How to Do Sit-Ups

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

A woman performing sit-ups in a fitness studio
Getty Images / Patrik Giardino.

Also Known As: Curl-up or roll-up 

Targets: Abdominal muscles

Equipment Needed: None, but a yoga mat or ab mat may help

Level: Intermediate

Ah, the sit-up. Some fitness pros swear by it and others scoff at it. This controversial ab exercise is typically one of the first moves that people try at the gym—how hard can sitting up be? 

Despite the apparent simplicity of the sit-up, this exercise actually requires much more technical skill than most people realize (or care to put into it). Doing sit-ups correctly can increase strength in your core and flexibility in your spine, as well as improve ab definition. Doing sit-ups incorrectly, however, won’t bring the benefits and can lead to injury.

If you want to incorporate sit-ups into your workout routine, good news: You can place sit-ups anywhere in your regimen. You can even do them every day if you practice good form and don’t overdo the rep count, although most fitness professionals recommend limiting ab workouts to two to four times per week. 

In this article, you’ll learn exactly how to do sit-ups with perfect form and how to incorporate them for the best results. 

Benefits

Sit-ups can benefit your fitness in big ways when done correctly. Below, learn about a few of the biggest benefits of sit-ups. 

Core Strength

The obvious and primary benefit of sit-ups is increased core strength. Sit-ups work all of your abdominal muscles, but mainly the rectus abdominis, which is the long, segmented muscle that makes up the sought-after “six-pack.” Sit-ups also work your transverse abdominis, as well as internal and external obliques, making them a well-rounded core exercise. 

Core Stability and Control 

In addition to building strength in your core, sit-ups can help you improve stability and control in your core. Core stability is important for everyday activities and for preventing pain as you get older. For example, when you have a stable core, you’ll be more prepared to catch yourself if you trip and start to fall. Plus, having core stability and control means you can fulfill your day-to-day obligations, such as putting away groceries and rearranging furniture, with ease. 

Spinal Flexibility 

Doing sit-ups correctly involves moving each vertebra in your spine. People with limited mobility may find sit-ups difficult at first, because they may not be able to flex and extend the spine in the manner required for sit-ups. With time and practice, however, sit-ups can improve spinal flexibility and mobility, which leads to all sorts of secondary benefits, including reduced back pain. 

Hip Flexor Strength

Your hip flexors include all of the muscles responsible for bending your hips and lifting your legs from the hips. These muscles allow you to perform the most basic of human movements—walking. Your hip flexors include the iliacus, iliopsoas, and rectus femoris. Sit-ups strengthen these muscles in addition to your abdominal muscles.  

Prevent Back Pain

Since sit-ups can help you build a strong core, they can help reduce or prevent back pain. Studies show that having a strong core is an essential component of keeping your back and spine healthy. A weak core can’t support your spine, and an unsupported spine can lead to poor posture and muscle aches over time. Some research suggests that core stabilization skills might be even more important than core strength, and sit-ups check that box, too. 

Ab Definition

Six-pack abs are seen as the hallmark of fitness (even though that’s not necessarily true). While your ability to develop a six-pack is largely influenced by genetics, you can certainly work your way there. Because sit-ups work the rectus abdominis so intensely, performing sit-ups often (and correctly) can increase the size of the “six-pack muscles” and improve definition. 

Step-By-Step Instructions

Before diving right into sit-ups, you may want to invest in a quality yoga mat or an ab-mat to add comfort and protect your tailbone. 

Doing sit-ups on hard surfaces, such as hardwood floors, tile, or gym mat floors can cause bruising on your tailbone and discomfort in your lumbar spine. Doing sit-ups on softer surfaces, such as plush carpet, may provide more comfort and prevent bruising, but can cause brush-burn on your lower back. 

Once you’ve got a comfy set-up, follow these steps to perform proper sit-ups. 

  1. Lie face-up on the floor. Bend your knees so your feet are flat on the floor. Plant your feet firmly, tucking them under a bench or some sort of other brace if you have to. If you have a partner, you can have them hold your feet down (it’s worth noting that the ideal way to perform sit-ups is without a foot brace—you may want to work on strengthening your core until you get to that point before attempting sit-ups, for optimal results). 
  2. Cross your arms over your chest. Your left hand should rest on your right shoulder and vice versa. Don’t put your hands behind your head, as this can cause you to pull on your neck. 
  3. Engage your core. To do so, take a deep breath and think of drawing your belly button to your spine. Your core should be fully engaged before you start your first rep. 
  4. Use your ab muscles to lift your back off of the ground. Your tailbone and hips should remain static and pressed into the floor until you’re fully upright. It may help to think about lifting one vertebra at a time, rather than lifting your entire back all at once. This is where the sit-up gets its other names, curl-up and roll-up—picture yourself curling up one back bone at a time, until you’re sitting all the way up. 
  5. With immense control, lower yourself back to the starting position. This time, picture yourself uncurling one vertebrae at a time, starting with your lower back. Do not thud into the floor. 
  6. Once you’re lying face-up again, re-engage your core to start another rep. Repeat until you finish your set. 

Common Mistakes

As you can see from the above instructions, sit-ups are a rather technical exercise. They require great body awareness and muscle control, which leaves a lot of room for error in beginner and intermediate exercises. Next time you do sit-ups, keep these common mistakes in mind. 

Craning the Neck 

It’s common for people to adopt a “forward head” posture while doing sit-ups. This mistake is characterized by craning the neck forward and rounding the shoulders. Craning your neck during sit-ups can cause aches and pains, and at worst, can lead to a muscle strain in your neck or upper back. 

Thudding on the Floor 

Beginners may inadvertently thud as they lower themselves during sit-ups. This occurs when you can’t control the lowering phase, either because your core is too weak or too fatigued. Your lumbar (lower) spine won’t make contact with the floor at all, so your upper back will take all of the impact. Thudding not only hurts because of the impact, but keeping your lumbar spine too curved throughout your sit-ups can cause achiness in your lower back

Using too Much Hip Flexor

When performing sit-ups, the primary movers are your abs and your hip flexors. People who have tight hip flexors to begin with may unintentionally use those hip muscles (instead of their abs) to pull their torso upright. The goal is to recruit more abdominal muscles and fewer hip flexor muscles in order to strengthen the core. 

Modifications and Variations

If regular sit-ups are too tough (or too easy) you can try any of these sit-up variations to suit your fitness level. 

Crunches

Many people see crunches as an easier version of sit-ups, but they’re really a totally different exercise. Crunches isolate your upper abdominal muscles, whereas sit-ups work all of your abdominal muscles. To do crunches, assume the same position as you would for sit-ups, but only curl your shoulders and upper back up from the floor. 

Bicycle Crunches 

This variation of crunches targets your obliques, the muscles on the sides of your torso. Start as if you were performing crunches, but as you curl up, point your left shoulder toward your right knee. On your next rep, point your right shoulder toward your left knee.

Tuck-Ups 

To do a tuck-up, lie face-up on the floor with your legs extended in front of you and your arms by your sides. Use your hip flexor muscles and ab muscles to simultaneously draw your knees into your chest and peel your torso off the ground. 

V-Ups

The V-up or v-sit is an advanced exercise that builds upon the tuck-up. For this ab exercise, begin as if you’re doing a tuck-up, but keep your legs straight the entire time. You should end up in a “V” position, balancing on your tailbone. 

Decline Sit-Up

To make sit-ups more challenging, perform them on a decline bench. The pull of gravity makes it tougher to curl your torso up. Use a decline bench with a brace so you can wrap your legs or hook your feet to stay stable. 

Overhead Sit-Ups 

Holding a weight over your head also makes sit-ups more challenging. Make sure to keep your elbows and shoulders fully extended throughout the movement. Choose a weight you can easily hold with both hands, such as a small kettlebell. 

Straight-Leg Sit-Up

As you build a stronger core, try straight-leg sit-ups—perform a sit-up as you normally would, but instead of bending your knees, stick your legs straight out in front of you. This sit-up variation requires you to reduce dependency on your hip flexors and recruit more of your abdominal muscle fibers, ultimately increasing core strength. 

Safety and Precautions

Whenever you try a new exercise, you should focus primarily on perfecting the technique. You can improve your sit-ups and avoid injury by keeping these precautions in mind. 

Start Slow 

If you’ve never done sit-ups before, take them slow. Emphasize the curling motion and focus on moving one vertebrae at a time. This will teach you how to properly perform sit-ups and keep your back safe. 

Don’t Overdo It

Trying a new movement can feel exciting. However, take care to avoid making yourself overly sore. If you want to do sit-ups several times per week, keep your reps and sets at moderate numbers to avoid overuse injuries, such as muscle strains. 

Use a Flat Surface

Avoid lying on uneven or slanted surfaces during sit-ups. When you become more advanced, you may wish to make sit-ups more challenging by using a decline bench—but perfect the standard sit-up on a flat surface before attempting advanced variations. 

Don’t Crane Your Neck

If you only take one precaution seriously, let it be this one. Keep your neck in a neutral position and in line with your spine during sit-ups to avoid injury.  

Try it Out 

Ready to add sit-ups to your ab workout routine? Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

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Article Sources
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  2. Akhtar MW, Karimi H, Gilani SA. Effectiveness of core stabilization exercises and routine exercise therapy in management of pain in chronic non-specific low back pain: A randomized controlled clinical trial. Pak J Med Sci. 2017;33(4):1002-1006.

Additional Reading
  • Hsu SL, Oda H, Shirahata S, Watanabe M, Sasaki M. Effects of core strength training on core stability. J Phys Ther Sci. 2018;30(8):1014-1018. doi:10.1589/jpts.30.1014

  • Hung KC, Chung HW, Yu CC, Lai HC, Sun FH. Effects of 8-week core training on core endurance and running economy. PLoS One. 2019;14(3):e0213158. Published 2019 Mar 8. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0213158

  • Huxel Bliven KC, Anderson BE. Core stability training for injury prevention. Sports Health. 2013;5(6):514-522. doi:10.1177/1941738113481200

  • Reed CA, Ford KR, Myer GD, Hewett TE. The effects of isolated and integrated 'core stability' training on athletic performance measures: a systematic review. Sports Med. 2012;42(8):697-706. doi:10.2165/11633450-000000000-00000

  • Sharrock C, Cropper J, Mostad J, Johnson M, Malone T. A pilot study of core stability and athletic performance: is there a relationship?. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2011;6(2):63-74.