Whether you want to sculpt the ultimate six-pack or boost your deadlift, core training is a must. Your core encircles your waist like a muscular weightlifting belt to move and support your spine. It connects your upper body to your lower body, and, when well developed, looks pretty darn awesome too! Adonis belt? We all want one of those!
However, when it comes to building a strong, muscular midsection, a lot of lifters are frustrated by their lack of progress. They pump out crunches and sit-ups by the hundreds and still don’t see any changes.
It all comes down to training specificity and overload.
If you want to build bigger arms, you lift moderate to heavy weights, right? You do sets of 6-12 reps and strive to increase the load from one week to the next. That’s the very essence of progressive resistance training.
But, for core work, those same lifters do endless sets of very easy exercises while expecting an entirely different result. You wouldn’t try and build your legs by doing sets of 100 bodyweight squats, but that’s the training approach that a lot of people adopt for their midsections.
It makes no sense!
If you want a stronger, more muscular core, you need to train it like any other body part. And that means challenging those muscles with more demanding exercises.
One of the best and most underutilized core exercises you can do is the shovel lift.
Not heard of it? You are not alone, and that’s why we want to introduce you to it!
What is the shovel lift, and what muscles does it work?
If you’ve ever shoveled snow or dug a ditch, you may already have an idea of what the shovel lift is all about. In simple terms, it’s a cleaned-up gym version of this manual labor staple that works your entire core, arms, and legs all at the same time. All you need is a barbell to do it.
This is not a new exercise. In fact, it’s something of an old-school classic. It’s also known as the pitchfork lift and was popularized by strongman Steve Justa in his 1998 book Rock, Iron, Steel: The Book of Strength. To clarify, Justa didn’t invent this exercise; he’s just one of the few authors ever to write about it.
Anyway, the shovel lift is really a full-body exercise but, you’ll probably feel it most in the following muscle groups:
Rectus abdominus – located on the front of your abdomen, and known as your abs for short, the primary function of this muscle is spinal flexion and lateral flexion.
Obliques – basically your waist muscles, your internal and external obliques are responsible for lateral flexion and rotation of your spine.
Erector spinae – the collective term for the muscles that make up your lower back. Their main function is the extension of your spine.
Deltoids – for a core exercise, the shovel lift also provides your shoulders with a great workout. In this exercise, the deltoids are responsible for shoulder flexion.
Biceps and triceps brachii – lifting a heavy barbell involves your arms, even when you are doing it for your core. Expect to feel this exercise in the front (biceps) and rear (triceps) of your arms as well as your midsection.
How to Perform the Shovel Lift
Before you try this exercise, make sure you have plenty of space around and above you. You’re going to be swinging a heavy barbell up and above head-height, and the last thing you want to do is hit one of your fellow gym users or the ceiling.
Next, place a weight plate on just one end of the bar. Fix it in place with a collar. You don’t want the plate to slide off the bar. Be warned; this is a TOUGH exercise, so an empty bar might be all you need at first.
Finally, before you start doing shovel lifts, make sure you warm up your entire body, paying extra attention to your lumbar spine. A few minutes of light cardio, followed by some dynamic stretching and mobility exercises, should suffice. Also, do a few waist side bends and twists for good measure.
Ready? Then let’s do this!
1 – Leaving the weighted end of your bar on the floor, bend down and grab the other end with a mixed grip, hands a little wider than shoulder-width apart. The closer to the end of the bar you stand, the harder this exercise becomes, so position your hands accordingly.
2 – Stand up so that the bar is angled down toward the floor. Bend your knees slightly and brace your core tight. Do not round your lower back.
3 – Using your entire body, lift the weighted end of the bar up until the plate is at or above head-height. Imagine you are digging dirt and trying to lift it onto a raised truck bed.
4 – Lower the end of the bar back to the floor and repeat. Don’t bounce it as that will just damage the bar.
5 – On completion of your set, rest a moment and then repeat but, this time, stand on the opposite side of your bar and reverse your hand position to ensure you train both sides of your body equally.
Important Shovel Lift Training Tips
Get the most from this exercise with these helpful hints and tips!
Start light! This is a compound movement that involves your entire body. Going too heavy too soon is a good way to get injured. Master the technique before you start piling on the weight.
Use chalk. Sweaty hands will make this already hard exercise even more challenging, especially if your bar doesn’t have knurling where you need to grip it. Chalk up before you start your set to stop your hands slipping.
Do low to moderate reps. This exercise is an alternative to the standard core staples of crunches and sit-ups. Don’t ruin it by doing high reps with light weights. Instead, once you’ve mastered the movement, load up the bar and do sets of 4-8 reps, and definitely don’t do more than 12 reps per set.
Train both sides. It’s normal to find one side easier to train than the other. Train your weakest side first, and then match it with your stronger side to develop both sides of your body evenly. In time, any left-to-right strength differences will balance out.
Try using a thick bar. The thicker the bar, the harder it is to grip. Using a thick bar will turn this core exercise into a grip builder and forearm developer.
Don’t go too fast. The shovel lift is quite explosive. The long lever means you’ll need to use momentum to lift the bar. Lifting it too slowly won’t really work. But, you should still lift with a degree of control. If you lift the weight too fast, you could end up losing control of the bar at the top of your rep. Make sure you decelerate the bar as it reaches its apex.
Use but don’t abuse this exercise: The shovel lift is both effective and fun. But, it’s tough too and can put a lot of stress on your lower back. As good as this exercise is, don’t do it more than a couple of times a week and never on consecutive days, especially if you go hard and heavy.
Variations and Alternatives
While the shovel lift is a superb core exercise, there are a few other exercises you can do in its place that are just as effective. Keep your workouts fresh and interesting with these variations and alternatives.
1 – Low to high cable wood chops
No space to swing a barbell around? No problem! You can work the same muscles using a standard cable machine fitted with a D-shaped handle.
How to do it:
- Attach the D-shaped handle to a low cable machine. Stand sideways on to the handle. Reach down and grab the handle in both hands, using an overlapping grip.
- Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent for stability. Your hands should be down by your side.
- Rotate your upper body through 180-degrees and simultaneously raise your arms up to head-height.
- Return to the starting position and repeat.
- Do the same number of reps on both sides.
2 – Medicine ball rotational throws
This explosive rotational exercise works the same muscle groups as the shovel lift but is better for building power. It’s a good exercise for fighters, throwers, and anyone else who needs an explosive, powerful core.
How to do it:
- Stand sideways on to a sturdy wall, holding a medicine ball in both hands. Your feet should be around shoulder-width apart.
- Push your hips back, bend your knees slightly, and turn your upper body away from the wall.
- Explosively turn your upper body and throw the ball at the wall. Try to use your core more than your arms.
- Catch the ball as it bounces back and repeat.
- Make this exercise more like the shovel lift by throwing the ball up to head-height.
3 – Full-contact twists
Full contact twists are a sanitized, gym-friendly version of the shovel lift. Use a barbell with one end wedged into a corner or, better still, a landmine device.
How to do it:
- Stand at the end of your bar and grab the end with an overlapping grip. Raise the bar overhead. Brace your abs and imagine you are pushing the bar down and into the floor.
- Rotate your upper body and lower the end of the bar down to one side. Keep pushing the bar into the floor.
- Raise the bar to the starting position and then lower it to the opposite side.
- Pivot your feet as you lower and raise the bar to avoid twisting your knees.
4 – Barbell windshield wipers
Like shovel lifts, this exercise works your upper body and your core at the same time. This is another tough move, so go light at first and until you’ve mastered the technique.
- Lie on your back on the floor with a barbell pressed and held to arms’ length over your chest.
- Lift your legs so that they are perpendicular to the floor. Brace your abs.
- Without moving your upper body, lower your legs down to the side. Try to keep your hips flexed to around 90-degrees.
- Lift your legs back up the center and then repeat to the opposite side.
Shovel Lift Wrap Up
While there is nothing inherently wrong with doing the same old core exercises week after week, month after month, and year after year, you’ll get better results if you mix things up a bit from time to time.
The shovel lift is an unusual exercise, and it’s one that’s bound to result in a few raised eyebrows when you do it at your gym. Don’t worry, though; your buddies will soon be copying you when they see how strong your core gets after a few shoveling workouts!
Shock your core out of its current training rut with shovel lifts. They might look a little odd, but, for rotational, functional core strength, they are hard to beat.