you physically look good. Most people can benefit from situps 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 situps (and their variations) without causing health problems.

Frequently Asked Questions About Situps

Q: Do situps burn belly fat?

A: No, but they can help strengthen your core muscles. To burn belly fat, a combination of a healthy diet and an exercise regimen is needed.48

Q: How many situps a day should you do to get strong, well-defined abs?

A: There’s no specific answer when it comes to getting well-defined abs. Your fitness level will decide how many situps you need to perform to strengthen and define your abs.

Q: What do situps do for your health?

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

Q: Can you do situps while pregnant?

A: Yes, pregnant women can safely do situps or crunches, but only through the first trimester.49 Consult your obstetrician before doing this type of workout.

Q: Planks versus situps: What’s the difference?

A: Both planks and situps engage your core and help build abs. The difference is that situps engage your outer muscles, while planks allow you to activate your inner core muscles.50

Q: Are situps good for your health?

A: Studies show that situps can be good for your health, as long as they’re done properly.

Q: How do you do situps without hurting your back?

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

 Sources and References

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