Strengthening your upper abs comes with a bonus -- the same exercises simultaneously tone the lower portion of your abs. A 2001 study, commissioned by the American Council on Exercise and implemented by Dr. Peter Francis, Ph.D., and the Biomechanics Lab at San Diego University, determined that the rectus abdominis muscle, which consists of the upper and lower abs, works as a whole. Including exercises for your rectus abdominis into two or three workout sessions each week will strengthen your abs.
Always consult with your doctor before starting an exercise program. If you have any health concerns that affect your midsection, such as scoliosis, arthritis or a previous back injury, she will instruct you on appropriate exercise modifications or refer you to a physical therapist. Help prevent injury by dong a warm-up that elevates the heart rate and prepares the muscles for activity. A few minutes of jogging, jumping jacks or squats will suffice.
The ACE study ranks the bicycle maneuver as the top exercise for challenging the rectus abdominis. Lie on your back, tighten your stomach muscles and lift your knees above your hips. Place your hands behind your head. Crunch your left elbow and right knee together while straightening your left leg. Focus on using your abs to power the movement and don’t pull your neck with your hands. Return your elbow and knee, crunch your right elbow and left knee together and straighten your right leg. Continue alternating, cycling until your abs fatigue, typically 30 to 60 seconds.
The vertical leg crunch strengthens the rectus abdominis. Lie on your back, cross your ankles and lift your feet above your hips. Bend your legs slightly, tighten your abdominal muscles and place your hands behind your head. Lift your chin and look up. Crunch up, lifting your torso about 45 degrees toward your knees. Pause, lower and repeat until your abs fatigue, typically 30 to 60 seconds.
The plank challenges the rectus abdominis and builds lower-back strength. Kneel on all fours, lower your elbows to the floor and place them under your shoulders. Rest your forearms on the floor, in front of your elbows. Extend your legs behind you and position your feet hip-width apart. Tighten your abdominal muscles and align your shoulders, back, hips, knees and heels. Don’t let your hips drop as you hold plank. Lower to your knees if this is too difficult. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds, stopping when your muscles fatigue. Narrow the distance between your feet to increase difficulty.
Grab a Ball
Medicine ball lifts challenge the rectus abdominis and lower back. Sit on the ground and hold a medicine ball in front of you. Straighten your arms and lift the ball in front of your chest. Bend your legs and rest your feet on the floor. Sit up straight, tighten your abdominal muscles and pull your shoulder blades down and together. Lower your back 45 degrees. Lift the ball over your head without arching or bending your back. Lower the ball in front of your chest. Repeat until your abdominal muscles fatigue, typically 30 to 60 seconds. Sit up slightly if your back arches or drops during the exercise.