Are Compound Exercises Really Enough For Your Abs?

Many people seem to be under the impression that the squat and deadlift provide sufficient activation of the abs.

This could not be further from the truth. It is true that when your body is under heavy loads in a squat, your abs are activated, sure. However, the extent your abs are being activated is not even close enough to justify completely ignoring movements which will isolate your abs.

By isolating your abs you are allowing your body to push through sticking points in heavy compound lifts and to also acquire a thicker and stronger torso.


The Experiment


The following is an example of a real life experiment which was carried out by David Dellanave.

David gathered clients which he was training and removed anterior ab training from their programming over the course of 5 weeks. Every single other exercise remained the same, the only variable which changed were anterior abdominal exercises such as hanging leg raises and ab-wheel rollouts. David found that after 2 weeks his clients were already complaining about back pain. Albeit not severer back pain but the consensus was that it was felt by enough people to be claimed as significant.

According to David, it was clear that removing abdominal movements had an almost immediate effect on overall core stability. This was despite the fact that major compound movements were still being used.


“The complaints seemed to vanish after the isolation movements were continued.”


Still Not Convinced?


The push up activates your rectus abdominus and obliques more than squats and deadlifts at 90% RPE. Think about that for a second.

This is understandable as push ups obviously take a lot of core stabilization but the difference is profound. Most believe squats or deadlifts provide such a heavy load that the abdominal muscles would be contracting near maximum capacity.

What seems to be the case is because the movement engages so much of the body the peak contraction is dispersed more evenly throughout the body.

Now yes, many people will only train deadlifts, squats and ignore abs and have great looking abs. The issue is they may be genetic outliers or have these results from being in the beginner stages, where growth all over the body is inevitable.


Rectus Abdominus (Nick Tumminello) 


External Obliques (Nick Tumminello) 



Understand Your Goals


The question of whether you should train your abs or not simply comes down to your individual goals. You can rely on compounds if you are a beginner, but other than that there really is no excuse for not putting in at least some effort.

Always prioritise your heavy compound lifts and isolation should come after.

Understand that if you have 5 minutes to spare this time would be well spent isolating abs at the end of the workout, even if it is not much. Some hanging leg raises or isometric movements such as plank holds will make a difference both in the strength and appearance of your midsection.

Show your abs some love! They are, just as every muscle the same in essence and deserve individual attention to reach full potential.


You’re Only As Strong As Your Weakest Link



There is one more idea which I urge you to ponder on. If your goal is to improve your squat and deadlift, what good would weak under developed abs be? If you don’t isolate them they may become the weakest link in your lifts.


The only exception for compound movements which are ‘enough’ for abs are push ups and chin ups, as the abdominal walls contract and activate in a very significant manner to keep your lower back from hyper extending and going into a vulnerable position. These two excessive specifically are great for your abs, but I do still recommend one or two at the very least.

Core strength is so important, do not neglect it.

If you are dieting down remember to do everything you can do prevent muscle atrophy and prevent fat loss plateaus.


Take Home Message


  1. Understand that heavy compound exercises such as the squat and deadlift are immensely beneficial for overall body growth and strength but whether you want to believe it or not they do little to nothing for full contraction and stimulation of the rectus abdominus and obliques.
  2. To have the best defined abdominal muscles and the strongest abs for your body you must isolate them consistently.
  3. The best exercises from an activation standpoint are swiss ball crunch, ab-wheel roll-outs, chin up.


You still train your arms, even though you do barbell rows right?


Pro Tip: For a crazy good burn in your abs try one of the above exercises and super set them with push ups, the pre-fatigue from the isolation movement in combination with push ups will have you in a world of pain; good pain 😉





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