From military physical fitness assessments in the 1940s to your sixth-grade gym class, sit-ups have been a mainstay part of workout culture for quite some time. (1) They’re a timeless classic, and for good reason. They require no equipment and can be done anywhere. But while convenient, sit-ups are generally not the most functional of core exercises.
You might think of a six-pack of shredded abs when you think of your abs. Your core, however, wraps around your body and is composed of many muscles. The sit-up works your anterior core muscles but not the posterior core muscles in the back of your body. The purpose of the core is to stabilize and protect the spine, helping it to resist movement under load to prevent injury. (2)
The spine moves in four major ways: extension (arching your back), flexion (rounding forward), lateral flexion (side bending), and rotation (twisting). (3) No one is suggesting you toss sit-ups to the curb, but you should also opt for a variety of sit-up alternatives to train your complete core.
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Best Sit-Up Alternatives
- Hollow Body Hold
- Dead Bug
- Scissor Kick
- Side Plank
- Bird Dog
- Farmer’s Carry
- Pallof Press
- Hanging Leg Raise
- Front Squat
The hollow body hold practically activates your entire body — anterior and posterior core muscles included. The position teaches you to keep your abs engaged, ribs down, and pelvis posteriorly tilted. It is an anti-extension movement, performed lying on your back so you have the feedback of the ground to tell you if your spine is extending.
Practicing the hollow body hold will help you keep steady during squats, deadlifts, and presses. Body weight movements — from push-ups and pull-ups to handstands and muscle-ups — also require a rigid trunk position to protect your shoulders and other joints from straining.
Benefits of the Hollow Body Hold
- The starting position is accessible to many beginners, while extending your arms and legs all the way out to hover right above the floor is more challenging. You can progress further with hollow rocks.
- This isometric core exercise provides feedback from the floor to your lumbar spine. If there’s a space between your lower back and the floor, you are in spinal extension, which you’re trying to resist. The floor helps you learn how it feels to posteriorly tuck your pelvis and hold it.
- The hollow body hold may help counteract back pain caused by sitting all day. It can also help you re-acquaint yourself with your spine and core if you’re returning to the gym after time away.
How to Do the Hollow Body Hold
Lie on the ground. Reach your arms up to the ceiling and bring your legs to a tabletop position. Tilt your pelvis by tucking your glutes slightly upward. Engage your abs, squeeze your glutes, and draw your ribs down towards your hips. Hold the position here if you are a beginner.
To progress, straighten your legs. Slowly lower your arms and legs to the floor until they are hovering right above it. Extending your spine and flaring your ribs? Raise your arms and legs again until you find the spot where you can hold the tension. Start with holding 15 to 20 seconds, progressing to a full minute over time.
The dead bug challenges you to move your arms and legs while not moving your spine but keeping your core engaged. It builds core stability, is accessible for many beginners, and you can progress it with variations. This move will work your anterior and posterior core, and is both an anti-extension and anti-flexion exercise for your entire spine.
The contralateral pattern — moving your opposite arm and leg together — makes your brain work a little bit harder. Lying on the floor while reaching one arm back behind you and kicking the opposite leg forward will give you double feedback about your form.
Benefits of the Dead Bug
- Dead bugs help you build core stability.
- You’ll learn about your shoulder mobility: if your mid-back comes off the floor when you reach your arm back, you are thoracically extending to compensate for a lack of shoulder flexion. Practice the dead bug to work your range of motion while getting a killer ab workout.
- This move can enhance neuroplasticity in your brain. It helps build a mind-body connection and has been shown to help elderly folks with their memory and cognitive functions. (4)
How to Do the Dead Bug
Lie on your back with your feet flat on the ground. Tilt your pelvis posteriorly, tuck your chin, and draw your ribs down. Reach your arms up to the ceiling. Bring your legs up to a tabletop position. Extend your right arm back and straighten your left leg forward. Maintain your neutral spine as your limbs reach away. Exhale and bring them back to their starting position.
Repeat on the other side. Perform with straight legs for more of a challenge. Check to make sure your low back stays on the ground when you move your leg forward. Keep your ribs down and mid-back on the floor as you reach your arm overhead.
Like sit-ups, scissor kicks are done on your back and will also work your lower abs (rectus abdominis). But they’ll engage the rest of your core, too, as well as your legs and glutes. Scissor kicks will give you a serious burn and get your heart rate up while working on anti-extension as you keep your spine neutral.
These show up a lot in HIIT (high-intensity interval training) classes, but you can toss them into your own sessions, too. Keep your lower back on the floor to stop your lumbar spine from extending. To modify these, slide your hands underneath your glutes with your palms facing down.
Benefits of the Scissor Kick
- The “scissor” movement of your legs is initiated by your abs but will also engage your abductors, adductors, quads, hip flexors, and glutes.
- Scissor kicks can be included into a bodyweight cardio routine while working your core at the same time.
- Bodybuilders can do scissor kicks to effectively target their abs without negatively impacting their X-frame.
How to Do the Scissor Kick
Lie on your back with your arms by your sides. Tuck your chin and pelvis, draw your ribs down, and push your navel towards your spine. Lift both legs up to forty-five degrees. Squeeze your glutes and cross your right foot over your left. Then cross your left foot over your right, keeping your legs straight. Inhale and exhale with control. Lower your legs to increase difficulty. Perform for 30 seconds for two to three sets.
The plank is arguably one of the most effective core exercises you can do. You use your anterior and posterior core muscles to resist extension and flexion of your spine while supporting your body weight. This activates your deepest core muscle, the transverse abdominis.
As you irradiate tension through just about every muscle, you will also be resisting rotation and any movements through your body as you hold this powerful, isometric position. If you want to do a perfect push-up, you have to master the perfect plank first.
Benefits of the Plank
- The plank works your entire core while strengthening your upper body, using multiple muscle groups across your body.
- Planks help to boost your postural integrity.
- If your joints are hypermobile, this can be a game-changing strength exercise for learning how to engage and push the floor away without sinking into your joints.
How to Do the Plank
Set up in a quadruped position with your shoulders stacked over your wrists and hips over your knees. Tuck your toes and your chin. Bring your shoulders back and away from your ears, pushing the floor away without overly rounding your upper back.
Pull your navel towards your spine and brace your abs, including your obliques. Squeeze your glutes. Hold all of this tension as you slide one heel back, and then the other. Maintain the position and breathe. Start with holding 15 to 20 seconds, progressing up to one minute over time.
Lateral flexion occurs when your spine bends from side to side. Spines need to move, but if this occurs under load, it might cause injury. Learn to resist lateral flexion while supporting one side of your body at a time with the side plank.
Side planks work your internal and external obliques as you challenge them to stabilize your spine and stop sinking towards the floor on either side. They also require unilateral shoulder stability. You can drop your bottom knee for more support or lift the top or bottom leg up for more of a challenge.
Benefits of the Side Plank
- While side planks will work your entire core, they’re also a unilateral exercise. As such, they’ll fight imbalances between sides.
- Side planks will light up your adductors, abductors, and quadratus lumborum — muscles that are often neglected even though they stabilize your hips and lower body.
- If you enjoy yoga or pilates, side planks will often come up and may be moved through quickly in a flow.
How to Do the Side Plank
Lie on the floor on the side of your body. Place your bottom forearm on the ground with your elbow underneath your shoulder. Stack your top foot on top of your bottom foot. Put your top hand on your hip. Tuck your chin and retract your head. Brace your core.
Inhale as you push your forearm and bottom leg into the floor. Exhale to lift your hips as you squeeze your glutes, keep your abs engaged, and your spine neutral. Reach your top arm up to the ceiling. Keep your top shoulder stacked over your bottom shoulder. Hold for 15 to 20 seconds to start. Eventually progress to one minute per side.
The bird dog is an anti-rotation, anti-extension core exercise that will challenge your stability, balance, and unilateral strength. Bird dogs are performed from a quadruped position and mimic the crawling pattern, which helps build rotary stability — the ability to stop your trunk from moving during upper and lower body extremity movement. (5)
By supporting your weight on your hands and knees, you will work your posterior core muscles, including your erector spinae and glutes. Yyour anterior core will work at the same time. As you reach your arm and leg away from your trunk, engage all of your core muscles to resist extending your spine or rotating your hips and shoulders.
Benefits of the Bird Dog
- Bird dogs require you to move through your range of motion in your hips and shoulders with control. They can help improve your mobility while you work your abs.
- The bird dog translates well to a climbing pattern. It’s beneficial for climbing athletes to train a stable core while load bearing and reaching with contralateral limbs.
- Bird dogs are great to build better neuromuscular control and overall balance. Balance exercises, especially for elderly athletes, have been shown to be beneficial to help avoid falls and injuries. (6)
How to Do the Bird Dog
Begin in a quadruped position. Retract your head slightly, draw your abs in, and squeeze your glutes. Maintain this tension. Reach your right arm forward and your left leg back, extending through your hip. Keep your right arm and left leg at the same height. Without moving your trunk, return your hand and foot to starting position. Repeat on the other side.
While walking may not immediately come to mind as a core exercise, it is one of the human body’s major fundamental movement patterns. Want to combine walking while bearing load and resisting spinal extension, flexion, rotation and lateral flexion at the same time? Try out the farmer’s carry.
Walk for a specific distance or time while carrying weights of any kind in each hand. Beginners can start light, and experienced lifters can carry their entire body weight (or more). Simple, but effective.
Benefits of the Farmer’s Carry
- This is a full body exercise that will strengthen all of your muscles, with particular emphasis on your grip strength.
- The farmer’s carry can contribute to a more upright posture and steady walking pattern.
- Farmer’s carries challenge your core to resist all major movements through your spine while you move everything else, support your weight, and carry a heavy load.
How to Do the Farmer’s Carry
Set your weights on the floor. Hinge down to grab them and stand up. Walk in a straight line while maintaining a neutral spine. Keep your head retracted, shoulders depressed, ribs down, and pull your navel towards your spine. Continue to engage your abs and squeeze your glutes as you walk for 30 seconds to one minute to start. Adjust your time and distance as you progress.
The Pallof press is an anti-rotation exercise that works your core, hips, and upper body. You can do it while half-kneeling, tall kneeling, or standing as you press a band or cable out in front of you and resist twisting to the side.
Your anterior and posterior core muscles will engage to resist spinal movement. Facing one way or the other will target one side of your body at a time. With added load, you have a great core exercise that carries over to your main lifts.
Benefits of the Pallof Press
- The Pallof press is a full body exercise — by choosing this for a core workout, you’re maximizing your training time.
- Build hip stability as you resist twisting your hips in the direction of the band.
- Strength athletes can increase the weight on the press, working their shoulders, chest, back, biceps, and triceps, as well.
How to Do the Pallof Press
Set a cable at chest height or attach a resistance band to a stable object. Grab the handle or band and take a few lateral steps away from the machine or pole until you feel it pulling. Plant your feet, tuck your hips, and squeeze your glutes. Depress your shoulders and retract your head.
Breathe in to brace your core as you press the band out in front of you. Resist twisting towards the band. Retract your shoulders slightly as you pull the band in towards your chest. Exhale to press away again. Continue to resist rotation. Repeat on both sides.
The hanging leg raise is an advanced anti-extension exercise where you use your anterior core muscles and hip flexors to raise and lower your legs with control while hanging from a bar. Hanging requires major upper body strength, but your anterior and posterior core muscles will also be working hard even before you lift your legs.
Think of hanging from the bar as a hollow body hold in the air. You want to keep your spine in that hollow position with ribs down, abs engaged, and hips slightly tucked. Resist spinal extension with your hanging hollow body, plus, as you try not to swing around or use momentum, you’ll be resisting all other movements as well.
Benefits of Hanging Leg Raise
- Hanging leg raises will work your grip strength in a big way.
- Improve your shoulder mobility while doing this advanced ab exercise.
- The hanging leg raise is beneficial for athletes training for calisthenic movements like the muscle-up or toes-to-bar.
How to Do Hanging Leg Raise
Grab the bar with an overhand grip. Pull yourself up slightly to depress your shoulder blades down and away from your ears. Keep your ribs down, pull your abs in, and slightly tuck your hips. Inhale. Then exhale to raise your legs or knees. Inhale again to lower them back down and repeat. Maintain the hollow body position and resist extending your lumbar spine.
Sure, the front squat isn’t technically a core exercise. But you can load up this lift to serve as a solid alternative to sit-ups because of how intensely front-racking a barbell (or dumbbells) will work your core.
This move directly translates your developing core strength into a compound movement that places the weight in front of your body. In doing so, you’ll have to use every bit of core strength you have to keep your torso upright and the bar path stable. You’ll be squatting down instead of sitting up, but your core will get toasted either way.
Benefits of the Front Squat
- Intentionally engaging your core with a front squat is an extremely functional way to work your core.
- The erector spinae, posterior core muscles not often targeted, will work hard to protect your low back.
- Adding some front or goblet squats to your ab routine at the end of your workout will certainly get you feeling the core burn.
How to Do the Front Squat
Unrack a loaded barbell in the front-rack position. Walk out of the squat rack and brace your abs with proper breathing. Resist letting the load round your spine forward into flexion, or back into extension. With your elbows high and your torso upright, sink into your squat. Resist rotation and lateral flexion by not twisting or bending to either side. Maintain core stiffness and a neutral spine during the descent and ascent.
Muscles Worked by Sit-Up Alternatives
Sit-up alternatives help you work your entire core, anterior and posterior, for a more holistic approach than isolated sit-ups. The alternatives are performed in many different positions: supine, prone, on your side, kneeling, standing, walking, squatting, hinging, and hanging. In addition to hitting all of your core muscles, the alternatives work the other major muscle groups in your body.
Anterior Core Muscles
- Rectus Abdominis
- Transverse Abdominis
- Internal Obliques
- External Obliques
When you think of visible abs, you’re thinking about the rectus abdominis, which is part of the anterior core. The anterior core also includes the deepest muscle, the transverse abdominis (TVA), as well as internal and external obliques.
Posterior Core Muscles
Sit-ups primarily work your anterior core muscles, but can neglect your posterior core muscles. Without engaging these, it’s difficult to protect and control your spine. The posterior core muscles include the multifidus, latissimus dorsi, erector spinae, and quadratus lumborum.
Upper Body Muscles
You will work your upper body muscles as well in some of the sit-up alternatives like the plank, side plank, and hanging leg raise.
Lower Body Muscles
The farmer’s carry and Pallof press work the muscles in your lower body in addition to your core. Even in other exercises, the hip flexors, glutes, quads, and hamstrings can also be considered “core muscles” because they’re so essential to maintaining a rigid torso.
How to Integrate Sit-Up Alternatives Into Your Program
Add Sit-Up Alternatives to Your Warm-Ups
Every lifting session should start with a good warm-up. Try a full body, isometric sit-up alternative like a hollow body hold or a plank to wake up your core and spend some time in proper spinal alignment. You can also use them as an additional warm-up right before a lift or during active rest time.
Incorporate Sit-Up Alternatives into Your Sets
If you are doing a full body day, add sit-up alternatives into your supersets, trisets, or circuits. For example, try a circuit with one lower body exercise, one upper body exercise, and one core move.
Add Sit-Up Alternatives to Your Finishers
If you’re doing a finisher at the end of your workout for conditioning, consider adding some of the higher intensive sit-up alternatives into your set. Scissor kicks, heavy farmer’s carries, and hanging leg raises will definitely burn you out.
Benefits of Sit-Up Alternatives
Sit-ups can be helpful for training the front of your core, but when you want to spice up your ab training — and target your entire core — bring alternatives out to play. Consider trying sit-up alternatives to get more benefits from your time spent training your core.
Potential Injury Prevention
Although sit-ups can build core strength, studies suggest that they may increase the chance of a lumbar spine injury while bending and flexing the spine. (7) With alternatives, you can strengthen your core while resisting flexion and other movements. Core stabilization exercises have been found to be effective at preventing lower extremity injuries. (8)
Train Your Entire Core
Sit-ups only target the rectus abdominis, the superficial anterior core muscle. Sit-up alternatives will get into your deeper muscles like the transverse abdominis, which has been shown to be beneficial for postpartum people. (9) They also work the sides of your body with your internal and external obliques, as well as posterior core muscles.
Sit-ups are an isolation exercise, whereas the alternatives teach you to engage your core while engaging your whole body. Both static and dynamic core exercises have been shown to improve balance, stability, and hip mobility in office workers. (10)
Improve Your Athletic Performance
Overall core strength is important to athletes playing sports, to improve their balance and posture during landing or contact movements. (11) Studies have found that core strength has an effect on an athlete’s ability to create and transfer force from the trunk to their limbs. (12)
In Olympic lifting, you perform explosive movements and need to maintain full core stability while moving weight quickly. Core stability training can help novice weightlifters improve dynamic balance and trunk muscular endurance. (13) You get this kind of training by resisting movement — for example, through the plank or hollow body holds.
Sit Up or Stay Still?
The sit-up gets a lot of hate, and there are certainly some potential drawbacks — not engaging your entire core, for one. But there are so many benefits to incorporating alternative exercises. You’ll target all of your core muscles — in some cases, your whole body. You don’t need to give up sit-ups if that’s your jam, but your program might well benefit from adding in some sit-up alternatives to reap more benefits of a totally strong and stable core.
- Knapik JJ, East WB. History of United States Army physical fitness and physical readiness training. US Army Med Dep J. 2014 Apr-Jun:5-19.
- Parkinson RJ, Callaghan JP. The role of dynamic flexion in spine injury is altered by increasing dynamic load magnitude. Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 2009 Feb;24(2):148-54.
- Thevenon A, Delcambre B. Les mouvements du rachis lombaire. Etude biomécanique [Movements of the lumbar spine. A biomechanical study]. Rev Rhum Mal Osteoartic. 1988 Apr 1;55(5):367-73. French.
- Lin TW, Tsai SF, Kuo YM. Physical Exercise Enhances Neuroplasticity and Delays Alzheimer’s Disease. Brain Plast. 2018 Dec 12;4(1):95-110.
- Cook G, Burton L, Hoogenboom BJ, Voight M. Functional movement screening: the use of fundamental movements as an assessment of function-part 2. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2014 Aug;9(4):549-63.
- Thomas E, Battaglia G, Patti A, Brusa J, Leonardi V, Palma A, Bellafiore M. Physical activity programs for balance and fall prevention in elderly: A systematic review. Medicine (Baltimore). 2019 Jul;98(27):e16218.
- Bae CR, Jin Y, Yoon BC, Kim NH, Park KW, Lee SH. Effects of assisted sit-up exercise compared to core stabilization exercise on patients with non-specific low back pain: A randomized controlled trial. J Back Musculoskelet Rehabil. 2018;31(5):871-880.
- Huxel Bliven KC, Anderson BE. Core stability training for injury prevention. Sports Health. 2013 Nov;5(6):514-22.
- Theodorsen NM, Strand LI, Bø K. Effect of pelvic floor and transversus abdominis muscle contraction on inter-rectus distance in postpartum women: a cross-sectional experimental study. Physiotherapy. 2019 Sep;105(3):315-320.
- Örgün E, Kurt C, Özsu İ. The effect of static and dynamic core exercises on dynamic balance, spinal stability, and hip mobility in female office workers. Turk J Phys Med Rehabil. 2019 Dec 25;66(3):271-280.
- Hsu SL, Oda H, Shirahata S, Watanabe M, Sasaki M. Effects of core strength training on core stability. J Phys Ther Sci. 2018 Aug;30(8):1014-1018.
- Shinkle J, Nesser TW, Demchak TJ, McMannus DM. Effect of core strength on the measure of power in the extremities. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Feb;26(2):373-80.
- Szafraniec R, Bartkowski J, Kawczyński A. Effects of Short-Term Core Stability Training on Dynamic Balance and Trunk Muscle Endurance in Novice Olympic Weightlifters. J Hum Kinet. 2020 Aug 31;74:43-50.
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