Do Squats Work Abs? (There Are Better Options)

July 25, 2022

Many trainers say you only need squats and compound exercises to work your abs effectively. Is this the secret to building a shredded midsection?

Squats work your abs and show greater or similar muscle activation compared to unstable core exercises. However, squats won’t build huge abs.

The squat may not get you there if you want abs that look like bricks. Here’s why.

Do Squats Work Abs?

Squats do work the abdominal muscles. The role of these muscles when squatting is to stabilize the trunk. This includes the erector spinae of the lower back and obliques located on the side of your trunk.

Squats show significantly greater muscle activation of the lower back compared to unstable superman and side bridge core exercises [1]. Further, there was a trend for the squat to better activate the lower abs and obliques than the core exercises.

Another study found trunk activation of the rectus abdominus and obliques to be greater or similar to stability ball core exercises [2].

Additionally, as the load increases, so does trunk muscle activation [3]. One less common exercise is squat holds, where you load a barbell with your 1RM or greater, unrack the bar, and hold it for a prescribed time.

Overall, squats work your abs, so it’s often recommended to train them after squats, not before. Fatiguing these muscles before squatting may limit the weight you can squat.

Will Squats Build Big Abs?

Will Squats Burn Belly Fat

In my experience, squats will not develop abdominal muscle size. Your core will become very strong for supporting a barbell on your shoulders or traps, but you will not develop large blocks of ab muscle.

To do so, you must perform various trunk curl, leg raise, and trunk rotation exercises to move the abs through a full range of motion.

Which Squat Is Best For Working The Abs?

There is little difference between the front and back squat and trunk activation [3]. The main difference is that the front squat heavily taxes the upper back as you support the barbell on your shoulders.

Regardless, you shouldn’t pick a squat variation based on how well it works the abs. It should be based on building large quads with the best exercise for you.

Will Squats Burn Belly Fat?

Squats won’t burn belly fat directly. But if you eat in a caloric deficit, you will reduce belly fat. What squats do, however, is build big legs and dense upper body supporting muscles which can create an illusion of reducing the size of your belly.

What To Do To Build Abs

Here are four epic ab exercises to develop your core and work your abs, so you’re not relying on the squat.

Hanging Leg Raise

The hanging leg raise should be a staple in your training routine. If you’re short on time, performing the squat and finishing with the hanging leg raise is a powerful combination. It pairs spinal compression with decompression to provide relief for the lower back. Here’s how to do it:

  • Hang from a pull-up bar that is high enough where your feet don’t touch the ground.
  • In a smooth motion, raise your legs as high as possible. Control your legs as you lower them.
  • You shouldn’t swing if you do this under control.

Lying Leg Raise

The lying leg raise is a more accessible version of the hanging leg raise but also emphasizes the abdominals in the lengthened position. In contrast, the hanging leg raise focuses on the shortened position. Hence you should do both in your training week. Here’s how to do it:

  • Lie on a bench or the floor. Push your lower back into the bench or floor and keep it there.
  • Raise your legs and curl your pelvis to crunch your abs.
  • Slowly lower your legs with your lower back pushed into the bench or floor.

Swiss Ball Crunch

The crunch and situp have been demonized but are making a comeback. They aren’t spine destroyers, as many people will say, and are important for complete abdominal development. You can preferentially target the upper and lower abs, so the Swiss ball crunch will target the upper abs, and the leg raise variations will target the lower abs [4].

The biggest advantage to using the Swiss ball is the great stretch of the abdominals over the ball. When performing regular crunches, the floor stops you from arching, reducing the range of motion.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Sit on the edge of a Swiss ball. Lie back, so your abs are stretched over the ball.
  • Initiate the crunch with your upper abs by bringing your ribs down to your pelvis.
  • Squeeze your abs when crunched and slowly lower yourself back over the ball.

Seated Plate Rotation

The seated plate rotation is essentially a Russian twist but performed slowly and under control. I like to emphasize a long rotation and get my chest pointing 90° away from my legs. Here’s how to do it:

  • Seated on the floor with your legs slightly bent, slowly turn the plate to one side. Turn your torso with it and try to turn your chest to keep it in line with your hands.
  • Touch the plate on the floor and explosively return to the starting position.


Squats work your abs but don’t rely on them to develop block like abdominal muscles. If you want large ab muscles, you need to train them directly. Various leg raise, crunches, and rotations will build thick abs to help stabilize your squats.


1. Hamlyn, N. (2008). Trunk muscle activation during dynamic weight lifting exercises and isometric instability activities. Library and Archives Canada= Bibliothèque et Archives Canada, Ottawa.

2. Nuzzo, J. L., McCaulley, G. O., Cormie, P., Cavill, M. J., & McBride, J. M. (2008). Trunk muscle activity during stability ball and free weight exercises. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research22(1), 95-102.

3. Clark, D. R., Lambert, M. I., & Hunter, A. M. (2012). Muscle activation in the loaded free barbell squat: a brief review. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research26(4), 1169-1178.

4. Willett, G. M., Hyde, J. E., Uhrlaub, M. B., Wendel, C. L., & Karst, G. M. (2001). Relative activity of abdominal muscles during commonly prescribed strengthening exercises. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research15(4), 480-485.

About the Author

I am a professional strength & conditioning coach that works with professional and international teams and athletes. I am a published scientific researcher and have completed my Masters in Sport & Exercise Science. I've combined my knowledge of research and experience to bring you the most practical bites to be applied to your training.

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