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January 12, 2021 10 min read

The key to a great body is a solid core. Essentially every single exercise you add to your routine asks you to set your abdomen in one way or another. That’s because your abs are responsible for setting so many of your movements in motion. Without your core, you’d be flopping all over the place all day long. If you want to pay your respects to your abs, get those iconic six-pack abs, or increase your overall strength, then here are some of the best upper ab exercises for a tough to target abdominal area that will give you the advantage you’re looking for (no pilates required).

Core Fundamentals

Whenever you set out to work on a muscle group it’s important to know everything you can about it. So let’s start with a deep dive into your abs.

Your rectus abdominis muscle is the set of muscles we’re talking about when we talk about our abs. They’re right in the middle of your body in an area called the rectus sheath. Your rectus sheath is a sheath of tendons that enclose your rectus abdominis. They basically extend from your obliques and create a wall around each of your abs. This is what separates your abs into segments, and that’s how you get that distinct ab shape on your belly when you burn away all of the fat and work up the muscle definition there.

Your rectus abdominis is responsible for your posture. They work together to move your lumbar spine. That’s the part of your spine that makes up your lower back. Anytime you move your pelvis up towards your rib cage or vice versa that’s your abs at work. Whenever you bend over to pick something up sit up in bed, that your abs. 

This is also why it’s so important to set your core when you’re working out. You want to keep your body still when you’re working on your muscles, right? Exercise is all about focusing in on a set of muscles and working them as effectively as possible. When you engage your abs, you’re basically setting yourself in place and allowing your body to harness itself.

Ab workout

Casting Your Core in Iron

Building up your core strength is going to take more than just slapping on a couple of crunches before bed. You want to make sure you’re getting in exercises that are targeting your rectus abdominis specifically and nurturing the growth of those muscles properly. If you do a million crunches, but you don’t allow your body to build more muscle through a healthy diet and ample time for rest along with a host of other things then you’re just punishing yourself.

Meat and Potatoes

Start by ensuring your diet is effective. Your body needs two things for effective exercise: energy and building material. The easiest way to get energy into your body is through the consumption of carbs. That’s a double-edged sword, however. Too many carbs in your diet will lead to your body storing excess energy as fat.

You need to strike a healthy balance of carbs and energy expenditure. Too little, and you’ll peter out at the gym, and you won’t push yourself enough to build muscle, too much, and you’re going to cover up your hard work in an energy saving’s account.

Protein is important because it’s the building block of your body. You’re essentially just water and protein held together with tenacity and millions of years of tiny miracles. Working towards a solid core workout means you’re trying to build more muscle that works more effectively. At its most basic, you’re working out in order to force your body to slap more protein onto your muscles. So do these exercises, but make sure you’re adding enough protein to your diet to make up for the damage you do to your muscle cells.


Letting the Hounds Rest

Your diet and these exercises are most of the equation, but they’re not the whole picture. You’re going to have to give your abs a break throughout the week. Your body takes time to build muscle. Adding the raw materials into your system and setting them to work is only the beginning. If you spend every single day beating your body into oblivion then you’re never going to see the results you crave.

We suggest picking a day or two in your routine and using these exercises as supplements. Make sure your core gets a day to recover. Take that time to stretch so your posture doesn’t suffer, and grab a foam roller to keep your newly engorged muscles loose. You can’t show off your hard work if you’re hunched over all week. 

1. Bicycle Crunch

The bicycle crunch is a classic. You’re not running the risk of putting undue pressure on your spine the same way hundreds of crunches a week will. They’re great for beginners and folks looking to increase their core strength. You don’t need any equipment, and you don’t need to tuck your toes underneath anything. You can’t accidentally cheat at them, and it’s easy to keep their form at the front of your mind.

  • Lie down flat on your back
  • Make sure your lower back remains pressed into the floor
  • Place your hands lightly against your head, try touching your fingertips to your temples 
  • Lift one leg slightly off of the ground
  • Lift your other leg off of the ground and bring it towards your chest 
  • While bringing your left knee towards your chest, bring your right elbow towards the approaching knee
  • Make sure your fingers remain in light contact with your head, don’t worry about totally touching your knee, this exercise is more about activating the muscles in your abs
  • Lower your leg and arm back into your starting position
  • Mirror the above movements with your opposite limbs
  • Try not to twist your body too much, you want to keep your legs moving in a mostly straight line 

Bicycle Crunch Variations

  • Get a workout ball or a Bosu ball and rest your lower back on that while executing the movements for a bicycle crunch. You’re going to have to focus on keeping your balance, and that extra effort is great for appreciating the work your abs do as well as increasing the load you’re taking on during these crunches
  • Sprinter crunches are similar to the bicycle crunch. You’ll start in the same position as the bicycle crunch, but keep your inactive leg on the ground. When you bring your knee towards your chest, bring your torso up along with your opposing elbow to meet it. Lie back town in between switching sides, and repeat.
Bicycle crunch

    2. Hollow Hold 

    The hollow hold is a versatile no-frills exercise. This one is another ab exercise you can do with a floor and nothing else, or if you’re up for the challenge, you can try them on a pull-up bar. There are several versions of the hollow hold, if you’re struggling this is one that can be made easier with a slight adjustment, and if you’re thriving, it’s easy to add to the challenge. We’ll start you with the basic hallow hold:

    • Start by lying flat on your back
    • Bring your ankles together and engage your glutes to keep them there
    • Squeeze your arms together against your ears, at this point, your upper and lower body should be tight
    • Press your lower back into the floor and bring your arms and feet up off of the ground
    • You should be making a hollow-bodied crescent shape. Hold that position for about 30 to 45 seconds and repeat
    • It may help to imagine a leg raise with your belly button as the fulcrum

    Hollow Hold Variations

    When you feel like you’ve mastered the hollow hold you can start putting your favored spin on it. 

    • You can turn your hollow holds into a sort of crunch by bringing your knees and arms towards your chest and curling up into a ball after you’ve held for the appropriate amount of time. 
    • After you’ve become more comfortable with your hollow holds, you can incorporate a rocking motion from your head to your toes
    • If you’re struggling with your hollow holds, you can bring your arms and legs in a little bit to reduce the amount of weight your abs are supporting on their own
    • If you want to get really fancy or you’re training for an obstacle course you can do hollow holds while hanging from a bar. This is a great motion for getting your body swinging if you ever find yourself on monkey bars over a pit of water
    • If you hold a ball in between your ankles or add some light weights in your hands to increase your resistance 

    3. Wide Leg Cross Sit-ups 

    Wide leg cross sit-ups are a lot like your classic sit-up. These aren’t too different from your standard sit-up, but keeping your feet in a wide-leg stance does a couple of things for your abs.

    You’re more accurately representing the motion that your abs are responsible for in daily life, and when you work with your body’s natural range of motion you’re going to get more out of your exercise. After all, when you’re in the gym your goal is to work your muscles as fully and accurately as possible. This motion also places less pressure on your lower spine, so that’s reason enough to pick these over your regular sit-up. 

    They’re also great for keeping your mobility up. You’re going to be reaching for your toes during this exercise, and keeping your body limber is one of the most important aspects of fitness people tend to overlook. If you’re the type of guy that’s regularly incorporating deadlifts into your workout routine and forgetting to stretch throughout the week, you may find some relief in the wide leg cross sit-up. If you keep this in your back pocket, you’ll start to see increased flexibility in your hamstrings and lower back. 

    • Start by lying down on the floor with your legs in a wide stance and your arms out at 45-degree angles 
    • Bring your back up off of the floor until you’re in a sitting position
    • Keep your legs flat on the ground throughout this motion
    • Reach one hand over to your opposing toe
    • Lower your upper body back down to the floor
    • Repeat and reach a
    • cross with your opposite hand

    4. Decline Sit-ups

    Decline sit-ups are another exercise that takes the form and function of your standard sit-up and adds challenge and utility. You’re going through the basic motion of a sit-up, but the declined starting position is sort of like a reverse crunch, and it’s going to engage your upper abdominal area right off the bat.

    • Start by lying down on a declined bench, you should set it between a 30 and 45-degree angle
    • Set your arms by your head with your hands lightly touching your temple
    • You may lock your feet in, or keep them free. Whichever you decide, don’t lift yourself with your legs
    • Bring your torso up towards your legs until your elbows are as close as you can get them to your knees
    • Lower yourself slowly back into your starting position. The slower you can manage the better
    • Repeat as many times as possible

    Decline Sit-up Variants

    • If you’re becoming too accustomed to your bodyweight your progress is going to plateau after a while. When you’re ready to push yourself further than stacking on more sets can take you, consider clutching a plate while you do your decline sit-ups
    • If you want to take it further than that, you can set up underneath a barbell, and combine your decline sit-ups with a military press. Start by holding the bar up above you, and as you lift your torso upright, keep the bar raised above your head. This has the
    • benefit of working some of your other upper body muscles like your triceps. You’ll see just how important your core strength is immediately

      5. Decline Planks

      Planks are the isometric exercise of kings. If you’re looking to build up your core strength, then look no further than these. The decline plank has all of the best aspects of a plank built into it, and then some. Your inverted position is going to place a lot of the onus on your upper abs, which are a tough spot to reach sometimes.

      • Find something to prop your feet on, a slightly raised box or a bench will do
      • Prop your feet up and rest with elbows on the ground
      • Keep your back flat, and your elbows in line with your shoulders
      • Hold this plank position for about a minute or as long as possible

      If you’re having trouble with these decline planks it would be well worth your time to roll back to some regular planks, you can even add weight to your back until you feel like you’re up for the challenge of the decline planks. 

      Decline Plank Variants

      • Add a foot touch to your decline planks as you get stronger. All this involves is lifting one foot off of your inclined position and touching it to the ground. It’s great for your glutes, and shifting your point of balance will force your abs into overtime. 

      Don’t Forget

      It’s tempting to isolate one single part of your body and call it a day, but fitness is a full body process. Isolation exercises are great for building your mind-muscle connection, and supplementing lagging areas when compound movement just won’t do.

      When you make yourself stronger your muscles will naturally pull on your body, putting tension on your tendons and if you don’t balance things out, you’re going to be in trouble. So before you go, take this advice with you:

      • Always work out your opposing muscle groups. After working on your abs, make sure you work on your back 
      • Your abs are a set of muscles that encompass a great deal of your torso. Give your lower abs some love too
      • Don’t forget to feed your abs
      • Don’t overwork your core, if you hurt yourself, it’ll be basically impossible to work on the rest of your body while you recover
      • If you’re trying to get a cut look, it’s not enough to just build muscle, you’ll have to work on burning fat. The fat that’s stored on top of your abs needs to go if you want your abs to be seen, you can’t just make them so strong that they punch through your fat cells


      Working up your abdominal muscles is easily one of the best ways to up your general fitness. Everything from cardio to lifting dumbbells benefits from working out your entire core.

      The intensity of these exercises makes for a great way to lose weight. The energy demand is going to burn through your fat cells, and any personal trainer would love to see you getting these exercises under your belt.

      You’re going to feel the burn deep in your midsection if you take these on, but if you keep yourself limber and well-fed, then that pain will become a thing of the past quickly. Think of it as the fire to temper the steel you want in your