The GHD (glute ham developer) machine is commonly used for exercises such as back extensions and sit ups. GHD sit ups are often included in CrossFit workouts, but you’d be forgiven for wanting to find an appropriate substitute.
For some, they simply don’t have access to a GHD machine… in which case, it’s about trying to find other exercises that share similar biomechanics and muscle activation. For others, they simply want to protect their spine and want to find alternatives that don’t pose the same sort of MSK risks.
Spine health is individual and just because some people find GHD sit ups fine, it doesn’t mean you will… and that’s a concern that has been ignored by many prescribing GHD sit ups in workout routines.
(Although GHD sit ups *can* be performed safely, they are an advanced movement and beginners do risk injury through hyperextending the trunk, failing to engage the quads or not keeping the ribs tucked in… which is why you may just want to find a different core exercise).
In this guide, we cover the 7 best GHD sit up alternatives, and explain when to use each one. We also dive into why some people have reservations about GHD sit ups.
At a Glance – GHD Sit Up Alternatives
- Best alternative for a healthy spine – bird dog
- Best alternative for CrossFit workouts – candlesticks
- Best alternative for low impact workouts – dead bug
- Best alternative for beginners – regular sit ups
- Best alternative for functional movement – toe to bar
- Best alternative for home GHD sit ups – stacked bumper plates
- Best alternative for abdominal activation – janda sit up
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GHD Sit Ups – An Overview
GHD sit ups can be seen as an exaggerated sit up that allows you to go beyond parallel. A full GHD sit up involves reaching back and touching the floor… so it’s certainly not for the faint hearted. This provides greater range of motion and recruitment of the abdominals. Due to the fact the range of motion is much greater than a crunch, for example, it provides an unrivalled way to activate the core.
We certainly wouldn’t argue against the fact GHD sit ups are very tough and will undoubtedly leave your core incredibly sore the next day.
We do, however, struggle with the speed at which GHD sit ups are often performed, the requirement of the spine to bend so much, and the way you need to throw your weight backwards. Unless you’re a trained CrossFit athlete with a very (very) high level of fitness already, there is unquestionably a risk of back injury if it’s not performed exactly how it should be.
CrossFit for Over 50’s
Our guide on CrossFit for over 50’s, includes recommendations for those wanting to do CrossFit workouts but that may be worried about pre-existing injuries or aches and pains.
The very reason why CrossFit praises GHD sit ups as a way to gain greater range of motion (for the abs), is why many healthcare professionals will say it is bad for the spine. This sort of range of motion is pushing the spine beyond what it is really designed to do.
As a result, we tend to look for GHD sit up alternatives that are gentler on the spine and back.
GHD Sit Up Alternatives
An exercise that is high on most Physical Therapist’s go-to list of core exercises is the bird dog. This low impact movement is great for beginners and advanced athletes alike, and will work your core, without putting any unwanted pressure on the spine.
In fact, good bird dog technique involves maintaining a very stable spine throughout… making it easy for beginners to know if they are doing it properly or not.
For those wanting more of a challenge, you can use ankle/wrist weights to increase difficulty. You can also hold the movement at the extension, or opt for very slow repetitions to increase the time under tension. Our recent guide on bird dog rows is also worth taking note of, as a low impact variation to dumbbell rows.
The bird dog exercise may not bring the excitement and glamour of a GHD sit up, but for most people just trying to keep fit at home, they are the better choice.
For those thinking this list was going to be full of “easy” core exercises… think again.
Even the GHD sit up purists would agree candlesticks match the challenge of GHD sit ups… if not exceed them.
Candlesticks are also common in CrossFit, so for those wanting to substitute GHD sit ups with another CrossFit exercise, candlesticks are probably your best choice.
Candlesticks involve lying on your back and extending your legs upwards and then outwards. This movement requires strength and stability, and will require your core to be heavily activated throughout.
Candlesticks are quite easy to modify too, especially if you want to make them more challenging. Simply including a longer hold at the top and bottom of the movement will significantly increase the difficulty.
Deck squats are another similar exercise that involves moving from a candlestick position to standing… and back down again. Which lends itself well for HIIT and circuit training.
Dead bugs share a lot of the biomechanics of bird dog, but are even more low impact, because they don’t require you to support your weight in a quadruped tabletop position.
We find this is useful for those who struggle to put pressure on their wrists, for example, due to arthritis.
Dead bugs involve lying on your back with your arms and legs (knees bent) extended vertically. Alternating between sides, your opposite arm and leg are lowered to the floor and brought back to the starting position. As you bring them back to the starting position, your abs are recruited.
This is another incredibly effective exercise for beginners and those carrying existing injuries. Your back remains on the floor for the whole exercise, so you don’t need to worry about any sort of bending of the spine.
From this position, you could also superset dead bugs with traditional sit ups, or leg raises too.
You can also hold a weight, such a kettlebell for dead bugs too.
Regular Sit Ups
It’s easy to get distracted by new and exciting exercises and to ignore the fundamentals… but the humble sit up is still a great way to train your abs and core.
The movement is also very similar to GHD sit ups, just with a smaller range of motion.
By holding a dumbbell, you can also considerably increase the difficulty and make it very challenging.
If you are set on using a GHD machine, doing regular sit ups on them, so you only go back parallel and not touching the floor, is another option to consider if you’re exercising at a CrossFit box and are worried about your back.
By only going parallel to the floor, you avoid a lot of the criticisms of GHD sit ups, as you don’t need to bend your spine backwards.
Toe to Bar
Toe to bar raises are another popular core exercise in CrossFit, as well as other functional fitness programs.
There are two main ways of doing them, one being a strict toe to bar and the other being a kipping toe to bar. Strict toe to bar basically voids any sort of momentum, requiring more core strength, whilst kipping toe to bar leverage momentum to help support the movement.
As well as being an incredibly effective way of strengthening your abdominals, the functional nature of the toe to bar exercise means your back, arms and shoulders are also activated throughout. It also requires good hip flexion too.
If you want to build up to doing a toe to bar, practising dead hangs will ensure you have the grip and upper body strength to support the movement as you raise your legs up. You can also lift your knees to waist height, instead of your toes to the bar, for an easier variation.
Stacked Bumper Plates
If you want a GHD sit up alternative that mirrors the original exercise without requiring a GHD machine, then this DIY option is for you.
Stacking bumper plates on top of each other and hooking your toes under some dumbbells, will allow you to recreate the movement of a GHD sit up pretty accurately.
Obviously, there is risk involved if the plates wobble or topple… but assuming you’ve set it up safely, this can be really effective.
You could also create the same outcome by using other gym equipment, but we find bumper plates allow you to tailor it to your height very well.
Janda Sit Up
The final alternative on this list… and it’s a good one, even if it is relatively unknown and under-used.
The janda sit up aims to achieve what the GHD sit up does… and that’s to create an environment that forces your abdominals to work harder.
Whilst the GHD sit up focuses on increasing the range of motion and quad activation to make the abdominals work harder, the janda sit up recruits the glutes and hamstrings to limit the use of the hip flexors. This means the abdominals have to work harder.
Although there is equipment designed for janda sit ups, you can also just do them as a bodyweight exercise by pushing your heels against a surface to engage your hamstrings and glutes throughout.
Ultimately, this is a clever and simple way to ensure it’s your abs that are doing the hard work during sit ups, and not your hip flexors.
If you do a few sets of janda sit ups and regular sit ups, you’ll quickly notice the difference.
For us, the GHD sit up brings with it enough potential issues that we’d rather use an alternative from this list. We know some CrossFit purists will argue the GHD sit up corner, but for us, and our experience (as well as countless stories), there is too much of a risk of back injury, especially if you’re a beginner.
Compared to substitutes like bird dog and dead bug that help protect the spine, the benefits of getting “ripped abs” from GHD sit ups just isn’t worth the potential long-term injuries that may follow.
If you’re looking to target your core, our quick ab home workout includes plenty of exercise inspiration too.