There are as many fish in the sea as there are people in a gym doing sit-ups. The reason for this is the image of finely carved six-pack abs popular culture. This has long driven our obsession with a flat, (even better, ripped!) abdomen. It even survived the short-lived threat from the 'dad bod' trend a couple of years ago. Sit-ups, along with planks, have now become the go-to moves for a chiseled and strong core.
However, if you are going to count exclusively on sit-ups to achieve your cosmetic abs goals you are most likely to end up being disappointed, say fitness experts (and people with picture-perfect abs).
What do sit-ups actually accomplish?
People who walk into a gym for the first time usually begin by doing sit-ups. According to Vinit Mathew Baptist, a functional range conditioning and mobility specialist, this is because one of the most common workout goals is to lose waist and tummy fat. “It’s obviously a misconception because spot reduction of fat doesn’t really happen. But there are obvious benefits of sit-ups. The movement helps strengthen abdominal muscles and improve core strength,” he says. Sit-ups specifically involve the flexion of the spine, essentially targeting your abdominal muscles. But for these muscles to appear well-defined, one has to lose the body fat behind which they are hiding. This fat loss can be achieved through a calorie deficit or energy deficit regimen. “You don’t even need to do sit-ups every day. Add sit-ups to your routine for two or three days a week and you would feel the difference in your core strength in a few weeks even if you don’t see any lines or cuts,” says Baptist.
This has been the precise experience for Pragya Chopra, an educationist from Kolkata. While performing sit-ups did not lead to any fat loss for her, performing them did help strengthen her core. A strong core, in turn, helped her get better results from other exercises. Now, she does high-repetition sets of a variety of sit-ups, thrice a week, after her usual HIIT sessions. “When I started out, sit-ups on their own didn’t show any results at all. So, I started with a combination of strength, HIIT and cardio and gradually added sit-ups to my routine. After a good six months of working out, I have finally lost some inches around the upper abdominal region and can also see a faint line appear through the middle,” she says. For Chopra, sit-ups have been a factor in her achieving a leaner physique.
A positive effect of sit-ups and its variations is that the move strengthens the diaphragm as well. An overlooked aspect of abdominal exercises is the compression of the abdomen, leading to a more active diaphragm, according to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Sports Science Medicine. Another study, involving more than 1,100 US Army personnel, found that soldiers who were following a core stabilisation programme missed fewer days of work due to lower back musculoskeletal injury, compared to those on the US Army’s normal exercise programme. The injury rate for both groups, however, was the same, the research published in the Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Journal found. In addition to working the core muscles, sit-ups also work the glutes, lower back, hip flexors and a bit of the chest and neck too, say fitness experts. The strengthened core also helps align your shoulders, hips and spine, and thereby improving posture.
Sit-ups vs Crunches
There is some debate as to the correct way to do sit-ups. On one side are trainers from the CrossFit and functional schools of fitness, while on the other side are trainers from multi-gym and body building schools. The latter group follows the US army definition of a sit-up (which the former group calls crunches). As defined by CrossFit and functional fitness trainers, the sit-up goes like this: you lie on the floor with your knees bent, ankles held down by some weight, and hands behind your head with the fingers interlocked. From this position, you come up to a sitting position by moving your chest towards the raised knees. You complete the move by going back down in a controlled manner while engaging the abdominal muscles. The full range of motion of this move requires you to bring your chest close to your knees. However, many people often perform a half crunch, where you lift your torso by 45-60 degrees, which works more on the upper abdomen.
In the ‘US Army’ school of thought, sit-ups are performed this way: lie down on your back with your legs bent at the knee and on the side, forming a diamond. At the starting position, your hands should be touching the floor behind your head. As you come up, you activate your core. Move your arms up while you come up and end the movement with you sitting upright and your hands touching your toes. Return to the starting position and repeat.
There are several variations of the sit-ups designed to tone different sections of the abs. Some of the more popular ones are bicycle sit-ups, flutter-kicks, opposite-elbow-to-knee, knees-to-elbow while hanging from a bar, toes-to-bar, leg raises, V-ups and lateral sit-ups.
Make sure to supplement your sit-ups with a calorie deficit regimen so that the fat layer melts enough to reveal the first signs of those elusive abs.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.