If you’re prioritizing upper ab exercises in your clients’ workouts or your own, you first need to know whether there is such a thing as upper ab and lower ab muscles. The rectus abdominis is the abdominal muscle most people think about when imagining washboard abs. But, that’s the thing, the rectus abdominis is just one muscle. So, to target the upper ab or lower ab musculature, this means the muscle needs to be separated into an upper and lower compartment. Only then, can you select core exercises that target an area specifically. As you’ll learn in this article, although the long vertical abdominal muscle is just one, it can have different levels of muscle activation based on the exercise. For example, a traditional crunch will yield higher muscle activation in the “upper abs” whereas a reverse crunch will yield greater muscle activation in the “lower abs”

Here, we’ll explore the anatomy of rectus abdominis. Then, we’ll discuss different ways you can target the core correctly to get a great core workout. This includes a core exercise list and description of when to do each one. Lastly, this article addresses what clients need to do if they’re looking for six pack abs or more definition in their core.

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Anatomy Of The Rectus Abdominis Ab Muscle

Yes and no. Yes, in that many past researchers have referred to the rectus abdominis in upper and lower halves. However, the ‘no’ is due to the fact that the rectus abdominal muscle is one long, flat muscle. It originates on the pubic bone and attaches to the xiphoid process and ribs. 

Technically, the rectus abdominis can also be referred to as the left and right rectus abdominis because this muscle is separated by the Linea Alba. However, it’s not wrong or right to suggest that there are upper rectus abdominis muscles and lower rectus abdominis muscles because muscle activation can differ between the sites. 

Electromyography (EMG) indicates that muscle activation is greater in the upper portion in some exercises. Yet, in the roll-out exercise, there was only a two-percentage difference. Therefore, there are exercises that vary only slightly in terms of whether they target a certain area of the muscle group. Further, some research shows no difference in ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ rectus abdominis muscle activation during traditional abdominal exercises such as the swiss ball crunch.

Why Do I Feel it More in My ‘Upper Abs’ When I do Crunches?

If you feel more in your upper ab muscle during traditional upper core strength exercises like crunches, you’re not imagining things. During the crunch and sit-up exercise, the rectus abdominis flexes the spine by pulling the xiphoid process toward the pelvis. Most of the muscle shortening is happening proximally near the upper portion of the muscle and, as a result, greater muscle activation of the upper musculature occurs.

Whereas the upper portion of the rectus abdominis shortens more during the crunch, the lower portion of the muscle shortens more during the reverse crunch, allowing you to target both areas of the muscle. Therefore, a crunch will give greater upper ab muscle activation. On the other hand, a reverse crunch is a lower ab exercise due to the changes in muscle activation. Therefore, these two standard core strength exercises favor different areas of the abs correspondingly.

When considering where you feel an exercise, the core can get tricky. There are over 30 muscles of the core. Remember, the core includes any structure that attaches to the pelvis. Therefore, in consideration of the anatomy of our core, don't forget there are deep stabilizing muscles like the transverse abdominis and multifidus. There are also other core muscles that act as movers including the internal obliques, external obliques, erector spinae, and hip flexor musculature. Therefore, the subjective feeling of a burn during ab exercises can also sometimes be related to activation of other muscle groups.

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What’s the Best Way to Train the Abs?

To best answer this question, we must determine the wrong way to train this muscle. Thanks to the work of Dr. Stuart McGill, a renowned researcher, and publisher of hundreds of refereed journal articles, we know the traditional Crunch, Sit-Up, and other common spinal flexion exercises are not recommended. 

The reason is that these traditional upper ab exercises put excessive compressive force on the lower back putting you at risk for low back pain or injury. It’s not that you should avoid the crunch and sit-up entirely, but that you should avoid repetitive bouts of lumbar flexion or modify the exercise for longer sets of reps. Here are two options to consider instead:

  • Curl-Up: This exercise is similar to the crunch except the lower back remains neutral (flat to the ground) and the arms are brought forward reaching toward the ankles. One leg will be straight while the other knee will be bent and the foot flat on the floor. As you lift up, simply think about lifting the shoulder blade and head off of a “scale”. So, you aren’t trying to get a great degree of movement. Instead, it’s just enough to activate the core musculature in a safe and effective way.
  • Levitation Sit-Up: This exercise is executed with a neutral spine with the arms straight and the shoulder blades elevated off the ground. 

Both of these exercises are great for upper abs and a generally strong core. For those who struggle to maintain a neutral spine in either exercise can try the Modified Curl-Up. Here, the arms are crossed and placed behind the body on the lower back with one leg extended. 

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The Bottom Line in Ab Exercise Selection

The common denominator in any exercise that safely works the rectus abdominis is minimizing the movement of the lower back. Any movement that properly flexes the trunk anteriorly works these muscles. In addition, any exercise that resists excessive trunk flexion works the rectus abdominis. 

  • Loaded Carry With the Rogue Sandbag: This is my favorite. Not only does this exercise light up the anterior core, but it also provides a powerful metabolic punch. 
  • Roll-Out: This ab exercise is great for core stabilization and fitness clients love it. However, proceed carefully; bar rollouts can cause back discomfort and excessive hyperextension of the spine. Some clients may also experience shoulder pain during the exercise and lose control of the bar. Therefore, watch their form and make changes to the exercise so they can safely perform the movement. A modification that may improve a client’s ability to self-regulate is the ring or TRX rollout. You can even swing the arms wider toward the ‘Y’ position to increase the intensity of the exercise.  

Core Circuit Training: The core musculature is often trained at the end of the workout. This is considered responsible sequencing because a fatigued rectus abdominis, prior to compound lifts, will weaken the muscles’ ability to stabilize the spine. However, it’s not uncommon to get half-hearted effort or an excuse that the client has to leave early. Improve motivation and make the best use of time with circuit training for core work. Choose three to five exercises and keep the volume moderate to keep it enjoyable and challenging. See this video of a core circuit targeting the rectus abdominis in the aforementioned exercises.

Will I Develop a ‘Six Pack’ if I Train the Abs This Way?

No. The truth is you already have six-pack abs. They’re covered in layers of subcutaneous fat and hidden from plain view. The most effective way to develop six-pack abs is through developing a negative energy balance. You can read more about the science behind perfect abs

If you or your clients want abs, you have to play the long game. That is, implementing disciplined eating habits that result in a caloric deficit and consists of fibrous vegetables, low GI carbohydrates, high-quality proteins, and unsaturated fatty acids. For most clients, the combination of diet and exercise is what they need to see upper abs.

Keep Reading: 10 Tips to Make Paleo Meal Prep Easier

Do Upper Ab Exercises Actually Matter?

While you can feel the burn in one part of your abs more than others during certain core exercises, the fact is that the rectus abdominis is one long muscle—and most traditional upper ab exercises do in fact target the entire muscle during various parts of the movement. 

Instead of focusing just on a specific set of exercises, use these strategies and exercises to keep clients challenged while avoiding injury and driving the results they want to see. At the end of the day, no ab exercises will create that toned look that’s desired without support from changes in nutrition and diet. 

An exercise science degree will teach you everything you need to know about training clients with goals like visible abs. Even more, you’ll be able to start debunking myths similar to the ab exercises we discussed here and the fact that the rectus abdominis activates regardless of the exercise you choose. Learn more about why people choose Lionel University for an exercise science degree. For starters, it’s all online and asynchronous. This means you can study on a schedule that works for you. 

Additionally, you’ll earn your personal training certification and Master Trainer Certificate while going through the program. After your first few months with Lionel University, you’ll be able to start earning an income as a personal trainer, nutrition coach, or group fitness instructor. It’s all just part of our program!

Regardless of whether you’re pursuing an associates degree, bachelor’s degree, or master’s degree, you’ll exit your program with a well rounded education in exercise physiology and exercise science. This means you’ll have job opportunities beyond personal training and fitness coaching. And, graduates of exercise science are in high demand. And, with the help of financial aid, earning your exercise science degree is even more of a possibility. 

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