You hear it all the time…
“Don’t skip leg day!”
But what if you’re not interested in those sports or just can’t…be bothered to squat?
“Do squats work abs?” you might ask…because if not, who cares?
This is where I would advise you to imagine yourself at the beach or pool on a hot summer day. Nobody is really looking at your legs so if you have been skipping leg day, you should be pretty safe…
…but they are checking out your abs.
(I mean, it’s pretty much why people go to the beach or pool…right?)
I’m confident your abs look pretty good…but they could look a lot better if you didn’t skip leg day.
More specifically, they would look great if you squatted!
Don’t believe me? Well, today we’re going to break through the bro science around squats and ab training. You’ll know exactly how many extra looks you’ll be getting at the swim-up bar by adding squats or some type of overhead squat WOD to your programming!
Table of Contents
Do Squats Work Abs?
Squats are known as leg exercises.
(I’m pretty sure you already knew that, but…ya know; just sayin’!)
However, a squat is actually a full-body workout. It is, after all, the “king of exercise”.
Squats might focus primarily on engaging the legs, but so much of the body actually gets in on the act.. Including abs.
So, in short – do squats work abs?
Squats (like planks) work your abs isometrically, meaning the muscles are contracted without changing their length. So, they work your abs indirectly, acting as a stabilizer.
But, muscles need more than isometric engagement to get really strong.
Sorry Jack LaLane!
You need to combine isometric with isotonic contractions (which include flexion and extension). That’s why you can’t rely only on squats to work your abs. You will need to include some exercises that more directly target your abs.
Regardless, squats do activate your abdominal muscles. Let’s find out how.
Which Muscles Are Activated by Squats?
When doing a squat you activate almost all of your body’s muscles.
A regular bodyweight squat engages:
Now, let’s focus on the abdominals and see how they’re activated by squats.
The abdominal muscles are positioned in the front of your body, between the ribs and the pelvis.
These muscles link the upper and lower part of the body.
Abdominal muscles include:
- transversus abdominis (deep layer)
- rectus abdominis (between the ribs and the pubic bone)
- external oblique muscles (on each side of rectus abdominis)
- internal oblique muscles (inside the hipbones)
Abdominals are part of a larger group of core muscles, which (besides the abs) consist of erector spinae, hip adductors, and serratus.
Erector spinae is a muscle that is activated the most when squatting.
Squats activate your core muscles by contracting them (isometric contraction). This stabilizes and strengthens other parts of your body.
A strong core is important for all kinds of exercise. Especially heavy barbell movements. During these movements, your core promotes appropriate posture, stability, and important sensory feedback. Your tree trunk-like arms and legs won’t do you much good if your core is too weak to keep you balanced and in a proper lifting position!
What Kind of Squats Should You Do For Stronger Abs?
Certain types of squats are better for core activation than others.
A study was done in 2020 that compared different types of exercises in terms of muscle activations. They compared 4 types of exercise:
- front squat
- overhead squat
- back extension
They studied the influence of these exercises on:
- vastus lateralis
- biceps femoris
- thoracic region of erector spinae
- middle trapezius
- rectus abdominis
- external oblique
- serratus anterior
- anterior deltoid
The study shows that:
- rectus abdominis (core muscle) and external oblique (ab muscle) muscle activity were significantly greater during the plank compared to the front squat.
- erector spinae was more activated with front squats and overhead squats than with back extensions.
- core musculature activation was greater during overhead squats than front squats.
Do squats work abs? Front squats and overhead squats sure do!
Maybe we can consider Nancy and BAMF to be serious CrossFit Ab workouts!
Do the squat variations in these WODs seem a bit…odd to you? Let’s break a few of them down now
The overhead squat is the squat variation that activates your core the most. It closely resembles the “catch” sequence that occurs in a “full” or “squat snatch”.
Overhead squats work your:
- upper back
To perform overhead squats with a weight, you already have to have a decently strong core and abs. The overhead squat also has high mobility requirements that can make it difficult even for experienced lifters.
I’ve been doing overhead squats for years and I still have to do a number of unweighted and empty barbell warm-up sets before my body “wakes up” enough to add weight. Don’t hesitate to do a good amount of mobility or warm-up work to better prepare for overhead squats.
This is a variation of a squat performed with the bar resting in the “front rack” position, supported with the hands.
The front squat requires that a more upright position be maintained as any significant degree of forward lean will result in the bar toppeling to the floor.
Besides core, the front squat works your:
- spinal erectors
- lower back muscles
Front squats are extremely common in CrossFit and Olympic weightlifting programming and mirror portions of the squat clean’s “catch” sequence. With the load primarily resting on the front half of the body, a strong core is necessary for supporting what the back (which a weighted back squat relies on) does not.
The front squat is another exercise that requires somewhat advanced mobility, particularly in the arms and shoulders to perform. “Training” the arms to assume a proper front rack position with a light or unweighted barbell will reap massive rewards as the weight gets heavier!
Another squat variation that works your abs is Zercher squat. You perform this squat by holding the bar in the crooks of your arms. Alternatively, you can lift a kettlebell instead of a barbell.
This type of squat works your:
- upper back
- abdominals and core
In Zercher squat, the core works extra hard to keep your pelvis from excessive tilting and your spine from rounding.
This is another advanced exercise that requires a already-trained core and sufficient mobility to properly perform. The position of the barbell in/on the arms is also somewhat uncomfortable, which can take getting accustomed to when first performing Zercher squats.
Squats are hard and they can be uncomfortable.
Some of the squat variations we’ve covered today can be downright intimidating to those unaccustomed to them.
However, ab-specific exercises can only do so much to developing the core that has so many fitness-specific…and not fitness-specific functions.
So, do squats work abs? Well…let’s just say you don’t want to “lose” to the guy who does in Nancy AND at the beach bar!
Every thruster involves a front squat…how about you knock 45 of them out during Fran and get that 6-pack rippin’!