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:
- Flexion of your spine
- Lateral flexion of your spine
- Compression of the abdominal contents
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.
10 Best Upper Abs Exercises
Target the upper fibers of your rectus abdominis with these awesome upper abs exercises!
1. Cable Crunch
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.
2. Weighted Crunch
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.
How to do it:
- Lie on your back with your legs bent and feet flat. Hold your weight on your chest, behind your head, or with your arms extended above you.
- Without lifting your legs, exhale and lift your head and shoulders a few inches off the ground.
- Inhale, lie back down, and repeat.
- If using heavy weights, it may be necessary to anchor your feet. However, doing so increases hip flexor and lower abs recruitment.
3. Stability Ball Crunch
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.
How to do it:
- Sit on your stability ball. Lean back and walk your feet forward until the ball fills the curve of your lower back. Place your hands on your temples or across your chest as preferred. Lie back, so your knees, hips, and shoulders form a straight line.
- Exhale, contract your abs and curl your shoulders toward your hips.
- Lie back down, inhale, and repeat.
- You can also do this exercise with weights to make it harder.
4. Decline Crunch
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.
5. Medicine Ball sit-up and Throw
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.
How to do it:
- Lie on your back 6-10 feet from a sturdy wall. Bend your legs and plant your feet flat on the floor. Hold a medicine ball in your hands.
- Lower the medicine ball to the floor behind your head and then sit up.
- Use your arms and abs to hurl the ball at the wall.
- Catch the ball as it bounces back, lay back down, and do another rep.
- You can also do this exercise with a partner. They can stand and catch the ball, acting as a coach or trainer, or lie down opposite you and work out at the same time.
6. Hanging Sit-up
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.
How to do it:
- Hang upside down using whatever method is available. Place your hands on your temples, across your chest, or on your thighs.
- Flex your spine and curl your shoulders toward your hips.
- Return to the starting position and repeat.
7. Janda Sit-up
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.
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.
9. Hollow Rock
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.
How to do it:
- Lie on your back with your arms above your head, biceps next to your ears.
- Brace your abs and raise your arms, head, shoulders, and legs off the floor, so your body forms a shallow C-shape. There should be no space under your lower back. Press your legs together and point your toes.
- Maintaining this position, and without flexing your hips or shoulders, roll your weight toward your feet and then up to your upper back.
- Continue rocking until you are unable to maintain the hollow position.
10. Dragon Flag
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.
How to do it:
- Lie on your back on the floor. Grip an anchor behind your head to keep your upper body stable.
- Raise your legs so that they’re vertical and your weight is on your upper back and head only. Brace your abs and lock your legs straight.
- Keeping your body and legs as straight as possible, lower yourself down until your feet are just a few inches from the floor. Your legs, butt, and back should NOT touch down.
- Pull yourself back up to the vertical and repeat.
- This exercise can also be done with your legs bent – a tuck dragon flag – which is considerably easier.
Wrapping Up Upper Abs Exercises
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/