Here we go – does squatting and deadlifting give you a thicker waist?
You may have heard it from someone in the gym, you may have seen it advertised by a company selling lifting belts or waist trainers to bodybuilders, you may have read it somewhere. So let’s answer the question once and for all for everyone who ever hesitated to squat or deadlift because they worried their waist would thicken.
Do squats and deadlifts thicken your waist? Any lift that works your core, when done frequently and intensely enough, will cause your core muscles to strengthen and grow, just like any other muscle. However, squats and deadlifts do not have a greater or inherently special impact on this growth in your core muscles than other core-focused exercises.
So why does everyone keep talking about it? And why are some lifters so focused on maintaining a small waist that they avoid these lifts and even spend money on products to help them keep their waists small?
Let’s dive in.
Why Are People Obsessed With Having a Small Waist?
A Prevailing Focus on Physique Ratios
In the world of bodybuilding, ratios are everything – how does your waist look compared to your thighs, your pecs, and your shoulders?
These are the ratios judges use to compare one lifter’s physique to the next. You may have worked and built your abs, but how does that look in the big picture?
This hyper-focus on ratios and proportions leads athletes to examine every detail of their physique (and others’) to determine what they need to do to get better.
A common area of focus is the waist. The smaller your waist looks, the bigger your quads look below, and the bigger your pecs, shoulders, and lats look above. So you can see why a small waist is a huge area of focus in the bodybuilding world.
Beauty Standards Are Influential
Even outside of bodybuilding specifically, Western beauty standards of women emphasize a tiny waist and, more and more in this decade, large hips and booty.
The hourglass figure that men and women have idolized on and off throughout time has not waned in popularity, from Victorian times with tightly cinched corsets permanently rearranging the rib cages and organs of women who wore them over time, to more contemporary superstars like Marilyn Monroe and Kim Kardashian.
Women lifting in the gym are hyper-aware of their figures and how it compares to the prevailing standard of beauty. Many want to ensure they are building out the areas they want to pop and slimming the areas they want to shrink, so they avoid doing any exercises that work the core muscles.
Where Did the Myth That Squats and Deadlifts Thicken Your Waist Come From?
So now that we’ve established the culture that exists around tiny waists for men and women in the gym, we can finally bring in why squats and deadlifts get a bad rap and are blamed for bulky waists.
If you look at the type of athletes that squat and deadlift heavy loads, they aren’t often the ones with lean bodies that fit the perfect bodybuilding ratios. Powerlifters are notoriously overweight, focused more on the weight they can move than the appearance of the muscle that moves it.
Only recently, with explosions of popularity via social media, have powerlifters begun to explore the possibilities of chasing both performance and appearance.
Sprinters and jumpers who train squats and deadlifts to develop maximal force output are also more focused on the performance outcomes than appearances, with little focus on their upper body development. Their bodies can make lifters believe this training leads to thick waists.
Given these stereotypes and trends, it’s easy for the bodybuilding and beauty communities to point and say, “I’m not doing THAT if I end up looking like them.”
We talk more about the myth that powerlifting can make you fat in Will Powerlifting Make You Fat? (No, Here’s Why).
Follow the Money
Even experienced lifters are subject to the human impulse to find a shortcut or pay for a faster solution. That’s exactly why so many bad fitness products and ideologies exist – because people keep wanting to find the magic bullet!
The pursuit of a tiny waist is near the top of the list of outcomes people are willing to pay for if it means avoiding the actual work. As long as there is a dollar to be made from an idea, people will sell it.
Dogma runs deep in the fitness community, paving the way for gurus and businesses to be hugely successful in selling useless tummy wraps, waist trainers, and skinny lifting belts designed to be worn for an entire workout. There are also countless topical creams and workout programs that claim to keep your waist small.
Just follow the money and you’ll see these folks have no interest in disproving the myth that squats and deadlifts make your waist thicker. They’re making a fortune off everyone wanting a shortcut or an easy answer to getting a smaller waist.
Combine all these elements together – a sport focused on ratios, a culture obsessed with big booties and tiny waists, red herring comparisons to other lifestyles, and an industry looking to monetize every desire – and you have yourself a recipe for the idea that squatting and deadlifting will thicken your waist.
Now that we’ve reached the bottom of that, let’s talk about what’s going on in your core when you squat and deadlift.
How the Core Plays a Role in Squats and Deadlifts
The squat is commonly thought of as a leg exercise, and the deadlift is often bucketed as a leg and a back exercise, depending on the lifter and their focus. But to work those leg and back muscles, our core (abdominals, obliques, and erectors) is doing a lot of work behind the scenes.
Abs and Obliques
During a squat and a deadlift, your abs (front of your stomach) and obliques (sides of your stomach) are primarily responsible for keeping your spine straight.
That’s right, your erectors (which we’ll touch on below) do their part of this job from behind, while your abs in front also keep your torso and spine straight when you have a heavy load on your shoulders above you or in your hands below you.
They also prevent you from hyperextending too far back, where your erectors would potentially disengage entirely.
Given the relatively extreme load (more than normal lifestyle demands and movements) we put on a barbell for squats and deadlifts, you can imagine your abs work pretty hard to offset that load, prevent your spine from rounding, and maintain your torso position while you move the weight up and down.
Your abs are absolutely working under load here, like any muscle under stress.
Your erectors are the long muscles that run up and down your spine, one on each side. They keep your spine straight, prevent it from twisting, and allow you to bend at the waist from a horizontal to an upright position (as required when doing a deadlift and a squat).
The erectors are both stabilizing your spine and bending your upper body forward and backward at the hip.
To learn more about how deadlifts work your core, check out Do Deadlifts Work the Core? (Yes, But Not How You Think).
Impact of Training Abs, Obliques, and Erectors
As all three of these muscles work so clearly in the squat and deadlift, it’s totally fair to understand why the industry would think that these two lifts would grow your core muscles to a point that you have a thick waist. After all, they’re being worked, and they’re going to grow!
However, muscle size is not the only factor in the appearance of your waist. Body fat percentage and genetics are the biggest factors in that appearance, and neither of these is directly affected by the squat and deadlift.
What Does Science Say About Getting a Thicker Waist from Squats and Deadlifts?
We’ve dug into a lot about culture and dogma, and we’ve explored the musculature of squatting and deadlifting. Let’s take it a step deeper and look at actual studies that explored various elements of this myth.
Study #1: Do Physical Characteristics Affect Strength?
First, we have a study published in the International Journal of Exercise Science looking at body measurements and how they correlate with strength outcomes. Are bigger athletes really stronger? Do ratios really affect strength outcomes?
The answer is a resounding yes – there are several statistically significant correlations between body measurements and performance outcomes.
For example, this study highlights that individuals with bigger squats tend to weigh more, have higher body fat percentages, higher body mass indices (BMIs), and larger hip, waist, and torso circumferences.
But just because athletes with the biggest squats are heavier, fatter, and have larger midsections does not mean that heavy squats caused these measurements in their bodies! Correlation is not causation.
It’s far more likely that these subjects (who were already trained powerlifters at the time of selection for the study) got good at squatting because they are genetically built this way and maintain lifestyles that develop and support this body type for optimal squatting.
Study #2: Do Lifters With Smaller Waists Have Stronger Deadlifts?
But wait, another study looked at the ability to predict powerlifting performance and abilities based on physical measurements and ratios of lifters’ bodies.
Researchers found some of the things you’d expect – for example, longer arms were negatively correlated with a bigger bench press but positively associated with better deadlift maxes.
But most surprisingly is the most common body type among lifters whose deadlift was their best lift. Researchers discovered that powerlifters with a high deadlift max had smaller body weights, lower body fat percentages, smaller waist sizes, and lower waist-to-hip ratios.
So this means these smaller, slimmer lifters tend to have a better deadlift compared to the rest of their lifts!
That doesn’t seem to match up at all with the dogma that a strong deadlift and deadlifting consistently will give you a bigger waist!
Does this mean deadlifts shrink your core? No, but it illustrates the other side of the point that the lift is not necessarily the cause of having a thick waist. It also makes a great argument that deadlifts don’t make your core thick, either.
Study #3: Does Exercise, In General, Make Your Waist Smaller?
The more someone regularly exercised, the lower their waist circumference.
Study #4: Does Abdominal Training Make Your Waist Smaller?
And in yet another study on normal folks, not lifters, researchers tested how well specific abdominal training correlated with reducing waist circumference.
When comparing a group of sedentary folks who started abdominal training for six weeks with a control group of sedentary folks who did nothing, they found that six weeks of abdominal training alone was not sufficient enough to reduce abdominal fat or improve body composition in other areas.
The way you train your abs doesn’t determine your waist circumference. Body fat percentage does.
Studies #4, #5, and #6: Does Wearing a Lifting Belt Prevent Your Waist From Getting Too Thick?
What about belts? Does wearing a belt reduce muscle engagement so you can keep your waist small?
Researchers found what many of us already know about lifting belts to be true – they don’t actually support your back as much as they give your abs something to push against while you lift.
Because your abs are more engaged than normal, they take pressure off of the erector spinae, giving you spinal support without making your erectors work as hard.
So if anything, a belt makes your abs work harder and your erectors work less. This debunks the sales pitch of bodybuilding belts and waist trainers alike – that a belt allows you to relax your core so you don’t grow those muscles and let the belt or waist trainer add support.
The belt makes your abs work more, which would make them grow more.
If you’re wondering whether or not you should wear a belt for squats and deadlifts, check out Should You Wear A Belt For Squats And Deadlifts?
From these studies I’ve pulled together, we can agree that strong powerlifters tend to be bigger and have bigger waists – no surprise there.
But the data point that lifters whose best lift is their deadlift have smaller waists and body fat percentages means the lift itself is not causing these fatter, rounder, thicker body types.
Second, we established that general exercise and lowering your body fat percentage is a better indicator of waist circumference than abdominal training specifically.
Finally, we learned that belts actually activate the abs MORE during heavy lifts, debunking the belief that a belt will do the supporting work for you so you can keep your waist petite and untrained.
The bottom line I see here is that you can happily squat and deadlift, and you don’t need a belt or waist trainer to prevent your abs and lower back from being engaged while you lift.
You need to reduce your body fat percentage to get a smaller waist, and building muscle through compound lifts like the squat and deadlift is a fantastic way to do that when combined with a caloric deficit (eating fewer calories than you burn each day).
Factors That Contribute to Getting a Thicker Waist From Squats and Deadlifts
So do the findings above mean every bodybuilder who wants to get on stage or every woman who wants the perfect booty/waist ratio will get it by reducing body fat alone?
So let’s dive into the factors that affect your waist’s appearance.
There it is, the big one that we all love to blame and can’t escape.
First and foremost, your genetics will affect your appearance. Some people just have the genes to get that tiny waist, whether they’re a muscular male bodybuilder or a beautiful cover model.
Don’t use it as an excuse, though! Use the proven tools you have in place (reducing body fat, building muscle, training often) to get as best of a physique as you can, and you’ll likely surprise yourself with the outcomes you can achieve!
Just know that some of the finer details and best results are stuck in the way our bodies are built.
I’ve harped on reducing body fat percentage, and that’s a big one, but there are other diet factors as well. Water intake and bloating are huge in this conversation. Some foods will make you bloat and retain water, making the waist appear less attractive on some days than others.
Be aware of the foods that affect you and time your consumption accordingly for when you want your waist and core to be on display for others to see.
If you’re a female athlete who wants to lose fat, check out our guide on the female powerlifting diet. Even though it’s geared toward powerlifting, many of the principles we discuss can also be applied to nutrition for other sports.
How often you train will also affect your waist circumference. It could be the frequency of your squat and deadlift, or it could be the frequency of any other core exercise in your program.
Muscles grow according to the stress we place on them. If you stimulate your abs more frequently, they’ll grow and pop more than someone who doesn’t train them as often. If you never engage them at all, you’ll also get adaptations that come with a lack of stimulus.
Be aware of your training frequency on your core to control that lever to determine how much and how fast it grows and develops.
Load is also a big factor in how muscles grow. A rule of thumb is that heavy weight for low reps builds strength, and lighter weight for high reps builds muscle size.
So if you’re avoiding heavy squats or deadlifts because they’ll grow your abs, but you’re doing ab work like crunches for sets of 30-40, you’re actually doing the opposite of your goal. The crunches may make your core muscles grow in size faster than heavy squats and deadlifts.
Being aware of the type of stimulus you put on your core relative to the load you use can help you better control the finer appearance of those muscles.
There are tons of other core exercises you can do for your abs beyond the squat and deadlift.
Again, if you’re avoiding these two lifts but doing lots of side crunches, planks, sit-ups, crunches, leg raises, and ab rollouts, you can easily grow your ab muscles far more than a squat or deadlift ever will, even when done consistently and with heavy loads.
Look at your workouts, count how many are core-focused, and make sure your exercise selection aligns with your goals!
Benefits of Doing Squats and Deadlifts for Core Strength
Now that we aren’t afraid of squats or deadlifts thickening our torsos, we can talk about the advantages of core training with these lifts!
I’ve heard several elite powerlifters talk about how bracing during a big lift is the only ab training they do. While this may not be totally true (I’m sure at some point they did or currently do other ab work) and may not be the best advice for your average lifter, your core muscles get a remarkable amount of engagement while doing these compound lifts.
Just look at the studies on belts I cited above. During squatting movements, wearing a belt and creating intra-abdominal pressure to flex your muscles against that belt increases the activation of those abdominal muscles! That’s all to stabilize your spine while you move hundreds of pounds up and down.
Do that a couple times a week for several months or years, and you’re going to have very well-developed abs.
If you’re not sure how to brace your core properly in the deadlift, check out How to Breathe Properly in the Deadlift.
How To Avoid Getting a Thicker Waist from Squats and Deadlifts
To wrap this up, I want to share a few things to pay attention to so you can avoid getting a thicker waist than you want.
Develop Other Muscle Groups
The secret to a small waist is not actually in shrinking your waist – it’s in growing the parts of your body you are comparing your waist to!
A bikini competitor friend of mine (who has her pro card, ps) often talks about helping women understand that developing their delts and shoulder caps creates the illusion of a small waist.
She helps new lifters focus on building out their shoulders and lats instead of shrinking their waist. She understands that these women think they want a smaller waist when in reality, they want the appearance of a smaller waist.
She reports that all of her clients who stick with it comment on how small their waists look as a result! Nobody ever comments on how big their shoulders or backs look because most people can’t define what they see – they just see a smaller waist/shoulder ratio and tell the lifter she looks good!
The same may be true for you! You can get way better results that are actually in your control by building your glutes, quads, lats, pecs, and shoulders to make your waist appear smaller without ever doing anything else to directly shrink your waist.
All that resistance training on those other muscles will also increase your metabolism, which, along with eating in a caloric deficit, can help you reduce your body fat percentage. Now you have a smaller waist due to lower body fat, and it looks even smaller due to growing the other body parts it's being compared to.
Train Your Entire Body
An important way to avoid imbalances or unwanted ratios is to train everything! Squatting and deadlifting are great ways to build your quads and back so that your waist looks relatively petite in between them.
If you avoid certain body parts or exercises while exaggerating others, you could wind up with the opposite appearance of what you want.
If you find your abs/core are bulkier than you want, you can modify how often you train them and emphasize the other areas as well.
Always keep the whole body in mind as you make goals on growing or shrinking specific body parts or muscles.
Wondering if squats and deadlifts are enough to train your legs? Check out Are Squats And Deadlifts Enough For Legs? (Pros & Cons).
Your body fat percentage is the biggest contributor to your waistline, so be aware of what you’re eating and don’t assume you can eat whatever you want!
You shouldn’t be in a calorie deficit forever because it’s not healthy. If you want to lose fat, you should spend 12-16 weeks in a calorie deficit and spending the same amount of time eating at maintenance (the number of calories you need to eat to keep your weight the same).
Whichever phase you’re in, you can still maintain your hard work by being aware of your caloric intake.
Don’t let your hard work in the gym go to waste by ignoring what you eat! You could follow all the best advice for a tiny waist perfectly and throw it all away if you ignore calories.
Alternatively, you could wear a waist trainer, avoid squats and deadlifts, and do all the scammy things and never get a good waist because you didn’t pay attention to your calories.
Your body fat percentage and caloric intake will determine your waistline more than any amount of squats or deadlifts you do or don’t perform.
Remember, it’s not only about the squat and deadlift. Any exercise that trains your core can stimulate those muscles to grow in size if you do it right and do it enough. If you don’t want a thick waist, don’t do a ton of ab work each week to make it grow!
That doesn't mean avoiding it entirely. It means not trying to bulk your abs the way you try to bulk your chest, back, shoulders, and quads if you don’t want your waist to grow.
Review how many core-focused exercises you do each week and how many overall core sets you do. Reduce them if necessary, or change the load/frequency/intensity to control the results.
Should Bodybuilders Do Squats and Deadlifts?
If you ask me, as a matter of personal opinion, I say yes – bodybuilders should do squats and deadlifts. Of course, there are machines like the hack squat, pendulum squat, leg press, and others that will work your legs. But nothing feels like harder work or builds work capacity like the squat and deadlift.
I’ve heard it said that you can only work as hard as you ever worked before. You set your own limits based on how hard you’ve been able to push yourself in the past. Squats and deadlifts can teach you where your limits are and how hard you can actually work.
As you perform squats and deadlifts, you learn how hard you can push or work to complete a lift or a set. Then you can start using other tools like a pendulum squat or belt squat machine to better isolate and target your quads and focus on developing them for bodybuilding.
With the experience of doing full squats and deadlifts under your belt, you can push yourself harder than if you only ever did machine-assisted lifts.
Yes, bodybuilding requires muscle isolation and focus, and compound lifts make it difficult to zero in on the muscle you are targeting. However, I view these lifts as key prerequisites to bodybuilding in order to learn how to actually push yourself beyond what you think you can do.
The only bodybuilders that succeed are those who really know how to push to those limits. Nobody else gets the best results.
So stop worrying about the myth that these lifts will hurt your ratios or your progress and use them to get stronger and learn how to work harder.
And folks, quit buying waist trainers and wearing belts while you do cable curls and lat pull-downs. You’re just wasting your money and fueling the myth that squats and deadlifts make your waist thicker.
About The Author
Adam Gardner is a proud resident of Utah, where he lives with his wife and two kids. He has been competing in powerlifting since 2016 in both the USPA and the APF. For the past three years, he and his wife, Merrili, have coached beginning lifters to learn the fundamentals of powerlifting and compete in their first powerlifting competitions.