Can You Squat and Deadlift Heavy Without Getting a Thick Waist?

Achieving a tight waistline doesn't need to be completely void of heavy squats and deadlifts!

“I’m training for a physique contest and I don’t want to wreck my aesthetics with a bulky waist, so I don’t squat or deadlift heavy.”

I’m sure you’ve heard that — or some variation on the “do squats and deadlifts widen your waist?” controversy. Now, obviously, I’m stuck with a pretty biased viewpoint on the topic, because I freaking love me some heavy squats and pulls. On the other hand, I think I can say with a pretty good amount of certainty that squatting and deadlifting over 800 pounds has not, in fact, wrecked my waistline.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

But anecdotal evidence like mine doesn’t tell the whole story — that’s why there’s controversy in the first place!

The lack of any concrete research one way or another pretty much guarantees opposing viewpoints will persist here. That’s compounded by the fact that heavy lifting tends to be a “love it or hate it” type thing.

There aren’t many people out there who will jump under a barbell that weights two or three times what they do — unless they really love lifting heavy sh*t.

So, instead of offering another rehash of the argument, I’d like to share ways that I’ve managed to develop my own musculature and present at least a decently tapered torso while still training heavy.

Strategy #1: Develop Abdominal Control

This is by far the most important part of a tight waistline. If you can’t flex your abs and obliques, maintain a deep vacuum, and support heavy loads in the squat and deadlift, then there’s something going on: either you lack abdominal strength or you lack abdominal control.

Abdominal strength is pretty easy to build if you’re using proper technique, but abdominal control is much harder. Shoot, just look at all the articles out there on bracing — they should give you a hint that even just flexing the abs is something many lifters struggle with. Here are some techniques I’ve used to develop the control I need to keep my waist looking tight when I pose:

  • Vacuums: These are by far my favorite ab exercise, because they directly influence your posing aesthetic and strengthen the transverse abdominal muscles required to hold your waistline in.
  • Adductor Training: I know this one might sound a little out of place, but remember that your muscles never work independently of each other. In my case, my weak adductors have required my hip flexors to contribute more to my squats and deadlifts than might be ideal. As a result, those hip flexors have become tight and shortened, therefore impeding my ability to strengthen and recruit my lower abs properly.  Hopefully, by hammering my adductors, I can address this problem!
  • Get Leaner: This one should be pretty self-explanatory.  Most people hold a lot of their bodyfat around their waistline, so the leaner they get, the tighter their waists will appear. As obvious as it is, many people — even many bodybuilders — never get lean enough to truly minimize their waists.

Strategy #2: Train the Lats and Shoulders

Remember that bodybuilding is all about perception, and when it comes to perception, everything is relative.

You can have a pretty wide waist like Jay Cutler or Arnold, but if your lats and shoulders are absolutely massive, then that waistline is still going to look pretty small by comparison.  Here are my favorite movements for developing a wider upper body:

  • Banded Chins: You probably know that chins are a great movement for developing powerful lats, but I think banded chins are even better for developing width. Here’s why: when you perform any pulling movement, to really maximize lat involvement, you need to keep your core tight, your thoracic spine slightly arched, and your arms out fairly wide (depending on your structure, of course). It is very difficult to perform strict chins in this position, and even if you can crank out a few, it’s very easy to cheat and let your reps get sloppy as a set goes on or as you try to add weight or reps to your training over time.

Incorporating the bands lightens the load you’re required to use, and allows you to keep tighter, more effective form.

Equally valuable: the bands take off more stress towards the bottom of the movement, where the scapula is in a vulnerable position to strains (especially for heavy guys).  heck out this video by my coach, John Meadows, on how to perform the banded chin:

  • Rear-delt rows: This is a favorite of mine, and while I can’t take credit for inventing rear-delt rows, I will take credit for telling you to do them!
    • Remember the ideal position for lat training. Core is tight, thoracic spine arched, arms out wide. Maintain that throughout the entire range of motion.
    • Try to extend that range of motion by bending forward at the waist on the eccentric portion of the movement, but don’t round your back.
    • Pull the bar high on your chest as you drive your elbows back to maximize involvement of the rear delts. Then drop the bar low towards your hips as you return to the starting position to maximize the stretch in the lats.

Here’s a video of me performing a brutal set of a small twist on rear-delt rows (make sure to read the caption):

  • High-Rep Lateral Raises: The medial delts tend to respond best to high-volume training, and with lateral raises in particular, I think maximizing range of motion is especially important. Using very high reps tackles both issues: you’re able to do more work in less time; and because the loads are light, you’re able to maintain perfect form for all (or at least most) of the reps. Be sure to keep your form strict, even when the burn kicks in!

Strategy #3: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

At the end of the day, there’s only so much you can control, and the width of your hip bones and collarbones aren’t things you can control.

If you’re not blessed with a particularly narrow waist or wide shoulders, don’t worry about it. You can still develop an incredible physique, as long as you put in the effort and don’t let the idea of genetic weaknesses drag you down.

Have your own strategies for developing a tight, tapered waist?  Share them in the comments below!