Why you should stop doing sit-ups and try these exercises instead

Mobility exercise with elastic band - Ziga Plahutar
Mobility exercise with elastic band - Ziga Plahutar

In the 2000 film American Psycho the famously unreliable narrator claims to start his day with a thousand stomach crunches. If they ever try a remake, this boast will be updated to 1000 standing abdominal moves.

Fitness mega-influencer MadFit has been leading her 7.61 million followers through standing abs workouts, and on Instagram and TikTok more and more experts are recommending a core routine that does not involve lying down at all.

Is the standing abs workout a fashion, or does it really work? One well-known gym chain I called wanted no part of standing abs, saying they do not engage with exercise fads.

But Lucie Cowan, master trainer at Third Space, says standing core workouts are more effective than mat work. “Older people often complain they are straining their necks with floor exercises. Standing abs are better for stability and balance and, in effect, any exercise that works multiple muscle groups, like squats or lunges, is a standing abs workout if performed correctly.”

I must confess that until I saw these on social media, I had never heard of standing core workouts and was either working my stomach lying down or hanging from a bar – the latter requiring considerable grip and upper body strength.

But I can honestly say researching this has completely changed my stomach workout and I’m looking into time travel so I can redo all my previous workouts.

The basics

Firstly, it’s important to establish the basics – no stomach exercise will melt away your belly. Lucie Cowan points out that those who do want to reduce weight around the middle need to eat less and go for a run, while six-packs are usually a sign of excessive calorie control and deprivation.

“The aesthetic of visible abs is usually a sign you’ve been starving yourself. A flat stomach is about diet and cardio.”

'A flat stomach is about diet and cardio'
'A flat stomach is about diet and cardio'

Strong abs are usually hidden under a layer of very normal body fat. I exercise every day and have only ever seen anything resembling a six-pack after painful dental surgery put me off eating my usual intake for a while. This is not a routine I’d recommend.

Adam Byrne, clinical fitness lead for Nuffield’s London region, mostly gives his clients standing abdominal routines. Sometimes, he says, they want to know why there are no crunches, but once they’ve tried this approach and compared it to anything they can do lying down they understand the benefits.

Standing ab routines

He recommends the Pallof hold and the Pallof press, named after Boston-based fitness expert John Pallof, and having tried it myself I promise you will adopt this into your exercise routine. Sit-ups will become like so much we did in the 90s – fun but embarrassing and never to be repeated.

The Pallof is about placing a load on your body that wants to twist you to one side. Your core muscles are then recruited in fighting that force to keep you stable.

The Pallof Hold involves a band or cable attached to something immovable off to one side of your body, and you then hold the band in front of you, keeping yourself steady. It’s a bit like a side-on tug of war.

You will be tempted to widen your stance but you need to resist this and keep your feet shoulder-width apart and let your middle do the work.

Tug of war: the Pallof Hold
Tug of war: the Pallof Hold

There are many variations on this theme of holding yourself rock-like while something tries to knock you off-centre. Byrne says, “I have my clients hold an exercise ball and I slap the side of the ball and they hold their position.”

There is a picture of soccer overlord Cristiano Ronaldo holding one of these balls in front of him with the extra complication of a resistance band around his neck and attached to his feet. His core will be battling these loads and forces in a kind of tuned-up version of exercise mortals like ourselves can try.

Resisting these destabilising tugs on your body is so much more like the demands life places on our core. Crunches are odd: we spent very little time lying down and trying to reach an awkwardly placed overhead light switch but anyone who has ever lifted a child out of a car seat will be familiar with these standing core workout moves.

As we grow older, the hunt for abs like an action hero seems less appealing than the ability to pick up a coffee table book without weeks of back pain. It’s time to stand up for our core muscles.

Standing ab work

You don’t necessarily need an exercise band or gym to do standing ab work. High knee lifts, leaning obliques and standing leg lifts will all do the job.

Standing Bicycle

Stand and place your hands behind your head with your elbows out wide.

With your feet hip-width apart, lift your left knee in towards your chest and across to the right side.

At the same time, bring your opposite elbow down toward your lifted knee, squeezing your abs throughout the movement.

Return to the starting position and repeat on the opposite side. Complete 20 reps total.

Standing Leg Lift

Stand with your feet hip-width apart, arms extended out in front of you, perpendicular to your body.

Tighten your lower abs, lift one leg to about hip-height. Lower leg back down and repeat on the opposite side. Complete 20 reps total.

Weighted Standing Side Bend

Stand holding a dumbbell, kettlebell or barbell plate in one hand, letting it hang loosely at your side.

Lean your torso to the side with the weight, hinging at your waist and lowering down as far as is comfortable.

Squeeze through your obliques to help lift your upper body back up to the starting position. Continue doing this movement for 30 seconds before switching to the opposite side.

How do you train your core - a standing workout or mat work? What are your favourite core exercises? Join the conversation in the comments section below