Sit-ups and Take Note: Don’t overwork your abs!

How many times have you heard “sit-ups are different, just keep going” from a trainer? This article explores – and refutes – that advice. We explore the sit-up and the abdominal muscles in relation to the other muscles in your body.

There are a lot of misconceptions out there about fitness in general. One that seems to be very prevalent is the idea that your abdominal muscles are somehow different from the rest of the muscles in your body. You can see this tendency whenever someone asks “how many sit-ups do I need to do every day?” or “how many crunches do I do to have a flat stomach?” These questions stem from the idea that your abs are different from the rest of your body.

Think about it for a second. You don’t really hear stuff like that about the other muscles, even the ones that are the most popular for aesthetics. Chest, arms, butt, whatever else is a sex symbol on male or female, they don’t get slotted into the same category as abs. Abs are special…

…but are they? No, not really. They have a unique shape, that’s true, and they perform some very specific functions for the body (moving the ribs, etc.) but they aren’t inherently special, physiologically speaking.

What’s the Problem?

The Abdominals are skeletal muscles, just like your quadriceps, triceps, and trapezius. This means that they connect to bone, and you can control them to a large extent. Skeletal muscles are capable of voluntary contractions, unlike smooth muscles (stomach muscle, for instance) which are autonomic.

Side Bar: Autonomic muscles are controlled by the brain and nervous system working on auto-pilot. They contract based on management processes in the body which respond to different stimuli. For instance your actual stomach muscle responds to ingesting food or liquid by turning on digestive actions, whereas your abdominal muscles are most often responding to a voluntary contraction like sit-ups.


The abs, being able to voluntarily contract, can also be trained like all the other skeletal muscles. Much like a push-up or a squat, you contract the abs against resistance (sit-ups or toe-ups) and/or for longer periods of time than normal (planks) and their strength builds. If you work them too hard or too often, they can suffer from over-training, just like the other skeletal muscles.

That’s the first thing that seems to cause confusion: some people think you can train your abs every day at high intensity without issue. This is not only false, but dangerous. If you try to do 300 sit-ups every day, you’re a lot more likely to get rhabdomyolysis than a six-pack.

Rule 1: All Things in Moderation. Yes, even sit-ups.

This means, train the abs like you train the other muscles in your body. Use reasonable sets and reps, with at least one day between each time you specifically train the abdominal muscles. This will help prevent over-training and avoid injury. A good starting point might be to do 3 sets of 15 reps Mon/Wed/Fri, and see how that feels. Too easy? Add 5 reps to each set until you hit a good amount of effort for each set.

The second idea that seems to be stuck out there, is that you can spot reduce belly fat by doing ab work.

No. Just no.

Rule 2: Spot reduction is a myth.

I don’t care who’s selling it, or how. I’ve tried a dozen “techniques and products” that promise spot reduction of belly fat and they don’t work.

Those skinny belts, the ones that are supposed to “increase thermogenic activity” in your belly? They don’t work.

The machines that shock your abs to “build them as you wait”? Also known as electronic muscle stimulators, these don’t work either. They are based off of good science. Electrical stimulation of atrophied muscle can assist in rebuilding muscle, but that’s for people who have been in a coma for a year and their muscles literally don’t work anymore. These things don’t do anything meaningful for the normal person. I will say they kind of feel like a stretching massage on low settings, but not worth it all the same. Oh yeah, and according to the FDA, there have been reported issues with these things interfering with pacemakers and internal defibrillators. Don’t do that.

This leads us to…

Rule 3: There is no magic number

…or a number of sit-ups you can do, that will reduce belly fat. If you have a flabby midsection, even doing 100 sit-ups every other day is only likely to lead to strong muscles…underneath belly fat. To reduce belly fact, and see that six pack, you need to watch your diet. Eat good foods, in modest portions, taking in as many whole foods (like whole fruits and veggies) as you can. Basically, eat healthy, lose body fat overall, and you will lose belly fat specifically as part of that process.