Do Squats Strengthen Your Core? (Research From 5 Studies)

I’ve often skipped training abs at the end of my workouts because I believed I was training core adequately enough during squats. To understand if this assumption was right or wrong, I wanted to do a bit more investigation on the topic.

So does performing squats strengthen your core? While squats do strengthen your core, your core is made up of several distinct muscle groups. The specific core muscle being activated the most while squatting is your erector spinae. The erector spinae are the muscles that run down either side of your spine. However, most of us will want to know whether squats activate other parts of the core, and if they contribute to an overall aesthetic looking mid-section.

Let’s take a look at the different parts of the core, and try to understand whether you can skip training abs at the end of your workout.

What Are The Different Parts of The Core?

do squats strengthen your core
Image courtesy of In Training Sports

Before we understand how your core is activated during squats, we need to take a look at the basic anatomy of the core muscles.

There are four main muscles that make up your mid-section:

  • External/Internal Oblique: These are the outside of your core. The obliques help flex the spine (like in a crunch), aid the back muscles in rotating the trunk (twisting), or help flex laterally (like bending to the side).
  • Transverse Abdominis: These are your ‘deep core’ muscles. The transverse abdominis help with breathing/bracing, and stabilizes the pelvis and low back during various movement patterns.
  • Rectus Abdominis: These are what most people see as the six-pack muscles. The rectus abdominis helps flex the spine (like in a crunch).
  • Erector Spinae: These are the muscles that sit beside your spinal cord and run down your back. The erector spinae help straighten the back and aids in the side-to-side rotation of the body.

While there are several parts of the core that aid in functional ability, we will want to look at how the rectus abdominis muscles are activated specifically in the squat in order to understand if squats will contribute to an aesthetic looking mid-section.

What Core Muscles Are Activated In The Squat?

There are several ‘types’ of squat variations, ranging from bodyweight squats, dumbbell squats, and split stance squats. When squatting with a barbell, there are also different ways to position the barbell, including: behind your neck, in front of your neck, and over your head. I am going to talk specifically about the barbell back squat, where the bar is resting on your upper traps behind your neck. This is the most common style of squats that you see performed in a gym setting, and is what’s used in the sport of powerlifting.

A study conducted by Tillaar and Saeterbakken (2018)(1), wanted to find out whether the core was activated more during a plank or squat. The results showed that the erector spinae were activated 4X more during the squat, but the rectus adominis was activated 30% more in the plank.

Do squats strengthen your core (plank vs squat)
Image courtesy of Journal of Human Kinetics

So what does this mean?

The erector spinae plays an important part in keeping the back upright, which is why it was activated more in the squat. When you squat, the erector spinae, prevents people from falling forward out of the bottom.

However, one thing is clear, there may be other exercises that are better suited to training the rectus abnominis if we want to have the appearance of a six-pack.

This was backed by another study conducted by Aspe and Swinton (2014)(2), showing that the back squat was ineffective in activating the rectus adominis as compared with just a simple sit-up.

The sit-up showed to recruit the rectus admonis 2X more than squatting.

Aspe & Swinton (2014)

Willardson, Fontana, & Bressel (2009)(3), showed the same thing, except even less in favor of the abs. In their study, the rectus adominis was only recruited 5% of the total muscle activity. This study even had participants squatting heavier (75% of their 1 rep max loads).

Should We Skip Our Ab Training If We Squat?

The obvious answer here is: no.

The core is made up of several muscle groups.

The squat wins the muscle activation when it comes to the erector spinae, but loses the muscle activation when it comes to the other muscle groups of the core.

do squats strengthen your core
Erector spinae during squat

Since the erector spinae have a role in keeping the back upright, they are activated the most during the squat because we want to prevent ourselves from falling forward. Similarly, we want to prevent any spinal flexion (rounding) when squatting; however, flexing the spine is the primary action of the rectus abdominus. Therefore, if we want to build up the muscles that contribute to an aesthetic looking mid-section, we will need to target the core more specifically in other ways.

As a result, it would still be recommended to continue with your ab routine that targets other core muscles.

What Core Exercises Should Be Included In Your Ab Routine?

I would perform the following exercises to round-out your core training:

  • Weighted Sit-Up
do squats strengthen your core

The weighted crunch is a great exercise that can add progressive overload. Since most core exercises are performed just using bodyweight movements, the weighted aspect of this exercise allows you to lift more weight for the same number of reps over time (versus just doing more reps or sets to get ‘progressive overload’).

  • Ab Roller
do squats strengthen your core

A study by Youdas et al. (2008)(4) compared the ab crunch, double leg thrust, and side bridge to determine the greatest core activation. The ab roller showed superior activation the rectus adominis compared with these other exercises. There was also significant activation in the transverse adominus.

  • Hanging Leg Raises

Boeckh-Behrens and Buskies (2000)(5) compared 12 exercises, and the hanging leg raise was superior in activating the rectus adominis, specifically the lower region of your stomach.

  • Weighted Side Bend
do squats strengthen your core

In the same data as above, which compared 12 exercises, the side bend had the most muscle activation in the obliques.

Final Thoughts

If you perform squats, you’ll get a significant amount of muscle activation in your erector spinae. However, the erector spinae is only one part of your core muscles and squats only minimally activate the other parts. As such, I recommend not skipping your ab routine, and including the other 4 exercises above in order to target each part of the core effectively.

Other Frequently Asked Questions

What Muscles Do Squats Work?

The primary muscle groups used in the squat are the quads, glutes, and erector spinae. The quads are used to extend the knees. The glutes are used to extend the hips. The erector spinae are used to extend the spine. Each of these muscles are activated differently throughout separate parts of the range of motion, and also depends on how wide your stance is.

Do Deadlifts Work The Core?

Based on the same data as presented above, deadlifts are also ineffective in activating each region of your core. But just like squats, the erector spinae are activated significantly while deadlifting.

Do overhead squats activate the core more than back squats?

Based on the same data as presented above, when comparing the core activation of overhead squats vs. back squats, the overhead squats produced more muscle activation in the rectus abdominis and less in the erector spinae. However, the overhead squats still produced significantly less muscle activation in the rectus abdominis as compared with the other core exercises described above. So just because you do overhead squats, still doesn’t mean you should skip your ab routine.


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Resources

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6006542/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24662228
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19417231
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18978615
  5. Boeckh-Behrens & Buskies. (2000). Fitness- Krafttraining, Die besten Ãbungen und Methoden, Sport und Gesundheit.