November 02, 2021
Having highly defined and toned abs is great, but having a strong core is even better. Thankfully, if you do core specific exercises, aesthetics and strength come as a package. Now, one area of the core that you need to focus on for strength and building an impressive "six pack" is the upper abs. This is what we are focusing on here (as the title suggests). We’re going to hone in on the upper abs, covering how they function, how to target them, and what are the best upper ab exercises and workouts that you can start doing today!
But, before we completely dig into the upper rectus abdominis (abs), let us give you a quick lesson on the anatomy and function of the core muscles as a whole...
Your core muscles and six-pack abs aren’t just meant to look good, they have some major responsibilities in movement, support, and stability of your spine.
There are six main muscles in the core, and each muscle serves a primary function in how the body moves:
Let’s take a closer look at the muscles within your abdominals:
Rectus abdominis: The rectus abdominis is a long muscle that extends from the bottom of your sternum to the bottom of your pelvis. It is actually a paired muscle that is divided into two halves (left and right) by a band of connective tissue called the linea alba. As a whole, the rectus abdominis is your "six-pack" (or 2, 4, 8, or even 10 pack depending on your ab structure - everyone is different). The primary job of this muscle is to hold your internal organs in place and move the body between the ribcage and pelvis. When performing any flexion or anti-flexion of the core, your rectus abdominis will be activated.
External obliques: These large flat pairs of muscles are located on each side of the rectus abdominis. With low enough body fat, the external obliques can be seen as it is a superficial muscle. It is the largest of the lateral abdominal muscles (the other two being the internal obliques and the transversus abdominis). It main responsibility is to twist the body left and right and to bend side to side. It is also responsible for resisting these movements. Furthermore, the external obliques aid in contracting the abdomen.
Internal obliques: This broad and thin pair of muscles are located on each side of the rectus abdominis and are deep to the external obliques (covered by the external obliques). The muscle fibers run in the opposite direction to the external obliques, and while they have the same movement roles, they also work opposite to each other. So, when rotating to the left, your right external oblique is working with your left internal oblique (the internal oblique is a same side rotation muscle whereas the external oblique is an opposite side rotation muscle). Just a quick fun fact.
Related: Best Oblique Exercises
Transversus abdominis: The transversus abdominis is the deepest of the abdominal muscles, resting underneath both the obliques and the rectus abdominis. The muscle wraps all the way around your abdomen and to your spine. Its main job is spinal stability and to maintain normal abdominal tension. It is activated when drawing your belly button into your spine.
Related: Best Transversus Abdominis Exercises
First of all, there are no upper and lower abs, technically. The rectus abdominis (which are your "abs") is not divided into top and bottom halves, just left and right sides. Nevertheless, when discussing core workouts, there are exercises that better target the top portion of the rectus abdominis, or in other words, your "upper abs".
We can't say how many packs are the upper part and how many are the lower, as not everyone has the same number of abs. You can have 2-10 individual abs that make up your rectus abdominis. Of course, 6 is the most common, which is why everyone calls their abs a "sick pack".
Related: Abs (2, 4, 6, 8, 10) Explained
For the sake of keeping things simple, when referring to upper abs, it is the top portion of the rectus abdominis from about the belly button up.
Now, while the rectus abdominis is not split into bottom and top halves, anatomically speaking, it is good to differentiate the top and bottom part of your abs in workouts as certain exercises will better target the upper abs and certain exercises better target the lower abs.
Basically, the type of movements you perform (spinal flexion and hip flexion) will increase activation in one over the other, BUT both the upper and lower parts of your abs will be activated no matter what. It's just the degree of activation that makes some exercises better for the upper abs and some better for the lower abs.
Whenever you work the upper abs, you’ll be working the lower abs to a certain degree. The same holds true when you’re working the lower abs. However, with certain core exercises, there is a higher activation in either the upper or lower part of the rectus abdominis, allowing you to, in essence, isolate the upper abs or lower abs.
Your abs act on spinal flexion and hip flexion (as well as anti-extension). So, when discussing exercises for the rectus abdominis specifically, it will be one of these actions.
For your upper abs, they will be the most activated during movements that bring your upper body toward your hips/legs (spinal flexion).
For your lower abs, they will be most activated during movements that bring your legs/hip toward your upper body (hip flexion).
For example, the following exercises will target your upper abs:
The following ab exercises will target your lower abs,
Of course, there are exercises that combine both hip and spinal flexion so you can work both the upper and lower portions of your rectus abdominis - for example, V-Ups.
Moreover, with exercises like the plank, you are working your entire rectus abdominis to a high degree (as well as many other muscles) as you must resist both spinal and hip movement. The plank is an anti-extension movement, which, again, is one of the rectus abdominis jobs.
The secret to having well-defined abs is actually no secret at all...your diet is the key to revealing the hidden muscles. If you do not have a low enough body fat percentage, your abs muscles cannot be seen - no matter how strong or defined they are.
Let’s put this into perspective for you.
While various factors play a part in this, such as body types and fitness goals, a male will need to have around 13–16% body fat to see their abs, and a female will need around 22–25% body fat. For more defined abs, you will need to have an even lower percentage of body fat.
So when they say abs are made in the kitchen, it’s true.
You can have strong, tight abs, but if you have even the smallest amount of body fat covering, nobody will know.
However, with that being said, it’s likely that you can see the definition in the upper abs way before your lower abs. This is because lower belly fat is one of the most stubborn fats to lose and the most common area for fat to accumulate. Most people who workout regularly won't have much fat covering their upper abs, but many will still have that "pouch" covering the lower abs.
Related: The Best Cutting Workout & Diet Plan
If you’re not including ab workouts into your routine, it’s affecting your overall strength, endurance, and performance. People say big compound movements are enough for core strength, but the truth is, it's really not. If you aren't doing core specific exercises, you will have a weak link that is your core.
Your abdominal muscles are also an anchor for your back. Weak abdominal muscles place unnecessary strain on your back. Not only does this increase your risk of injury, but it also prevents you from achieving many fitness goals.
Besides having less strength and resilience, your abs are crucial for balance, coordination, posture and even stamina.
Put it this way, your abs are involved in pretty much every single movement you make. So, of course, it's going to be important to have them in tip-top shape.
The bonus is, working out your abs will make them more defined in time. You'll notice some nice, bigger, sharper looking abs when you achieve a lower body fat percentage. Sure, they don't have serious growth potential like other muscles (thankfully as that could get weird), and some people are naturally born with thicker abs, but anyone can develop their abs to make them standout more.
The best upper ab exercises are based on spinal flexion and anti-extension. There are plenty of upper ab exercises with and without equipment that are perfect for any fitness level. All of the exercises below emphasize the upper abs and can be made more or less difficult depending on your core strength and fitness level.
Here are 9 of the best upper ab exercises to include in your core workouts.
We will make note of progression (harder) and regression (easier) movement options where applicable.
According to most serious lifters, the barbell rollout is the ultimate ab exercises. If you want stronger, more defined abs, you’ll want to include this exercise into your routine.
To be quite frank, it's not just an "upper ab" exercise, it's an all around core exercise. But, because it is so effective for the upper abs, it deserves to be at the top of this list.
The barbell works many muscles, but in regards to the abs, which are the main focus of the exercise, it works them in two ways - when rolling the bar out, you are resisting hip and spinal extension (anti-extension) and then when rolling the bar in, you are performing spinal flexion. That's a double whammy of rectus abdominis activation!
Note: This is an advanced exercise as you must engage the ab muscles to prevent the pelvis from going into anterior tilt and hyperextending the lumbar spine.
Here’s how to perform the barbell rollout:
Best Rep Range: 6-12 reps
Progression: To make the exercise more difficult, you can do it from a standing position rather than a kneeling position. You can also use a band for additional resistance.
Regression: Some beginner alternatives include arm walkouts, arm slideouts, plank saws, and pikes.
The stability ball crunch is really great for honing in on the upper abs. It may look easy, but the activation is serious. You are going to feel some SERIOUS contraction in the upper abs.
The great thing about the stability ball is it allows for a greater range of motion (both contraction and stretching). Plus, it enhances balance and stability, improving your overall physical function by recruiting more muscle fibers and increasing muscle activation in the rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, and the obliques by 24% to 38%.
Here’s how to perform the stability ball crunch:
Best Rep Range: Failure
Progression: Hold a weighted plate or dumbbell at your chest.
The cable crunch is based on trunk flexion, as you are brining your upper body toward your legs. As such, it is an upper ab dominant exercise.
As a beginner, you’ll use lighter weight, and as you become stronger, you can adjust the weight level while maintaining proper form. This is great as it allows for easy progression. You can really control the difficulty of this exercise easily.
Here’s how to perform the cable crunch:
Best Rep Range: 8-15 reps
Difficulty: Can be adjusted to suit different levels of fitness. However, good posture throughout this exercise is essential. If you’re having trouble maintaining proper form, you can begin with the bodyweight version of the cable crunch until you get stronger.
This is essentially a reverse crunch, so it's going to work your upper abs very well too. Each time you lift your hips off the ground with your legs straight in the air, your upper abs are going to be powering the movement.
Here’s how to perform the hip lift:
Best Rep Range: 10-20 reps
Hollow holds are an isometric compound bodyweight exercise. There might not be movement, but it requires a lot of muscle activation, especially from the rectus abdominis.
The exercise uses all of the abdominal muscles and your low back to hold the position. However, it specifically targets the upper abs muscles by creating tension when contracting inward and creating intra-abdominal pressure, or IAP. It also works the lower abs well because you need to hold your legs up in position.
Here’s how to perform the hallow hold:
Best Rep Range: Failure (or 30-60 seconds) Really squeeze as you hold to increase difficulty and effectiveness.
Difficulty: Easy. The longer you hold the position, the more difficult this exercise will become, and the stronger you will become. Once you are able to hold this for one minute, you’ll progress into a hallow rock.
Progression: You can hold a light weight and something between your feet to increase the difficulty.
This bodyweight exercise primarily targets the abs, and specifically, the upper abs. This is a great exercise if you’re looking to improve abdominal strength and build muscles in your midsection. Different tuck crunch variations might be easier to perform, such as the chair ab tuck, stability ball tuck, or simply keeping your feet planted on the floor instead of lifted off the ground. However, lifting the feet off the ground will allow for better targeting of the upper abs.
Here’s how to perform the tuck crunch:
Best Rep Range: 10-20 reps
While this exercise will have your abs burning, you’ll also feel it in your shoulders, chest, back and legs. It's a total body bodyweight exercise.
If you want a strong core (and abs) this is the one. It's basically the bodyweight version of the barbell rollout as it works the core in the same manner. So, if you can't do ab rollouts or you just want to switch it up, do the front plank walkout.
Here’s how to perform the front plank walkout crunch:
Best Rep Range: Failure (30-60 seconds)
Difficulty: Medium. Consider starting with a plank, and once you're able to hold a plank for a minute, you can progress into this exercise.
Weighted decline situps are one of the most effective core exercises to improve your core strength and stabilize the body to prevent injury. The weights give you control over your progressions, allowing you to obtain your fitness goals.
Of course, as a beginner, you should start without any weight at all. You can cross your arms or hold them behind your head or straight out.
Because you are adding the extra resistance to the traditional sit up and placed in a declined position, you’re increasing the intensity of the workout for your rectus abdominus (as well as your transverse abdominis and obliques), especially the upper abs due to the movement being based on flexing your torso toward your legs.
Here’s how to perform the weighted decline sit up:
Best Rep Range: 8-15 reps
Regression: No weight.
This intense exercise does not only engage your entire core, it also recruits your hamstrings and your calves by keeping your legs extended in the air during the whole exercise.
In terms of the rectus abdominis, while it is an upper ab focused exercise due to the movement being trunk flexion, it is also great for your lower abs as they will be activated in an isometric manner to keep your legs up.
All in all, there's no doubt that the hundred exercises will get your breath going as it builds a strong core, improving stamina and coordination. Stability and control are essential to the exercise.
Here’s how to perform the hundred:
Best Rep Range: 10-20 reps
Most people do the crunch incorrectly, and it affects the neck and the back.
Here are some of the wrong things to do when performing a crunch,
Here are some of the right things to do when performing a crunch,
Here are some of the wrong things to do when performing a plank,
Here are some of the right things to do when performing a plank,
Related: 29 Best Plank Variations
How many sets you can do per week will depend on your fitness level. Sets can range from 2 to 10 but can be up to 20 sets. Choosing the best number of sets for your fitness level will require your best judgment coupled with progression.
You can train your abs every day as long as you are training different core muscles, and this will train your muscles evenly and avoid overtraining any single muscle group.
If your core is sore, take a rest. Overtraining is never a good idea. Like other muscles, your abs need to recover. And if eventually you are finding that your abs are not getting sore ever, then you need to take progression up a notch (do more reps or add an external load or do harder variations). If your core workouts are getting easier, you are not progressive overloading.
Because the abdominals are made up of both slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscle fibers, it’s important that you are using a combination of low weight and high reps and heavy weight and low reps. Moreover, you need to give them time to rest and recover after training (you can't train your abs every day! at least not if you are training them properly).
If you want to maximize your results, here are a few things that you can do,
Generally, 5-20 reps, and should bring you to near failure. So a good rule of thumb with low weights and high reps is if you’re not reaching failure with 20 reps, you need to increase the weight. And the same goes for heavyweight and low reps, if you’re not reaching failure with 8 reps, you’ll want to increase the weight.
A good, well-rounded ab workout will consist of lower and upper ab hypertrophy exercises as well as lower and upper ab strength exercises. This means spreading out sets that will target the different functions of the abs that we’ve previously discussed in this article.
To achieve this, you will do ab-specific workouts throughout your week. For example, one day, you’ll do an upper ab workout the next session, you’ll focus on the obliques or do erector spinae exercises. The goal is to focus on the entire abs over different sessions or do a couple of sets for each in one workout, 2-3 times a week.
20 reps of each exercise in order for a 10-minute AMRAP
Do planks work upper abs?
Yes, when you properly perform a plank, it engages your abs, including your upper abs, and helps to develop a strong core.
What happens if I train abs everyday?
Your abs are broken up into different muscles, and because of this, you are able to work out different ab muscles every day while giving the others a break. You should not target the same muscles consecutively.
How do you tone your upper stomach?
Toning your upper stomach requires doing ab-specific workouts that target your top abs while also reducing the fat layer covering your abs.
How to get rid of upper belly fat?
Your diet is the critical component to getting rid of upper belly fat. No amount of cardio or exercises by itself is going to be enough to burn fat.
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