Sit-ups are one of the classic bodyweight exercises that we all learned to do in physical education class as children, and from runners and cyclists to boxers and soccer players, athletes of all types and everyday gym goers have traditionally included sit-ups as a mainstay exercise in their workout programs.
Sit-ups are a calisthenic exercise that strengthens the abdominal muscles and hip flexors.
Having good core strength is essential for not only improving your athletic performance but also for being able to safely and competently perform activities of daily living, such as carrying groceries, walking, climbing stairs, and getting up and down from the floor or a chair.
However, although there are benefits of sit-ups, sit-ups can also be a bit of a polarizing exercise in that what we once thought was probably the best core strengthening exercise has now been replaced with other exercises that seem to strengthen the abs and core in a more functional, efficient, and safe way.
With that said, in this article, we will discuss the benefits of sit-ups, how to do sit-ups properly, and how to correct sit-up technique errors to ensure the exercise is both safer and more effective.
We will cover:
- What Is a Sit-Up?
- How to Do a Sit-Up
- How to Correct Common Form Mistakes With Sit-Ups
- 4 Benefits of Sit-Ups
Let’s dive in!
What Is a Sit-Up?
A sit-up is a bodyweight exercise that primarily strengthens your abdominal muscles.
This calisthenic exercise mostly targets the rectus abdominis, which is the “six-pack“ ab muscle that runs down the center of your trunk, but it also strengthens the internal and external obliques, which are on the sides of your abs, and the transversus abdominis, a deep core muscle that in circles your entire trunk, to some degree.
Additionally, sit-ups work your hip flexor muscles, namely the iliopsoas muscle group, which are the muscles in the front of your hips that help lift your leg up or bring your legs towards your trunk.The sit-up exercise is performed lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
Unlike crunches, which only involve raising your shoulder blades off of the ground, a full sit-up involves lifting your entire trunk off the floor into an upright sitting position.
How to Do a Sit-Up
Using proper form and technique is crucial for ensuring that sit-ups are not only effective at strengthening your abs but also safe for your back, neck, and hip flexors.
Although many people like to perform a high number of repetitions of sit-ups and bang them out rapidly, it’s very important that you focus on executing the proper form and technique rather than going for speed or an extreme number of repetitions.
Here is how to properly perform a sit-up:
- Lie on your back with your knees bent, and your feet flat on the floor, shoulder-width apart, with your toes pointed straight ahead.
- Cross your arms over your chest.
- Inhale, engaging your abs to lift your shoulder blades and torso all the way up off the ground until your torso is fully upright, perpendicular to the floor. Lift slowly using your muscles, not propelling your body up with momentum.
- Slowly lower your torso back to the starting position, not allowing gravity to take over and push you down.
How to Correct Common Form Mistakes With Sit-Ups
There are a couple of common sit-up technique mistakes to be mindful of when you are performing the exercise.
Remember, in order to actually reap the benefits of sit-ups and minimize the risk of injury, you have to perform the exercise properly.
Do Not Pull On Your Neck
It is usually best to perform sit-ups with your arms crossed over your chest rather than behind your head.
Although some people like to place their hands behind their heads or alongside their ears, the risk in doing this is that you will rely too heavily on your hands to support your head and neck, which can cause you to pull up on your neck.
This can increase the risk of straining the muscles in your neck or injuring your spine.
If you are going to place your hands behind your head, just allow your head to rest lightly on your fingers. Do not use your hands to yank or pull on your neck to bring your head up.
Press Your Feet Down
The single biggest sit-up technique flaw is relying on momentum rather than your muscles to lift you up.
The primary way that this happens is if you hook your feet under something or have someone hold them down.
What this does is enable you to use your hip flexors to yank your body upward rather than engaging your abdominals, which is why there is some evidence to suggest that sit-ups can increase the risk of hip flexor strains.
Instead, use your quads and glutes to press your feet firmly into the ground without hooking your feet under anything. This will make the exercise more challenging, but it will decrease the risk of hip flexors strain.
If you are going to have someone or something hold your feet down when you do sit-ups, consciously make sure that you are lifting your body from your abs rather than your hip flexors and move with control rather than momentum.
Again, it’s worth restating that to experience the benefits of sit-ups and decrease your chance of injury, you need to use your abs—not momentum—to lift your torso up.
Lower Your Body Slowly
Don’t let gravity do all of the work on the way down. Much of the muscle-strengthening benefits of sit-ups come from the eccentric portion of the exercise, which is when your abs are controlling your movement back to the starting position.
The slower you lower your torso back to the floor, the higher the muscle activation, the greater the eccentric contraction force, and the more effective the exercise.
4 Benefits Of Sit-Ups
Although most fitness experts agree that sit-ups are not the most effective core strengthening exercise, there are benefits of sit-ups, including the following:
#1: Sit-Ups Strengthen Your Abs
Sit-ups are primarily an exercise for the abs, so sit-ups work the rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques, and transversus abdominis muscles, though the focus is mainly on the rectus abdominis, which is the central, “six-pack” abdominal muscle.
The abdominal muscles are part of the core, the collective group of muscles in the trunk that spans from the diaphragm up top to the pelvic floor muscles on the bottom.
The core muscles include the abdominal muscles mentioned, as well as muscles of the back such as the erector spinae and multifidus muscle group.
Some people also consider the glutes and hip muscles as part of the core.
Additionally, a strong core is important in injury prevention and for performing activities of daily living like lifting children, carrying groceries, climbing stairs, and putting things up on a high shelf.
For example, studies suggest that the benefits of a strong core include improving balance and stability, improving posture, decreasing the risk of low back pain, improving lower limb function, and reducing the risk of sports or work-related injuries.
#2: Sit-Ups Strengthen Your Hip Flexors
Although sit-ups predominantly target the abs, the exercise also works the hip flexors.
The hip flexors are a group of muscles along the front of the hip and pelvis on either side of your groin that helps flex the leg or bring the leg up towards the trunk.
The primary muscles in the hip flexor group are the psoas major and the iliacus (together called the iliopsoas), but the rectus femoris (one of the quad muscles), sartorius, and pectineus also are involved in hip flexion.
The hip flexors play an important role in forward movement during running and walking because they flex the hip so that you can lift your leg and advance it forward for the next stride when transitioning from the stance phase of the gait cycle to the swing phase.
#3: Sit-Ups Do Not Require Exercise Equipment
As a bodyweight exercise, sit-ups do not require any type of exercise equipment, which makes it easy to perform sit-ups in at-home workouts, outdoor park workouts, or when you are traveling and don’t have access to a gym.
#4: Sit-Ups Are Easy to Learn
One of the benefits of sit-ups is it is a beginner-friendly exercise. Sit-ups are relatively easy to learn how to do and more approachable than advanced core exercises like V-ups and Russian twists.
This can make the sit-up a good exercise for beginners to do to build a little initial core strength and improve the mind-body connection with the abdominal muscles before taking on more challenging and effective core exercises.
If you have mastered the sit-up, and would like to look at some more challenging core exercises, try out our plank variations!