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Is There a Certain Number of Sit-Ups That Will Give Me a Strong Core?

I keep hearing a strong core is good for everything, but how do I know when I have one?

Although it’s highly unlikely that “how much can you bench” will ever be replaced as the true mark of strength (at least in our lizard brains), the notion of a strong core has certainly picked up significant steam over the last decade or so. And not necessarily because of the premium placed on that other alleged signifier of pristine physical fitness — six-pack abs.

If anything, in this case, we do seem to understand that a strong core isn’t necessarily about a particular aesthetic or an arbitrary level of brawn. Instead, it’s almost become a panacea for a certain kind of good health/wellness, which extends far beyond the gym and the battle cries of weekend warriors. As the Mayo Clinic puts it, “Strong core muscles make it easier to do many activities, such as get a glass from the top shelf and bend down to tie your shoes. They may also help improve back pain. Meanwhile, weak core muscles can leave you susceptible to poor posture, lower back pain and muscle injuries.”

I’ve heard the same from my chiropractor about back pain. So how many sit-ups do I actually need to be able to do in order to know I have a strong core?

As I’ve mentioned before, doing sit-ups is no longer advisable since they cause major spinal compression to occur, and can eventually lead to bulging discs or herniation. Try crunches instead — they’re much safer. 

That said, let’s assume you’re either hellbent on doing sit-ups with total disregard for the integrity of your back, or you need to do them because you’re going to be judged based on your sit-up output for the military, the police academy, the firefighters academy or even your P.E. class (all of which still continue to place an emphasis on sit-ups, your back be damned).

To say that a core is strong is a relative statement, but the military’s standards are a good place to start. The number of reps to achieve a bare minimum passing score of 50 out of 100 on the sit-up portion of the armed service’s fitness test is 47 for the 17-to-21-year-old age group and 29 for the 37-to 41-year-old demographic. 

But again, that’s just the bare minimum. A score of 75 won’t pop any eyeballs amongst service members, but it will safely qualify you for service and maintain your job security. That number is 63 sit-ups for the 17-to-21-year-old age group, and 52 for 37-to-41-year-olds. What’s interesting is that in the younger age group, only 16 additional sit-ups are required to boost your score by 25 points; in the older age group, however, 23 more sit-ups are required to achieve the same point hike. This suggests to me that the bar was set artificially low in the higher age group to retain as many aging combat veterans as possible.

Surprisingly, all of these standards would rank far beneath what would have been required of an elite high school athlete to claim a Presidential Physical Fitness Award, which was intended to honor those in the 85th percentile or higher. To reach this level in sit-ups, a 17-year-old boy would have been required to complete 55 full reps in only one minute. Given the fullness of the range of motion necessary to finish a full sit-up, I suspect there was a lot of cheating going on; the crunch requirement of 66 in one minute sounds far more manageable given the abbreviated range of motion. 

So what number are you suggesting? 

To be honest, I wouldn’t go with a number at all. Plenty of things can factor into how many sit-ups you can complete, including the length of your upper-body relative to your legs, and how strict you’re being with respect to touching your elbows to your knees.

Instead, I’d go with a set period of time — i.e., if you reach the point where you can maintain a consistent sit-up pace for two full minutes without stopping for a break, even if it’s taking you three seconds to complete each sit-up, you’ve got an abdominal wall with stamina that’s worth boasting about. 

I’ll repeat what I said earlier, though: You shouldn’t be doing sit-ups at all if you can help it (I’m Team Crunch all the way). They’re only gonna introduce the very back problems you’re hoping a strong core is gonna solve.