The 7 Best Upper Ab Exercises for a Stronger Core

Try these great upper ab exercises for beginner, intermediate, and advanced gym-goers.

A strong core looks great (assuming your diet is in check), but it also is the focal point of your entire body. So, without a strong core, you probably won’t be that strong in general. Really, you’re core is made up of a few different muscles that tie together to help you bend and twist. In this article, the upper abs are the focus. Your upper abs, which are a part of the rectus abdominis, or six-pack muscle, is what flexes your spine forward. 

Below are seven best upper ab exercises for overall upper core development, strength, and aesthetics. In addition to outlining these basic tried-and-true movements, we also give you more advanced variations to try.

Best Upper Ab Exercises

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McGill Curl Up 

There’s a ton of exercises that train the upper abs that involve flexing and extending the spine. And if you’re suffering from lower back pain and still want to build your upper abs, the McGill Curl Up is perfect. The lumbar spine remains neutral while you’re flexing and extending your upper abs to not exasperate lower back pain.   

Benefits of the McGill Curl Up

  • Minimizes stress on your lower back while increasing the endurance of upper core muscles.
  • A great exercise for beginners and those with lower back pain.
  • It helps to develop core stability while helping to reduce chronic lower back pain.

How to Do the McGill Curl Up

Lie face up on the ground with one leg bent and foot flat on the floor while the other leg is straight. Put both of your hands behind the small of your back to maintain your lower back’s natural curve. Take a breath and lift your breast bone towards the ceiling while keeping your neck long. Pause for a few seconds and slowly lower down and repeat.

Hollow Hold

The hollow hold is like an upside-down plank. You balance on your butt, with your legs and arms extended to lengthen your center of mass. Since your upper abs are at your center, they will be working the hardest to keep you stable and upright. Aside from being an effective exercise, this is a great move as it requires little space and no equipment. 

Benefits of the Hollow Hold

  • You’ll build a more stable base, which will carry over to your lifts and athletic performances. 
  • The isometric nature of the move creates a stronger ability to brace, and bracing is important for all your big lifts as this helps protect your spine.

How to Do the Hollow Hold

Lay on your back with arms extended overhead and legs pressed together. Lift your legs and upper torso off the floor. Hold this position. To perform the hollow rock, simply rock back and forth in this position, minimizing movement at the hip and shoulder joints.

Ab Rollout

In the ab rollout, you either grip a barbell loaded with plates, an ab wheel, or an exercise ball to extend your torso towards the ground. The ab rollout strengthens the upper abs by lengthening them, which targets your eccentric strength. Getting stronger in an extended position improves core stability and recruits upper ab muscle fibers that would otherwise be untouched, and because of this, you’ll get stronger.   

Benefits of the Ab Rollout

  • Increased muscle development, like the exercise, challenges you during both the lowering and lifting phase. 
  • More strength in a lengthened (or eccentric) position.

How to Perform the Ab Rollout

Get on your knees and grip your equipment of choice with hands shoulder-width apart. Extend your hips towards the floor and let your chest sink forward toward the ground without overarching your lower back. The longer range of motion, the harder the exercise, so shorten your ROM if you’re new to the exercise. Squeeze the lat muscles and pull yourself back to the starting position. 

Weighted Cable Crunch

Holding a plate behind your head or on your chest for a weighted crunch can be uncomfortable. Plus, the stronger you get, it becomes difficult and unsafe to add more weight. However, you don’t have this problem with the kneeling cable crunch. Using a cable station allows you to add more weight than the standard weighted crunch and the constant tension from the cable means your upper ab muscles work harder at every point in the exercise’s ROM.

Benefits of the Weighted Kneeling Cable Crunch

  • Allows you to load up more than the standard weighted crunch helping build more upper ab strength and muscle.
  • Constant tension through a large ROM allows you to build more upper ab muscle.

How to Do the Kneeling Weighted Cable Crunch

With a rope handle attachment on a cable machine, get down on your knees a few feet in front of the weight stack, holding the rope behind your head and neck. Then crunch forward, bringing your forearms down to your knees and your head to the floor. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat.  

Deadbug Pullover

The offset nature of the kettlebell combined with the standard deadbug movement put extra demand on your upper core, shoulders, and lats. The pullover is a fantastic movement for the chest and lats, but lifters can overextend their lower back in an effort for more range of motion or extra reps.

The Benefits of the Pullover Deadbug

  • Improves lumbo-pelvic stability.
  • Reinforces correct breathing patterns and good pullover technique.
  • It prevents misalignment and encourages good posture.

How to Do the Deadbug Pullover

Grab a kettlebell by the horns, press it over your chest, and flex your knees to 90 degrees. Press your low back into the ground, take a deep breath before you start, and exhale while extending one leg while lowering the kettlebell behind you, and alternate legs. Have a slight bend in your elbows and let your core stability and shoulder mobility decide your overhead range of motion.

Dragonfly

Dragonflies can be performed on the floor, weight bench, or for a real challenge, a decline bench. When the dragonfly is performed slowly and correctly, it’s one of the toughest bodyweight exercises around. This is why it was a favorite of martial arts master Bruce Lee. Although it targets the upper abs, it is a total body exercise that requires you to resist the pull of gravity. 

Benefits of the Dragonfly

How to Do the Dragonfly

Lie on your back and hold a sturdy pole, column, or bench behind you. Lift your hips as you roll your weight on your shoulders. Then lift your legs and torso into a straight line, keeping your weight on your shoulders and upper back. Slowly lower your legs towards the floor until they’re parallel, keeping your core and glutes engaged. Pause for a few seconds and return to the starting position.

Weighted Strict Toes To Bar

Hanging from a pull-up bar with a medicine ball between your feet, bringing your feet to touch the bar in between your hands without using any momentum is one of the toughest exercises you’ll do, period. And not only will the weighted toes to bar increase your upper ab strength, but this builds your grip, adductors, upper back, and shoulder strength, too. 

Benefits of the Weighted Toes To Bar

  • Hanging from the bar will increase your grip, shoulder, and upper back strength.
  • The large range of motion with weight makes it a great exercise for upper ab hypertrophy.

How to Do the Weighted Toes To Bar

Place a med ball between your ankles, squeeze it and then jump up and grab the chin-up bar with a wider than shoulder-width grip. Then squeeze the legs, thighs, med ball, and glutes together as you lift the toes and med ball to the bar. Touch the ball to the bar between your hands and slowly lower the ball down while pushing your upper body forward to stay straight underneath the bar. Reset and repeat.

All About The Upper Abs

The core’s most important function is resisting movement while you’re moving. Think anti-extension, anti-rotation, and anti-flexion. This helps protect your spine from unnecessary stress while moving with the load.

When performing squats or deadlifts, keeping your spine neutral and body in good alignment is important for good technique, possibly preventing injury, and lifting heavy weight.

Think of your core as a bridge between your lower and upper body. When the bridge cannot stand the weight on it, it begins to break, and bad things start to happen. It doesn’t matter how strong your legs or upper body is because you’re only as strong as your weakest link.

Plus, with a lot of the population sitting and hunched over, this wreaks havoc on your posture and may cause lower back pain. Training your core stability and endurance with these exercises above is one piece of the puzzle in helping to reduce low back pain. 

Anatomy of the Upper Core 

Your core has multiple muscles, and understanding what they are and how they function is important in obtaining a stronger and functional upper core built to last. Here’s a breakdown of the major upper core muscles. 

Ab muscles
I T A L O/Shutterstock

Rectus Abdominis

The rectus abdominis is what most people know as the abs. It runs vertically up the front of the torso and is responsible for spinal flexion and anti-extension (sit-ups and planks). This muscle is often targeted when people train their core and can be very resilient to fatigue because it’s a slow-twitch muscle fiber dominant area.    

Obliques

The obliques are made up of two muscles — internal and external obliques. They’re located beside the rectus abdominis running from the hips to the rib cage. The internal obliques are located directly under the external obliques, and the muscle fibers travel perpendicular to each other. They’re responsible for rotation of the torso and anti-rotation.

Transverse Abdominals

Think of the transversus abdominis is the belt you tighten your loose pants with. The TA plays a vital role in maintaining abdominal tension, increasing intraabdominal pressure, which protects your spine under heavy loads. It sits under your rectus abdominis and wraps around your spine. 

The Benefits of Training the Upper Abs

The core exercises above train the muscles in the pelvis, hips, and anterior core to work together. This leads to better balance, stability, and strength, whether on the playing field or doing yardwork.

For the powerlifter or strength athlete who puts tremendous compressive and shearing forces on their spine, having a strong core helps keep the spine neutral. Plus, a strong and stable core helps transfer power from the lower to the upper body without any energy leaks.

For the lifter who wants to get stronger to the person who wants to get out in the yard, having a stronger core with more endurance allows you to do more work with less discomfort.

Programming Suggestions

There are a few ways you can go about programming core exercises into your routine. First, after your warm-up and while you’re fresh to help prime your core for the barbell. For example, you can do this core tri-set. 

  • 1A. Deadbug
  • 1B. Ab Rollout
  • 1C.  Weighted Cable Crunch 

Secondly, you can pair an upper core with a strength exercise that enhances and doesn’t take anything away from the lift. For example:

  • 1A. Bench Press
  • 1B. Dragonfly

How Often Should You Train the Upper Abs?

For most beginners, training abs directly two to three days per week will be enough to notice improvement. However, more advanced liters may need to target the abs three to five days per week with various loading and movements for optimal results.

More Ab Training Tips

Now that you have a handle on the best upper ab exercises to strengthen your core, you can also check out these other helpful core training articles for strength, power, and fitness athletes.

Featured image: I T A L O/Shutterstock