Upper Ab Exercises: Are Washboard Abs Possible?

By Jason Williams on February, 24 2021
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Jason Williams

If you’re prioritizing upper ab exercises in your clients’ workouts or your own, you first need to consider whether the washboard ‘ab’ abdominal muscles, known as the rectus abdominis, are even separated into lower and upper compartments. 

If they are, do sit-ups, crunches, and planks work the upper or lower abdominals differently? If not, you may want to re-think the exercises you use—perhaps “upper ab exercises” aren’t necessary for getting the look you and your clients are hoping to achieve. 

Keep Reading: Chest and Back Workout: Focus on Efficiency and Power

Are the Abdominals Separated into Upper and Lower Halves?

Yes and no. Yes, in that many past researchers have referred to the rectus abdominis in upper and lower halves. No, in that the rectus abdominals are one long, flat muscle originating on the pubic bone and attaching to the xiphoid process and ribs. 

Technically, the rectus abdominis can 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. In addition, 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 abs during traditional upper ab 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.

Keep Reading: A Dynamic Upper Body Warmup for All Clients


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 lumbar flexion exercises are not recommended. 

The reason is that these traditional upper ab exercises put excessive compressive force on the lower back. 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. 
  • Levitation Sit-Up: This exercise is executed with a neutral spine with the arms straight and the shoulder blades elevated off the ground. 

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.  

Keep Reading: Overtraining Recovery and Avoidance for Clients


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: Another fan favorite with clients is the Roll-Out exercise. However, proceed carefully; bar rollouts can cause back discomfort and excessive hyperextension of the spine. Some clients may also experience pain in their shoulders and lose control of the bar. 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 the embedded video of a 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.

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. 

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. 

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Jason Williams

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