Some time not too long ago, the fitness community seemed to band together for a collective condemnation of one of our most fundamental exercises: the sit-up. Harvard Medical School said you should skip the exercise entirely. The US Army phased them out of fitness exams. Even the folks at the International Sports Sciences Association recommended swapping sit-ups out for a combination of planks and crunches. Per the folks at Livestrong, sit-ups can supposedly cause you to throw out your back, herniate a disc, or even sprain your neck. But we’re here to tell you that sit-ups completely essential to any workout routine. All you need to do is ensure your form is spit-shined perfect.
“Sit-ups are definitely good,” says Katie Barrett, lead instructor at B/SPOKE Cycling Studio in Boston and a certified personal trainer. “Its primary function is to work your rectus abdominis, which are those six-pack muscles that most people want. But doing that full sit-up is also going to work your hip flexors and other stabilizing core muscles.” Here, Barrett walks us through the process of transforming your sit-up into an utterly harmless—and completely ab-shredding—exercise. And for more great ab workouts, check out the Ab Exercises That Will Get You A Six-Pack In Six Weeks.
Set up the mat.
There are roughly 42,614 specialty ab mats on the market. You can get plush mats, padded mats, curved mats, tailbone protecting mats—you name it! A typical exercise mat will do just fine. And yes, you should always use one: The cushioning will prevent your tailbone from the unwanted pain and discomfort that could come as a result from doing sit-ups on a hard surface.
Watch your six.
When you lay on the mat, make sure you’re lined up so that your head entirely falls within the confines of the mat. This way, you won’t get any unhappy surprises by inadvertently hitting the back of your skull off the harder, non-cushioned floor. (While you’re at it, learn the number one reason you don’t have abs—and fix it.)
Bring your heels in.
“Then, you want to bring your heels in toward your butt,” says Barrett. Your legs should create a 90-degree angle. Really dig your feet into the floor, to stabilize yourself.
Consider calling in some backup.
If you find yourself struggling to crank out sit-ups with solidly-placed feet, it might help to find something—or someone—to assist in holding your feet in a place. A bar. Two dumbbells (one for each foot). A fellow gym attendee—if your hygiene is on-point, of course. Whatever you need.
Get your arms in the right spot.
“The biggest mistake—and a lot of people make it here—is putting your hands behind your head,” says Barrett. “By putting your hands behind your head and using them to pull yourself into the sit-up, you can strain your neck.” Instead, she suggests either crossing your arms across your chest or even letting them dangle at your side, parallel to the floor.
Now that you’re in the proper position, you’re ready to do some some sit-ups. So: Sit up. “You want to be basically perpendicular to the floor,” says Barrett. Your chest should be at about knee-level. (If you followed step 3 and your legs are at the proper 90-degree angle, that is.)
Watch your breathing.
Any good fitness buff worth their salt will tell you: Breathing technique is just as important as proper form. For sit-ups, says Barrett, the key is to “inhale as you go down and exhale at the top.” Each rep should be a breath.
Once you reach the peak of the sit-up, begin your descent. “A way you can challenge your abs even more is by going down slowly,” says Barrett. “That way, you have the concentric contraction of the muscles.” (A concentric contraction is, more or less, what you may know as “flexing.” As the muscle contracts, it shortens, and that leads directly to increased muscle conditioning—and growth.) Go all the way down until your back is flat on the ground.
Sit up again. And go back down again—slowly. For a video primer on how to do this perfectly, check out this guy: He’s got it down pat.
Keep at it until you want to cry.
When it comes to sit-ups, you should be doing reps to muscle exhaustion—in other words, keep going until you literally can’t do any more. Start out by doing 2 to 3 sets of this and, over time, build yourself up to be able to complete 4 to 6 sets.
Up the difficulty a notch.
“Once you master [sit-ups] on the floor, do it on a decline bench,” suggests Barrett. “You’re gonna have gravity as an additional force.”
Up the difficulty two notches.
To make sit-ups even more difficult than they are on a decline bench, move back to the floor, and grab a weight. You could use a medicine ball, a barbell plate, a single dumbbell, or a kettlebell. Depending on your fitness level, you’ll be able to do different weight levels. Start out with 5 or 10 pounds to see how that feels before progressing any higher.
Up the difficulty three notches.
Once you’ve gotten weighted sit-ups down pat, kick things up and do weighted sit-ups on a decline bench. That’ll really get your core burning.
You’ve mastered the sit-up. Now, try out The Single Greatest Flat-Abs Exercise You’re Not Doing.
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