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How Many Sit-Ups a Day Does It Take to Make the Right Kind of Dent in My Abs?

Let’s say five and call it an afternoon?

Making a suggestion about how many daily sit-ups you should do wasn’t always a trick question. Up until about 1990, sit-ups were considered the foundational abdominal exercise in everybody’s workout right up until they were replaced with “quarter sit-ups,” now popularly known as crunches. Even then, many people viewed the crunch with suspicion — it seemed like an incomplete substitution for the real thing, and lacked the full lift of the entire upper body from the ground. The crunch also wouldn’t have anywhere near the same dramatic effect if it replaced the sit-up during the Undertaker’s matches.

The irony is that in recent years the sit-up has now been conclusively shown to be so potentially damaging to the human spine that we can hypothesize that the Undertaker did more damage to his back while demonstrating those sit-ups than he administered to his opponents in the moments that followed them — Tombstone or no Tombstone. In fact, it’s a virtual guarantee at this point that if you opt to engage in enough sit-ups, you will eventually hurt yourself.

Does this mean that if I ask you how many sit-ups I should do each day, you’re going to tell me the answer is “zero”?

Probably, but it would be rude of me to be so dismissive out of the gate. Instead, let’s start by taking a look at what the understood ideals have been for demonstrating sit-up mastery right up to the present day, and particularly in the spaces where sit-ups are still used as an assessment test of abdominal endurance. Then we can take a deeper dive into why you may want to reconsider the notion that you should do sit-ups in the first place, and why some of the substitutionary exercises might be better for you.

That’s reasonable. So how do I figure out what a good number of sit-ups to do each day would be if I decided I wanted to throw caution to the wind? 

A good place to begin is to look at the standards set by the institutions that really seem to care about sit-up totals — e.g., the U.S. Army — because there has to be a methodology behind their numbers. If you’re between the ages of 17 and 31, a sit-up performance in the neighborhood of 80 repetitions in two minutes is sufficient to earn you a score of 100 percent on the Army test. To earn a minimum score, you’d need to perform around 50 sit-ups. In other words, to be considered at the low end of physical competence in an institution that mandates such competency, 50 is the number to beat, and if you can hit it, you can strut around confidently, knowing that you’re physically capable of serving in the military.

Now, how would I use this information to put together a suggested training plan devoted solely to sit-ups? If my eventual target is 80 sit-ups in a row, I’d set myself a daily target of 100 sit-ups (25 percent more than the single-set target requirement), and I’d strive to complete it in as few sets as possible. Ideally, I’d complete those 100 sit-ups in a single set, but even at two sets of 50 sit-ups, I’ve conditioned myself so that my personal bare-minimum performance standard for each set also happens to match the minimum fitness standard established by the U.S. Army. 

Let’s take the performance standards off the table. After all, I just want a good-looking set of abs.

If that’s the case, we should probably take sit-ups completely off the table and talk more along the lines of workout quality and safety rather than raw numbers. 

If you aren’t worried about developing the requisite core strength to help you scale a wall, dig a foxhole or beat up John Cena, and instead you’re hoping to prompt your midsection to pop when applying tanning oil to it, we should be reframing this discussion. The first thing we’re going to do is eliminate sit-ups from your training altogether. The research on sit-ups has concluded that they contain movement that’s unnecessary for the development of visible abdominal muscles, and at the risk of added vulnerability of your spine. If safety is your top priority — and it really should be — you should find a safer way to shape your abs.

Which brings us to crunches. They don’t require the elevation of your entire back from the ground, and they also don’t require any additional weight to be performed effectively. This means you can lie on your back and crank out sets of crunches ad nauseum, in sets of hundreds if the mood strikes you. Ideally, though, you’d slow down the pace, pause at the point of contraction and feel the blood flowing into your abdominals with every repetition. Doing so is what’s ultimately going to shape them the way you want them to be arranged as the muscle fibers repair themselves while you rest. 

Sets of hundreds?! Ain’t nobody got time for that!

That’s not a suggestion; it’s just an observation. Honestly, if you did 60 to 90 slow, deliberate, controlled crunches where 20 to 30 reps were straight forward, 20 to 30 were right elbow to left knee and 20 to 30 were left elbow to right knee, your abdominals would definitely be feeling it. They’d also shape themselves beautifully if you did this set just three times a week.

That said, several abdominal exercises have been found to be more effective abdominal trainers than crunches, which means you’ve got several options at your disposal if you want to get your abdominal training over with quickly — or if you’re too much of a mysophobe to ever lie down on the floor.

Just be careful. When you do cable crunches with heavy weights in low-rep sets — or any other ab exercise with significant resistance — you’re going to add size to your abdominals, which can also add to the thickness of your midsection even though it’s muscle. Because you didn’t do all the hard work of protecting your spine and shaping your abs just to get accused of owning an HGH gut.