Will Training Your Abs Increase Your Barbell Lifts?

An Excerpt from “Deadlift Dynamite” by Andy Bolton and Pavel Tsatsouline.

Rif chuckles that with weak abs, you will “fold like a melted cheese sandwich under a heavy squat or deadlift.”

Even if you do not end up in a hospital, you will lose your leverage and strength. A Soviet study determined that a lifter will lose 13% of pulling strength when the back is rounded. (Sokolov, 1967)

At a first blush, it would seem that the back muscles should be the only muscles responsible for sparing the spine from the fate of a cheese sandwich. After all, if we want to prevent flexion, why would we fire anything but the extensors?

However, the human body is a lot more complex than that. Without going into the anatomy woods, visualize your torso as a box. Stack a bunch of 45-pound plates on top of it until it starts creaking. Now reinforce one of the walls (the back) with extra boards and keep loading the top. The box will collapse. The reinforced back side will be all right; it is the front that will blow out. Congratulations, you have just given your box a hernia! This is the fate of lifters with strong erectors and weak abs.

Rebuild the box reinforcing all sides. Now you can pile heavy stuff on top without fear.

From the purely architectural point of view, having thicker walls on all four sides will make the structure stronger. “Don’t leave out any of the four sides of your waist, or you’ll regret it,” warned Louie Simmons.

But we can make it stronger yet. Let us insert a heavy-duty balloon inside the box and inflate it. Can you imagine how much stronger your box will be now? Visualize the same balloon blown up inside your belly. Think how much more weight it will now take to fold you over against the resistance of the balloon!

This “balloon” is something called intra-abdominal pressure (IAP). It is created by a joint effort of the many muscles of the torso, with the internal obliques being among the top players, and including the top and the bottom of the “box”—the diaphragm and the pelvic floor. The former is a parachute-shaped muscle separating the lungs and guts. When it contracts, it pushes down like a plunger. When you are, pardon me, constipated, the efforts of this muscle are apparent.

The job of the pelvic floor is to contain whatever is inside. It relaxes during a bowel movement and reflexively pulls up when we are straining to lift; fortunately, the body knows the difference.

Not only does an increased IAP make a torso more rigid, it greatly increases neurological strength. The body uses the IAP as the equivalent of the volume control on a stereo. It literally amplifies the intensity of the nerve force going to the muscles.

This is why the top dogs of powerlifting have exceptionally strong abs. Some train them directly, others do not. Why the discrepancy?

“What about abs?” an interviewer asked Ed Coan. The legend of the sport replied, “I don’t do them that often because I very rarely even wear a belt. In the off-season, if you squat and dead without a belt, your abs are going to get pretty strong…they’ll get enough stimulation.”

This is especially true if you make a point of keeping them tight. Dr. Franco Columbu told us he hated abdominal exercises, so he just focused on contracting his abs hard in every strength exercise—even the bench press. “Every exercise was about my abs!” Not only did he win the Mr. Olympia title, but the “Best Abs” award as well. More importantly, he deadlifted over 700 pounds at 180.

Some geeks like to argue that one cannot develop strong abs with squats and deads because EMG studies don not show that the muscles of the midsection, especially the rectus abdominis, or the “six-pack,” fire enough in these exercises. Indeed, in weak, uncoordinated people—typical college subjects used in studies—they do not.

The same may be said of neck development. Scientists set out to find out whether “conventional resistance exercises, which are likely to evoke isometric action of the neck, induce[d] generalized hypertrophy of the cervical muscle.” After 12 weeks of squats, deadlifts, and other global exercises, the male subjects, “active college students,” failed to grow bigger necks. The researchers concluded that, “short-term resistance training does not provide a sufficient stimulus to evoke neck muscle hypertrophy unless specific neck exercises are performed.” (Conley et al., 1997)

At this point, one could misinterpret the scientists’ restrained, professional conclusion and generalize that it is not possible to grow a bull neck without direct neck exercises. Yet the necks of thousands of powerlifters would prove this hasty generalization wrong. I have met very few powerlifters who bothered with direct neck work, yet none had a pencil neck.

If you carefully read the above summary of the study, you cannot miss “active college students” and “short-term resistance training.” Simply said, for most men, deadlifts with 225 do not generate enough muscular tension to stimulate neck hypertrophy and ab strength. Soviet scientists discovered that while in low-intensity movements, most work is performed by the extremities, when the load is significant, the core muscles take over much of the work. Get your poundages up and you will get your abs. In inimitable words of Marty Gallagher:

In the big fat world of fitness, things keep getting ever more crazed. The general fitness clientele…are dazed and confused. I keep seeing whacky stuff on TV as personal trainers will do anything to differentiate themselves from other personal trainers…how about sitting on the infamous Swiss ball, one leg extended as the other fights to maintain balance while pushing a tiny-weenie dumbbell overhead. The only thing missing is circus music and perhaps a mini car circling the exercising trainee that suddenly stops as eight clowns pile out.

Meanwhile, a muscle-less “fitness expert” dramatically intones that doing the overhead dumbbell press (with a weight my 90-pound daughter could rep a dozen times) while fighting for balance “builds core strength.” It seems that every crackpot exercise shown as of late builds that elusive core strength…gimme some core strength…gotta have that core strength. Of course, I’ve never met a person with a 300-pound deadlift that didn’t have more core strength than any of these pencil-necked fitness experts who endlessly proclaim the mystical benefits of more core. These experts keep insisting and proscribing that their clients need more core strength; it’s become the predictable mantra of the new-age fitness world.

Here’s a flash bulletin: Achieving a 150-pound pause squat taken below parallel for 10 reps will infuse more core strength than all the Swiss ball sit-ups, presses, and off-balance dink-ass exercises combined. That’s a natural fact, mathematically irrefutable and demonstrable.

That said, other elite lifters swear by ab work.

Dr. Judd Biasiotto, who squatted a world record 605 at 132 in the minimally supportive gear of the 1980s, is on the other end of the spectrum from Coan and Columbu:

Abdominal work was one thing I never cheated on. I worked my abdominals religiously. I wanted them as strong as possible to stabilize my lower back. I wasn’t on a specific abdominal program; I just worked them every chance I got…when I got out of bed, before I went to bed, during TV commercials, whenever. I did sit-ups until I couldn’t see straight. I probably had the strongest abdominals in the world. I am dead serious about that. I could easily pump out 50 reps with 200 pounds on the Nautilus Crunch Machine, and 100-pound bent-knee sit-ups were no problem. Believe it or not, my upper abdominals got almost as big as my pectorals. In retrospect, I am not sure if I over-worked my abdominals or not. All I can say is that high intensity abdominal work worked for me. That does not mean it will work for you. Like I said, everyone is different.

What really surprised me was that very few lifters routinely work their abdominal muscles when I was competing and that trend is still in existence today. This is a major mistake. Without question, your abdominal muscles are essential in performing heavy lifts. They stabilize your lower back and aid you in lifting heavy weight. If you have weak abdominal muscles, there is no way in the world you’re going to lift heavy weight in the squat or deadlift or in any other lift for that matter. Worse yet, without strong abdominal muscles, there is a good chance for back injuries…that has been well documented. Your abdominal muscles are that important.

Should you take the Coan approach, the Biasiotto approach, or something in between, as is typical for most lifters?

You are facing two challenges if you pursue the former. First, you probably do not know how to contract your midsection properly under load. Second, you do not have much load on your body yet.

You have two choices. Just stick to the basic powerlifts, practice tightening up under the bar, patiently build up your poundages, and your abs will catch up. Or accelerate the process and add specialized training now and cut back on it later. Coan admits, “I used to do [the abs] for so long, for so many years that I just don’t do them that much anymore.”

As Gallagher put it, “If you don’t deadlift 500, you need to do ab work.”


Andy Bolton is the first man to break the mythical 1,000-pound deadlift barrier.

Pavel Tsatsouline is the founder of StrongFirst, a global school of strength.

Andy and Pavel’s book Deadlift Dynamite: How to Master the Kind of All Strength Exercises in available in paperback, Kindle, and PDF formats. Get your copy HERE.

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