Name: Danny Kavadlo
From: New York, NY
Occupation: Trainer, author, progressive calisthenics specialist
Folks from my generation are well-acquainted with sit-ups. We all did them in third grade gym class, and many of us were forced to do them on the clock to get a passing grade for years down the line. They're as much a calisthenics staple as squats or push-ups.
Sadly, in recent years, both industry fearmongers and fly-by-night fad-boys have decried the noble sit-up, saying it's ineffective and can potentially injure the necks and backs of deconditioned individuals. My response is that anything can be potentially dangerous if done incorrectly. There are no exceptions. We should never let fear stand in the way of any of our goals, fitness-related or otherwise. Instead, we should focus on doing these moves correctly and safely.
Sit-ups employ the entire abdominal region and encourage full-body tension and harmony. They force you to self-stabilize, and provide a hell of an abs workout. I still do sit-up variations to this day.
Let's have some gym-class-style fun breaking down these sit-up variations you should still have in your arsenal.
Let me be perfectly clear: No weights are necessary to get in the best shape of your life. However, even a bodyweight aficionado like me has to admit that adding weight to a sit-up is an obvious way to revamp this classic. It doesn't have to be complicated. You can use a ball, a rock, a weight, or a brick—whatever is on hand and qualifies as "something heavy," which is the standard I discussed in my article "Three Home Gym Essentials."
Begin in a standard sit-up position with the weighted object in your hands. It may be helpful to secure your feet under a bench or a partner, since these will be extra challenging to your upper body. While keeping tension throughout, contract your abs and come to the top of a sit-up position. Return to the bottom with complete control. That's one rep.
To increase the muscular demand, simply adjust your hand position. For example, holding the weight over your head will be more challenging than holding it close to your chest. Lengthening the body increases the yield.
The shelf sit-up starts out like a weighted sit-up, but you'll use your lower body to create a flat platform that puts you at a further mechanical disadvantage. In addition to the extra muscular recruitment, shelf sit-ups also demand more balance and intramuscular communication.
Begin in a standard sit-up position. Now pick your feet up, while keeping your shins parallel to the floor. There should be approximately a 90-degree bend at your knees and hips. Hold a weighted object—a medicine ball works well—and perform a sit-up.
When you get to the top position, place the weight on your shins. Return to the bottom position, then come back and retrieve the weight. Take it slow; each rep is a double!
Medicine Ball Throws
You can create a brand-new beast out of the standard decline sit-up by grabbing a partner and adding some explosiveness. Behold: the mighty medicine ball throw! Begin by having your partner stand about 3-8 feet away from you. As you sit up into the top position, throw the medicine ball toward your partner, who catches it and throws it back.
Medicine Ball Throws
Something I love about medicine ball throws is that you never need to swap out the ball for a heavier one. Your partner can increase the intensity just by throwing the ball harder. The impact of catching it will shock your abs in a brand new way, because you must brace your entire core to absorb it.
As with the standard weighted sit-up, the higher you hold the ball above your head, the more you put yourself at a mechanical disadvantage, thus increasing the difficulty of the movement.
I was first introduced to the jackknife as a kid. Back then, I barely had the abdominal power to raise my feet off the ground. It wasn't until adulthood that I got reacquainted with it. These days, it's become one of my favorite sit-up variations, since the jackknife blasts the entire abdominals with no equipment required.
To perform a jackknife, lie on the ground with your hands over your head and your arms and legs fully extended. Try not to lock your knees, since this will transfer the tension from your abs to your legs.
Now, in a controlled fashion, simultaneously bring your arms and legs together while doing a sit-up. Performing this motion with a fully lengthened body will rock even the strongest six-packs!
There are two key factors that make the Rocky sit-up a true force to be reckoned with. First of all, it places you in a position where you have limited contact with your environment. Anytime you limit the amount of contact, you increase the difficulty of an exercise.
Second, the Rocky sit-up is performed at a decline, creating an exaggerated range of motion. This allows your upper body to drop below surface level in the negative phase of the exercise, resulting in monstrous gains. Warning: You will probably need to stabilize your feet to avoid tipping over.
Another great thing about the Rocky sit-up is that it can be performed on various surfaces, from a standard decline bench to a jungle gym!
Sit Up or Shut Up
We've all come a long way since gym class. In a world of gimmicky gear and shady claims, going back to the basics can be a breath of fresh air. When it comes to abs—and life—people often confuse "complicated" with "better." As you can see, this is not the case. The humble sit-up has been around since long before the isolation machines and novelty workout items came into being. And it ain't goin' nowhere!
There are a million ways to progress the sit-up. If you have a favorite advanced sit-up variation, let me know in the comments below. Keep training hard, my friends!