by Bret Contreras April 24, 2015
Preface: Because this topic is highly controversial in various fitness circles, I decided to back up my writing with anecdotal evidence in the form of photographs. I’m not just some geeky arm chair expert, I’m an actual personal trainer (Instagram page HERE) with 18 years of professional experience. Therefore, throughout this article, you will see pictures of clients I’ve actually trained in person, each of whom performed squat and deadlift variations throughout the course of their preparation.
For the past couple of decades, bodybuilders have been cautioning fellow bodybuilders, advising them to avoid squatting and deadlifting on the premise that they add mass to the midsection and create a blocky appearance. This advice is especially doled out to female competitors, since it is of even greater importance for them to maintain their curvy, feminine appearance.
But is there any truth to this claim? Let’s delve deeper into this matter to see if it holds up under scrutiny. The first problem with the claim that squats and deadlifts make your waist blocky is the subjective nature of what entails “blocky.” From the side view, larger erector spinae and rectus abdominis muscles could cause an individual to appear blockier, but it is unlikely that this is what people making the claim are referring to. It is more likely that these people are referring to the front view, which would be most impacted by the size of an individual’s internal and external oblique muscles.
The second problem with the claim is the complete lack of longitudinal training studies investigating the effects of squats and deadlifts on abdominal wall hypertrophy or comparing the core muscle growth associated with squats and deadlifts to that achieved via single joint exercises such as supermans, crunches, and side crunches. Since there are no training studies to go by, all we can do is speculate based on acute mechanistic studies.
This leads us right into the third problem with the claim – squat and deadlift naysayers never seem to pinpoint a mechanism as to how squats and deadlifts lead to excessive growth in the midsection. Since they haven’t narrowed down a mechanism, one can only guess as to how they believe this happens. I imagine that they believe that squats and deadlifts create excessive core muscle hypertrophy due to very high activation in the abdominal and oblique musculature.
It is indeed true that squats and deadlifts highly activate the erector spinae muscles. Interestingly, squats activate the lumbar erectors to a greater degree than deadlifts, whereas deadlifts activate the thoracic erectors to a greater degree than squats.[i] However, several studies to date show that abdominal and oblique activity during the squat and deadlift are not substantially high, and that basic ab/core isolation exercises outperform squats and deadlifts in abdominal and oblique activity.2-5
Through EMG experimentation in my own lab, I’ve found that many common exercises match or exceed squats and deadlifts in rectus abdominis and oblique activation, including chin ups, military press, hip thrusts, reverse hypers, push ups, pullovers, tricep extensions, and curls. In addition, I’ve found that most targeted abdominal/core exercises exceed (sometimes far exceed) squats and deadlifts in abdominal and oblique activation, including RKC planks, side planks, bodysaws, hollow body holds, ab wheel rollouts, weighted crunches, straight leg sit ups, hanging leg raises, dragon flags, lying leg raises, suitcase carries, side bends, cable chops, and landmines.
I propose a multifaceted alternative reason for why bodybuilders believe that squats and deadlifts create a blocky appearance. First, due to increased knowledge pertaining to training, nutrition, and supplementation, bodybuilders have gotten exceedingly larger over the past couple of decades. Bigger bodies require larger organs in order to carry out their necessary processes. Therefore, bodybuilders’ entire midsections are growing larger, but this doesn’t apply to women that strength train, since women generally avoid intentionally growing their bodies 25-50% larger.
Second, many bodybuilders regularly take a variety of performance enhancing substances including human growth hormone, which is believed to lead to increased organ growth and a distended appearance in the belly region in bodybuilding communities. Obviously, this factor also doesn’t warrant consideration from women because they generally avoid taking human growth hormone in concordance with other anabolic drugs. Heavily drugged bodybuilders experience a wide range of side effects that natural lifters don’t need to concern themselves with, including acne, expedited hair-loss, and distended bellies.
And third, bracing the core during squats and deadlifts requires considerable intraabdominal pressure (IAP) to properly stabilize the spine. Though the diaphragm muscle is largely responsible for this increase in IAP, humans are by nature quite poor at relating sensation to proper physiological actions. Therefore, bodybuilders confuse high diaphragm activity and subsequent outward pressure in the midsection with high levels of abdominal and oblique activity.
Old school bodybuilders believed that “drawing in” the abdominal wall through vacuum poses helped keep the midsection tight through transversus abdominus (TVA) strengthening. One could plausibly make the argument that frequent bracing of the core leads to growth in the midsection due to pushing outward on the abdominal wall via IAP production. Even though abdominal and oblique activation is low during squats and deadlifts, the midsection could grow due to increased connective tissue extensibility due to persistent stretching. However, bracing the core doesn’t involve maximal expansion and stretching of the abdominal wall, so this is doubtful.
Having trained numerous bikini competitors, I can tell you that midsection appearance is largely related to genetics. Although my clients train in the same fashion and perform the same exercises, some of them step on stage with narrow, tapered waists while others aren’t quite as lucky. However, not a single bikini competitor ever showed up on stage appearing blocky, despite including squat and deadlift variations in their prep. If a woman is concerned with obtaining a blocky appearance, I would recommend ditching targeted abdominal and oblique exercises rather than avoiding squats and deadlifts.
Squats and deadlifts highly activate the erector spinae to prevent flexion of the spinal column. The abdominals and obliques cocontract along with the erectors in order to enhance core stability, but the levels of activation reached in these muscles is on par with many common strength training exercises. Furthermore, most popular isolated core exercises, both static and dynamic, activate the abdominals and obliques to a much greater degree than squats and deadlifts. Therefore, on the basis of abdominal and oblique activation, if lifters should avoid squats and deadlifts to prevent becoming blocky, then they should also avoid most other popular exercises, which is ludicrous.
Women do not need to fear that squats and deadlifts will cause them to develop a blocky midsection. This phobia has been generated by well-intentioned but misguided bodybuilders who use squats and deadlifts as a scapegoat to explain the excessive midsection growth that they experienced when they packed on dozens of pounds of muscle mass in concert with human growth hormone, insulin, and anabolic steroids. What these bodybuilders experience doesn’t apply to the masses. This conclusion is anecdotally supported by the fact that most top-level bikini competitors regularly include squat and deadlift variations in their training.
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