Sit-up guide
January 29, 2013 1:37 PM   Subscribe

I can't do a single sit-up. Can someone point me in right direction?

Without someone holding my legs or wedging the feet under the sofa, I just can't. Don't think it's as simple as a weak core, because I can do 40 reps if my legs are held.

The problem is when trying sit ups unassisted, I can't seem to get past about 20 degrees with my feet just flying up. Tried tensing every muscle going; abs, glutes, quads, doesn't make a difference.

Don't really have a problem without other core workouts: unassisted reverse crunches (30), planks (4 mins), kneeing ab wheel (12) - all ok. It's not like I'm in bad shape either, I train 5 times a week, mixture of different forms of cardio and resistance training. For reference: 24/M/5'7"/144lb.

Am I missing something here? Cheers Mefi
posted by dragontail to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Personal trainer to check your form?
posted by zizzle at 1:39 PM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Try working on your core with this exercise.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:44 PM on January 29, 2013

Two hundred sit-ups, if you must.

I thought sit ups were still bad for your back, no?
posted by caddis at 1:47 PM on January 29, 2013

I'm not an exercise expert. But I am a bit of a physics enthusiast. So, my perspective, FWIW:

When you're doing situps, your body is basically acting as a bent lever with your hips as the fulcrum. If contracting your stomach muscles means your legs go up instead of your torso, that means there's more downward force being applied on the torso side of the lever.

So how do you shift the balance more toward your legs? There are two ways to change the amount of force on one side of a lever or the other: (1) add or remove weight or (2) move the weight closer or further from the fulcrum.

By bracing your feet under the couch, you are adding weight to your legs (the weight of the couch) and achieving the balance you want. Is bracing your feet under the couch a problem? Again, I'm not an exercise expert but it seems to me that this wouldn't invalidate the effects of the exercise.

Alternatively, you could try to move your torso weight toward your hips. One way you might do this is by placing your hands and arms as close to your hips and legs as possible. Have you tried reaching for your toes while doing sit ups? This will shift your torso weight more toward the fulcrum and move the balance of your weight more toward your legs. Again, I don't know if this is proper form or not, but from a physics perspective it makes sense. People doing situps in exercise videos may cross their arms across their chests, therefore somewhat adding to the challenge, but perhaps your body weight distribution is such that this doesn't work for you right now.

Finally, if you are overweight, losing weight will gradually make this easier, as fat tends to be lost more from the torso than from the legs.
posted by Vorteks at 1:58 PM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Am I missing something here?

Yeah, you've got to be doing it wrong. I have a terrible weak core, not unsubstantial problems with my back and neck, and am generally pretty unfit right now. I go to a pilates class run by a physiotherapist (so it's designed for people like me) and I do lots of situps in her class. I don't get that high off the ground but more than 20 degrees and my feet aren't going anywhere. I'm not really tensing up any specific muscle group, just using the appropriate ab muscles for traction and keeping the other parts stable and as relaxed as possible. But being able to do that takes good form. You need to find out what it is you're doing wrong to get that form, and that's going to be so much easier for someone watching what it is you're actually doing.

I think the suggestion of working with a trainer for just one session is a good one. A one-on-one pilates session would actually be excellent for this, and they can look at your other stuff too (because a four minute long plank sounds kind of suspicious to me too). Core exercises and good form seem to be two of the most important parts of pilates. These kinds of exercises can screw up your body if you do them wrong so I think professional advice is justified.
posted by shelleycat at 2:01 PM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Again, I don't know if this is proper form or not

It's really not and doing the kinds of things you're suggesting could result in an injury, particularly if the rest of the muscle groups aren't being used appropriately (which I think is highly likely given the problems the OP is having).
posted by shelleycat at 2:03 PM on January 29, 2013

Core exercises: Deadlift, squat, hanging leg lift, front lever, v-sits, planks...

Sit-ups are way down the list of effective core exercises, and aren't very good for you at all. They aren't effective at training abdominal muscles, and they train them to flex. Core muscles didn't evolve to flex, they evolved to hold an isometric contraction, and communicate the energy from the legs to the upper body.

Training core muscles to flex puts you at risk for a back injury because the intervertebral discs are being compressed in an asymmetric manner during the loading phase of the exercise. Sit-ups aren't really that different than lifting weights by flexing and extending your back, something that will result in a disc herniation sooner or later, and something that just about everyone knows not to do.

Don't do sit-ups, they are an inefficient and risky use of your exercise time, despite the fact that everyone does them.
posted by 517 at 2:08 PM on January 29, 2013 [10 favorites]

We do situps as a way to switch on the appropriate muscles as part of the warm up, then sometimes as a way to move into more complicated exercises (we do all kinds of other core stuff too). It seems to work quite well for that. But even that limited application isn't going to work if you're doing them wrong because you're not switching on the right things.
posted by shelleycat at 2:11 PM on January 29, 2013

I'm like you in situp ability, and I've been doing Pilates for several months. I can only do a roll-up through the top of my vertebrae but not through the middle. I've been working with my trainer and it's little by little, but we're working in the direction of being able to do a full roll-up. Form is important, you don't want to throw too much stress into your back, so working with a trainer is the best way to go. In my case I think it has to do with a lack of spinal flexibility (as well as being overweight). But in other ways, my core is super strong. The trainer will be able to spot what's going on with your body and give you advice on what exercises are best for your goal.
posted by matildaben at 3:12 PM on January 29, 2013

Are you doing straight leg or bent leg?

For many people there's a "sticky" spot in the sit up or roll up. You're going upwards with your torso and the body gets stuck. To get going again it's easier to get some momentum working (lifting your legs works or moving your arms, shifting your hips). You get past that sticky spot and bam, the rest of the sit up is easy.

The only way around it is to gradually build up your strength to move past the sticking spot. Lift your torso slowly. When you hit the sticky spot just hang there for a second or two. Don't try to go higher because you'll need to break form and use momentum. Just test and build your strength right there. Then go back and start your next rep.

Over a few weeks, that sticky spot will move up from 20° to 25° to 30°. Then it'll just be gone entirely.
posted by 26.2 at 3:20 PM on January 29, 2013

Try jamming your feet against a wall. It gives you many of the advantages of hooking them under the couch, and you can slowly inch your way out until you're juuust barely touching the wall, and then you won't be.
posted by Etrigan at 4:17 PM on January 29, 2013

Crunches done slowly and with good form are a good way to work your core without doing full sit ups. You might find them easier.
posted by ElliotH at 5:42 PM on January 29, 2013

What 517 said. I recommend kettlebells.
posted by notned at 6:28 PM on January 29, 2013

My guess is that you're using your hip flexors rather than your abs. Strong hip flexors would explain why you can do lots once your legs are secured, and flexing from the hip instead of the lumbar spine also explains why you end up lifting your legs otherwise.

Here are a couple of papers that use electromyography to look for effective ab exercises. The second one tests an exercise called the Janda sit-up that uses reciprocal inhibition to keep the hip flexors relaxed. Note that you can perform the Janda sit-up without buying the gadget in the linked article by asking a partner to pull against your calves.

By the way, I agree with previous posters that there are better exercises for developing functional strength in the core. If that's your goal, you should look up some gymnastics conditioning routines. They all use isometric exercises (called "static holds" in that field) and a few dynamic movements, none of which are a sit-up.
posted by d. z. wang at 8:12 PM on January 29, 2013

Try using a balance ball. I was having the same trouble with even trying to do crunches. Bought a balance ball for $12 at a discount store and have been doing sit ups using that and it's made a world of difference.
posted by backwords at 5:37 AM on January 30, 2013

Start out using an elastic band around your feet. I had the same problem and somehow it magically got me using the right muscles. I mean, after like 2 situps with the band I could suddenly do it unassisted.
posted by exceptinsects at 3:26 PM on January 30, 2013

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