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Can You Target the Lower Abs or Upper Abs?

The questions “Can you target the lower abs?”, “Can you target the upper abs?” or a combination of the two, “Can you target the lower abs versus the upper abs?” have been quite the debate among fitness experts and enthusiasts alike for quite some time.

As a personal trainer and corrective exercise specialist, I’m going to attempt to answer this question within my scope of practice based on what research and my personal experience has to say on the matter.

After everything I’ve seen on the subject, it seems that it can be narrowed down to a simple answer, but upon closer inspection, it’s just not quite that simple. Prior to me writing this article, I was on the “targeting is impossible” side. Now, I’m not so sure.

Let’s take a look at why it’s so controversial and just not as simple as we think, then we’ll attempt to answer this question.

Anatomy of the Rectus Abdominis

The rectus abdominis, also known as a six pack.
Highlighted in red is the rectus abdominis.

By no means will this be an in depth anatomy lesson, but we should understand a few things for a deeper understanding.

The rectus abdominis is the superficial “six pack abs” we all deeply covet. Generally, it stretches from the pubic bone, and stops at the sternum.

What’s interesting and highly relevant to this topic is that anatomical evidence suggests that sections of the rectus abdominis have separate nerve innervation’s. This is telling us that hypothetically, it is possible to target the lower abs versus the upper abs.

Research on Targeting the Lower Abs and Upper Abs

The controversy lies in the research. We actually have quite a few studies showing that you can preferentially target the upper abs versus the lower abs depending on your exercise choice.

What they have found is generally, exercises with a posterior pelvic tilt (think opposite of low back arch) provide better lower ab activation when compared to exercises such as a sit up or curl up which provide better upper ab activation.

On the other hand though, one well known study by Dr. Stuart McGill found conflicting evidence, saying that you can’t preferentially target the lower abs or upper abs. According to Dr. Stuart McGill, there were issues with normalization stating:

“ Without normalization (ie, expressing the EMG signal as a percentage of the maximum activity that muscle can generate), different muscles can not be quantitatively compared. For example, concluding that the lower abdominals have less EMG activity than the upper abdominals when the signals are not normalized may not be due to the ability to preferentially recruit.”

In his study though, he did find very small differences in upper rectus abdominis activation versus lower rectus abdominis activation. The difference was so small though that there was no practical value to clinical use.

Bret Contreras also wrote about the topic and said:

“ I know some professors who are adamant that he’s incorrect on the matter.”.

The Verdict on Isolating the Lower Abs or Upper Abs

As stated earlier in this article, this isn’t a simple yes or no answer. Overall though, the answer seems to be leaning towards yes, you can preferentially target the upper and lower abs.

With that being said though, a lot of the research we have currently is conflicting and the differences are small. Therefore you have to wonder how much of a difference there really is.

Will targeting really make a considerable difference? Especially when we consider the abs are very dependent on other, more important factors such as body fat percentage.

Another factor that can’t be disregarded too, is where are you feeling the exercise? If you do a reverse crunch and feel it more in your lower abs, and then do a fitness ball crunch and feel it more in your upper abs, then you shouldn’t disregard this; even if we’re unable to definitively say if you’re isolating the lower abs versus the upper abs.

Overall, when trying to target the lower abs or target the upper abs, the differences may be too small to make a considerable difference. Take the research into consideration, but don’t neglect where you feel the exercise. Remember too, body fat is the main player in the ab definition you will see.


Sources:

  1. Contreras, B. (2010, November 18). ABC (Ask Bret Contreras) – Is It Possible To Isolate The Upper Or Lower Abs? [Web Log Post]. Retrieved from https://bretcontreras.com/abc-ask-bret-contreras-is-it-possible-to-isolate-the-upper-o-lower-abs/
  2. Kim, K., Lee, T. (2016). Comparison of muscular activities in the abdomen and lower limbs while performing sit-up and leg-raise. J Phys Ther Sci. 2016 Jan;28(2):491-4. doi: 10.1589/jpts.28.491. Epub 2016 Feb 29. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/27065536/?i=3&from=sit%20up%20and%20leg%20raise
  3. Lehman, G. J., McGill S. M. (2001). Quantification of the Differences in Electromyographic Activity Magnitude Between the Upper and Lower Portions of the Rectus Abdominis Muscle During Selected Trunk Exercises. Physical Therapy, Volume 81, Issue 5, 1 May 2001, Pages 1096–1101,https://doi.org/10.1093/ptj/81.5.1096

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About Brennen Elboeck

I'm Brennen, the founder of FocusPhysique.com. I want to give hundreds of thousands of people science based, practical physique and life transforming information! To never miss a post or what's new make sure to sign up for our newsletter above!

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