While sit-ups are effective for building your core muscles, they're not a high calorie-burning exercise. They also don't have the ability to "spot reduce" stomach fat, meaning you can't exercise a body part to lose fat from just that part of your body. (It's worth noting that no exercise can do this!) So no matter how many sit-ups you do, they won't magically melt fat off your belly.
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That doesn't mean you shouldn't do abdominal exercises. As the Mayo Clinic explains, building strength and endurance in your core muscles helps improve your balance and athletic performance and ultimately helps you reach your athletic goals. And those sit-ups can be one component of a balanced diet and exercise program to help you lose excess fat from everywhere, including your belly.
Do Sit-Ups Burn Abdominal Fat?
Two older, but particularly noteworthy, studies directly negate the idea of using abdominal exercises, like sit-ups, to "burn" abdominal fat. The first, published in the September 2011 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, studied a group of 14 participants through a six-week training period.
At the end of that period, the people who'd done abdominal exercise did increase their muscular endurance when compared to the control group. But they didn't lose abdominal fat when compared to the control group.
Another study, published in the March-April 2015 issue of the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics, involved 40 women who have overweight and obesity. During the 12-week study period, half the participants combined a diet with abdominal resistance training, while the other half followed the diet only.
At the end of the study period, both the control group and the group that did abdominal resistance training lost weight. But there was no significant difference in weight loss or in specific measurements of subcutaneous belly fat (fat located under your skin) and waist circumference.
How Many Calories Do Sit-Ups Burn?
How to Exercise to Burn Abdominal Fat
So what should you do to burn belly fat? To lose fat from all over your body — including your abdomen — you must establish a calorie deficit, or burn more calories than you take in.
There are two ways to achieve that negative calorie balance or deficit — lowering your calorie intake and increasing your physical activity. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes, weight loss of 1 to 2 pounds per week is both safe and sustainable, while faster rates of weight loss are often neither. That rate of weight loss works out to burning 500 to 1,000 more calories per day than you consume.
It's important not to undernourish yourself though. In fact, according to the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans, adults should consume between 1,600 and 3,000 calories per day. This amount depends on a variety of factors — like sex, height, weight, age, activity level and medications — according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Instead, take a hint from subjects being followed by the National Weight Control Registry. According to this ongoing study of more than 10,000 people, the vast majority who lost weight and kept it off did so by adjusting both physical activity and diet.
So, while you can lose weight with a modest reduction in your calorie intake, you'll see faster results — and greater health benefits — if you increase your physical activity too.
According to estimates from Harvard Health Publishing, if you weigh 185 pounds, you'll burn about 133 calories in a half-hour of general resistance training, which can include sit-ups and other core exercises.
You'll burn more calories if you weigh more and fewer calories if you weigh less. Exercise intensity also plays a role: The harder you work out, the more calories you burn. That same reasoning applies to cardiovascular workouts, which are often the most efficient calorie burners.
A few cardio workouts to consider include aerobics classes, walking, running, swimming, cycling, dancing, skiing, tennis, kayaking, canoeing, hiking and stand-up paddleboarding. If you find something you enjoy, it'll be that much easier to incorporate into long-term lifestyle changes to lose excess fat from everywhere, including your belly.
An Important Note About Calorie Deficits and Weight Loss
Yes, cutting and burning calories is a key component of weight loss, but there's more to it than that. Your ability to lose weight can be influenced by a wide variety of factors, including your genetics, sleep quality, insulin resistance, hormones, gut health and how you manage stress.
Plus, reducing exercise and food to nothing more than calories burned can lead to disordered behaviors. You can be sure you're making the best choices for your health when you do physical activity you enjoy and eat nutrient-dense foods.
Talk to your doctor before you make any big changes to your exercise routine (or diet). They can help you determine if your weight-loss plan is healthy and appropriate for you based on your medical history, health status and medications.
What Are the Benefits of Sit-Ups?
While sit-ups alone don't burn belly fat or a ton of calories, there are many other reasons to add sit-ups to your workout sessions. For instance, sit-ups target several major abdominal muscles, according to the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA):
- Rectus abdominis: The large muscle in the center of your abdomen that extends from your ribs to the front of your pubic bone.
- Transverse abdominis: Your lower abs.
- External obliques: The muscles at the sides of your waist.
- Internal obliques: The muscles at the sides of your waist that lie underneath your external obliques.
Sit-ups also work your hip flexors and muscles in your lower back, per the ISSA.
It's important these muscles are strong in order for you to perform functional, everyday movements like sitting up from a vertical position — aka getting up out of bed or off the couch — per the ISSA.
What's more, strengthening your core helps maintain stability throughout your entire body, which, in turn, improves posture and reduces injury risk, according to the ISSA.
If sit-ups are painful or uncomfortable for you, or you don't yet have enough strength to perform the move without straining your neck, crunches are a good alternative. Instead of sitting up all the way, contract your abs and raise your shoulders and torso several inches off the ground while keeping your eyes on the ceiling, your chin off your chest and your fingertips behind your ears.
Standing movements, like slowly marching in place, also help strengthen your core but don’t require you to recline and offer less chance of back strain.
There's no reason to choose between aerobics and sit-ups. Because both offer such significant benefits, it's best to combine them, as the American Council on Exercise (ACE) recommends, and add flexibility as the third element of a complete routine.
Adding other abs exercises to your workouts can also help strengthen your core, which may eventually help give the appearance of a flatter stomach if that's your goal. Consider the plank, crunch variations and activities with an aerobic element, like mountain climbers and plank jacks.
Finally, talk with your doctor while establishing a workout routine to get personalized, professional advice that's appropriate to your physical condition and fitness level.
- ACE: "Three Things Every Exercise Program Should Have"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Calories Burned in 30 Minutes for People of Three Different Weights"
- HealthStatus.com: "Calories Burned Calculator"
- Mayo Clinic: "Core exercises: Why you should strengthen your core muscles"
- ISSA: "Are Sit-Ups Bad for You? Sit-Ups vs Crunches vs Planks"
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: "The effect of abdominal exercise on abdominal fat"
- Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics: "Effect of abdominal resistance exercise on abdominal subcutaneous fat of obese women: a randomized controlled trial using ultrasound imaging assessments"
- CDC: "Losing Weight"
- National Weight Control Registry: "NWCR Facts"
- Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans"
- Cleveland Clinic: "How Many Calories Should You Eat in a Day?"