There’s a lot of misconception about training abs and developing a visible six-pack. While incorporating targeted abdominal work will help build your abs, nutrition also plays an integral role in whether or not they’re visible.
Many people who start focused core work and weight loss practices notice their upper abs first. While many factors influence how your abs look, you can use these upper ab exercises to define your abs and start working toward the physique you want.
What are the “Upper Abs?”
When people refer to the upper abs, they generally mean the musculature that’s visible at the base of the diaphragm or the layer of abdominal muscles that rest closest to the skin. While the focus and goals might be different, these muscles are the same.
Your rectus abdominus are the muscles that stretch from your diaphragm to your pelvis. This muscle pair is what makes up your six-pack abs from top to bottom. So, if your goal is to get better definition at the top of your abdominal wall or to get a six-pack, you’re actually targeting the same muscles.
What’s important to keep in mind when trying to target upper abs is that there’s no true isolation exercise for any of the abdominal muscles. This muscle group is designed to work together. While some exercises will hit the upper abs more so than the other core muscles, they’ll all be working together throughout the movement.
8 Upper Ab Exercises to Improve Abdominal Definition
There are plenty of upper ab exercises for beginners and experienced athletes. Additionally, there are upper ab exercises without equipment for people who train at home or aren’t ready to load the movement.
Here are eight of the best exercises for upper abs.
Inchworms are a fantastic upper ab exercise for beginners and require no equipment. This full-body movement is an effective exercise to include in a warm-up routine or as a part of a training circuit.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and brace your core.
- Take a breath and reach your hands for the ground, allowing your back to bend.
- When your hands reach the ground, start to walk them out away from your body, supporting more of your weight as you go.
- When you reach a high plank position, pause, and start to walk your feet inward, allowing your hips to come up and your body to bend.
- When you get your feet as close to your hands as possible, slowly return to a standing position while rolling your back to allow a stretch in each vertebra. That’s one rep.
This exercise helps improve mobility and flexibility as well as core strength and ab definition. You should feel a stretch in your hamstrings and back when doing inchworms, but don’t push to the point of pain. With time, your range of motion will improve.
2. Ab Walkout
The ab walkout exercise is similar to an ab rollout with an essence of inchworms. This surprisingly challenging movement is one of the best upper ab exercises without equipment. You can complete this exercise from a standing position, plank position, or your knees— each offers a killer ab workout.
- Start in a high plank position, as though you’re preparing to do a push-up. Your hands should be stacked under your shoulders, and your core should be engaged.
- Walk out your hands as far as you can. Pause and reverse the motion, walking your hands in past the starting position and elevating your hips into a pike position.
- Repeat in a fluid motion without breaks.
Starting the movement from standing can add a more dynamic stretch that intensifies the movement. However, this will take some of the load off your abs. For beginners, keep your knees on the ground rather than using the full plank position.
3. Bear Hold
Another favorite upper ab workout for beginners is the bear hold. Bear walks are a common dynamic warm-up move. The bear hold is an isometric ab workout that engages the whole core, including your upper abs. This exercise builds core strength while will help improve your form when completing more targeted upper ab workouts.
- Get on your hands and knees in a quadruped position with your toes stacked in an athletic stance. Your hands should be stacked beneath your shoulders.
- Brace your core and lift your knees off the ground. Try to maintain an engaged core and flat back. Your shins should be parallel to the ground.
- Hold this position for as long as possible.
Doing a bear hold is similar to doing a plank. You’ll have to work to maintain proper form and continue breathing throughout the hold.
4. Unilateral Leg Lowers
Single-leg raises are one of the best upper ab workouts at home, as you don’t require any equipment. This exercise is also beginner-friendly and works the upper abs while building overall core strength and definition.
- Lay flat on your back with your legs extended and your arms by your side.
- Brace your core and lift both legs overhead so that they’re perpendicular to the floor.
- Slowly lower one leg until you reach the end of your range of motion. Ideally, your foot will be a couple of inches from the ground, but your back will not lose contact with the floor.
- Pause at the bottom of the movement, then reverse until your leg is perpendicular once more. That’s one rep.
- Complete all of the reps on one side, then switch to the other leg. Your resting leg should remain extended throughout the movement.
Beginners may require assistance in keeping their resting leg upright. You can use a resistance band to hold your resting leg in place. This movement should be performed slowly with control.
5. Hanging Leg Lift
The hanging leg lift is one of the best exercises for bodybuilding. This movement targets the entire core while building those six-pack muscles you desire. To complete this exercise, you’ll need a gym rack or a pull-up bar.
- Grasp an overhead bar with hands stacked over your shoulders. Allow yourself to hang.
- Brace your abdominal muscles and slowly raise your legs, keeping your toes pointed. Move slowly to avoid swinging motions and momentum that will detract the focus from your core.
- When your legs reach parallel to the floor (or as close as you can get), pause and slowly lower back to the starting position— that’s one rep.
This exercise isn’t beginner-friendly. You may need to practice dead hangs before you can complete your reps with hanging leg lifts. You can also modify this movement by doing hanging knee lifts― simply keep your knees bent and lift until your quads are parallel with the floor.
6. Lying Medicine Ball Pass
- Lay on your back on the ground, holding a medicine ball in your hands. Your arms should be stretched overhead, creating a clean line with your body. This is the starting position.
- Brace your core and pull the medicine ball overhead while keeping your arms straight. At the same time, lift your legs (maintaining extension) so that your feet meet your hands over the midpoint of your body.
- Grasp the ball with your feet and release your hands to complete the transfer.
- Lower your legs with the med ball until they nearly touch the ground while maintaining contact between the floor and your back. At the same time, your arms should be stretching overhead.
- Reverse the motion and transfer the med ball back to your hands, returning to the starting position. That’s one rep.
This is a challenging dynamic movement. Take your time and keep the ball light until you’ve tackled the form.
7. Stir the Pot
The stir the pot exercise (sometimes called stirring the pot) is one of the most underrated upper ab exercises. In addition to strengthening your core, this movement also promotes stability and balance that will translate to other movements. For this exercise, you will need a stability ball.
- Get into an elevated plank position with your forearms resting on the stability ball. Your legs should be extended to create alignment in your body, with your toes stacked in an athletic stance.
- Start to move your forearms in a clockwise circular motion while keeping your core engaged. You will have to go slow to avoid falling off the ball.
- When you’ve completed your reps in one direction, switch to a counter-clockwise motion.
The key to this exercise is avoiding a twisting motion by squeezing your glutes and maintaining control. This exercise is anti-rotational, meaning your abs are working to prevent your body from slipping or twisting out of form. You’ll feel the burn in your upper abs while simultaneously strengthing your obliques.
8. Pallof Press
The Pallof press is another anti-rotational exercise that burns your anterior abdominals and your obliques. The goal is to resist turning your body toward the fixed point of the resistance band that you’ll need for this exercise.
- Fix a resistance band to a squat rack or another stable surface. The band should be at chest height for this exercise.
- Grab the unfixed end of the resistance band and step out to increase the tension. Your hip should be beside the fixed point so that the band stretches out to your left or right.
- Place your feet at hip-width apart and brace your core. Start with both hands gripping the band over your heart.
- Slowly extend your arms, pushing the band forward, until your arms are fully extended. Resist the pull of the band by keeping your core braced and not allowing your torso to turn.
- When your arms reach full extension, pause and slowly reverse the movement. That’s one rep. When you complete all the reps on one side, repeat while facing the other way.
Slow, controlled movement is essential for this exercise. You can modify the tension by stepping closer to or further away from the fixed point of the band.
While there’s no way to completely isolate your upper abs, there are plenty of exercises you can do to get the results you want. Remember that a big part of having your abs show happens in the kitchen. Even so, it’s always worth your while to build your abdominal muscles with targeted movements.