Should you stand or sit when you train? You can do a number of strength-training exercises in either a seated or standing position. It’s your choice! The ability to do an exercise in either a sitting or standing position comes in handy if you have a lower-body injury and need to keep training your upper body. But, are there other reasons you might want to assume a seated position as opposed to standing? What are the advantages of each approach?
Exercises You Can Do Seated
Most of the strength-training exercises you do in a seated position work your upper body and, to a lesser degree, your core. Examples of exercises that you can do seated include overhead presses, lateral raises, biceps curls, triceps extensions, lateral pulldowns, seated bent-over rows, and seated triceps kickbacks. You might feel more comfortable using one approach over the other or you might do both standing and seated variations of some strength exercises.
The Advantages of Sitting During Strength Training
Sitting during strength training has some advantages over standing. When you do upper body exercises is it limits how much momentum you can use with each repetition. Momentum is where you pass off some challenges of doing a movement to muscles other than the main ones you’re trying to target. You recruit neighboring muscles to help get the weight up, and this shifts some focus away from the main muscle you’re targeting. You also end up swinging or tossing the weight around more. Swinging and tossing weight increases the risk of injury, and it takes tension off the muscle you’re trying to target. It’s a form of “cheating” that can detract from your gains. One way to limit momentum is to do exercises in a seated position.
Time under tension is one component that contributes to hypertrophy gains. It’s the number of seconds your muscles are forced to sustain a contraction. Momentum reduces the time that the primary muscle you’re working is under tension. When you swing or toss a weight rather than moving it in a slow, deliberate fashion, you can lessen your gains. There are situations, such as when you’re trying to build power, that a fast tempo is necessary. But when you’re trying to build muscle size, you need some sets that are slow and controlled. Seated exercises are also helpful when you’re learning a new exercise. It’s easier to focus on using good form when you’re in a seated position and momentum is removed from the equation.
Also, you can handle more weight when you’re seated. In one study, subjects were able to lift more weight when doing overhead presses when they sat as opposed to standing. The difference is that your body is more stable in the seated position. If you can handle more weight when you’re seated, it gives you an advantage for strength building.
The Advantages of Standing During Strength Training
As mentioned, your body is more stable when you’re seated because your center of gravity is closer to the ground. So, there’s little input from stabilizing muscles. But you may WANT to work those stabilizing muscles. For example, when you do upper body exercises standing, your abs and core muscles contract more to stabilize. If your core could use extra help, standing exercises help you meet your goals. Standing exercises burn more calories, although the difference is modest because you’re working more muscles and you burn more calories naturally when you stand. Plus, when you stand, you’re forced to balance to remain stable. Standing exercises help to improve proprioception and your sense of balance more than seated exercises.
Let’s look at an example, biceps curls. Biceps curls are an isolation exercise that works the two heads of the biceps in isolation. You can do them seated on a bench or in a standing position. Based on EMG studies, you activate the biceps more when you do seated curls as opposed to standing. EMG is a method that uses electrodes to measure the force generated by a muscle when it contracts. Higher force generation, as measured by EMG, doesn’t necessarily mean one exercise leads to greater strength or hypertrophy gains, as a greater force generation is only one factor, but it’s an important one.
EMG studies show greater biceps activation with seated curls. Why might this be? When you do a seated curl, you’re in a stable position and other muscles don’t have to work harder to help you stabilize. Therefore, your brain can focus solely on sending impulses to the biceps muscles, allowing you to maximally generate force when you flex your biceps.
Another exercise that people commonly do standing is overhead presses. For this exercise, the standing position has advantages. EMG studies show standing for overhead presses activate the triceps and posterior deltoids more than doing the exercise in a seated position. However, the one-rep max was lower. This shows that you can manage less weight when you’re in a standing position compared to when you’re in a more stable seated position.
The Bottom Line
Consider your goals and the type of exercise you’re doing when deciding whether to sit or stand. EMG studies suggest overall muscle activation, particularly for the triceps and posterior deltoids, is greater with standing overhead presses. For biceps curls, seated may give you a strength and hypertrophy advantage as seated curls activate the biceps more and allow you to handle more weight. However, standing exercises are better for better functional strength that can help you if you play certain sports.
Why not do some of each? Challenging your muscles in different ways keeps them growing and helps you avoid overtraining. If you’re a beginner, start with seated exercises to help you zero in on the form and learn not to use momentum. Then, try standing versions of exercises like curls, triceps kickbacks, and overhead presses. Whatever you do, keep training!
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research,” 27 (7): 1824–1831, 2013
- Iron Man Magazine. “The Truth about Standing Curls”
- Eur J Appl Physiol. 2012 May;112(5):1671-8. doi: 10.1007/s00421-011-2141-7. Epub 2011 Aug 30.
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