A strong core looks great (assuming your diet is in check), but it also is the focal point of your performance in the gym. Without a strong core, you probably won’t be that strong in general. Your core is made up of a few different muscles that tie together to help you bend, twist, and resist crumbling under a heavy barbell.
The abs are a muscle like any other, but there’s more than a little nuance that goes into how you train them optimally. If you want to get the most value out of your workouts, you’ve got to get your core training right.
Below are 15 of the best upper ab exercises for overall upper core development, strength, and aesthetics. In addition to outlining these basic tried-and-true movements, read on to learn more about core anatomy, training frequency, and how to make the best gains possible.
Best Upper Ab Exercises
- McGill Curl Up
- Hollow Hold
- Abdominal Rollout
- Weighted Cable Crunch
- Deadbug Pullover
- Weighed Strict Toes to Bar
- TRX Unilateral Rollout
- Hanging Knee Raise
- Weighted Stability Ball Crunch
- RKC Plank
- Dumbbell Pullover
- Stability Ball Fallout
- Landmine Rollout
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- Strengthens all of your core stabilizing muscles.
- This helps you to build up shoulder strength and upper ab muscle mass.
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.
TRX Unilateral Rollout
The TRX Unilateral Rollout exercise is similar to the stability ball rollout or the barbell ab roller movement. It trains the anterior core including the upper abs and lots of shoulder stability too. Performing a movement unilaterally takes away the stability of training with two hands, giving you more bang for your core buck.
Benefits of the TRX Unilateral Rollout
- Trains the upper abs, anti-extension, and shoulder stability at the same time
- Strengthens imbalances between sides if any exist.
- A tall kneeling position helps to improve hip mobility.
How to Do the TRX Unilateral Rollout
Get into a tall kneeling position with your toes on the ground and with the TRX straps interlocked, a few inches off the floor with the strap over the shoulder and your arm straight. Raise your arm and fall forward until your body is in a straight line from your wrist to your knees. Squeeze your glutes to prevent the lower back from extending. Then return to the starting position and repeat.
Hanging Knee Raise
The hanging knee raise is a beginner-friendly exercise that requires minimal equipment and is excellent for increasing the upper and lower ab muscles’ size. You can progress the exercise by straightening your legs or holding a dumbbell between your knees. Plus, hanging from a bar will seriously boost your grip strength which will help with all exercises that involve grip strength.
Benefits of the Hanging Knee Raise
- Increases torso coordination and overall body control.
- Trains the upper and lower abs.
- It’s scalable and easily adjustable depending on your proficiency.
How to Do the Hanging Knee Raise
Hang from a bar with a slightly wider grip than shoulder-width apart, and shoulder blades squeezed together. Press legs together and pull your knees up to chest height without using momentum. To minimize swinging, keep tension in the upper abs and upper back.
Weighted Stability Ball Crunch
Some people boo-boo on spinal flexion exercises, but the weighted stability ball crunch trains this movement safely without too much lower back involvement while adding strength to the upper abs. Doing this crunch on a stability ball increases activation of your core stabilizers, which may help provide greater resistance to injury. (1)
Adding weight further strengthens and builds muscle in your upper abs.
Benefits of the Weighted Stability Ball Crunch
- Trains flexion with resistance while keeping spinal flexion to a minimum. .
- The stability ball engages more upper ab muscles than performing crunches on the floor.
How to Do the Weighted Stability Ball Crunch
Lie on a stability ball with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. The ball should be directly under your hips and lower back. Hold a weight at your chest or behind your head for an additional challenge. Crunch your torso forward until your mid-back comes off the ball. Hold briefly at the top before slowly returning to the starting position.
This is not your everyday front plank. The RKC plank looks the same as a regular plank, but with a few tweaks to create a ton of full-body tension. You’ll actively press your arms and hands into the floor, squeeze your quads, and pull your elbows and toes toward each other. This means some serious tension for your anterior core including your upper abs. If you’re doing this right, 20 seconds will feel like forever.
Benefits of the RKC Plank
- The entire core region works as a unit to create tension which improves your overall strength.
- Strengthens the deep ab muscles that surround the spine which improves your ability to keep your spine neutral under a heavy load.
How to Do the RKC Plank
Start in a plank position on your elbows. Clench your fists hard and pull your shoulders down and back. Squeeze your quads to lock your knees and your glutes to lock your hips as hard as you can. Pull your elbows towards your feet, take deep, measured breaths, and use them as your rep count. Hit five to start.
The sit-up is a classic bodyweight exercise done by lifters of any experience level and with no equipment. This move primarily targets the rectus abdominis and will put serious time under tension to help to grow these muscles for better definition and hypertrophy.
Benefits of the Sit-Up
- An excellent choice for creating muscular tension in your upper abs.
- There’s virtually no learning curve so you can jump right in.
How to Do the Sit-Up
Lie flat on the floor with your knees bent at 90 degrees and hands across your chest. Flex the abs to pull your torso up to your knees. Contract your core at the top, and slowly descend back down. That’s one rep.
An old-school bodybuilding classic (that really needs to make a comeback), the pullover can be performed with one or two dumbbells, a barbell, or a cable. The beauty of this movement is that it works the chest and back simultaneously for size and strength.
The act of pulling the dumbbell over you carves nice, jagged-looking serratus due to the upward and protraction movement from the scapula. Plus, the dumbbell pullover trains your upper abs as your anterior core will be preventing low back extension.
Benefits of the Dumbbell Pullover
- Puts the serratus anterior through a large range of motion for increased hypertrophy potential.
- Builds the muscles of your chest and back simultaneously.
- Improves the strength of your anterior core as you need to brace your glutes and core to prevent low back extension.
How to Do the Dumbbell Pullover
Lay face up on a bench, side on to it with your feet firmly planted on the ground while maintaining a slight arch in your lower back. Either bridge up to engage the chest more or keep your glutes down and chest up to engage your lats more.
Slightly bend your elbows and press the weight over your chest. Lower your arms back, maintaining a slight bend in your elbows. Keep lowering the weight until you feel a stretch in your chest muscles and lats. Then pull the dumbbell over your chest, pause and slowly lower back to the starting position, and repeat.
Stability Ball Fallout
This exercise is similar to the barbell ab rollout as it trains spinal anti-extension, except you start in a higher position and the unstable ball slows down the movement to give your upper abs more time under tension. This is a solid option to train your upper abs if another exercise aggravates your shoulders.
Benefits of the Stability Ball Fallout
- Trains the upper abs and the lower back muscles that regulate spinal extension.
- The instability of the ball helps your focus on good technique and gives your upper abs some serious time under tension.
- Easier on the shoulders than the ab and TRX fallout.
How to Do the Stability Ball Fallout
Having something soft underneath your knees helps. Get into a tall kneeling position with your hands on the stability ball and your arms straight. Get upright, squeeze your glutes, and roll the ball forward until your upper arms are on the ball. Keep your torso straight. Roll back to the starting position and reset and repeat.
The landmine rollout takes the ab rollout to a new level. In the standard barbell rollout, you’re going in a straight line but with the landmine rollout, your torso follows the arc on the landmine which trains your obliques and anti-rotation as well as your upper abs. Plus, you have to do both sides giving you added volume and fun for your core.
Benefits of the Landmine Rollout
- Trains the upper abs from a different angle for better muscle development.
- Improved anti-rotational strength.
- Added volume because you’re doing both sides.
How to Do the Landmine Rollout
With a pad underneath your knees, get into a tall kneeling position in front of the loaded landmine. Hold the end of the barbell with your hands underneath your shoulders and engage your glutes and core to keep your spine neutral. Roll out until your torso is almost parallel to the floor and pull back to the starting position and reset and repeat. Perform all your reps on one side and then do the other,
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. Since many strength movements involve the core and upper abs, you need to be careful not to go overboard and take away from your performance. For beginners, doing a core tri-set before strength training but after your warm-up helps prime your core for the barbell.
For example, you can do this core tri-set.
- 1A. Deadbug
- 1B. Ab Rollout
- 1C. Weighted Cable Crunch
However, more advanced liters may need to target their abs three to five days per week with various loading and movements for optimal results. This is achieved with a core tri-set above and pairing the upper abs exercise with a strength exercise that enhances and doesn’t take anything away from the lift. For example:
- 1A. Bench Press
- 1B. Dragonfly
All About The Upper Abs
The core’s most important function is actually resisting movement. Think anti-extension, anti-rotation, and anti-flexion. This helps protect your spine from unnecessary stress while moving under 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. It doesn’t matter how strong your legs or upper body are — you’re only as strong as your weakest link.
Plus, spending lots of time in a seated or hunched-over position wreaks havoc on your posture and may cause lower back pain. Training your core stability and endurance with these exercises 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.
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.
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.
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.
Upper Ab Training Tips
The upper abs are not trained in isolation, but in conjunction with other muscles of the posterior and anterior core muscles. You’ll focus on the upper abs by using the 15 exercises above, but the other core muscles will be trained too. Keep this in mind when programming your core training.
The upper abs are like any other muscles, they get stronger and more defined with progressive overload. Bodyweight moves like rollouts, RKC plank and sit-ups can be perfumed more frequently because they’ll be easier to recover from. Training every day is a stretch, but three to four times a week if getting a more defined core is your goal works well.
Strength-training movements like the weighted toes to bar, pullover, or stability ball crunches should be trained less often because of the extra external load. It’s best to mix up your weighted core exercises to avoid overuse or fatigue. As always, let performance and recovery be your guide.
1. Phys Ther. 2000 Jun;80(6):564-9. Abdominal muscle response during curl-ups on both stable and labile surfaces. Vera-Garcia FJ1, Grenier SG, McGill SM.
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