Core strength is easily the most important factor in power generation and functional movement. No matter what you do, whether it’s throwing a punch or taking a punch, standing still or moving around, you will need tremendous amounts of core strength to do it.
Your core can allow you to move (twist/footwork), or prevent you from moving (balance). Your core is responsible for holding your body steady and combining the strength of other muscles in your body. Your core muscles can rotate your body for rotational power and has more to do with your punching power than any other muscle.
And since you’re going to be doing thousands if not millions of sit-ups throughout your fighting career, you might as well learn how to do a sit-up correctly.
*** Watch my video to see how I do sit-ups. ***
How to do a Proper Sit-up
1. Sit down on a comfortable surface
You can be on any surface as long as it’s flat. If the surface is particularly hard, put a little cushion, or yoga mat, or anything to keep your back bones from smashing onto the floor. It helps if your padded surface is also non-slippery so you don’t slide all over the place as you do sit-ups.
Get a friend to hold your feet or stick your feet under the couch or anything else you can find. Personally, I like having a friend because you two can motivate each other. The guy holding feet also gets a free chest workout when the other guy is doing really fast sit-ups.
Last tip: make sure you’re body is aligned straight. It’s really common to curl more towards one side and end up doing really crooked sit-ups when you get tired. Do your sit-ups straight!
Sit straight on a comfortable surface. Feet together.
2. Feet & knees together
You can set your feet together or shoulder-width apart. Some people like having the feet shoulder-width apart because the space between their legs makes it easier for them to come up. I personally recommend you keep your legs together so that your sit-ups are more even with less likelihood of preference to muscles on one side.
Feet together. Knees together.
3. Leg position
Your leg position during sit-ups affects the muscles used during the exercise. There are generally two positions (everything else is a variation). The first position: your feet are flat on the ground and the knees bent around 90 degrees or less. The second position: your heels are on the ground with the toes up allowing the knees to straighten past 90 degrees.
Having your feet flat on the ground will use more of your hip flexor muscles, whereas having your toes up will use more of your core and ab muscles. Most people switch around between the 2 positions not to target different muscles but to make sit-ups easier for them.
Having the feet flat on the ground will usually make the sit-up more difficult because you have less space at the top which means you have to “crunch” harder to get up all the way. As you start to get tired after so many sit-ups, your legs may cramp, or you need more room at the top. And so in the final moments, some people will lift their toes to allow their legs to lengthen out. This gives room for the abs to stretch out and really get more of an ab workout. You’ll also have more room at the top since your knees are lower.
IMPORTANT: have your friend hold you at the ankles and not at the toes. If you’re hooking your feet under an object, hook at the ankles. This isn’t just for sit-up technique but so that you don’t injure your ankles by using that small joint as a lever for your whole body.
Feet flat for a steadier and challenging sit-up position. Toes up for more focus on the core.
4. Hand placement
Your hands should have as little impact on your sit-ups as possible. You can put your hands anywhere you want, behind the head, by the ends, across your chest, or by your hips. Anywhere you want, but do not use your arms to swing yourself up. And don’t use your arms pull on your head or crank your neck.
I personally like to place my hands across my chest, on my shoulders (right hand on right shoulder) and also lightly touch my fingers to my ears. I switch between the 3 sometimes to help focus on my form and remind myself to keep good form. Arms on the chest is easiest but sometimes you feel like your arms are in the way when you’re trying to come up. Arms on the ears remind me not to throw my head to come up.
Hands anywhere you want, but don’t use them to pull on your head/neck or swing yourself.
5. Proper “UP” position
The universally-regarded proper “UP” position is to sit up until your neck is directly above your tailbone. Which means to come up until your neck is above your hips. I don’t say head because some people pull their head forward so the head gets up a lot easier than the neck does.
Come UP until your head neck is above your hips.
6. Proper “DOWN” position
You only have to go down until the center of your back touches the ground. It’s not necessary to go down until your head and shoulders hit the ground. At high speeds, it’s definitely not a good idea to slam your head on the ground. Some people go all the way down so that they can throw their head and arms to help swing themselves up-don’t do this.
Lay flat on the ground and curl your head and shoulders off the floor (without stressing your neck), and remember this position. You don’t have to go any lower than this. Knowing this position allows you to do sit-ups faster and without cheating because there’s no room for you to swing yourself.
Come DOWN until the center of your back touches the floor.
1. Sit-Up Rhythm
Same as I explained for push-ups, there are 2 different rhythms for doing sit-ups depending your level of fitness. The typical beginner rhythm is to go DOWN SLOW and then UP FAST. Beginners will go down slowly and then explode upwards to get up using the least effort.
The advanced sit-up rhythm (much harder to do) is to go DOWN FAST and UP FAST. Going down fast is especially hard because you’re abdominal muscles work so much harder to reverse directions and pull you back up. It’s like you’re accelerating towards the ground and then have to use muscle to decelerate and then accelerate again in the opposite direction.
As your core becomes stronger and you get used to doing fast sit-ups, you will realize that going down is much harder than going up. You’ll definitely feel the weight of your upper torso and get a much better workout this way. This rhythm is also better for breaking sit-up records.
Beginner sit-up rhythm = down SLOW, up FAST. Advanced sit-up rhythm = down FAST, up FAST.
2. Breathing Technique for Sit Ups
The 2 different rhythms of doing sit-ups also calls for 2 different rhythms of breathing technique.
The beginner style of breathing is to inhale while going down and exhale when coming up. Many athletes will find it easiest to synchronize the UPWARDS movement of the sit-up with exhaling because the exhale gives power to the movement and also empties out your stomach making it easier to curl up. The beginner style of breathing is useful if you can’t do many sit-ups in a row and need a pause between each one.
The advanced style of breathing is to INHALE as you come up, and to EXHALE as you come down. The sit-up is a challenging exercise when done fast and there are many different levels of “advanced”. Some people are slow enough that there’s still room for an inhale and exhale on each sit-up. If this is you, you’ll have to time your exhale so your breath can help you change directions at the bottom (the hardest part of the sit-up).
Some guys people are fast enough that they can come all the way down and all the way up within a single exhale. These people only need one inhale every couple of reps so they don’t need to find a rhythm for the inhale.
You’ll find the hardest part about breathing during sit-ups is figuring out when to inhale. The biggest problem with inhaling is that it feels up your stomach and so you feel like you can’t inhale while coming up. But then again if you’re busy inhaling coming down, you’ll feel like your exhale is too late to help you change directions. Some of you will try smaller inhales. Some of you will skip inhaling on certain reps. Others will switch back and forth between the beginner and advanced breathing rhythms.
Beginner sit-up breathing = EXHALE GOING UP. Advanced sit-up breathing = EXHALE GOING DOWN. Inhale whenever you need it.
3. Maintain the Curled Up Position
A common pattern you’ll see with many people is the tendency to change their upper body position during the sit-ups. Most people will be more stretched out at the bottom and more curled up at the top. This usually means they’re using the momentum (even if only slightly) of their heads and arms to swing themselves up. Obviously, this takes away from the exercise and also slows you down a bit.
The right way is to keep yourself curled up and to maintain this position as you go up and down. This is why it’s not necessary to touch your head and shoulders to the floor everytime you go down. Maintaining this solid position prevents you from swinging yourself and also makes it easier to go faster because your upper body stays in one position. Your core will be constantly engaged and doesn’t allow you to relax and open up at the bottom.
Last note: don’t crank on your head and neck. Curl up from your abs, not your neck. You can put your chin on your chest if you want but don’t strain your neck.
Remain curled up throughout the entire sit-up.
4. Resting Technique
I have one rule about resting: REST AT THE TOP. Do a sit-up all the way to the top and take as long as you want up there. You can make space at the top by opening your knees or also by scooting your butt back so you don’t have to crunch as much to get up. You quickly realize doing continuous sit-ups is sometimes easier than resting in one place.
The worst thing you can do is rest at the bottom. Most people will basically just lay down and let go of everything and take a few breaths. Then they’ll try to exhale real quick and explode a few final reps.
The way I see it, the moment you let go of the curl and release your core, you basically finished your set and started a new one. It’s the same as coming down to your knees in the middle of push-ups, or putting the barbell down before lifting it again. If you need to rest, do it at the top of the sit-up, and keep your core engaged!
Rest at the top.
5. Squeezing Technique
I’ve got numerous tactics for squeezing out extra sit-ups when you feel like you can’t. The first one is to make space at the top. You can do this by opening your knees so you have space in the middle so your upper body can come up easier. You can also make space by straightening your legs more so you have more room to fold up with your upper body. This last tip will probably require you to lift your toes off the ground.
Just remember that if your toes are off the ground, it will use more ab muscles. On the other hand if you have your feet flat on the ground, you can use more of your leg muscles to help pull you up instead of focusing so much on the abs. It’s actually the hip flexors, but try to imagine that your quads are pulling you up.
You can also combine all these tips together. Have your knees pointing up and then use your legs to help you come up and then at the top you open your legs so you have space at the center. And you can rest in this hole between your legs if you need.
Another great is to pull forward instead of swinging up. Many people will focus on going UP that they end up straining their bodies or rocking their hips to try and swing themselves over. (By the way, keep your hips on the ground the entire time!) One tip I like to use for doing really smooth sit-ups is to imagine myself pulling forward instead of trying to swing up. The focus is on pushing my back forward rather than swinging my head over. This feels less stressful on my lower back.
Also, keep your hips on the ground the entire time! (Some people will lift their hips to help get a rocking motion.)
Open your knees and/or straighten your legs more. Use your legs to help you come up.
Don’t focus on counting sit-ups. Your core is one of the strongest muscles in your body. You will get tired of counting long before your core will ever get tired. That’s assuming, of course, that you have a strong core. If your core is in shape, you should be able to do 2 sit-up workouts every day, one at night and one in the morning. The core doesn’t need days to rest like you would with your chest from a benchpress workout.
The best way to do sit-up exercises (as well as many other exercises) is to do them in intervals. Exercising with a focus on intervals will increase your level of conditioning much faster than focusing on a count (e.g. doing “X” number of sit-ups).
“I don’t count my sit-ups, I only starting counting when it starts hurting, when I feel pain, that’s when I start counting, cause that’s when it really counts.” – Muhammad Ali
- Do as many sit-ups as you can in 60 seconds.
- Rest 60 seconds.
- Do as many sit-ups as you can in 45 seconds.
- Rest 60 seconds.
- Do as many sit-ups as you can in 30 seconds.
Here’s my favorite interval that I did regularly in the Army. You’ll feel slow and helpless at first but with constant practice comes speed.
- Do as many sit-ups as you can in 60 seconds.
- Rest 60 seconds.
- Repeat for at least 3 sets.
This is a good alternative to the one above if you’re not strong enough to get many sit-ups within the 45-second or 30-second intervals.
2 MINUTES x 3 SETS (for beginners)
- Do 3 sets of 2 minutes each.
- Use 1-minute rest in between.
You don’t have to go at max speed but don’t be lazy either. This is a great starting point for beginners who don’t have the core strength to do sit-ups in fast intervals.
Things you can do with sit-ups
Variations of sit-ups
Twisting to one side? Crunches? Try them. Do a little of everything. I focus on the basic sit-up because it’s commonly done incorrectly or ineffectively. Don’t bother trying to do anything fancy until you can do a couple hundred of the basic sit-up with proper form. My reasoning is this, if you can’t do the basic sit-up with proper form, you probably can’t do any of the other fancy variations with proper form either and you won’t benefit much from them either.
Sit-ups are REALLY EASY (thanks to strong core muscles)
Keep doing sit-ups everyday and you should reach a point where you feel like you can go on forever. Like past the 30-minute mark. Many people underestimate their core muscles. Some people can do push-ups easier than sit-ups, whereas others have it the other way around (especially females). It’s common for females to be able to do as many sit-ups as the males in the military.
Your core muscles are so strong that you can work them out every few hours if you wanted and they gain strength quickly. Within a month of working out everyday, you can double or quadruple your maximum number of sit-ups and it only goes up from there.
Sit-ups are among the worst exercises for getting a six pack
Getting a six pack has more to do with burning fat than it does with developing strong abdominal muscles. Changing your diet will be the most important step for getting a six pack. Don’t waste your time with painful exercises that don’t do anything. I’ll have to make a guide on this someday because I keep getting asked about it so much.
Read my boxing workout guide on how to do push-ups:
- Proper Push Up Technique