Best Upper Abs Exercises
Contrary to what many people think, the rectus abdominis, or abs for short, is not made of two muscles – the upper abs and the lower abs. Instead, it’s one flat muscle that runs continuously from your sternum and lower ribs down to your pelvis. Its primary functions are:
That said, because the abs are innervated (controlled) by several different nerves, it is possible to contract and emphasize the upper or lower fibers of your abs preferentially.
That doesn’t mean you have upper abs and lower abs. It’s just that you can choose to lift your shoulders toward your hips (e.g., crunches) or lift your hips toward your shoulders (e.g., hanging knee raises). You can also do both of these movements at the same time, (e.g., double crunches).
Whenever you do ANY abs exercise, all the fibers of your abs are working. It’s just that by choosing specific movements, you can emphasize one section over the other.
Experience this for yourself. Get down on the floor, bend your legs, and place your feet flat on the floor. Place one hand on your upper abdomen and one hand on your lower abdomen. Lift your shoulders, and you’ll feel muscle tension increase under both hands, but it may be more noticeable toward the top.
Next, with your head and shoulders on the floor, lift your legs instead. This time, you should feel more muscle tension under your lower hand. However, the uppermost section is will still feel like it’s working.
So, while there is no upper abs or lower abs muscle, you can preferentially target the upper or lower fibers by choosing specific exercises (1).
In this article, we reveal the ten best exercises that target the upper fibers of your rectus abdominus. Remember, though, these exercises will not isolate your upper abs, and all the other fibers of your rectus abdominus will be working, too.
Target the upper fibers of your rectus abdominis with these awesome upper abs exercises!
While there is nothing inherently wrong with bodyweight abs exercises, once you can do 20 or more reps without difficulty, they start to become less efficient and productive. Cable crunches can help keep your sets in the 8-20 rep range, which provides a good balance between mechanical tension and metabolic stress and saves you from doing lots of inefficient high rep sets.
Cable crunches can be done kneeling or standing.
Read more about this effective upper abs exercise here.
No cable machine? No problem! You can also overload your abs using a dumbbell, kettlebell, medicine ball, or barbell. Weighted crunches are an excellent option for home exercisers who may not have access to a cable machine.
When you do regular crunches, your range of motion is limited by the floor. However, doing crunches on a stability ball means you can take your spine into a more extended position, stretching your abs and increasing your range of motion. This, combined with the instability of the ball, increases muscle activation and produces a more intense upper abs contraction.
Doing crunches on a decline bench increases the amount of weight you’ve got to lift. If floor crunches are no longer challenging, and you don’t want to use cables or freeweights to make your workout harder, this is a useful alternative. The steeper the angle of your bench, the more intense this exercise becomes.
Learn more about this effective lower abs exercise in this guide.
Most abdominal exercises are done slowly and smoothly to maximize muscle tension. But what if you want to increase strength and power? Medicine ball sit-ups and throws are done explosively, so they’re better for developing power and are also just a fun exercise because they’re so different from the usual slow and smooth abs exercises most people rely on.
There aren’t too many upper abs exercises that are more challenging than hanging or inverted sit-ups. You’ll need anti-gravity boots to do this exercise, or you can also do it by hanging from the backs of your legs from a pull-up bar or hand ladder at a playground.
Take extra care when doing this exercise because of the risk of falling and also that blood will rush to your head, which could leave you feeling dizzy.
Janda sit-ups are named after Czechoslovakian exercise physiologist Vladimir Janda, MD, DSc. It’s a special sit-up where you contract your glutes and hamstrings to inhibit (turn off) your hip flexors, so your abs are forced to do more work than usual.
Because they involve lifting your head and shoulders off the floor, Janda sit-ups emphasize the upper fibers of the rectus abdominis. Done correctly, this is a very intense abs exercise.
Read more about Janda sit-ups in this guide.
Rollouts are a very tough upper abs exercise. You can do them with an abs wheel or, for a more intense workout, with a loaded barbell. You can also do them using a suspension trainer, stability ball, or even a landmine.
With all types of rollout, you MUST brace your abs and use them to prevent lumbar extension. If you can do 20 or more kneeling rollouts, you are probably ready to do them standing, which is MUCH more demanding.
Read all about rollouts here.
Hollow rocks are an intense gymnastic abdominal exercise that you’ll really feel in your upper abs. This exercise is popular with CrossFit and is considered essential for doing advanced calisthenic moves, such as front levers and single-arm pull-ups.
The dragon flag is a killer core exercise that may or may not have been invented by martial arts legend Bruce Lee. While it looks like a leg raise, it’s your upper abs that are doing most of the work as they have to work hard to support your entire lower body. Take care, though; this is an intense exercise that’s only suitable for people who already have strong abs.
Related: 6 Ways To Get Shredded Lower Abs
While the upper fibers of the abs are undoubtedly important, it’s essential to remember that the rectus abdominis is just one of the muscles that make up your core. If you want a strong, functional midsection, you need to supplement your upper abs training with exercises for your obliques, transverse abdominis, and the lower fibers of rectus abdominis too. Neglecting these muscles could lead to postural problems and even cause back pain.
So, use the exercises in this article to target your upper abs, but don’t forget the other muscles that make up your core.
1 – PubMed: Muscle Activity in Upper and Lower Rectus Abdominus During Abdominal Exercises https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8976314/
Patrick Dale is an ex-British Royal Marine, gym owner, and fitness qualifications tutor and assessor. In addition, Patrick is a freelance writer who has authored three fitness and exercise books, dozens of e-books, thousands of articles, and several fitness videos. He’s not just an armchair fitness expert; Patrick practices what he preaches! He has competed at a high level in numerous sports, including rugby, triathlon, rock climbing, trampolining, powerlifting, and, most recently, stand up paddleboarding. When not lecturing, training, researching, or writing, Patrick is busy enjoying the sunny climate of Cyprus, where he has lived for the last 20-years.
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© Copyright 2010 – 2021 Fitnes Volt IBC. All Rights Reserved.
This article was written by one of our qualified writers, and fact-checked by our experts. The numbers in parentheses (e.g. 1, 2, 3, etc.) throughout the article, are reference links to peer-reviewed studies.
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