Having a strong core is not only an aesthetic bonus (cue six-pack abs) but is essential in maintaining a strong body and progressing through any exercise routine.
The body’s core is responsible for stability and mobility, as well as strength, and there are very few functional movements that do not make use of it.
For weight lifters, CrossFit athletes, or even endurance runners, having a strong core is essential.
What does “the core” mean exactly?
When we refer to the core or the abs, we are really talking about two main muscle group distinctions, the global stability muscles, and the deep stability muscles. When referring to the upper abs, the normal distinction is any of the groups that are take up space above the belly button.
Even though this distinction is commonly made, many of the abdominal groups have both upper and lower components, depending on their attachments to the spine or lumbar, or their general location. Both of these muscle groups play an integral role in upper abdominal strength.
Deep Stability Muscles
These local stabilizers attach directly to the lumbar spine and are activated as you begin a movement. Some of the most essential local stability muscles are the diaphragm, the pelvic floor, and then transversus abdominis.
When we are sitting, walking, or even talking, these deep muscles are running at a low intensity to keep your core strong and balanced.
Global Stability Muscles
The global system is often referred to as the movement muscles. They provide bursts of speed and intensity and are not always activated. The external obliques, gluteus medius, and the “six-pack” rectus abdominis are some of the big players in the global stability system.
As we go through some of the most popular (and effective) upper ab exercises, keep in mind which muscles are being activated in each group, and don’t forget to work those muscles you may not be able to see.
The upper part of the rectus abdominis muscle is widely accepted as being the most visible, resulting in the “six-pack” or even “eight-pack” abs that span the magazine covers. Most of the exercises we cover in this article focus on building this important muscle, as well as the stabilizer muscles that keep the body strong and stable.
4 Killer Upper Ab Exercises
Plank to Toe Touch
In this awesome variation of the traditional plank exercise, we ensure the perfect balance of the strong and visible rectus abdominis as well as the deeper transverse abdominis muscles. As this exercise also requires side engagement and balance, we give the obliques a quick over as well.
Start in a plank position, with a strong and engaged tabletop position. Lift the hips towards the sky to pull your body into a “V” shape, and take your right hand back to touch your left ankle. Come back to plank, and repeat with the opposite arm. Make sure to keep your heels engaged and lifted high the entire time.
This exercise is often effectively used as a “max effort” meaning do as many as you can within a certain time frame. Track your progress to determine your subsequent repetitions. You can do this exercise as a standalone circuit, or join it with others.
V-Sits or V-Ups
These V-exercises are one of our favorites and the perfect balance of burn and sweat. While these exercises can be performed with several modifications, they predominantly work the rectus abdominis, popping out that six-pack set.
Lying flat on your back, bring your feet up at a 45-degree angle, pointing the toes for an extra challenge. If you can’t keep the legs straight, allow for a small bend at the knee while still keeping the angle. As your feet come up, bring your chest to your knees trying to touch your toes with your outstretched hands.
For an extra challenge in this exercise, try a V-Sit with a hold, maintaining the V-shape for as long as you can, or for a set interval time.
Leg Raises and Leg Lowers
This cheeky family of ab exercises not only work the big rectus abdominis, but attack the deep stability muscle group, the obliques, and the transverse. They give your abs a full workout, and help to build stability and balance at the same time. Here we include two variations of this exercise, which can be done together in the same circuit, or individually should it be preferred.
For the leg raises, start by lying flat on your back with your palms at your side face down. Your arms should remain relaxed during this exercise, and your lower back should remain flat on the ground.
If needed, tilt the hips slightly to ensure your back is flush to the ground. Keeping your ankles naturally bent at 90 degrees, raise your legs up towards the sky, keeping a small bend in the knee if necessary. We recommend raising both legs at one time, though leg raises can be completed one leg at a time as well.
Leg lowers are essentially the same exercise in reverse. Instead of starting the exercise with your legs on the ground, raise your heels to the sky and focus on a controlled lowering of the feet to the ground. Remember to maintain your lower back securely on the ground, and resist the temptation to use the hips to power the exercise. For leg lowers, we recommend to try it both as a two-leg exercise, and one leg at a time. For many, one leg at a time will provide a stronger foundation.
For both of these exercises, focus on technique over speed. Ab exercises are often much more effective when they are done slowly and diligently.
How Often Should I Train the Upper Abs?
If you are just starting out, try and engage the core in a simple workout 2-3 times a week by supplementing another workout.
For more advanced lifters, adding in 3-5 core workouts a week will effectively increase mobility, as well as build functional strength that is vital in all workouts.
For those who have alternative fitness goals such as weight loss of flexibility, core workouts should still be a part of your routine.
A small upper ab workout every day will go a long way in keeping your body flexible, strong, and injury-free.