There are dozens of highly effective core exercises, and while it’s important to follow a well-rounded core workout routine, some athletes prefer to do targeted upper ab workouts.
Upper ab exercises focus on the upper sections of the rectus abdominis muscle (six-pack muscles) and the upper sections of the obliques.
But what are the best upper ab exercises for an upper core workout?
In this article, we will provide step-by-step instructions for how to perform the best upper ab exercises for all of your upper ab workouts:
- Hollow Holds
- McGill Curl Ups
- Weighted Stability Ball Crunches
- Hanging Leg Raises
- Ab Wheel Roll Outs
Let’s dive in!
The Ultimate Upper Abs Workouts
Here are some of the best upper abs exercises to try out in your upper ab workouts:
#1: Hollow Holds
Hollow holds are isometric holds on your back where you are contracting your abs and lifting your legs and upper body off of the ground.
The primary difference between this upper ab iteration and the V-sit is that the hollow hold exercise has you hovering much closer to the ground rather than angled up in a V. This helps target the upper abs and can be more beginner friendly.
The hollow hold position is also a great exercise to add to your upper ab workouts because it helps train your body to assume the position you will need for pull-ups and chin-ups, along with other exercises you might find in gymnastics-style CrossFit workouts.
The hollow hold also teaches you how to properly brace your core, which is helpful for bigger weightlifting exercises like deadlifts, squats, and overhead presses.
Here are the steps to perform this upper ab exercise:
- Lie on your back with your arms extended overhead and your legs and feet pressed together extended straight in front of you.
- Use your core muscles to simultaneously crunch your upper body off the ground and your lower body off the ground about 6 to 12 inches. Your low back, butt, and pelvis should be firmly planted on the ground and tucked under your body.
- Hold for 30-60 seconds.
Dragonflies are one the most challenging bodyweight exercises and a perfect one to add to your upper ab workouts.
Beginners can start on the floor, but as you get stronger, progress to performing the exercise equipment on a decline bench.
Here are the steps for performing this exercise in your upper ab workouts:
- Lie on your back in a position where you can reach back behind your head and hold a column of the squat rack or a weight bench for support.
- Squeeze your upper abs to lift your hips up as you roll up onto your shoulders.
- From this reverse curl position, with your weight on your shoulders and upper back, lift your legs up and over towards your head, keeping your knees straight.
- The end position should be when you are rolled up onto your shoulders, your upper back and hips are lifted in the air, and your legs are parallel to the floor.
- Pause and hold this position, squeezing your abs, and then as slowly as possible, uncurl back to the starting position. If possible, try not to touch your legs fully down before beginning the next rep.
- Complete 10-20 reps, depending on your fitness level.
#3: McGill Curl Ups
One of the challenges of performing upper ab workouts is that most of the exercises for the upper abs involve flexing and extending the spine.
This can be problematic for anyone who has chronic low back pain, osteoporosis of the spine, is currently pregnant, deals with spinal degeneration or spinal stenosis, or has other contraindications to spinal flexion and extension.
This upper ab exercise does involve flexing the upper abs, but your lumbar spine remains neutral, so it can be a better exercise to add to your upper abs workout if any of the above conditions apply to you.
Here are the steps for performing this upper core workout exercise:
- Lie on your back in a position of a domino with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
- Extend one leg out straight flat on the ground, and you only have one leg in the standard crunch position.
- Slip your hand under the small of your back to help support the natural curve in your lumbar spine.
- From this position, with your upper abs, lift your upper body off of the ground as you would with a normal crunch. Try to keep your sternum facing the ceiling so that your spine and neck stay neutral rather than curling your upper spine and neck towards your thighs.
- Hold the top position for 3 to 5 seconds, contracting your upper abs before slowly lowering back down. Advanced athletes can begin the next rep without fully touching down.
- Complete 15-25 reps per set.
#4: Weighted Stability Ball Crunches
There is some controversy about the safety and effectiveness of abdominal crunches, as spinal flexion can be problematic for some people.
However, studies have found that stability ball crunches are one of the more effective abdominal exercises for activating the upper abs.
As long as you do not have any contraindications to spinal flexion, and you are actually using your abs to lift your body rather than pulling up on your neck with your hands behind your head, you can add the stability ball crunch to your upper abs workouts.
Additionally, this is a beginner-friendly exercise for the upper abs, and because your body is elevated off the ground, if you have mobility challenges, performing crunches on the stability ball can also be an easier way to do your core workouts.
Once you get stronger, add resistance by hugging a weight plate to your chest.
Here are the steps:
- Lie on your back on top of a stability ball with your hips and the small of your back on the ball and your upper back, shoulders, and head off of the ball and your legs off of the ball.
- Bend your knees to 90° and place your feet shoulder-width apart on the floor.
- Beginners can separate the feet wider than shoulder-width apart for more stability, while advanced athletes should bring the feet as close together as possible. The more narrow your base of support, the more challenging the exercise will be for your stabilizing muscles.
- Place your arms crossed across your chest or lightly behind your head for support.
- Contract your abs to lift your head, neck, and shoulders up, keeping your gaze on the ceiling. Do not pull up on your head with your hands.
- Hold the top position for 2 to 3 seconds. Slowly lower back down, extending backward to increase the range of motion beyond neutral before beginning the next rep.
- Complete 15-30 reps per set.
#5: Hanging Leg Raises
This is a great core exercise because it strengthens the entire length of the rectus abdominis, including the upper abs.
Here are the steps:
- Grab onto a pull-up bar or the bar at the top of a squat rack with your palms facing forward. If there are arm cuffs, place your elbows into the arm slings.
- Hang fully extended, holding your upper body and torso as stationary as possible.
- As you inhale, draw your legs up towards your chest. Beginners can bend their knees into a tuck and progress to keep their knees straight and pike their legs up as they get stronger. Make sure to only use your abs to lift your legs. Do not swing your body or use momentum to help you.
- Hold your legs up for 2–3 seconds, and then slowly lower your legs.
- Complete 12-15 reps.
#6: Ab Wheel Roll Outs
This core exercise works your abs, glutes, hip flexors, and back muscles.
Here are the steps:
- Kneel on the floor, gripping an ab wheel or barbell with small weight plates resting on the floor.
- Roll the wheel forward, hinging at your hips to drop your hips and torso down.
- Bring your arms as far forward as possible without falling flat on your stomach. Keep your core and glutes tight to keep your torso from dropping to the floor.
- When you’ve rolled your hands out in front of your head and body, use your abs to draw the wheel and your torso back in and up to the starting position, keeping your back straight.
- Complete 10-15 reps.
Build up to 3 sets of each upper ab exercise for your upper ab workouts.
Remember to train all of the muscles in the core to help ensure your entire core is strong and stable in all planes of motion.
For more core exercises, check out our guide to the best core exercises for runners here.