4 Upper Ab Workouts to Build an Iron Core At Any Fitness Level

Try these great upper ab exercises for beginner, intermediate, and advanced athletes!

Developing a strong core is key for strength, power, and fitness sports. Proper execution, programming, and understanding of the various types of core training movements is necessary to isolate specific muscle groups and bring up areas of weakness a lifter may have. The upper abdominals are a region of the core that are often targeted to increase core strength and enhance muscular definition.

What are the Upper Abs?

The upper abs are the region of the rectus abdominis that are above the belly button. These are targeted by flexion of the spine. More hip flexion based movements (leg raises for example) target more of the lower abdominals.

When looking to target the upper abs, it is important to focus on lifting the upper torso through contracting the abdominals rather than using momentum. The below sections will discuss training frequency and offer all level lifters a variety of upper abdominal focused workouts to build serious core strength.

Upper Ab Exercises
Photo By Master1305 / Shutterstock

How Often Should You Train the Upper Abs?

In our previous article, “How Often Should You Train Your Abs”, we dispelled common ab training myths and discussed how the individual fiber types of the abs can impact the training frequency, volume, and intensity.

For most beginners, training abs directly 2-3 days per week will be enough to notice improvement, however more advanced liters may need to target the abs 3-5 days per week with a variety of loading and movements for optimal results.

4 Upper Ab Workouts to Build An Iron Core

Below are four (4) upper ab workouts that can be used to build core strength, increase muscle definition, and enhance core stability during hard training and physical activity. The below workouts can be broken down into beginner, intermediate, and advanced lifter workouts to better suit the abilities of the lifter.

For the Beginner Lifter

Beginner lifters should place emphasis on movement control, engagement of the abdominals, and core strength and stamina. The below movements place a beginner in positions that minimize the likelihood of lumbar stress yet still allow for them to increase upper abs and core development.

  • McGill Sit Up – 4 sets of 10 reps per side, with 3 second hold at the top of every rep
    • Rest 45-60 seconds between sets
  • Hollow Hold – 4 sets of 15-30 seconds
    • Superset with Hollow Tucks – 4 sets of 15-30 seconds
    • Rest 45-60 seconds between sets

For the Intermediate Lifter…

The intermediate lifter can use the below workout to build upon their foundation strength, core stability, and enhance their ability to create tension under load. These movements are progressed variations of the beginner exercises above, however can be used to bridge the gap between beginner and more advanced upper ab exercises.

  • Weighted Ab Mat Sit Up – 4 sets of 15-20 reps
    • Superset with weighted plank – 4 sets of 30 seconds
    • Minimal rest periods between sets
  • Ab Wheel – 4 sets of 8-12 reps
    • Superset with weighted Russian twist – 4 sets of 12 reps per side
    • Minimal rest periods between sets

For the Advanced Lifter…

This workout is for the advanced functional fitness, CrossFit, or lifter looking to increase upper abdominal strength and definition. In addition to this upper abdominal workout, we will also integrate some isometric exercises to increase strength in compound lifts.

  • Weighted Cable Crunch – 4 sets of 8-12 reps, pauses at the bottom and top of the movement
    • Superset with weighted plank – 4 sets of 30 seconds
    • Minimal rest periods between sets
  • Weighed Strict Toes to Bar – 4 sets of 8-12 reps
    • Superset with weighted russian twist – 4 sets of 12 reps per side
    • Minimal rest periods between sets

For the ALL Bodyweight Lifter…

This workout is geared for someone who has NO equipment of external loading. This can be a beginner working out at home or an advanced lifter who is looking to master bodyweight exercises. Either way, the below workout has a prescribed and a regressed exercise option based on the level of the lifter.

  • Deadbug – 3 sets of 10 reps per leg
    • Superset with Side Plank – 3 sets of 30 seconds per side
    • Minimal rest between sets
  • Dragonflies – 4 sets of 8-10 reps, with slow eccentric 
    • If you cannot do these, do lying leg raises, with slow 2-3 second eccentric
    • Rest 45-60 seconds between sets
  • McGill Roll Up – 3 sets of 15-20 reps per side
    • Superset with Russian Twists – 3 sets of 15-20 reps per side

More Ab Training Articles

Want more core training articles, workouts, and guides? Take a look at some of our popular core training content to maximize core strength and muscle definition.

Feature image from Master1305 / Shutterstock
Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at New York University. Mike is also the Founder of J2FIT, a strength and conditioning brand in New York City that offers personal training, online programs, and has an established USAW Olympic Weightlifting club.

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