How to Improve Quickly on the Sit-Up Test

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How to improve your score on sit-up tests.
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Qujuan Baptiste, assigned to Army Sustainment Command, performs sit-ups during the Army physical fitness test portion of the 2017 Army Materiel Command's Best Warrior Competition July 16, 2017, at Camp Atterbury, Indiana. (Sgt. 1st Class Teddy Wade/U.S. Army photo)

If you are seeking a job in the military or law enforcement professions, you likely will see an entrance exam that requires you to score well in sit- ups, curl- ups or crunches.  All are abdominal exercises with different hand placements that test core strength and endurance and can be a challenging exercise to improve if you are not getting your repetitions in each week.  Here is an email from someone who has improved in push-ups and pull-ups but needs help with the last PT element of the Air Force physical ability and stamina test (PAST) for pararescue jumpers (PJ) and combat controllers (CCT):

"Stew, I have used your pull-up and push-up push plans and actually increased my push-ups from 50 to 88 and my pull-ups from 12 to 20 in just two weeks. Thanks!  I have neglected my sit-ups, however (62 in 2 min); and need some ideas on the quickest way to increase my reps for the AF PJ two-minute PAST test for sit-ups.  Do you have a "Sit-up Push Plan" like your pull/push plans? I am trying to get my sit-ups to 85–100 for the PAST."

I have been working on a sit-up overload plan to help create a better foundation to increase sit-ups by 50%-75% in 14 days.  It is a little different than the pull-up/push-up plan, where you take your current maximum and multiply by five for 10 straight days. Add in three rest days and test on day 14 for recovery from the overload and max out into a new level of scoring.

The new sit-up push program is designed like this:

  1. Mark your current maximum score for your test (62 in two minutes). Do the type of exercise you will be tested: Sit-ups -- hands behind head with elbows toughing knees; curl ups -- hands crossed on chest with elbows touching knees; or crunches -- hands crossed on chest with elbow toughing lower thighs. If your sit-up test is only one minute, the process is the same, but your pace can be faster than in the two-minute test.
  2. Take your max score and multiply by three (62 x 3 = 186) and do this number (or rounded up to the nearest 10) for 10 straight days.
  3. Day 1-4: Do 186 sit-ups in 30-second paced sets but shoot for 20-25 sit-ups in 30 seconds. So for days 1-4, you will do 186 sit-ups in timed sets of 30 seconds for four straight days. Your goal is to get 20-25 sit-ups in that time, so for this workout, you will do roughly 8-9 sets of 20-25 sit-ups in 30 seconds. Spread these 30-second sets throughout your existing workout, however you desire. I like to "rest with abs" between sets of pull-ups, weighted exercises or even running/swimming intervals.

    * If you are having trouble keeping the goal pace for 30 seconds, try it for 15 seconds and shoot for quick timed sets of 10-12 repetitions for 15 seconds. The first 15-20 seconds of a two-minute sit-up test is where people start off too fast, so it is a good idea to practice the start of the test regularly.

  4. Day 5-8: You change the timed sets and shoot for 40-50 sit-ups in one-minute sets. Do 186 sit-ups in one-minute sets with a goal of 40-50 sit-ups per minute. This should take you 4–5 sets done through your workout for four days straight.
  5. Days 9-10: You change the timed sets to two minutes, focused on the same pace as above. A total of 186 sit-ups should be completed in 2-3 sets for two straight days.
  6. Lower back strength: Just working the front side of the body is where many go wrong. For every sit-up repetition you do in your daily workout, you have to get in the plank pose for the same number of seconds (186 seconds or three minutes).  Somewhere in your daily workouts for Day 1–10, you have to get a total of three minutes in the plank pose.
  7. Stretch the hip flexors, thighs, lower back and stomach after each day of the 10-day sit-up program.
  8. Days 11-13: Take 3 days off from any abdominal exercises. You still can run, swim, lift and/ or PT but skip the ab exercises for this period.
  9. Day 14: Test day -- Give yourself a one- to two-minute test (whichever your test requires) and focus on the goal pace you mastered.  When you do your sit-ups, practice exerting on the upward movement of the sit-up and letting gravity take you back to the ground. No need to waste your stomach muscles on letting yourself down softly on the floor. Just fall back, relaxing the abs for a second.

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Where most people go wrong on two-minute timed sit-up tests is that they start off too fast in the first 30 seconds and usually cannot match their reps in the next 1:30. If your goal is 80-100 sit-ups in two minutes, you need a pace of 20-25 in 30 seconds, 40-50 sit-ups in one minute and 60-75 sit-ups in 1:30 and 80-100 in two minutes. This takes practice at not just mastering the goal pace, but building your endurance to maintain the pace for longer than you previously could.

In a nutshell, you will get better at sit-up tests by taking more sit-up tests and increasing your endurance by increasing your sit-up volume but at your goal pace for sit-ups. Once you master 100 reps in two minutes, you can do more sit-up sets every other day but focus on 1 sit-up per second to help you maintain a pace of 100-120 sit-ups in two minutes.

  • If your sit-up test is for one minute: Start off at a goal pace of 40-50 in one minute and build up to one per second or faster to get the above-average scores of 60+.
  • Do not forget to work the lower back to balance out the extra abdominal work you are doing. If you don't, you likely will suffer a lower back injury regardless of how many sit-ups you are doing daily.

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The U.S. military is the fittest fight force in the world. This video highlights the top ten military fitness exercises to test strength and endurance. Watch it today!
The U.S. military is the fittest fight force in the world. This video highlights the top ten military fitness exercises to test strength and endurance. Watch it today!

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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