Do Deadlifts Work The Abs? (Yes, But Not How You Think)

We often hear about the importance of building a strong core for a variety of performance settings such as powerlifting.

But, do deadlifts work the core?  The core muscles used most in the deadlift are the erector spinae. These muscles are located at the back just lateral to the spine.  While they have an important role in providing stability and strength, they aren’t the muscles that will contribute to a traditional six-pack.

Regardless, deadlifts do have the potential to provide a significant training stimulus for your abs depending on your goals.

In this article, I’ll cover:

  • What are the abs?
  • How do the abs function in the deadlift?
  • How deadlifts help build core strength
  • How to prioritize ab work based on your goals
  • Sample core routine

What Are The Abs?

The abs are probably most known as the rectus abdominis muscle. 

It’s one of the muscles located around your stomach area that gives the highly sought after “six-pack” look. 

However, there are also other muscles in this area that are part of your core musculature. These include but are not limited to the transverse abdominis, external oblique, internal oblique, and also the erector spinae in the back. 

core diagram
Core diagram

There is another important muscle that is not usually considered which is your diaphragm (the muscle responsible for how we breathe). 

Check out the other I wrote about the diaphragm and how to breathe properly in the deadlift.  

So What Core Muscles Are Used In The Deadlift?

From an EMG standpoint, which is basically recording the electrical activities of muscles, the main core muscle used in the deadlift is the erector spinae

Spinal erectors
Spinal Erector

This is due to the biomechanics of the deadlift as you will mainly use the posterior chain (back) to lift the weight up against gravity.

For comparison, a simple sit-up would activate the rectus abdominis more than the deadlift, as you are using the anterior (front) side of your body to combat gravity.

Based on EMG studies, you may be thinking that the deadlifts are not sufficient in training the abs.

While this is correct to an extent, keep in mind that EMG activity doesn’t inherently make something better or worse as it really depends on your goals which we will talk about more later on.

Check out our complete guide to the MUSCLES USED IN THE DEADLIFT

What Is The Role Of The Abs/Core In The Deadlift?

Now that you have an understanding of what the core musculature is composed of, we can now talk about the role of the core in the deadlift. 

The core provides stability in your midsection so that you can produce maximal power and lift heavier weights. 

By taking a deep breath in, and squeezing your core as hard as possible, you generate something called intra-abdominal pressure.  This pressure creates stability around your hips and spine, which increases the amount of force you can generate from maximally recruiting your other muscles.  

Research on intra-abdominal pressure has actually shown to increase muscular strength.

Note that having a “strong core” does not mean you will have visible six-pack abs. Visible abs largely come down to nutrition and being at a low body fat percentage.  You can still have a strong core underneath layers of stomach fat.  

Being strong and looking aesthetic are not causally related.

Don’t forget to check out my article on The 9 Best Ab Exercises For Powerlifters.

Should You Be Doing More Core Work or Are Deadlifts Enough?

To answer this, we must look at our overall fitness goals.  

If your goal is strength 

Let’s assume that your goal is to build strength and increase the amount of weight you can lift in the deadlift.  

To do this, you need to maximize the amount of force you can produce by utilizing every muscle responsible in the deadlift. 

The core is one part of that, specifically the erector spinae. 

In some cases, an inability to brace effectively with your core could result in a performance decrement as it compromises your overall technique.

For example, you can imagine that a lifter who is slowly unraveling at the spine as they pull is likely not very efficient from a performance standpoint. 

In this scenario, what better way to work your core muscles specific to the deadlift, then to perform the deadlift itself. Just select a weight where you can maintain some technical proficiency throughout the entire movement. As you get stronger and better at deadlifting, you’ll be able to lift more weight.

But, should you incorporate extra core work above and beyond the deadlift?  

In the specific context of getting better at the deadlift, I would argue that it’s probably not necessary but it definitely wouldn’t hurt. 

For example, being really good at sit-ups and having a strong rectus abdominis doesn’t necessarily equate to a better deadlift, but it won’t hinder your performance either.  Implementing a variety of training stimulus’ is generally beneficial. 

One core exercise for the deadlift that I would recommend is the plank or side plank. This is because it can be good practice at learning how to brace your stomach properly.

If your goal is aesthetics

If your goal is to get six-pack abs, then your primary concern should be to reduce body fat, which comes from a combination of watching your nutrition intake and being more active. 

Resistance training to build more muscle (particularly in the abs) could also help you get a more desired look. In which case, you’ll want to target ranges of motion that recruit each part of the core such as sit-ups for the rectus abdominis and a rotational exercise for the obliques.

Keep in mind though, the large determining factor of how your abs will look comes down to genetics, so just focus on training hard instead of trying to “shape” your abs to a subjective standard. 

If your goal is specialized

You might need a strong core because you’re involved in some specialized activities, such as strongman.  

In this case, Strongmen have unique requirements for the core, which usually involve lifting awkward objects, such as stones.  In this case, you’ll want to provide the core with the most specific stimulus as possible, which is lifting the stones in the range of motion that you are required to compete. 

You don’t need anything fancy to work the core, just provide it with a specific stimulus and it will adapt accordingly.  

If you simply want to have an enjoyable workout

You could also just do specific core work because you enjoy it or like to do it. Besides, who doesn’t like to feel their midsection burn after a workout?

What Kind Of Core Exercises Should You Do?

Here are a few of my favorite core exercises you can try, which help compliment the deadlift:

Plank

  • Lie prone on the floor with your elbows and feet supporting you. Hold your brace / “engage your core” and hold for time. If this is too hard, you can be on your knees. If this is too easy, then you can get a partner to add some weight on your back.

Single Arm Farmer Carry

  • Hold a weight that is moderately challenging on one arm. Squeeze the weight, hold your brace / “engage your core” and walk while staying upright. Repeat this on the opposite side. Progress with more weight, or walk for more distance.

Ab Wheel

  • Use an ab roller and perform ab rollouts. You can do this on your knees or feet with the latter being more difficult. Again, hold your brace and “engage your core”. 

Check out our article on DO SQUATS STRENGTHEN YOUR CORE

How Do I Know If You Have a Strong or Weak Core?

Quite often we hear things like you have a weak core and like to blame that specific area for our issues. In the deadlift, you might think you have a weak core if you are unable to maintain stability throughout the lift (ie. your back keeps moving all over the place). 

But the word ‘weak’ is not necessarily the right way to describe it. The reality is, your core is probably not weak, otherwise you probably wouldn’t be able to sit or stand up and function in daily life. 

From a training perspective, however, you may need to build up some tolerance and skill to handle certain loads and perform certain movements to the best of your ability.

Our bodies are not fragile and are highly adaptable! So in the case of the deadlift, simply drop some weight and focus on your technique if you are having trouble and build up the tolerance to handle heavier loads. 

Final Thoughts

The deadlifts work one part of your core — the erector spinae. You can supplement your core training with other exercises based on your overall goals. At the end of the day don’t worry about picking the perfect exercise and instead be sure to train hard, progress in a smart manner and never stop moving.

About The Author

Clifton Pho’s most notable achievement is winning the 2017 IPF Classic World Championships in the Junior 66kg class whilst setting an Open World Record Deadlift. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology and is currently pursuing a Doctor of Chiropractic.

References

Aspe, R., Swinton, P. (2014). Electromyographic and kinetic comparison of the back squat and overhead squat. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 10: 2827-2836.

Tayashiki, K., Kanehisa, H., Miyamota, N. (2018). Does intraabdominal pressure have a causal effect on muscle strength of hip and knee joint? Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 1-6.

Tillaar, R., Saeterbakken, A. (2018). Comparison of core muscle activation between a prone bridge and 6-RM back squat. Journal of Human Kinetics, 62: 43-53.

Willardson, J., Fontana, B. (2009). Effect of surface stability on core muscle activity for dynamic resistance exercises. International Journal Sports Physiology, 4(1): 97-109.

Youdas, J., Guck, B., Hebrink, R., Rugotzke, J., Madson, T., Hollman, J. (2008). An electromyographic analysis of the ab-slide exercise, abdominal crunch, supine double leg thrust, and side bridge in healthy young adults: implications for rehabilitation professionals. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 6: 1939-1946.