The sit up is one of the most popular and iconic core exercises. It’s also not as easy as you’d expect from watching a Rocky-style montage – and if you can’t do them then there’s nothing we can tell you to make it easier.
Instead, we’re going to discuss what else you should be doing – how to get a stronger core without sit-ups, and how to build up to total comfort with training them. If you’re tired of being unable to do sit ups, but you want a stronger and more aesthetic trunk, read on…
The goals we’re going to discuss are simple, shared goals that we think everyone can relate to:
- A stronger core
- A healthier back/hips
- More muscle mass in the abs/trunk
- Improving control and strength for other movements
So we’re going to look at these 4 areas. If your personal needs with this kind of movement – but if you don’t find your own goals on this list, get in touch so we can address it!
Possible Issues (and How to Fix Them)
1. Your Core is Weak
If you simply have a weak core, it’s totally reasonable that sit-ups would challenge you. This is even more likely if you have experienced severe illness, injury, or other medical conditions. For most people, it’s also reasonable if there’s no history of training of an active lifestyle.
The sit up definitely isn’t the easiest type of core training so it’s probably not the best starting point for everyone. It’s about starting where you are and doing the thing that is most effective for your current fitness/experience.
If you’re struggling with the sit up because of a weak core, the key is to work on progressions. These are increasingly difficult movements starting with the ones you can perform properly right now to train the core.
After all, if you’re too weak to do sit-ups, the best choice is to step back and train until you can do them! There’s no point just trying sit-ups again and again if you’re not getting any better from trying them.
2. Your Hip Flexors are Weak
The hips are a factor in the sit up and if they’re weak, you’re going to see some difficulties with the sit-up.
This is a concern for the sit-ups themselves, but it also indicates a fundamental weakness you’re going to need to work on. Once you identify a weakness, it’s a great opportunity to improve your overall strength and control.
Hip flexors can get tight, weak, and injured if you don’t show them adequate TLC. If you’re struggling with them in your sit-ups then there’s a clear risk to over-stressing them or letting them remain tight and/or short.
Strengthening the hip flexors or adjusting the movement to remove these limitations are the two options.
The best option is to mobilize and strength the hip flexors. Movements like deep lunges, kneeling lunges, and the couch stretch all contribute to better hip flexor mobility and health. They’re also some of the most important quad/hip stretches for longevity.
On top of this, you should add hip flexor strengthening exercises. There are two we’d consider most important: the psoas march, and the kneeling hip flexion exercise.
These are two ways of strengthening the hip flexor by pulling the knee to the chest, rather than vice versa. This unloads the movement slightly and allows you to build hip flexor strength at your own pace/in line with your strengths.
In the meantime, you can and should replace the sit-up with other forms of core exercise that aren’t as hip-intensive. Crunches are a good analogue, planks and side planks are crucial for stability training, and leg raises (especially to a surface) may provide a more manageable training load.
This kind of issue is a risk factor for a number of hip dysfunctions: you can’t overlook it or pretend it’s not there. You need to address weakness with proper mobility and strength training if you want to fix it for the long-term.
3. Experiencing Pain During a Sit-Up
It’s possible that you can do sit ups, but you don’t want to because they’re more painful than helpful. If this is your case, it’s probably not going to be the best choice for your training plan.
You shouldn’t be performing exercises that actively hurt you. Soreness and discomfort and difficulty are normal, but actual pain is not. This is especially true if it occurs in the back or hips – which are common and risky injuries to deal with.
The obvious choice is don’t do sit ups if they cause you pain.
There are a ton of alternatives to sit ups, as we’ve explained above and we’ve even put together a whole article of alternatives.
One of the other ways you can adjust your sit ups is to remove the stress placed on the lower back. One way of achieving this is to perform a mild glute bridge at the bottom of the movement to relieve tension on the lower back and engage the stabilizers.
This can relieve some tension, but it won’t fix the problem. It’s a good way of adjusting sit-ups to meet our own goals and needs, but it won’t undo any damage in the region.
4. You Have Poor Muscular Control
Weakness and poor control are inherently linked, but they present in different ways and have their own unique risks/ training strategies.
Poor control in the hips is more a problem of mobility, tightness, and inactivity than of weakness specifically. As with the need for strength, the intention is to improve the health and longevity of the joint – especially since the hip is almost always loaded and has significant range in 3 dimensions.
The hip is like the shoulder in its extensive mobility, but unlike the shoulder, it is almost always loaded. Dysfunction in the hip risks serious long-term issues to mobility, function, and health in basic activities like walking.
Building control in the hips and core is absolutely crucial. These two pieces need to move well together and independently to keep the spine healthy. This relies on using both the core and hips in controlled ways, through full ranges of motion, in every direction.
The core need to be trained through planks and side planks, as well as through ‘curling up’ movements, as well as lateral and rotational exercise. For each of these, a slow and controlled movement could be enough: side bends, heel touches, wood chops, rotating lunges, etc.
The hips also require this level of control. Cat-cows, dead bugs, bird-dogs, and other exercises offer a chance to build better core-hip coordination. You should also try slow, controlled leg raises to a raised surface/ object and slowly lower the end point over time!
Building Core Strength Without Sit-Ups
Here’s a simple walkthrough for the key problems you could be feeling, and how to action the solutions. Think of these as quick-start guides on the things that ail you and your core/hips.
Again, while these troubleshooting techniques can build a more well-rounded core and hip strength, it’s totally possible your goals don’t require sit-ups. They might be a classic core exercise but they’re neither mandatory nor the best core exercise.
The sit up is only one exercise for one direction of the core and it doesn’t begin to cover the variety of movements your core is responsible for.
Your core routine needs to cover a few key bases – and most of them don’t do interact with the sit-up:
- Stability and isometric training
- Lateral training
- Rotational and anti-rotational training
- Curling up and extending under control
It’s more than just crunches and sit-ups, so take a patient and controlled view of your overall core workouts. You’re not limited if you can’t perform a sit-up: there are tons of alternatives and we’ve already outlined how to get your core ready for training sit-ups.
1. A Stronger, Muscular Core
Start with what you can do and slowly add volume: increasing the reps, sets, or frequency of your training. It’s a time-proven way of building strength reliably and consistently – even if that means taking several steps back from where you’re at.
For example, if you’re just weak (which is fine!), you need to progress.
You might start with 20 crunches for 3 sets every other day, as an example. You should then add 3-5 reps to each set until you can’t anymore. Then add an additional set, then you could reduce your overall sets and increase to training every day.
These are small, short-term changes you can implement to improve your results rapidly. They offer a way of progressing without adding tons of new challenge. This allows you to build up gradually – you’ll find these kinds of improvements add up and allow you to progress to increasingly difficult movements over time.
2. A Healthier Back and Stable Spine
This kind of goal requires more than sit-ups. We recommend following the ‘stronger core’ protocol, but also with additional work.
On top of progressing towards sit-ups, you should focus on other aspects of core and hip strength. Here’s a simple set of exercises that provide overall spinal stability and health:
- “>Active planks: focus on more sets and really tensing the core, rather than more time in the position
- Rotations with a pause: you need to learn to rotate, hold, and rotate back. Squeeze into position and move from the core muscles, actively.
- “>Side planks: a crucial piece of training for holding position side-to-side. You probably aren’t good at this if you’ve never done it, but it’s an important way of stabilising the spine and reducing odd-injury risks!
- “>Carries: one-sided and overhead carries also introduce significant challenge to the core muscles in a way that you’re probably not used to. They’re really worthwhile and offer a great chance to train stability in interesting ways, while also working other muscles.
If you work these into your program, you’re likely to reduce your overall spinal risks and increase the carryover to other forms of training.
3. Improving Other Key Movements
If you’re trying to train the core for other movements, such as sports or strength training, it’s important to address all the issues we’ve discussed already. They’re universally important and adding more complex movement on top of a weak core is a bad idea.
Strengthening for sports or strength requires general qualities (as above), but specific training.
Unilateral core exercise and limb-isolation training is one of the key parts of this process. They challenge the core in the kind of ways you’d experience in more complex movements, build integration with the hips/upper back, and prepare you for a wider variety of situations.
For example, single-leg contralateral RDLs are a great core exercise. Equally, rotational movements that involve moving the core and hips separately and together are important: med ball scoop tosses area great example that are both fun and accessible for beginners.
One more kind of exercise you might want to consider is dynamic training: receiving and producing force in sequence. Things like catches and throws offer a way of training these without requiring too much general core strength.
Our Final Thoughts
The overall problem of not being able to do sit-ups is a varied setup. It could be down to some serious problems or simply not being familiar with the movement or how to sequence the core/hips.
If you’re attempting to address this issue, it’s important to prioritize your weakest link. Going to your weaknesses is the best way to get yourself better and produce significant change. Sit-ups are good but they’re not necessary and you can get around them pretty easily with a little knowledge of what you’re trying to achieve and a few of the key alternatives.
They might be popular but they’re not superior – take the time to work through your weaknesses, but also to consider a different path to your goals. There’s no ‘one true core workout’: it’s about problem-solving and that can be as exciting, simple, complex, or innovative as you make it.
Skip the sit-ups or strengthen yourself through your sticking point. Those are the two real options, and either is going to help you with your existing issues and build more confidence/competence. That’s all it’s about!