5 Trainer-approved Upper-Ab Workouts for a Strong Core
Sport & Activity
Two certified personal trainers say these are the best upper-ab workouts to improve core stability.
Whether you're exercising at home or the gym, there are plenty of moves you can comfortably perform that target your upper abs.
Everyday activities and movements—such as walking, sitting, standing and lifting—require strong upper-abdominal muscles. Brittany Noel Robles, MD, MPH and NASM-certified personal trainer, noted the top benefits of doing upper-ab exercises include improved posture and proper spine alignment, reduced back pain, increased balance and stability, which reduces the risk of injury.
Below, Robles and Tatiana Lampa, an ACSM-certified personal trainer and NASM corrective exercise specialist, share their go-to upper-ab workouts.
5 Upper-Ab Workouts
According to Robles, Planks are one of the best upper-ab workouts. In particular, she recommended Up-and-Down Planks, which in addition to working the upper abs, also target the muscles in the shoulders, chest and triceps.
For this one, Robles instructed starting in a Push-up position, keeping your feet shoulder-width apart, your hands positioned directly under your shoulders and your abs and glute muscles engaged. She added that engaging your core and glute muscles is key to help stabilise your spine and prevent your hips from wagging too much from side to side as you do the Planks.
Next, she said, "Lower your body to the ground one arm at a time until you are in a forearm Plank position. Return to the Push-Up position by pushing back up one arm at a time—alternate which arm leads each rep".
Continue for three sets of 10–15 reps each.
For people who are new to Planks, Robles said doing a modified version is an option. To do it, do the exercise with your hands elevated on an incline such as a bench or a chair.
"Elevating your hands reduces the amount of weight your core has to support, making the movement easier for someone with less experience", she said.
The Bear Hold, also referred to as Beast Hold, is a great warm-up exercise that engages the entire core, especially the upper abs, Lampa said, making it a must-add to your upper-ab workout routine.
Begin by getting on your hands and knees in a Tabletop position, keeping your hands underneath your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips.
"Tuck your toes under and your knees will hover 5cm (approx.) over the ground", Lampa said. "This requires a lot of stabilisation and upper-abdominal work. Make sure that you are not sinking from your lower back. Think about balancing a glass of wine on your back".
Then repeat for three rounds of 20–30 seconds each. Remember to keep your inhales and exhales consistent as you hold the Bear Hold.
You can't go wrong with the classic Crunch to work your upper abs, which is why it's one of Lampa's top recommendations. Here's a refresher on how to properly do a Crunch: Start by lying down on your back with your feet on the ground and your hands by your head for support.
"Lift up from your upper abdominals while pressing your lower back against the ground", Lampa said.
Pro tip: to ensure you're really working the upper abs, she recommended looking up as you Crunch and initiating the movement from your upper abs, rather than pulling from your neck and keeping your chin towards your chest, which is a common mistake she sees. "Your eyes determine where your head goes", she said. "If you're looking at your knees, you're more prone to pull from your neck versus your upper abdominals. When looking at the ceiling or straight up, it will force you to initiate from your abs".
Next, lower your back to the ground and repeat for a total of three sets of 15 reps.
If you're in the mood to spice up the intensity of a basic Crunch, Robles suggested doing Bicycle Crunches. Bicycle crunches work the rectus abdominis (aka the muscle that runs between the sternum and the pubic bone) and obliques (the muscles along the sides of the core) in a dynamic range of motion, she said.
Here's how to do it: "[Lie] on your back with your knees bent and your feet off the ground. Place your hands on the sides of your head", Robles said. "Contract your abs by flattening your lower back against the floor. Begin the exercise by bringing your left elbow to meet your right knee as you straighten your left leg. Return to the starting position and repeat on the other side".
Alternate sides for a total of three sets of 20–30 seconds each.
Both Lampa and Robles said the Hollow-Body Hold is one of the most important upper-ab exercises. It's essentially an upside-down Plank, Lampa said. Robles added that this particular upper-ab move works all the muscles in the abs, which helps improve core stability.
To do the Hollow-Body-Hold, Robles instructed lying flat on your back, keeping your legs extended, feet together and your arms over your head. Next, Lampa said, focus on pressing your spine into the ground while you lift your head, neck, shoulders and legs off the ground. Your arms will remain extended over your head with your biceps by your ears.
While you do this, ensure only your lower back is in contact with the ground, Robles added. Hold the position for three sets of 20–30 seconds each and remember to breathe through it.
If you start to feel it in your lower back or hip flexors, Robles said that's a sign that the exercise may be too advanced for you. In this case, Lampa advised doing the modified version by bending your knees into a Tabletop position, which helps relieve any tension from those areas.
Words by Jessica Estrada