Simple exercises don't tend to be very controversial. You rarely ever hear fitness professionals recommending that you don't take a walk, or that you should avoid learning how to do pull-ups. But there's one workout move that a lot of trainers do suggest avoiding, and surprisingly, it's one of the gold standards of the calisthenics world. That exercise is sit-ups.
Is there actually anything wrong with sit-ups? Are they a valuable addition to your workout routine, or should you avoid them completely? We wanted to know if there was any truth to the naysaying about this exercise, and to make sure that anyone who does do them performs them as safely and effectively as possible. So we tapped fitness experts Mikhail Merritt and Katelyn DiGiorgio to give us a full breakdown of sit-ups. Read on to find out if sit-ups are a good choice for your exercise routine, and how to best perform them if so.
Meet the Expert
What Are Sit-Ups?
Sit-ups require no equipment. They're a bodyweight move, meaning you use your own strength and resistance to perform them. Possibly the most famous ab exercise in existence, Merritt describes sit-ups as "an abdominal exercise designed to strengthen the muscles in your abdomen. While often used interchangeably with crunches, sit-ups require a greater range of motion which engages other core muscles." "Traditional sit-ups are completed by laying on your back and lifting your torso," adds DiGiorgio.
Benefits of Sit-Ups
- They work a variety of muscles: Merritt tells us sit-ups require the use of "your rectus abdominis (the vertical muscle in the center of your core or where you see a 'six-pack'). Other muscles involved include your obliques, transverse abdominis, and hip flexors, and even some muscles in your back."
- They enhance core strength: Turns out sit-ups are helpful for workout routines as well as daily life. "The larger range of motion in sit-ups activates many muscles in the body, helping you improve overall posture and core strength," says DiGiorgio. "Building core strength can ultimately allow you to move with greater ease and reduce your risk of back pain and injuries. Core muscles are also linked to overall improved muscular strength throughout the body because a strong core allows for proper posture, stability, and form while performing a variety of exercises."
- They may help define your ab muscles: This is different than having a strong core, because as Merritt states, "you do not need to have a six-pack to have a strong core. "
As you may have guessed, despite their benefits sit-ups get a bad rap—and there's a reason for that. This exercise requires caution. "The main concern we see with sit-ups is the flexion of the spine, [and] there is a possibility of injuring your back if you do not perform the sit-up correctly," says Merritt. DiGiorgio adds: "There has been speculation that too much of the roll-up action used in sit-ups can potentially lead to damage of the spinal discs." That said, if you practice proper form, injury can be avoided. "If performed properly, sit-ups can greatly benefit core strength," says DiGiorgio.
Some people should avoid doing sit-ups. "Those in the process of building core strength or who have prior spinal insecurities may opt for alternate core-focused exercises," DiGiorgio recommends. Additionally, if you have issues with your hip flexors sit-ups may not be a good choice for you. "Since sit-ups naturally work your hip flexors, if they become too tight, they tug on the lower spine and can create low back discomfort," says Merrit. She also recommends that "those who have been diagnosed with osteoporosis should avoid doing sit-ups, as it places increased stress on your bones."
Proper Sit-Up Form
- Lie on your back with your knees bent. "Plant your feet hip-width apart and parallel into the floor," says DiGiorgio.
- Put your hands behind your head with your elbows out, or cross them in front of your chest. Merritt notes that placing them behind your head "will help to prevent you from pulling your neck up as you begin the movement."
- Engage your abs. Merritt says to do this by "drawing your belly button down to your spine."
- Tuck your chin and lift your head, shoulders, and back upward toward your thighs.
- Slowly reverse the motion, lowering yourself back to the floor. Merritt instructs us to maintain the bracing of the core.
- Work in numbered or timed sets. DiGiorgio recommends striving for 1-3 minutes of sit-up repetitions.
How to Modify
There are numerous ways to modify sit-ups, and varied modifications can make them easier for you in different ways. Here are our trainers' top suggestions, all of which are a better bet than performing them incorrectly or without the needed strength to do so.
- Tuck your feet under a bench: Merritt recommends this "if you have trouble keeping your feet on the floor during a sit-up."
- Change your hand placement: "Rather than starting with your hands behind your head and your elbows wide, reach your arms forward toward your knees, or take a light grip behind your thighs," says DiGiorgio. This should allow you to roll up to seated with greater ease.
- Reduce your range of motion: "Shortening the length of your sit-up will also work as a modification—you can perform sit-ups with your back on a Bosu or stability ball with your feet on the ground," says Merritt.
- Flex your feet: "Anchor your feet flexed into a wall or baseboard, or place the insteps of your feet around a dumbbell," says DiGiorgio. "This can activate your lower abdominal muscles to create a stronger connection with the floor in order to roll up through the upper body with greater ease."
The Final Takeaway
Sit-ups are equipment-free exercises done with the weight of your own body. They involve laying on the floor and lifting your upper body up and down. In general, when performed properly sit-ups are safe. However, without proper form, they can lead to a back injury. To avoid injury, it's imperative to follow proper form. When done properly, sit-ups increase core strength (which is useful for daily life), work a variety of muscles throughout your mid-section, and may help you achieve more defined abdominal muscles.
Anyone with back problems, or who has weak or inflexible hip flexors, should avoid sit-ups and instead choose alternate core exercises. If your back is healthy and your hip flexors are flexible, sit-ups are a great addition to your workout routine—provided you perform them cautiously.