Sit-ups are excellent exercises to tone and shape the muscles in the midsection and by doing so, they help with some back problems as well. We should learn the proper techniques to do them in order to appreciate and benefit from their effects and also to avoid injuries.
A recurring question regarding sit-ups is whether or not they help eliminate those hated ‘rolls’ around the waistline. Unfortunately, and like any other exercise, sit-ups do not help with “spot reduction” of accumulation of fat tissues around the midsection or anywhere else in the body, for that matter.
It is a shame that many fitness personalities engage in the deceptive practice of offering seminars, videos, and other materials, propagating the illusion that we could actually reduce “trouble” spots with localized exercises. By doing so, they show their ignorance about basic physiological principles.
Sit-ups strengthen the abdominal muscles: the rectus abdominus muscles or “abs,” two midline muscles that extend from the ribcage down to the pelvis and the three layers of muscles on both sides of the abs, the “obliques.”
To be effective, sit-up exercises must pull the torso upward from a lying position toward the knees using only the abdominal muscle groups. Bending the knees during sit-ups helps neutralize the action of the hip flexors and makes the abdominal muscles work more.
The abdominal muscle groups tend to be involved only in the initial phase of the sit-up, after which the hip flexors take over. Doing sit-ups rapidly and with momentum, knees bent or not, does not work the abdominal muscle groups very much; raising the torso slowly only part way works the abs better.
These exercises could be hazardous to the lower back when using the straight-leg routine, which arches the back and may create over extension and strain. Twisting—right elbow to left knee and vice versa, at the top of the sit-up movement is ineffective, and it places significant rotational stress on the lower back, which could lead to injury.
Pain, even mild, is a natural warning symptom and must not be ignored; when it appears, we must stop the exercise and reassess our position and technique. “Working through the pain” is probably one of the stupidest pieces of advice we could hear, and doing so just worsens the injury to the muscles.
There are dozens of machines and other silly contraptions on the market that are offered to strengthen the abdominal muscle groups and trim the waistline just by using them a few minutes a day. They may help to some extent, but only to those who already workout regularly at a gym. Overall, they are useless. The best way to tone-up is to learn to exercise properly.
How to Do Sit-Ups Properly
Wearing light and comfortable clothing and lying on our back on a padded surface, we should bend our knees to about ninety degrees, with our feet flat on the floor. Remember that we want to workout the abs, and securing or anchoring our feet will bring leg and hip flexor muscles into the action.
The arms should be positioned according to our abdominal strength; the closer our hands are to your head, the more difficult the sit-ups become, increasing the possibility of injuries. Beginners should position their arms on the side, and as we get stronger, they should be placed across our chest. Placing the hands on the neck, behind the head, may cause serious injuries and it actually makes the abs work less.
Sit-ups should start slowly, focusing on the abdominal muscles. It helps if we visualize the abdominal muscles contracting and shortening, drawing our shoulders and head off the floor.
We should exhale while the abdominal muscles contract and pull us upward; this will bring the muscles inward, ensuring involvement of the deeper muscle layers. Inhaling at this point may lead to strain of the lower back muscles.
Once we have achieved the correct position, we should bring our torso halfway to the upright position by contracting our abdominal muscles to a distance of six to twelve inches off the floor. Holding this position briefly, we should then lower slowly to the floor. As the abdominal muscles begin to tire, we may not be able to rise to midway, but we should go as high as we can.
Upon returning to the starting point, we touch the floor lightly with our upper back and head, keeping the abdominal muscles tense, and then we repeat the first movement.
If sit-ups are too demanding, try doing only the curl-down phase, by starting from the sitting position by pushing upwards with our arms. Then, we slowly lower to the floor, keeping our abdominal muscles tensed. Return to the up position and repeat the movement.
We should not overdo it; one set of five properly executed sit-ups or curl-downs is enough at first. We slowly could add one or two sit-ups during each workout until we reach fifteen, then we could add more sets. When we are able to do three sets of fifteen, we could try changing hand positions and adding some resistance.
An important reminder: sit-ups will not remove any fat from the waistline; there is no such thing as spot reduction, because muscles do not use the fat that surrounds them as a source of energy.
During any exercise, our body mobilizes fat from areas throughout our body, so the energy used when doing sit-ups may come from fat tissues in the legs, back, face, or many other areas. To actually get rid of fat, we should consume less calories and burn a lot of them by exercising our muscles.
The abdominal muscle groups are relatively small, and the number of calories expended during sit-ups is minimal. Walking, jogging, lifting weights, etc. will burn more calories than hundreds of sit-ups. Please remember: before starting any exercise program, consult a qualified, licensed physician.
By Jeanine Davis, MD, PhD