Have you ever heard that you can train your upper and lower ab’s? I have heard that, too! Recently, I have seen this pop up from people in the fitness world.
I learned this subject debunked 15 years ago when I obtained my NASM Personal Training Certification and was completing my degree in Kinesiology from JMU. I learned that you cannot train your ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ ab’s. After having had extensive training in anatomy, it makes complete sense to me!
I wanted to share something I am pretty passionate about with you: anatomy! There are 4 abdominal muscles: the Transversus Abdominis (TA), Internal Obliques (IO), External Obliques (EO), and the Rectus Abdominis (RA). I recommend looking at images of these muscles to see just how much room each of them take up in the trunk of your body. When I am referring to the trunk, I am speaking about the part that is left over after you remove your arms and legs.
NASM has a great set of images online of each of these muscles individually from their book entitled “NASM Essentials of Corrective Exercise Training” (see link below under references to view the 4 ab muscles). Once you see where these are positioned in the body, it is apparent that there is not one muscle that is located on the top of the trunk only or on the bottom of the trunk only. There is no way to train one ‘upper’ ab muscle or one ‘lower’ ab muscle when each muscle spans so much of the length of trunk.
In my video, you will hear me mention ‘origin’ and ‘insertion’. These are anatomical terms that refer to where the muscle attaches to in the body. This information also lets you know how far the muscle spans in the trunk.
Each of these muscles works as one unit to complete the movement that the muscle is responsible for in the body. This movement is many times referred to as its ‘action’ in anatomy. I love knowing the action of a muscle--- it fascinates me (I would not have said that during anatomy class 15 years ago, however)! This information, along with knowing where the muscle is in the body, has helped me over the years choose effective exercises to work the muscles I want to target during clients’ workouts and my own. The entire muscle is responsible for completing the movement, not just one section.
Is it possible to train upper and lower ab’s? Rick Richey, from the NASM Blog, shares his insight in American Fitness Magazine:
“Only when it comes to location, not function. For instance, is there an upper part and a lower part of an escalator? Sure, but the escalator, like the rectus abdominis, works as one unit. People may feel their “lower abs” during leg lifts and knee tucks, but as someone once said, “Feelings aren’t facts.” That sensation is caused by the psoas muscles that anchor to T12–L5, which happen to be under the lower portion of the rectus abdominis.”
Jonathan Ross, a fellow colleague of mine from MANIA Fit Pro Conferences, believes that everything is not black and white, however. In his article featured in The American Council on Exercise’s ProSource publication, he notes that some muscle fibers from the RA may be activated more than others during certain exercises, generating a burning feeling in upper or lower areas of the muscle (Ross, J. 2014). For the crunch exercise, Ross shares that his clients feel the burn more in the upper area of the RA since the muscle fibers in the upper section of the muscle have to travel further to complete the movement versus the lower muscle fibers (Ross, J. 2014). Similarly, during a reverse crunch, he notes more fatigue in the lower abdominal area because he states that those RA muscle fibers have to travel further than the upper fibers during that exercise. He does state that “there is no distinction between the… [Upper RA] and the… [Lower RA] in the lab, but there seems to be some when you perform certain exercises” (Ross, J. 2014).
Overall, I believe there are no upper and lower ab’s to isolate and train. Ross gives a convincing argument, but I believe there is more research needed on this subject if we are to accept that muscles can be trained in upper and lower regions. Exercises chosen can be based on the ‘actions’ of the muscles to make sure you are targeting the specific muscle you wish to train the best way possible.
Clark, M. & Lucett, S. NASM Essentials of Corrective Exercise Training (2010). Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Richey, R. (2020). American Fitness Magazine. Core Objectives: Making a Case for Progressive Core Training. <https://blog.nasm.org/progressive-core-training>
Ross, J. (2014). ACE PRESOURCE. Can You Train Upper and Lower Abs Separately?https://www.acefitness.org/fitness-certifications/ace-answers/exam-preparation-blog/5220/the-basics-of-exercise-science-part-3/