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7 Best Upper Abs Workout (Quick 10 Minute Exercises)

Michael Garrico
Published by Michael Garrico
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: June 24, 2022

There's absolutely nothing like that sense of achievement when you have the perfectly shaped six-pack.

But it's those upper abs that often end up being not quite in proportion to the rest, especially if you just do general core exercises.

As a personal trainer, I've managed to help many people get those magazine cover abs. And today, I'm going to share all my experience and research about training abs for maximum effect.

Let's take a look at our best upper ab exercises.

Quick Summary

  • Most core exercises will tend to keep the lower abs engaged longest, which can lead to more muscle fibers building up.
  • The upper ab muscles tend to be a bit smaller unless you target them with a set of exercises on a regular basis.
  • It's also important to carefully plan out some exercise variations and the right number of reps to target this muscle group better.

How Do You Work Your Upper Abs?

You work your upper abs through compound exercises that involve moving both the upper and lower body.

This is because these muscles are heavily involved in spinal flexion to tilt your body forwards [1].

And here are my favorite exercises.

1. Dumbbell Crunch (3 sets of 12 to 15 reps)

man in a dumbbell crunch position

Here are the steps to follow, and I suggest picking a lightweight to start with. 

  1. Set yourself up on an exercise mat and lie down flat on your back.
  2. Hold a small dumbbell with your arms crossed over your rib cage.
  3. Place your feet flat on the floor with your knees at a right angle.
  4. Slowly start the weighted crunch by keeping your spine in a neutral curve.
  5. Once you get to the seated position, slowly lower your body back down again.
  6. Add more strain by keeping your legs straight.

2. Tuck And Crunch (3 sets of 20 to 25 reps)

man in a tuck and crunch position

If you've already built up some strength in your abdominal muscles, this is the next step up from the regular crunches. 

  1. Lie flat on the exercise mat and place your hands behind your head.
  2. Lift your legs in the air with your knees at a right angle so that your calves are horizontal to the ground.
  3. Pull your upper body up towards the knees so that your shoulder blades and lower back lift off the ground.
  4. Touch the sides of your knees with your elbows and slowly lower down again.

3. Modified V-Ups (3 sets of 20 to 25 reps)

woman in a v ups position

This is an excellent move that combines leg raises with sit-ups.

  1. Lie down flat on a yoga mat with your legs extended in a straight line.
  2. With your arms extended above your head, slowly lift your feet up as high as you can with your legs remaining straight.
  3. Lift your body off the ground and reach for your toes.
  4. Try to hold the top position for a second before lowering back down again.

4. Decline Crunches (3 sets of 20 to 25 reps)

woman in a decline crunches position

These are a nice step up from regular crunches, but you'll need a decline bench.

  1. Set up the bench at about a 30-degree angle and secure your feet.
  2. Keep your knees bent at about a 90-degree angle and lie down until your back is fully supported by the bench.
  3. Lift your upper torso towards your knees with your hands behind your head.
  4. Once your elbows touch your knees, slowly reverse your body back down again.

5. Hanging Sit-Ups (3 sets of 10 to 15 reps)

woman in a hanging situp position

This is one of the tougher sit-ups you can do, and I suggest leaving these for a time when you've built up enough core strength.

They are essentially the opposite of the hanging leg raise.

  1. Ideally, use a secure inversion table or a pull-up frame with ankle straps to secure you upside down.
  2. Let your body hang down with your arms straight.
  3. Slowly pull your body upwards as far as you can and try to reach for your knees and toes.
  4. Go as far as possible and then lower yourself down again, and keep track of how far up you can get to measure your progress.

6. Medicine Ball Sit-Ups (3 sets of 15 to 20 reps)

woman with a medicine ball

This is a good exercise that you can extend to your entire core muscles with a slight modification. 

  1. Lay down on a yoga mat with your feet flat on the ground.
  2. Hold a medicine ball with your hands above your head, resting it on the ground.
  3. Keep your arms above your head and lift your body up into a sitting position.
  4. To target all of your core, throw the medicine ball against a wall in front of you with both hands and then catch the rebound.
  5. Now, slowly lower yourself back down again until the medicine ball touches the ground above your head.

7. Hollow Hold (3 sets to failure)

man in a hallow hold position

My final recommendation is an isometric hollow hold that you need to time. 

  1. The starting position is on a yoga mat with your back on the ground and your knees tucked up to your chest.
  2. From here, slowly stretch out your legs, keeping your feet about a foot off the ground.
  3. Stretch out your arms above and behind your head at the same time and hold this position for as long as possible.

What Are The Upper Abs?

The upper abs are called the rectus abdominis, and they form the four bulges at the top of the six-pack [2].

When they are well-formed, they tend to be the more dominant abs, and they play a critical role in flexing your spine.

If you hold your hand on your core below your pecs and then bend and straighten your spine, you'll feel the rectus abdominis muscles with each movement.

Unlike the lower abs, which work together with the hip flexors [3], they work to keep your upper body posture straight.

“When you target the abs, you perform exercises that decrease the distance between your thigh and trunk—think sit-ups, roll-ups, and leg lifts. The hip flexors are a strong group of muscles, and they try to take over—so you end up working your hip flexors more than your abdominal muscles.” - Marguerite Ogle MS, RYT, verywellfit.com.

Because people tend to spend so much of their days sitting at a desk, these ab muscles often waste away, and that can make it very difficult to maintain a good posture [4].

And while regular core strength training will target the upper abs, I generally advise people to target them with a lot more of a targeted approach until they are properly developed.

Other Abs Training Tips

man working out shirtless

Looking at the above-recommended exercises, you should get the idea that training upper and lower abs involve different methods.

But there are a couple of other tips that I want to share with you so that you can get the most out of your abs routines.

Reps And Sets

For each of the above exercises, I've indicated the number of sets and reps you should aim for. But it's important that you don't go at these exercises with speed in mind.

To make it an effective exercise with maximum muscle activation, you want to slow things down to increase time under tension [5].

Training Frequency

woman doing ab crunches

You don't exercise every other body part every day, so don't do it for your rectus abdominis either.

This is especially the case with an intense exercise routine where your muscles need some time to recover [6].

That's why I recommend working on your abs three times a week with a day to rest in between.

Training Variation

And finally, you should always aim to introduce training variation.

That means picking a few different exercises from the above and also switching between upper and lower abs on different training days.

Not only will this help to better shape your abs, but you won't get bored doing the same thing over and over again.

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FAQs

Why Do Your Upper Abs Bulge Out?

Your upper abs can bulge out due to stomach bloating and incorrect breathing techniques during weight lifting [7]. The rectus abdominis should be flat and not protrude, which would make it look out of proportion with the lower abs.

Do Planks Work Upper Abs?

Yes, planks work your upper abs, but they don't isolate them.

Planks tend to be a full-body exercise that strengthens the core, including lower and upper abs [8].

Are You Taking A New Approach To Your Upper Abs?

Whether you're trying to get rid of unwanted belly fat or need to create more symmetry in your abs, focusing more on isolating your upper abs will make a huge difference.

Try switching around the exercises from above on your core training days and see how much of a difference it will make within a couple of weeks.

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References:

  1. https://www.shape.com/fitness/workouts/ab-workouts/abs-muscles-anatomy
  2. https://www.sportsrec.com/4443562/how-to-work-your-upper-abs
  3. https://www.verywellfit.com/hip-flexors-vs-abdominal-muscles-2704826
  4. https://www.physio-pedia.com/Abdominal_Muscles
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3285070/
  6. https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/fulltext/2011/03000/recovery_after_heavy_resistance_exercise_and.26.aspx
  7. https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-get-rid-of-bloated-abs
  8. https://www.livestrong.com/article/520651-do-plank-exercises-really-develop-abs/

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