Do Sit Ups Give You Abs? The Truth About Why They Often Don’t Work

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Almost everyone would jump at the chance to have chiseled abs. 

A defined six-pack makes you look fit, strong, and, let’s face it, pretty darn sexy, but getting that sculpted physique isn’t as easy as we’d like it to be.

You can spend what seems like hours per week doing sit-ups and crunches, yet it still seems like you have no real definition in your abs, or worse, a very round belly.

In light of your dedication to doing sit-ups, you might begin to wonder, “Do sit ups give you abs?” How many sit ups a day do I need to do for results? Will doing 100 sit ups a day be enough?

In this article, we will answer the question, “Do sit ups give you abs?” and additionally, we will discuss why sit-ups often don’t work and what exercises you can do to get abs.

We will cover: 

  • Do Sit Ups Give You Abs?
  • Why Aren’t Sit-Ups Giving Me Abs?
  • How Do You Get Six-Pack Abs?
  • What Body Fat Percentage Do You Need In Order to See Your Abs?
  • The Best Exercises to Get Six-Pack Abs

Let’s get started!

A person lifting their shirt showing six-pack abs.

Do Sit Ups Give You Abs?

Unless you’re working with a personal trainer, if you’re new to fitness, there’s a good chance that you get started by recalling some of the exercises you did in physical education class as a kid: cardio activities like running or jumping jacks, and strengthening exercises like push-ups, squats, and sit-ups.

Sit-ups were long considered to be the exercise to strengthen your abs, but studies using EMG to measure muscle activation have found that there are many other core exercises that are much more effective at involving the abs.

Sit-ups are not an effective ab exercise because it’s difficult to perform them properly without using momentum on the way up and gravity on the way down. If you’re using momentum and gravity, you’re not using your abs, and they’re not going to get stronger.

Additionally, most people use their hip flexors to pull themselves up in a sit-up rather than focusing the effort on the rectus abdominis in the abs. Again, if you’re not using your abs, they’re not going to get stronger.

Even the US Army, which used to require sit-ups as part of the Army Physical Fitness Test, abandoned this exercise in 2020 in the updated Army Combat Fitness Test.

So the short answer to ‘do sit ups give you abs” is no. Sit-ups do not give you abs because the sit-up is not an ineffective core exercise, and that’s only half of the problem.

A person doing a crunch.

Why Aren’t Sit-Ups Giving Me Abs?

Six-pack abs refer to having defined individual sections in the rectus abdominis muscle, which runs down the center of your abdomen.

This chiseled look is the envy of most who have yet to achieve the cut physique and the motivation that drives many people to lie down and bang out sets of sit-ups or crunches.

However, no matter how many sit-ups or other ab exercises you do, you’re not going to see any definition in your abs unless your body fat percentage is low enough.

Core-focused exercises performed properly and consistently can build the size and strength of your rectus abdominis muscle (and each of those sections or “packs” in the six-pack). Still, if the layer of subcutaneous fat that lies on top of the muscles and underneath your skin is too thick, the striations and definition of muscle will be concealed.

Once you lose enough fat, with proper training with effective core exercises, you should begin to get the abs you’re striving for.

It’s important to note that the rectus abdominis is only one of the important muscles in the core.

In order to have an effective core from a functional standpoint, you also need to do ab exercises that strengthen your internal and external obliques, which are the muscles on the sides of your abs, and transversus abdominis, which is a deep core muscle.

Additionally, even if you have a lot of body fat and never get to a body fat percentage where you can see defined abs, doing effective ab exercises so that you have strong abs underneath your body fat will still give you all the functional benefits of a strong core.

Six-pack abs are awesome, but it’s not all about the looks.

A person showing their six-pack abs.

How Do You Get Six-Pack Abs?

As mentioned, the absolute must for getting abs is having a low body fat percentage.

For most people, if you’re doing all the right core exercises and working out consistently but still can’t see your abs, you have weight to lose.

Although exercise can be a means to lose weight, there’s an undeniable truth to the popular saying, “Abs are made in the kitchen.” 

Your daily diet will largely impact your fat loss results.

In order to lose body fat, you need to be consistently generating a modest caloric deficit, which means you need to consume fewer calories than you are burning on a regular basis.

You will lose one pound of fat for every 3,500-calorie deficit you create.

A person doing a plank.

In terms of the exercise component to weight loss, a balanced workout program consisting of cardio 4-6 days a week as well as total-body strength training 2-3 days a week will be a much more effective route to achieve defined six-pack abs than just doing a ton of sit-ups.

You can’t spot reduce fat, meaning that performing lots of exercises that isolate a specific muscle or target a certain region of the body won’t lose fat in that region any faster or more drastically than elsewhere in the body.

Body fat is lost fairly evenly around the body, not at a specific site, and doing sit-ups doesn’t “burn belly fat” just because you’re flexing your stomach.

Sit-ups are exercise, so they do burn calories, but because you’re only using a few muscle groups, the energy required to perform a sit-up is very small.

In other words, sit-ups aren’t very vigorous and involve only small muscles and movements, so they don’t burn many calories.

Total-body exercises like burpees, squats, running, jumping jacks, and walking upstairs burn a lot more calories than sit-ups because they use larger muscles and increase your heart rate much more.

Therefore, in terms of relying on exercise to help you lose weight so you can see your abs focus on general total-body exercises so that you actually burn an appreciable number of calories per workout, not just targeted ab exercises.

A person doing a sit up on a ball.

What Body Fat Percentage Do You Need In Order to See Your Abs?

So, we’ve referenced needing to have a low enough body fat percentage to see abs, but what is “low” enough? At what body fat percentage do you start to see abs?

The body fat percentage needed to see six-pack abs or good definition in your abdominal muscles is about 6-13% for men and 14-20% for women.

There is a fair amount of variability based on your specific build and genetics. 

Definition in your upper abs might be possible at higher body fat percentages, but usually, the lower abs will still have a soft appearance from overlying body fat.

The Best Exercises to Get Six-Pack Abs

Once your body fat percentage is approaching the level you need to see definition in your abs, you can start focusing more on the specific ab exercises you’re doing.

Sit-ups really aren’t a good ab exercise to be doing. Not only are they marginally effective at best, but they also can increase the risk of injury.

A person doing a bicycle sit up.

It’s easy to strain your hips flexors or muscles in your neck or back. 

Crunches aren’t much better than sit-ups because even though compared to sit-ups, crunches do a better job of targeting the abdominal muscles rather than the hip flexors, crunches put stress on the spine because of the extreme spinal flexion the movement requires.

Now that you know doing 100 sit ups a day or endless crunches aren’t the best choice for your workout routine; let’s look here are some of the best ab exercises to do instead:

  • Front and side planks, along with plank variations like up-down planks and planks with forward reaches
  • Pallof press and other anti-rotation exercises
  • Bird dog
  • V-ups and V-sits
  • Reverse crunches or dead bugs
  • Russian twist
  • Medicine ball chops 
  • Single-arm farmer’s carries 
  • Tucks or jackknives on a stability ball 
  • Total-body exercises like kettlebell swings, mountain climbers, Spider-Man push-ups, and burpees 
A person doing a bird-dog exercise.

With any of these exercises, the goal should be to perform the movement slowly and with precision, ensuring that you are actually using your abdominal muscles and not gravity, momentum, or some other muscle group to carry the load.

To reduce the risk of injury and optimize the effectiveness of the exercise, always focus on using proper form rather than moving with speed or performing a high number of reps.

With a healthy, calorie-controlled diet, a consistent and well-balanced exercise program, and the right core exercises, you should start to get abs you can see. 

Just don’t waste your time on sit-ups.

For a long list of fun plank variations to keep your core exercises exciting, take a look at our 20 plank variations guide.

People doing kettlebell swings.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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