Squats are arguably one of the most productive exercises you can do. Entire workouts have been written around squats, and many coaches and lifters view them as essential.
It doesn’t matter if you want to build muscle, get stronger, burn fat, or run faster and jump higher, squats will help you achieve your goals sooner. Squats are also a fundamental movement pattern that most people do many times each day and are, of course, the first lift contested in a powerlifting meet.
While squats are undeniably a lower body exercise, one of the reasons they’re so effective is that they also involve your upper body. After all, you need to use your upper body to support and stabilize the weight. As such, squats work your entire body and not just your legs.
Because of this, some fitness experts believe that squats are all you need to develop solid and tight abs. But are they right? Are squats enough to build great abs?
In this article, we explore this belief and reveal whether squats really are the only exercise you need to sculpt the midsection of your dreams.
Squat Anatomy 101
Most people do squats because they want stronger, more powerful legs. However, squats also involve your upper body and core. That said, the main muscles involved in squats are:
Quadriceps – located on the front of your thighs, the quadriceps are responsible for extending the knee joint. There are four quadriceps muscles, known as the quads for short: rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius.
Hamstrings – consisting of the biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus, the hamstrings flex the knee and extend the hip. The deeper you squat, the more active these muscles are.
Gluteus maximus – located on the back of your hip and pelvis, the gluteus maximus is your butt. Known as the glutes for short, this is the largest muscle in the human body and works with your hamstrings to extend the hip joint.
Hip abductors – the hip abductors lift your leg out and away from the midline of your body. During squats, these muscles prevent your knees from caving inward. The abductor muscles are located on the outside of your hips and thighs and are the gluteus minimus, gluteus medius, and tensor fascia latae.
Hip Adductors – located on the inside of your thighs, the adductors draw your thighs in toward the midline of your body. The three hip adductors are the longus, brevis, and magnus. During squats, the hip adductors prevent your knees from falling outward.
Triceps surae – the collective term for the two calf muscles gastrocnemius and soleus, the triceps surae helps stabilize your ankles during squats.
Core – core is the collective term for the muscles of your midsection, including the abs and erector spinae. These muscles are discussed in more depth in the next section.
Squats and Abs
Your core plays a critical role during squats. It forms the link between your legs and the load you are lifting. A weak core or not engaging it properly means your midsection is more likely to collapse during squats.
This would result in your hips rising faster than the weight, which is inefficient and potentially dangerous as it means more stress on your lumbar spine (lower back).
The main core muscles are:
Often called the abs for short, this long muscle runs from your lower ribs and sternum to the front of your pelvis. It is separated into numerous sections by ligamentous tissue called the linea alba, giving it that famous six-pack shape. Of course, you need to be pretty lean for this outline to be visible, which is why nutrition is such an important part of getting six-pack abs.
Your abs are responsible for flexion and lateral flexion of your spine and compression of the abdominal contents. During squats, the abs contract isometrically or statically to prevent unwanted movement of the spine.
Like the abs, the obliques work isometrically during squats to prevent movement. The obliques are basically your waist muscles and are responsible for lateral flexion and rotation of your spine.
These muscles are basically your lower back. Responsible for extension and lateral flexion of your spine, during squats, the erector spinae work isometrically to prevent your lumbar spine from rounding.
Known as the TVA for short, this muscle lies beneath the other core muscles. It runs horizontally around your midsection and acts a lot like a weightlifting belt. It contracts inward, which increases intra-abdominal pressure. We call this bracing. Bracing helps support your lumbar spine from within. So, while you can’t see your TVA, it’s safe to say it’s a very important muscle during squats.
So, while the abs ARE involved in squats, they work isometrically to help support your spine and prevent unwanted lumbar flexion. The heavier the weight, the more you’ll need to use your midsection during squats.
In fact, according to studies, squats work your abs pretty effectively and compare favorably to prone bridges, better known as planks (1).
This research suggests that squats are all you need to do to strengthen your abs. However, it’s important to understand that squats alone may not be enough to build a strong muscular midsection.
Why You (Probably) Need to Do More Than Squats for Your Abs
So, studies say that squats work your abs. But while that’s true, most people probably need more than squats to build the perfect midsection. Here’s why…
Isometric vs. isotonic muscle action
During squats, your abs work isometrically. This means they generate force without changing length. However, muscles need more than isometrics to be strong and powerful. They also need to be trained with isotonic contractions, which means a combination of flexion and extension or shortening and lengthening.
Relying solely on squats to train your abs would be like doing nothing but static wall sits to train your legs. They’re undoubtedly helpful but not enough on their own to develop the target muscles to their fullest potential.
Overload is limited by the amount of weight you can squat
While squats work your abs, the amount of work they actually do depends on the weight on the bar. For example, if you’re using light weights for high reps, the overload on your abs is minimal and may not be enough to make your abs stronger. Similarly, if you are a weak squatter, your abs may not get much of a workout.
Most people will get better results from direct abs training, where you can load the target muscles more directly and precisely.
Posterior vs. anterior core activation
The same studies that revealed that the abs are engaged during squats also found that the posterior core is more active than the anterior core (1). This makes sense because the erector spinae has to work extra hard to prevent your lumbar spine from rounding as you descend into a squat.
The position of the weight plus the tendency to lean forward means erector spinae will always be more active than the rectus abdominus during squats. As such, the rectus abdominis is very much a secondary muscle during squats, and while it’s definitely working, it’s not working as hard as some of the other core muscles.
Direct vs. indirect abs training
Squats work your abs indirectly. That is to say, they’re not the target muscle during squats and are merely a stabilizer. Relying on squats to develop your abs would be like doing chin-ups to build your biceps. The biceps ARE involved in chin-ups, but they’re not the target muscle in that particular exercise. The best way to work your biceps is curls, as they train them directly.
As every bodybuilder knows, you need direct AND indirect exercises to fully develop any muscle group. That’s why most bodybuilding programs contain compound and isolation exercises. So, while squats can benefit your abs, you also need to hit them directly with things like cable crunches, hanging knee raises, planks, etc., to fully develop them.
So, in short, while squats DO work your abs, the amount of work they do may not be enough to strengthen them to their fullest potential. That said, squats do work your abs, and if you squat hard, heavy, and often, you won’t need to do a whole lot of additional abs training to develop a great midsection. However, relying solely on squats for your abs could mean your abs won’t be as developed as they could be.
The Best Squat Variations for Stronger Abs
While all squat variations involve your abs to a greater or lesser degree, some are more abs-centric than others. Use these seven variations to work your legs AND get a great abs workout at the same time!
1. Zercher squat
The Zercher squat is named after old-time powerlifter and strongman Ed Zercher. Unlike regular squats, where the bar rests on your upper back, for Zerchers, you hold the bar in the crooks of your arms.
This puts the weight in front of your center of mass, which means you’ll need to work harder to keep your torso upright, increasing core engagement in the process.
How to do it:
- Rest and hold a barbell in the crooks of your arms. Clasp your hands together and bring them in close to your chest to keep the bar in place. Brace your core and pull your shoulders down and back.
- Step out and into your usual squat stance.
- Bend your legs, push your hips back, and squat down until your thighs are roughly parallel to the floor. Do not round your lower back.
- Drive your feet into the floor, stand up, and repeat.
Zercher squats can be uncomfortable on your arms. Wrap the bar in a towel, put a folded exercise mat between the bar and your arms, or use a squat bar pad to make this exercise more tolerable.
2. Unbalanced load squat
As the name suggests, this exercise involves lifting a lopsided load. This forces you to brace harder to keep your torso upright. As such, you’ll need to use your abs even more during this squat variation.
Don’t put too much weight on one end of the bar – it’ll be impossible to control. Instead, just put 5-10 pounds more on one side, and don’t forget to switch sides set by set, so you train both sides of your abdomen equally. Increase the weight imbalance as you get stronger, but only if you can keep the bar level.
You can use this method with back squats or front squats.
3. Overhead squats
The overhead squat increases the distance between the load and your hips. This means your core must work harder to stabilize the load and keep it over your feet. Providing you’ve got good upper body and lower body mobility, the overhead squat is a great way to develop strength throughout your entire body.
How to do it:
- Raise and hold a barbell above your head. Your hands should be roughly one and a half shoulder widths apart. Pull your shoulders down and back and brace your core.
- Step out and into your usual squat stance.
- Bend your legs, push your hips back, and squat down until your thighs are roughly parallel to the floor. Keep your arms straight and the weight over your feet. Do not round your lower back.
- Drive your feet into the floor, stand back up, and repeat.
4. Suitcase deadlift
Don’t let the name of this exercise confuse you; it’s more of a squatting movement than a deadlift. The deadlift name comes from the fact that each rep starts with the weight resting on the floor, i.e., it’s a dead weight.
However, the leg motion is very much a squat, and you’ll definitely feel this one in your quads and abs.
How to do it:
- Place a barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell on the floor and stand next to it. Ideally, the handle should be roughly mid-shin height, so you don’t have to round your lower back to reach it.
- Grip the handle with your nearest hand, palm facing in toward your leg. Stand with your feet between hip and shoulder-width apart. Brace your core. Your lower back should be slightly and tightly arched. Pull your shoulders down and back.
- Drive your feet into the floor and stand up. Do not lean to the side. Instead, use your abs to keep your torso perfectly upright.
- Lower the weight back to the floor, reset your core and repeat.
Related: Suitcase Deadlift Guide
5. Single-arm kettlebell front squat
Doing any exercise unilaterally, i.e., one side at a time, means you’ll have to work harder to keep your torso upright, which increases core activation. While front squats are already quite abs-centric, doing them with a single kettlebell makes them much more so.
This exercise is ideal for home exercisers and, because you’re using one weight at a time, doesn’t require a squat rack.
How to do it:
- Raise your kettlebell and rest it on the front of one shoulder. Pull your shoulders down and back and tuck your upper arm into your ribs for stability. Brace your core.
- Step out and into your usual squat stance.
- Bend your legs, push your hips back, and squat down as far as you can without rounding your lower back or hurting your knees. Use your core to keep your torso as upright as possible.
- Drive your feet into the floor and stand back up.
- Reset your core and repeat.
- Do your next set with the weight on the opposite side.
6. Chaos bar squat
Imagine doing squats during an earthquake. As the ground shakes, you’ll need to engage your core even more than usual to stabilize the load and maintain your balance.
While we don’t recommend joining a gym in an earthquake zone just to work your abs more, you can simulate this effect by hanging weights from your barbell with resistance bands. Then, as you move, the weights will swing and bounce, and you’ll need to use your abs more to maintain correct spinal alignment.
Don’t go too heavy too soon. This is an intense and challenging training method.
How to do it:
- Attach resistance bands to weight plates or kettlebells and hang them from your barbell. Make sure they’re loaded evenly.
- Duck under the bar and unrack it. Brace your core and adopt your usual squat stance.
- Bend your legs and squat down while doing your best to control the bar. Move slowly – fast movements will make the weights move more and harder to control.
- Continue for the prescribed number of reps.
7. BOSU Goblet squat
BOSU stands for Both Sides Up, or Both Sides Utilized. A BOSU is a hemispherical balance trainer that can be used for a wide range of lower body and upper body exercises. Doing any type of squat on a BOSU works your abs, but because of the danger of losing your balance, dumbbell and kettlebell squats are generally safest. Goblet squats (which can be done with a dumbbell or kettlebell) are especially good.
How to do it:
- With the curved side of the BOSU ball facing down, stand on it with your feet between shoulder to hip-width apart. Your weight should be distributed evenly from left to right and also between your heels and the balls of your feet.
- Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in front of your chest, just beneath your chin. Pull your shoulders down and back and brace your core.
- Push your hips back, bend your knees, and squat down as far as you can without rounding your lower back.
- Stand back up and repeat.
- You can also do this exercise with the BOSU ball curved side up. This makes it much harder.
Do Squats Work Abs – Wrapping Up
A lot of fitness experts believe that squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, etc., are all you need to build your abs. While the abs ARE involved in all these exercises, they’re working indirectly and are secondary to the target muscles or synergists.
Relying solely on squats for your abs is like using bench presses to build your triceps or lat pulldowns to build your biceps. These exercises are helpful, but if you want to fully develop your arms, you need to train them directly as well as indirectly.
The same is true for your abs. Squats definitely involve your core, but they don’t train the muscles directly. As such, you will probably need to include at least some direct core training in your workouts.
That said, if you squat hard, heavy, and often, you won’t need to do a ton of abs training to develop a strong midsection, especially if you do some of the more abs-centric squat variations in this article. But, if you want to SEE your abs, you must also get your body fat down to 10% for men and 15% for women; otherwise, they’ll be obscured by adipose tissue.
So, squat for your legs, take the free abs workout, and then do some direct midsection exercises at the end of your training session or on a separate day. A couple of sets of 2-3 direct abs exercises are all you need to fully develop your abs.
1 – PubMed: Comparison of Core Muscle Activation between a Prone Bridge and 6-RM Back Squats https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov