We often hear that incorporating ab exercises into your workout routine is an important component of increasing core strength and stability.
However, deciding which core exercises to do to strengthen your abs can be difficult, as there seems to be an abundance of ab exercises as well as conflicting information.
Years ago, sit-ups were one of the most popular ab-strengthening exercises, but there have been studies to suggest that sit-ups are not particularly effective at strengthening the abs and may increase the risk of injuries.
So, what are the best sit-up alternatives? Is there a better alternative to sit-ups that is more effective at strengthening and sculpting your abs?
In this article, we will discuss why sit-ups are not the best exercise for your abs, what to do instead of sit-ups to strengthen and tone your core muscles, and how to make core exercises and sit-up alternatives more effective.
We will cover the following:
- Benefits of Sit-Ups
- Are Sit-Ups Bad for You?
- The Best Sit-Up Alternatives to Strengthen and Tone Your Abs and Core
- Tips For How to Strengthen Your Core
Let’s jump in!
Benefits of Sit-Ups
The traditional sit-up is performed lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
Unlike abdominal crunches, which involve only lifting your shoulder blades off of the ground, a full sit-up involves lifting your entire trunk off the floor into an upright sitting position.
Sit-ups have come under fire in recent years for being a poor exercise for strengthening the abs and for potentially increasing the risk of injuries to the hip flexors or low back.
But, before people sought an alternative to sit-ups, what made the sit-up so popular?
The sit-up exercise has been popular in both military assessments and physical fitness assessments for children and adults in various occupations since the 1940s.
The benefit of sit-ups is that it is a bodyweight exercise that requires very little technique and space and inherently does not require any exercise equipment.
Because the sit-up exercise has been around for so long, there are also quite a few established sit-up standards, which can be helpful in cases where you want to compare your fitness and core strength to age- and sex-matched peers or have a target to aim for.
A sit-up is designed to be a core exercise that strengthens the abdominal muscles, which are the anterior core muscles (those on the front side of your body), such as the rectus abdominis (“six-pack” muscles).
Are Sit-Ups Bad for You?
Although traditional full sit-ups aren’t necessarily bad for you, regular sit-ups are not necessarily the most effective ab exercise, and there is some evidence to suggest that they can increase the risk of hip flexor strains.
Ultimately, the sit-up exercise is not a particularly well-rounded core exercise. It really only works the anterior core muscles.
Furthermore, EMG studies of muscle activation have found that the sit-up activates the hip flexors as much, or even more so than the abs, reducing the effectiveness and efficiency of sit-ups for your abs.
For these reasons, 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, why aren’t sit-ups a good core exercise?
The function of the core is to help stabilize and protect your spine, making sure that it can resist movement under loads or when subjected to external forces to prevent injuries to your back and spinal cord.
The spine can actually move in four primary directions: forward flexion (like doing a crunch), backward extension (arching the back), lateral flexion (bending to one side), and rotation (twisting).
Therefore, in order to have a functionally strong and stable core, you need to train your core muscles to stabilize the spine in all of these directions of movement.
This means that your core workout routine must be well-rounded and include exercises that work all of the major muscles on the front, back, side, and deep core across a multitude of movement directions.
The Best Sit-Up Alternatives to Strengthen and Tone Your Abs and Core
Sit-ups do not necessarily have to be nixed entirely from your core workouts as long as you do not have any contraindications to spinal flexion and you know how to properly engage your abs rather than using momentum and your hip flexors to raise your trunk up.
However, your core workouts should also include many different types of ab exercises and alternatives to sit-ups to improve functional core strength.
Therefore, there isn’t necessarily a single best “alternative to sit-ups.“
Although we will discuss numerous alternatives to sit-ups that target the anterior core muscles much like classic sit-ups, we will also share some of the best sit-up alternatives that work multiple core muscles or strengthen the core to stabilize the spine in different movement directions other than just forward flexion.
The Best Alternatives to Sit-Ups to Strengthen Your Abs
Here are some of the best sit-up substitutions to strengthen your abs:
- Hollow body holds
- Boat pose
- Toe touches
- Hanging leg raises
- Stability ball crunches
- Cable machine crunches
- Cable machine stability ball crunches
- Medicine ball V-ups
- Medicine ball crunches or wall ball crunches
- Forearm planks
- Pallof presses
- High plank with forward raise
- Reverse crunches
- Cable machine resisted reverse crunches
- Dead bug
- Kettlebell dead bug pullovers
- Stability ball tucks
- Suspension strap tucks
The Best Alternatives to Sit-Ups to Strengthen Your Core Muscles
Below are some of the best sit-up alternatives that strengthen other key core muscles, such as the internal and external obliques (on the sides of your trunk), the erector spinae and multifidus in your back, and the transversus abdominis, a deep core muscle that encircles the entire trunk like a corset to stabilize the entire core.
Note that the obliques help prevent and assist with lateral flexion, the erector spinae and multifidus are involved in spinal extension, and the transversus abdominis and obliques help with spinal rotation.
- Bicycle crunches
- Medicine ball Russian twists
- Hanging leg oblique raises (bringing your knees in a tuck position or feet in a pile position up at an angle towards one armpit or shoulder and then the other)
- Side plank
- Copenhagen plank
- Side plank with dumbbell rotation
- Back extensions on a hyperextension machine
- Stability ball back hyperextensions
- Bird dog
- Scissor kicks
- Kettlebell or dumbbell side bends
- Single-arm farmer’s carry
- Stability ball around-the-worlds
- Oblique or side medicine ball tosses
- Medicine ball chops
- Leg lifts
- Oblique twists weight machine
- Anti-rotation resistance band or cable machine pulses
- Cable machine chops
- Barbell good mornings
- Single-arm kettlebell swings
Tips For How to Strengthen Your Core
When doing any core exercise, it is important to really think about the muscles you are supposed to be engaging and try to only move your body by contracting these muscles. Do not rely on gravity or momentum.
One of the primary reasons that people look for a substitute for sit-ups is because the sit-up technique naturally lends itself towards harnessing assistance with momentum.
This is achieved by hooking your feet under something and then using your hip flexors to thrust your body up rapidly, using momentum to help you move through the range of motion rather than contracting your abs.
Then, for the eccentric, or lowering portion of the exercise, rather than using your abdominal muscles, many people rely on gravity to simply plop the trunk back down to the starting position.
For these reasons, if you are going to do regular sit-ups, try not to hook your feet under anything, as this will encourage you to use your hip flexors and yank your body upward rather than engaging your abdominals.
The other thing to be mindful of is not pulling on your neck. If you place your hands behind your head, just allow your head to lay lightly on your fingers. Do not use your hands to yank pull on your neck to drag your head up.
Although sit-up alternatives tend to be more effective largely because they help minimize the ease by which you can “cheat” with gravity and momentum, another way you can make sit-ups or any core exercise more effective is to slow down as much as possible.
Rather than try to bang out as many reps as you can as quickly as you can, deliberately take as much time per rep as is feasible.
Focus on the mind-body connection with your abs or core muscles to ensure you are getting the most out of your core exercise.
If you still prefer the classic ab-strengthening sit-up exercise rather than doing sit-up alternatives in your core workouts, check out our guide to the 30-day sit-up challenge here.