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Sit-ups: How To Do, Risks, Benefits,…

There are many different ways to improve your current exercise routine. What about doing sit-ups, what will the effects be?

Sit-ups are an exercise where you start lying down on your back with your feet on the ground. After that, you curl up your upper body until your chest is at your knees. If you want you can hold some form of weight against your chest or in your hands.

Sit-ups are typically done to grow and strengthen core muscles like your abs and obliques. For other fitness goals, there are many better exercise options.

Before you give this core exercise a try, keep in mind that you generally can’t target fat loss in specific body parts. Sit-ups can be helpful for building abs and obliques but they are relatively bad for losing belly fat. If that is your goal you want to look for exercises that help you burn a lot of calories.

Whether you should add sit-ups or alternatives to your routine depends on things like your personal situation, personal preference, and training goals.

How to do a sit-up

For sit-ups you preferably want a yoga mat or other soft surface to lie on. To do a sit-up take the following steps:

  1. Lie down on your back with your legs folded and feet on the ground. You can hold your arms against your chest if you are relatively new to ab training, stretched above your head if you are more experienced.
  2. Curl up your body until your chest is close to your knees. Start with your shoulders and as you get closer to your knees more and more of your upper body gets off the ground. Make sure your abs and not the momentum of your arms power the movement.
  3. Slowly curl down your body again. Your lower back goes first and gradually more and more of your upper body touches the ground again.

Keep your movements slow and controlled to make your abs really work hard and to avoid bad technique. If you don’t curl your body as described and instead keep your spine straight you are mostly working your hip flexor muscles.

Sometimes you see people anchoring their feet below things like a sofa or partner. This also makes it easier to use your hip flexor muscles so generally not recommended if you want to train core muscles like abs and obliques.

Make sure you don’t jerk your head forward throughout the exercise. For this reason, putting your hands behind your head is generally not recommended.

How to do a sit-up

Sit-up variations

Sit-ups with just your body weight and your arms against your chest are the standard version of the exercise. There are also a few variations that can make the exercise easier or harder.

Some people are not ready yet for full sit-ups. To work up to the full version you can consider only raising your shoulders a small amount, similar to a small crunch. Another thing you can do is just pushing down your lower back with the help of your ab muscles.

Both of these will help you train similar muscles but at a less challenging level.

On the other hand, bodyweight sit-ups can become too easy. At this point, you may need to turn to other exercises or make sit-ups harder to keep seeing a lot of muscle growth and strength progress. Working up to 100 sit-ups a day is usually not the best idea.

Making sit-ups harder at the right points in your training journey can also speed up progress compared to doing the regular bodyweight variation over and over.

A simple no-equipment way to make sit-ups harder is to stretch out your arms above your head. The laws of physics make it so that the movement becomes harder that way.

Besides that, the main way to make this exercise harder is to do weighted sit-ups. This is basically doing the same exercise but with extra weights or resistance to make it harder. You can hold weights like dumbbells, kettlebells, weight plates, grocery bags, etc. in your hands or against your chest.

Muscles worked with sit-ups

Sit-ups are mainly a core muscle (abs and obliques) isolation exercise. Your hip flexor muscles may have to work to a certain extent at the end of raising your upper body.

Compared to another popular exercise, crunches, sit-ups are more of an overall core exercise instead of only focusing on the abs.

The way you build muscle in places like your core is by engaging these muscles so that they get damaged enough. This may sound counterintuitive but this damaging makes it so your body repairs these muscles, and adds a bit more to be better prepared to exert similar efforts in the future.

If you stick to exercises with the same weight, as your muscles become stronger this same effort may not damage your muscles enough to promote extra muscle growth.

By adding extra resistance to exercises like a sit-up you are better able to damage the muscles in a shorter amount of time. If you don’t overdo it, give your body enough nutrients, and give your muscles enough rest this can in turn lead to faster and more core muscle gain.

For both the bodyweight and weighted sit-ups, to build the most muscle mass you want to do about 4 sets of 10-40 sit-ups depending on how advanced you are.

Depending on your personal situation, workout plan, and training goals, sit-ups may be a good or bad addition.

Sit-ups benefits

Some people question how useful this exercise can be but adding sit-ups to your routine can offer you some helpful benefits. Some of the most important ones include:

  1. Stronger muscles: Sit-ups are a type of resistance training that can help you strengthen your core muscles.
  2. Can help with losing weight: Doing sit-ups likely requires more energy than your regular daily activities. Extra muscle mass also helps with burning more calories. Both of these aspects can help with, but are no guarantee for, weight loss. Keep in mind that there are better exercise choices if weight loss is your goal.
  3. Improves mood: Exercise like sit-ups promotes the release of substances that help you feel good.
  4. No equipment or location required: Since sit-ups are a bodyweight exercise you don’t have to invest in equipment or be in a specific location. That being said, a soft surface like a yoga mat can make the exercise more comfortable.
  5. Improves sleep: Exercise like sit-ups can improve the quality and duration of your sleep which in turn offers many important benefits.
  6. Slows down aging: Sit-ups won’t influence how many days have passed since you were born. However, exercise can slow down the progress of certain aging markers that are correlated with negative health effects.
  7. May reduce or prevent back pain: Core strengthening exercises like sit-ups can reduce or prevent back pain (1, 2). If you currently have back pain you do want to be careful and talk to an expert before implementing this exercise.

While inevitably many workouts are better for some of these benefits than sit-ups, it is amazing that you can get so many important benefits from adding one activity to your routine.

Potential risks

The main thing to keep in mind is that sit-ups can be hard on body parts like your back, hips, hip flexors, and neck even if you implement the right technique.

If you are weak or sensitive in these body parts you may need to do other strengthening exercises first. Especially if you have any back pain, you may want to talk to your primary care provider before starting a new workout routine.

If you feel pain in any body parts it may be a sign you are overdoing it. In that case, you may need some rest, better lifestyle habits, a less intense workout schedule, or it may be a sign that sit-ups are not (yet) for you.

Sit-up alternatives

While sit-ups can be a great addition to your workout routine, there are also some alternatives available for training your core muscles. Some of these sit-up alternatives include:

  • Crunches
  • Bicycle crunches
  • Ab wheel roll-outs
  • Leg raises on the captain’s chair
  • Compound core exercises
  • Flutter kicks
  • Plank exercises

Which one of these options is the best depends on things like your personal situation, training goals, the equipment you have available, etc.


Many people will benefit from adding sit-ups with the right technique to their routine. You may need to make the regular version more challenging soon with sit-up equipment to keep seeing a lot of muscle growth and strength progress.

That being said, for goals besides strengthening your abs and making them stand out more, there are many better exercise options.

You also need to remember is that sit-ups can be hard on body parts like your back, hips, hip flexors, and neck even if you implement the right technique.

If you are sensitive or weak in these body parts you may need to do other strengthening exercises first. Especially if you have any back pain, you may want to talk to your primary care provider before starting a new workout routine.

Also keep in mind that consistency is an important factor for any workout plan. The more you love the exercise you do the easier it becomes to do it consistently. If doing sit-ups is a workout you love, great. If not other exercises can also offer a lot of benefits.

If you do decide to implement more sit-ups make sure you give your body enough nutrients, rest, and sleep to repair and grow your muscles.


Matt Claes

Matt Claes founded Weight Loss Made Practical to help people get in shape and stay there after losing 37 pounds and learning the best of the best about weight loss, health, and longevity for over 4 years. Over these years he has become an expert in nutrition, exercise, and other physical health aspects.