Short answer: Compound movements like squats and deadlifts require а strong mid-section and spinal erectors. The job of those muscles is to stabilize the spine and allow efficient transfer of the force generated by the legs, hips, and back to the bar.
The abdominals and the trunk muscles are the pillars keeping the “edifice” together. If they’re weak, the structure would collapse.
However, that doesn’t mean that direct ab work cannot be highly beneficial to people pursuing strength and/or aesthetics. In some cases, it may even be necessary.
What Is the Role of the Abs During Squats and Deadlifts?
Squats and deadlifts are exercises that turn your entire body into a human crane.
The glutes and the hamstring represent one pulling motor whereas the quadriceps form another one at the knee joint.
The quadriceps are the most active during the initial phase – getting the weight off the floor. They cannot contribute more to the lift because once the barbell is off the ground, the knees are already extended. At that point, the glutes and the hamstrings take over as their job is to extend the hips.
The power generated by the hips is transferred to the bar through the spine which has to remain as rigid as possible to ensure efficiency and safety.
The role of the abs during squats is fundamentally the same. They stabilize the spine which in return “transports” the power of the hips and legs to the barbell. The only difference is that the arms do not act as hooks since the weight is sitting on top of the shoulders.
In both situations, the abs work isometrically – they flex but there isn’t a great range of motion.
A New Study:
Squats and Deadlifts Don’t Work The Rectus Abdominis Harder Than A Weighted Plank
A study from 2018 compared the activation of the core muscles during a prone bridge (plank) and squats.
Details of the study:
Participants: 12 experienced lifters between 23 and 26 years of age;
Squats: 6RM (the maximum weight that the lifters could lift for six repetitions)
Prone Bridge: The prone bridge was done as a weighted plank with 20% of a lifter’s bodyweight put on his lower back until failure.
Findings: “non-significant differences between the exercises in the rectus abdominis (six pack muscle) or external oblique, but greater erector spinae activation in squatting” [source]
The Stress on the Spinal Erectors Is Far Greater
The abs work hard to support the spine, but the spinal erectors take a whole lot more beating during squats and deadlifts as they are under a far more intense contraction the entire time.
You’re a lot more likely to miss a squat or a deadlift due to your back giving up than weak abdominals.
Squats and Deadlifts Cannot Fix the Entire World
The 5×5 professors often make the following statements based on wishful thinking:
- You don’t need direct arm work because your arms would grow from holding the bar during squats. (Yes, I’ve heard this claim multiple times over the years.)
- You don’t need cardio because squats burn a lot of energy; the extra musculature that you acquire from squats & deadlifts would raise your metabolism tremendously.
This is nonsense. Strength routines are mentally draining but burn fewer calories than a 1-hour bike ride. You will never gain enough muscle naturally to speed up your metabolism as much as they claim.
- Squats and deadlifts are all you need for abs.
The abdominal activation during squats and deadlifts is undeniable, but the claim that one can develop sick abs from just squat and deadlifts is incorrect and alludes to the mythical properties that 5×5 promoters attribute to those exercises.
Unless you have sick ab genetics, you will not reach your full ab potential without targeting the region directly.
If you want to thicken your abs as quickly as possible and as much as possible, direct exercises are necessary.
Why Direct Abdominal Work Produces Faster and Better Results
The fact that a muscle is activated during an exercise doesn’t mean that the exercise will bring that muscle to its full potential.
Chin-ups work the arm flexors, but if your life depended on getting the biggest biceps that you could naturally or unnaturally, you would be doing lots of curls, wouldn’t you?
The same applies to abdominal training. Direct exercises for the mid-section turn the abs into the weakest link in the chain and force them to get stronger since there’s nowhere to hide.
Due to the extra demand, the abs receive greater stimulation and thicken faster.
Moreover, dynamic abdominal exercises (e.g., cable crunches) contain a concentric (positive) and an eccentric (negative phase). That property makes them a better hypertrophy movement thanks to the greater range of motion and the muscular damage caused by the negative phase.
If you want to develop your abs the quickest, direct abdominal work is the way to go regardless of what the squat fanatics say.
Just Look at The Athletes Who Have the Strongest Abs
Every athlete needs a strong core, but two sports jump to the forefront:
Gymnasts develop superhuman abdominal strength because their performance requires it. It’s practically impossible to find a gymnast who’s been training for a while and has a weak core.
Yet none of them rely on squats and deadlifts to achieve that goal. Truth be told, most gymnasts don’t even do those exercises in the first place. And those who squat and deadlift, certainly don’t do it for “abdominal benefits”.
After all, the core strength built through squats and deadlifts has little to no carryover to gymnastic stunts.
- Combat sports
Fighters are notorious for their insane ab training. Good luck finding a boxer with a weak abdominal section. They need abs of steel for survival reasons.
Some of the exercises that combat athletes do may be of questionable value to the ordinary person, but one thing is certain – none of them are going to abandon their core routines in favor of squats and deadlifts.
What does this tell us?
I don’t expect anyone to turn into a gymnast or a boxer to get better abs, but those examples show us that a high-level of abdominal strength requires more focus. And if your goal is to amplify your results, a simple core routine may be a good choice.
What Are the Main Benefits of Training the Abs Directly?
1. Visibility at a higher body fat percentage
The manual says that “abs are made in the kitchen” because you’ll never see them unless you lose the layers of fat on top.
That’s true. But working them would make them pop even when you are not super lean (e.g., 15% body fat).
In addition, thick abs, the result of diet and training, look a lot better than “drug-addict skinny man abs”.
2. Carryover to compound lifts
A weak core may have a hard time catching up with the strength of your legs and hips. Accessory mid-section work at the end of a session will reduce that weakness.
3. Balanced abdominal development
Compound movements may work a muscle but not always hit it from all angles. For example, the bench activates the triceps hard, but the long head often requires extra work with different exercises (e.g., PJR pullovers).
The same applies to the abs. Complete development of the abdominal region demands a more intense focus.
Ultimately, squats and deadlifts are not as hard on the rectus abdominus (the six-pack) as one may think because the muscle isn’t carrying a large portion of the weight.
The transverse abdominis (a lateral abdominal muscle acting as your personal weightlifting belt) has a greater impact on trunk stability because it compresses the ribs and creates pressure contributing to spine stability.
Therefore, people who want to work their entire abdominal wall as hard as possible are better off adding more exercises for the rectus abdominus than just doing squats.
Should Beginners Add Direct Ab Work to Their Training?
A total beginner (e.g., someone who can’t do a pull-up) does not need a multitude of isolation exercises because he or she suffers from “general weakness” and would benefit the most from basic multi-joint movements for a while.
Adding a bunch of isolation exercises on top of a demanding full-body routine could be counter-productive and result in mental fatigue detrimental to performance.
Nonetheless, you can consider doing direct abdominal work after a couple of months if you aren’t satisfied with the results that you get from the compound lifts alone.
Squat Variations that Work the Abs the Hardest
Some squat variations hit the core harder than the back squat.
Those would be:
Front squat. Some people report better core activation during front squats because the trunk has to be as erect as possible at all times.
Zercher squats. Zerchers are brutal and make the entire core burn. And all of that is accomplished with a fairly light load.
Is It True That My Abs Will Get Stronger Faster If I Squat and Deadlift with a Belt?
A while back, many 5×5 fanatics were claiming that a weightlifting belt makes your core stronger because you have something to push against with your abs.
They are/were using this logic to justify the ultra-thick powerlifting leather belts that they are/were putting around their fatso midsections to do low bar squats.
But is this really true? Does a belt make your abs stronger?
Maybe your abs contract harder, but even if that’s the case, there are far more productive abdominal exercises than suffocating your waist during heavy squats.
Moreover, a thick weightlifting belt acts as a massive wrist wrap for your entire waist. Even if the abs contract harder, the connective tissues themselves are robbed of work – which is why people tend to put on a belt after an injury.
Many strength athletes consider beltless lifts more impressive and take great pride when they set a PR without extra equipment. For example, Konstantin Konstantinovs used to remove his single after a heavy deadlift to show that he doesn’t wear a belt.
In short, the 5×5 permabulkers can spin the belt usage anyway they want – at the end of the day, they are putting it on to squat heavier weights because it offers support, not to increase the strength of their abs.
The Permabulker Fantasy: “My abs are sticking out from lots of deadlifts and squats.”
Many permabulkers lie to themselves that their bellies are sticking out as a result of heavy squats and deadlifts. It’s all in their heads for the most part.
Squats and deadlifts thicken the waist due to the pressure on the transverse abdominis, but most of the growth is usually lateral which is why aesthetic scholars like Vince Gironda avoided the big movements.
Gironda saw squat and deadlifts as exercises that push out the stomach and make your mid-section wider by spreading the pelvis – an effect detrimental to a man’s V-taper.
The case of permabulkers is different, however. More often than not, their bellies are sticking out simply because they’re fat rather than as a result of some ludicrous abdominal hypertrophy induced by squats and deadlifts.
Recommended Ab Exercises
One of the problems with abdominal exercises is the extra stress on the spine during some movements like regular crunches for example.
Some good movements to try would be:
- Cable Crunches
- Hanging leg raises
- Ab Wheel Rollouts
FAQ: What about planks? Planks could be helpful if you’re training for something specific, but the exercises above have two main advantages over planks:
- A concentric + eccentric phase
- Easier to scale to harder progressions
When to Hit the Abs?
In most cases, it’s better to train the abs towards the end of a workout after most of the work is done. Trashing your abs before a deadlift or a squat session would affect your performance.
You could also consider training them on upper body days that do not include full-body movements like the deadlift.
How Often Should One Train the Abs?
Abs can handle frequent training, but if you work them every day, you will quickly reach the point of diminishing returns. 2-3 times a week is enough for most of us.
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References: van den Tillaar, R. and Saeterbakken, A., 2018. Comparison of Core Muscle Activation Between a Prone Bridge and 6-RM Back Squats. Journal of Human Kinetics, 62(1), pp.43-53.