Compound Lifts for Abs
Louis Degnan, EP
When it comes to fitness professionals, there is no shortage of certification boards, each promoting slightly different approaches. In recent years, numerous personal trainers and fitness influencers on the internet have advocated that compound exercises like squats and deadlifts alone are enough to achieve optimal ab training. This contrasts with the widely held belief that direct ab training, involving exercises such as planks, crunches, and Russian twists, is necessary to sculpt a chiseled six-pack or a flat tummy.
At first glance, this notion seems reasonable. These movements do engage the abdominal muscles and require a bracing technique akin to that of a plank hold. Moreover, the added benefit of progressive overload through the use of barbell weights suggests that heavy weights coupled with muscle activation should lead to gains and progress, right? Well, not exactly.
Several electromyography (EMG) studies actually indicate that these movements are not the most effective stimulators of the rectus abdominis and external oblique muscles, contrary to what this camp believes. For instance, a 2014 study conducted by Aspe and colleagues found that in rugby players, the back squat poorly activated these targeted muscles, while the standard sit-up proved twice as effective. Similarly, a 2009 study by Willardson et al. yielded even less promising results for both the squat and deadlift.
This discrepancy can likely be attributed to the fact that these exercises do not involve trunk flexion or rotation, which are the primary functions of the abdominal muscles. While it is true that abdominal bracing is necessary for stabilization during these “big lifts,” the absence of active contraction makes them inferior to direct abdominal work when the goal is to effectively train the abs.
- Effect of Surface Stability on Core Muscle Activity for Dynamic Resistance Exercises (eiu.edu)
- Electromyographic and Kinetic Comparison of the Back Squat and… : The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research (lww.com)