One of the most telling marks of a fit physique is a defined set of abs. While having abs doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re fit, it does show that you’ve been at least putting in the work to become fitter. Planning to strut your stuff on the beach, or just want to be able to carry groceries up a few flights of stairs without dying? Training your abs and core offers more benefits than just looking good.
Sit-ups are a great place to start. Even if you’ve already got an established fitness routine sit-ups can mix it up and contribute to your overall health and core development. Plus, they’ll make your abs look great!
10 Benefits of Sit-ups
1. Increase muscle mass to get more defined abs
If you want abs, then sit-ups are an excellent place to start. They mainly target your rectus abdominis, the most superficial ab muscle that gives you the “six-pack” look when defined. However, sit-ups are also a great way to build your core muscles.
Our bodies are smart, and therefore help us to be more efficient as we repeat the same activity. As you progressively overload your muscles with exercises like sit-ups, your body adapts by thickening or increasing the size of your muscle fibers. As your muscle fibers thicken they can tolerate more force, which is why when you lift consistently your muscles get more noticeable and defined.
As your strength increases, your muscles will also grow to provide a base for that strength. So, if you want to be stronger and improve your overall muscle tone then resistance training is the way to go. Having more muscle also helps with fat burning, which will reveal even more muscle definition.
2. Speed up your metabolism to burn more calories
When you do a sit-up properly, your core is working against gravity to control your body as you lift and lower your torso in a smooth motion. Over time, as you continue to fight against gravity, a form of resistance, your body will adapt by developing better core musculature and making your core stronger.
Working on strengthening and defining your core will ultimately speed up your metabolism and force you to burn more calories. Resistance training has been shown to increase your muscle mass and therefore your metabolism because muscle takes more energy to support.
3. Improve athletic performance
Core strength and good core control are significant for improving strength and power for athleticism. Whenever you’re doing physical activity, whether it be in sports or your daily life, your power comes from your core and glutes. That’s why athletes tend to have nice glutes and trimmer waists. They’re constantly calling on their core muscles to support them and power them through maneuvers.
This also translates to fitness for the average person who just wants to be healthier. By improving your ab and core strength, you’ll find that you’re stronger in all of your other movements. Having a strong foundation will translate to more speed, strength, and agility.
4. Less back pain and reduced risk of injury
Back pain currently affects about 4 out of 5 people in the U.S. According to the Mayo Clinic:
Weak core muscles can also leave you susceptible to poor posture, lower back pain, and muscle injuries. Strengthening core muscles may also help improve back pain.
Studies have shown that when you strengthen your deep core musculature, you can reduce back pain and the potential for injury. If your muscles deep within your trunk are weak or you have little control over them, then you are at a greater risk of injury during everyday movements. This will conversely increase your risk of injury when doing any type of resistance training.
Adding sit-ups to your routine is a good way to work on strengthening the muscles deep in your torso, provided they are done with correct form. If you have poor form, then sit-ups can potentially cause you more pain or even injure your lower back.
5. Get a stronger core
A strong core will improve the quality of your life in various ways, whether it be through more strength to get through daily tasks like reaching for something heavy on a high shelf or carrying a bunch of groceries upstairs in one trip. Because who wants to just carry a few bags at a time and make multiple trips?
Whenever you engage in a movement that requires your abs and back to stabilize you that’s a core movement. Strengthening your core will train your body to protect your spine better, and aid in enhancing your movement execution in daily activities and the gym.
6. Stand up straighter
Strengthening your core has a direct effect on your posture. Since your core is made up of a group of muscles that work to stabilize your spine when you strengthen those muscles it aids in improving your posture.
Better posture will contribute to better overall form while exercising, which in turn means greater results. When your body is in alignment, through exercising good posture, you’ll notice fewer aches and pains. This is largely due to your body working more efficiently and reducing the likelihood of overusing smaller supportive muscles, such as the ones in your neck, spine, and hips.
If you’ve ever sat at a computer for more than 30 minutes, you may have noticed tightness in your neck and perhaps even your back. This is because your posture will adjust, often detrimentally, to make sure that you can see the screen. Actively improving your posture will reduce the potential of chronic pain from resting or moving in unhealthy positions.
7. Work on balance and stability
You’ll also notice balance improvements which can enhance your performance, as well as your functionality during everyday movements. Posture improvements help to refine your movement patterns which will help you to move better in daily situations, as well as during your workouts.
Having good balance has saved my life many times during clumsy accidents like tripping over something on the sidewalk or preventing me from rolling my ankle during a misstep. Instead of falling right onto my face I was able to quickly catch myself and keep it moving thanks to my core stability.
As we age, our balance and stability tend to naturally decline with the loss of muscle and wear and tear on our joints. This is why it’s important to train for balance and work on improving stabilization throughout your life.
8. Improve flexibility and range of motion
Sit-ups can improve your hip and spine flexibility. This will help you to achieve a greater range of motion, which is a fancy way of saying that you can control a movement with good form throughout the full amount of space your joint can move through.
As you work against gravity and your spine flexes to lift your torso off of the floor, you’re practicing stability and control. At the same time, you’re also training in a full range of motion as you bring your upper back toward your knees.
Increased flexibility and range of motion will help you with more balance as well as contribute to healthier movement patterns. Moving better during exercise will contribute to your gains, overall health, and the longevity of your joints.
9. Easy modifications and lots of variations
One of the best things about sit-ups is that they’re easy to modify if you’re a beginner. There are so many variations and ways to incorporate sit-ups that anyone can add them to a fitness routine and see great results.
It’s best to start with bodyweight movements initially. Once you notice that your form has improved and the difficulty has decreased a bit, then it’s time to modify the sit-up to make it more challenging.
Some ways to modify a sit-up:
- For beginners, you’ll want to make sure your feet are secured under something and then keep your hips down as you bend at the waist and curl your chest up to your knees. Starting with your arms by your sides reaching for your legs or crossed on your chest is the easiest way to begin.
- As you progress, you can place your hands by your ears, with your elbows out to make it more challenging.
- Extending your arms overhead will add even more of a challenge.
- When you start to advance you can eventually add some weight to keep your body progressing.
10. Improve your health
The great thing about sit-ups is that anyone who is relatively healthy can do them and notice improvements in their health. Sit-ups are a form of strength and endurance training that contribute to increased spinal stability.
After age 30 our bodies start to naturally lose muscle and our metabolisms begin to lose efficiency as the wear and tear on our bodies increases. These changes aren’t so noticeable when you’re younger. However, they become more pronounced in the form of weight gain, aches and pains, joint discomfort, compromised movement patterns and even injury as we age.
Strength and endurance training help to fortify your heart, improve circulation and encourage other anti-aging benefits. While sit-ups alone won’t necessarily result in massive changes, their addition to a sound fitness routine will yield massive benefits for your overall health.
What muscles do sit-ups work?
Main muscles targeted
Sit-ups target the muscles in your lower back, hips, pelvis, and abdomen. The rectus abdominis is one of the main muscles targeted during the sit-up. When this muscle is defined and your body fat is low enough it gives the appearance of a six-pack.
Some of the other main players involved in the sit-up are the hip flexors, which will become overactive if you don’t maintain correct form throughout the exercise.
Your quadriceps and tensor fascia latae are part of your hip and pelvic muscles. They contribute to hip flexion during sit-ups. Whenever you bend at the waist you are flexing your hips. Since your quadriceps cross your hip joint, they assist your tensor fascia latae to assist you in the sitting up portion of the exercise.
Let’s not forget the erector spinae, or lower back muscles, that also help with spinal flexion and controlling your trunk as you ascend and descend during the sit-up.
Inner and outer core muscles
One of the primary benefits of doing sit-ups is that they strengthen your core. When you have a stronger core it translates to overall strength and stability in all movements.
Our core is made up of deep core muscles and shallow core muscles.
The deepest core muscles are responsible for stabilizing your spine. They include:
- Transversus abdominis
- Lumbar multifidus
- Internal obliques
- Quadratus lumborum
The shallow or more superficial core muscles are also responsible for stabilizing your spine. However, these are the ones that you’re able to see as they become more defined. The shallow core muscles are:
- Rectus abdominis
- Internal and external obliques
- Erector spinae
- Quadratus lumborum
- Hip flexors
Sit-ups vs crunches
Sit-ups and crunches are similar movements but target different muscles and elicit different training effects. They both strengthen your abs, but the sit-up encourages a full range of motion as you lift your upper and lower back from the floor during full spinal flexion.
A crunch is a shorter range of motion during which you only lift your upper back and shoulders off of the floor. There is no movement at your hips during a crunch, so it targets fewer muscles.
During a sit-up, you’re using your lower body by bracing your feet and then flexing at the hip to recruit your hip and front thigh muscles. Along with your lower body, your whole core is also working from your lower back, spinal stabilizer muscles to your obliques and rectus abdominus, or abs. This effectively works your whole core as one unit.
In a crunch, however, you remove the assistance of the lower body and mostly isolate the upper abs while getting a little oblique action. Your hips, pelvis, lower abdomen and some of your core muscles aren’t nearly as active during a crunch. This is because it’s more of an isolation movement for your abs than a core exercise.
The main purpose of doing a crunch is to increase abdominal strength and endurance and to isolate the upper abs. While the main purpose of a sit-up is the increase spinal stability, core strength, and core endurance. Each has its place in a sound training program dependant on your goals.
How many sit-ups should I do?
If you’re just starting your fitness journey then it’s best to work on your form and technique before adding any resistance. You’ll want to gradually progress by adding more reps and sets to allow your body to adapt and get stronger after building a solid base.
Start with 2-3 sets of 12-15 repetitions using only bodyweight, and either keep your arms beside you or crossed over your chest. Rest for about 60-90 seconds in between sets. You’ll want about 2 days of rest in between to allow your body to recover.
As long as you’re hitting them twice a week you’ll make steady improvements and notice results within about 4-6 weeks.
If you’re just starting and haven’t been working out at all, you’ll benefit from starting at the lower range of the recommendations and work your way up gradually. So that means if you haven’t worked out consistently in the last 3 months then start with 2 sets of as many reps as you can do with proper form.
Try to add more reps as you improve. Once you can do about 15 bodyweight reps while maintaining good form, then add another set or make the movement more challenging by doing one of these:
- Slow down your reps
- Change your arm positions
- Add resistance
Should I do weighted sit-ups?
Weighted sit-ups are great for creating that thick, brick ab look where your abs are more visible. When doing weighted sit-ups you’ll want to decrease your reps a bit and focus on really feeling the muscle for better pumps and hypertrophy.
If you aren’t used to doing sit-ups then it’s best to begin with bodyweight and focus on proper form. Once you’ve got the form down and built up some endurance then you can gradually work your way up to adding resistance. You can add resistance by changing the decline of the bench and placing your head lower than your hips, and/or holding a weight in your hands.
Some other options for adding weight:
- Use exercise bands
- Wear a weighted vest
- Holding a weight (such as medicine ball) above your head with arms straight or on your chest with arms crossed
What are some sit-ups alternatives?
Sit-ups aren’t the only way to train your abs and core. There are tons of alternatives to choose from. Any time you use the front and back of your trunk to stabilize you, you’re training your core. Some other movements that incorporate this type of movement are:
These target your upper abs and are a great addition to build endurance. You’ll want to aim for higher reps when doing crunches to get the most out of the movement.
2. Bicycle crunches
These will target more of your obliques. It’s a contralateral movement where you bring opposite sides of your body together instead of just moving forward and backward. It’s always beneficial to train the different planes of motion.
3. Lying leg raises
A great exercise to target the lower abdomen, lying leg raises help you to strengthen your hip flexors and prepare for hanging leg raises.
4. Hanging leg raises
Hanging leg raises require a strict form. You have to engage your core to keep yourself from swinging. They’re great for targeting your lower abs and activating your entire core. Good technique is imperative.
A staple when it comes to stability training, there are so many variations of planks. The basic plank is a great place to start. Practicing the plank is a good way to fortify your mind-muscle connection to your core muscles.
6. Ab roller/wheel
This exercise requires an abundance of core strength and is for intermediate to advanced levels. The purpose of this movement is to resist spinal flexion while keeping your core tight and extending your body while maintaining stability and control.