Some say that squats and deadlifts render all direct abdominal work completely redundant, as both exercises provide all the stimulation your abs will ever need.
That’s the theory, anyway. But the research tells a different story.
Deadlifts do work many of the core muscles. But it’s mainly the ones in your back, especially the spinal erectors – those cable-like muscles that run up either side of your spine [1, 2].
During the deadlift, the spinal erectors work very hard to keep your spine in its naturally arched position. Powerlifters have such well-developed spinal erectors mainly because of all the work those muscles do to prevent the spine from bending during the deadlift and squat.
In other words, deadlifts work just fine for developing the posterior aspects of the core. Quadratus lumborum, a small but important muscle in the lower back that helps to stabilize the spine, is also heavily involved .
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Can You Get a Six Pack From Deadlifts?
What about the abs? Can you get a six pack from deadlifts alone?
Alongside rectus abdominis, there are several other muscles that make up your abdominals, including the external and internal obliques, as well as transverse abdominis.
All of them play an important role in generating intra-abdominal pressure, working in tandem with your spinal erectors to stabilize the spine and keep your torso rigid during the deadlift.
However, while rectus abdominis will be called into action during the deadlifts, simply recruiting a muscle isn’t enough to make it grow. It needs to be both recruited and stimulated to a degree that’s sufficient to have a training effect.
And most research shows that rectus abdominis activity during the deadlift is relatively small.
The figure below comes from a study that looked at muscle activation in the abdominal muscles of trained lifters performing a number of different exercises, including the push-up, deadlift and parallel squat.
As you can see, there was very little muscular activity in rectus abdominis during the deadlift, even with the use of very heavy weights.
“Back in 1988, researchers tested core-muscle activation on a couple-dozen activities, ranging from sitting and standing to sit-ups and deadlifts with as much as 220 pounds,” writes Lou Schuler in The New Rules of Lifting For Abs.
“The abdominal muscles registered hardly any activity on the heavy deadlift. By comparison, the rectus abdominis and external obliques were far more active on basic push-ups.”
In fact, the overhead press has been shown to trigger greater rectus abdominis activity than both the deadlift and squat . But it’s still relatively low compared to exercises like the rollout or even the curl-up.
In short, the claim that “heavy squats and deadlifts are all you need for your abs” isn’t backed by the evidence. Even the humble push-up has been shown to work the abs harder than squats or deadlifts.
All things considered, if you want a decent set of abs, I’d suggest doing exercises that train them directly.
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