‘I’m a Strength-Conditioning Coach, and This Is Why You Aren’t Getting Better at Sit-ups’

Photo: Stocksy/ Ivan Gener
In terms of fitness, it doesn't get any more basic than sit-ups. And they don’t get easier without practice and proper form.

“The reason they are difficult for most people, in my opinion, is because many people have weak abdominal muscles and when you don’t regularly exercise your abdominal muscles or you exercise them incorrectly, it will be uncomfortable to try to execute an ab workout like a sit-up,” says John Shackleton, MS, CSCS, strength and conditioning coach and men’s basketball coach at Villanova University.

The reasons you may not be getting better at sit-ups is because you are likely not doing them properly and are not doing them frequently enough.

Experts In This Article
  • John Shackleton, MS, CSCS, professional trainer and performance coach for the Villanova University men’s basketball program

When done correctly, sit-ups can be a very effective exercise for strengthening your core muscles. “Sit-ups primarily work the rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, and obliques and the action of lifting your upper body up from the floor naturally contracts these muscles and creates tension, which breaks down these muscles,” he says.

How to get better at sit-ups, according to a strength-conditioning coach

1. Position your feet correctly

Lock your feet in place. To do this, simply place your feet under dumbbells or any type of structure, like a weight rack. “This helps you keep your body stationary while doing the sit-ups, allowing you to really focus on exhausting your abs vs. trying to keep your lower body from lifting off the ground,” says Shackleton.. The grounding sensation will help you get better with each go. As you improve, remove the weights and practice perfect reps by keeping your feet planted firming in place.

2. Practice proper form

Form is everything—bad form makes it less effective with lack of progress and also can lead to injury. Cross your arms at your chest when doing a sit-up. “I recommend crossing your arms at your chest as opposed to hands behind the head to keep any unnecessary strain off of the neck,” says Shackleton.

You also want to monitor your spine. “A common error I see when people are performing sit-ups is coming up off the ground with a rounded spine,” he says. As you sit up, you want to sit tall from your hips, all the way up to your shoulders with an upright posture. “Doing this will protect your low back while keeping all the muscles around your core under tension."

3. Regulate your breathing

Breathwork matters. “I recommend breathing in for 3 seconds on your way down and then exhaling for 3 seconds on your way up,” says Shackleton. “By simply breathing out and forcing the air out of your lungs while sitting up you will create more contraction on your abdominal muscles."

By increasing the contraction of the abdominal muscles and its frequency, you are better able to protect the spine, while also maximizing muscle recruitment so that your worked muscles can grow back bigger and stronger.

4. Control each movement

Do each sit-up with a feeling of control over the movement and your body. “I recommend doing three sets of 10-15 sit-ups for beginners and when you notice that you are pausing at the top or bottom of a sit-up, or you’re swinging your body back and forth, then stop and take a break,” says Shackleton

From there, you can start a new set. But the key to getting better is to consistently push yourself to the limit, without compromising your form and increasing risk of injury, simultaneously.

5. Let your body recover

“If you practice proper recovery, your muscles will then build back stronger than they were before,”  says Shackleton. By doing sit-ups regularly and the right way, you can better strengthen your core, which leads to better balance, stability, athletic performance, improved posture and reduced risk of injury.

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