The squat and deadlift have a lot in common. They’re both compound movements that build a lot of muscle, strength, and grit. They also both require a tremendous amount of core strength. These two movements place a demand on the spine — in slightly different ways — and a weak core will leave you susceptible to lackluster form at best and back injury at worst.
Below, we’ve compiled six specific movements that will strengthen your core for a more efficient squat and deadlift. Crunches and planks are fine, but these incorporate movement, for more stability, and place you in positions more akin to the movements you’re training for. Give them a try, and then get to lifting.
Best Core Exercises For the Squat And Deadlift
- Back Extension
- Adductor Tension Rollover
- Dead Bug Pullover
- One Arm Front Rack March
- Ab Rollout
- Pallof Press
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Back extensions have you lay on either a glute-ham raise bench or a back extension machine and flex your lower back muscles to lower and raise your torso. It’s about as direct of a lower-back exercise that you can do. Strong hamstrings, glutes, and spinal erectors are a must for squats and deadlifts, and this exercise targets them all. These three muscles help you lock out the weight and play a major role in keeping a neutral spine.
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Benefits of the Back Extension
- The back extension trains and isolates the lower back through a longer range of motion, allowing for greater strength and hypertrophy.
- It’s a versatile exercise, which can be loaded in different ways.
How to Do the Back Extension
Secure your feet on the back-extension machine with your hips just above the padding. Cross your arms across your chest, keeping your chest up and shoulders down, and lower your torso until below parallel with the floor. Be careful not to round your low back. Raise up using your glutes and lower back until your body is in line with your legs.
This movement is excellent for activating the muscles deep in the core and strengthening the link between lat tension and hip flexion. Both factors are important for keeping a neutral spine under load. When performed as a warm-up before traditional deadlifts and squats, which require more abduction and external rotation, the opposite action of this exercise preps your body for both exercises
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Benefits of the Adductor Tension Rollover
- Strengthens the deep stabilizing muscles around the spine.
- It’s a great exercise to prevent unwanted rotation at peak tension in the squat and deadlift.
- Strengthens the adductors, hips, and lats at the same time.
How to Do the Adductor Tension Rollover
Sitting on the floor, place a small foam roller between your knees, take a shoulder-width grip on a light resistance, and pull the band apart. Roll back to lie down on the floor, and actively squeeze the roller between your knees. Keep tension in your lats and adductors, twist your knees to one side and then to the other while keeping your lower back on the floor.
Kettlebells and the dead bug is a match made in heaven. The dead bug has you lay down and extend your arms and legs to tax your core actively. Holding a kettlebell loads your shoulders and lats while placing added tension on your core. You’re forced to maintain a natural spine under a load, which mimics the challenges of the squat.
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Benefits of the Dead Bug Pullover
- Improves lumbopelvic stability, which helps keep a neutral spine under load.
- Reinforces correct breathing patterns and good pullover technique.
- Encourages better posture due to the constant upper back tension.
How to Do the Pullover Deadbug
Grab a kettlebell by the horns, press it over your chest, and flex your knees to 90 degrees. Press your low back into the ground, take a deep breath in before you start. Exhale, extend one leg and lower the kettlebell behind you slowly. As you lower the bell, alternate extending your legs. Maintain a slight bend in your elbows and let your core stability and shoulder mobility dictate your overhead range of motion. In other words: Don’t force yourself to lower the kettlebell farther than what is comfortable.
This exercise has yous and tall holding a single kettlebell in the front rack position. As you hold the kettlebell in position, you’ll march, one leg at a time, for a set amount of time. Supporting the kettlebell without movement places a demand on your core, as it works to keep your torso straight. Adding the march creates even more instability as you’re now in motion. This variation places unique challenges on the obliques and requires the core to adapt to frequent changes in stability.
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Benefits of the One-Arm Front Rack March
- Builds strength and endurance in the obliques to help prevent unwanted rotation.
- It helps strengthen the core and corrects imbalances between sides.
- Improves your balance.
How to Do the One-Arm Front Rack March
With your feet wider than shoulder-width, clean a kettlebell into the front rack position. Keep your shoulders down and chest up and march 10 times on the spot alternating sides, trying not to tilt one way or the other. Then repeat this sequence on the other side.
To do the ab rollout, you either grip a barbell loaded with weight plates, an ab wheel, or rest your forearms on an exercise ball to extend your torso towards the ground. The ab rollout strengthens the core by lengthening it, which targets your eccentric strength, and builds anti-extension strength. Both are important for squats and deadlifts. Getting stronger in an extended position improves core stability and recruits muscle fibers that would otherwise be untouched, and because of this, you’ll get stronger.
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Benefits of the Ab Rollout
- More strength in a lengthened (or eccentric) position.
- Increased muscle development, as the exercise challenges you during both the lowering and lifting phase.
- More abdominal muscle (or hypertrophy) control and stability.
How to Do the Ab Rollout
Get on your knees and grip your equipment of choice with hands shoulder-width apart. Extend your hips towards the floor and let your chest sink forward toward the ground without overarching your lower back. The longer the range of motion, the harder the exercise, so shorten your ROM if you’re new to the exercise. Squeeze the lat muscles and pull yourself back to the starting position.
The Pallof press, named after physical therapist John Pallof, has you press a taut band away from your body and then return it for reps. The band, which is looped around a stable surface like a power rack, pulls your body toward the anchor point, and your core fights rotation as your arms extend the band. The Pallof press is now regarded as one of the most popular core exercises and is used by all strength athletes to improve their strength and stability.
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Benefits of the Pallof Press
- It’s an extremely versatile exercise performed from various positions to train your core strength from all angles.
- Pallof presses train anti-rotation, which is important for squats and deadlifts as it helps increase core stability and resistance to spinal flexion, extension, and rotation.
How to Do the Pallof Press
Loop a resistance band around an anchor point and stand perpendicular to it. Grab the band in both hands and step away from it until it is taut. Hold your hands at your chest, and then slowly press the band away from your body until your arms are fully extended. Then, slowly return your hands to your chest.
All About The Core
The core’s most important function is resisting movement while you’re moving. Think anti-extension, anti-rotation, and anti-flexion. This helps protect your spine from unnecessary stress.
When squatting or deadlifting, it’s vital to keep your spine neutral to prevent back injury and enforce proper squat mechanics.
A stronger core makes this all happen. Think of your core as a bridge between your lower and upper body. When the bridge cannot support the weight on it, it begins to break, and bad things start to happen. It doesn’t matter how strong your legs or upper body are because you’re only as strong as your weakest link.
Plus, with a lot of the population sitting and hunched over, this wreaks havoc on your posture, and lower back pain can set it. Training your core stability and endurance with these six exercises is one piece of the puzzle in reducing low back pain. (1)
Why A Stronger Core Is Important For Squats and Deadlifts
The core has many functions, but its most important is resisting movement while you’re moving. This comes in handy when picking up weight from the floor or putting a barbell on your back. Here are a few other important benefits of a stronger core.
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Maintains a Neutral Spine
If you don’t keep your spine neutral when squatting, then at worse, you’re risking injury, and at best, you just won’t squat as efficiently. A key component to maintaining a neutral spine is bracing your core, so the stronger your core, the more effective your brace.
A stronger core with better endurance plays an important role in maintaining good posture and keeping a neutral spine during heavily loaded movements. By training them, you undo some of the damage of sitting. That is if you stay consistent.
Lift More Weight
You’re only as strong as your weakest link, and if you are struggling to keep a neutral spine under a heavy load, improving your core strength with these six exercises should be a priority. Then this helps you lift more weight with a better technique which is a win-win.
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Programming Suggestions, Sets, and Reps
There are a few ways you can go about programming core exercises into your routine. After your warmup and before hitting the barbell, do them first to prime your core for action. For example, a core tri-set:
1A. Pallof Press
1B. Back Extension
1C. Dead Bug Pullover
Secondly, pairing it with a strength exercise that enhances and doesn’t take anything away from the lift. For example,
1A. Bench Press
1B. Ab Rollout
If you’re training core before weights, do one to two sets. When pairing with a strength exercise, two to three sets is enough to prime your body and not exhaust it. Reps depend on the exercise but aim for between 10 and 20 reps.
- Abdelraouf OR, Abdel-Aziem AA. THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CORE ENDURANCE AND BACK DYSFUNCTION IN COLLEGIATE MALE ATHLETES WITH AND WITHOUT NONSPECIFIC LOW BACK PAIN. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2016 Jun;11(3):337-44. PMID: 27274419; PMCID: PMC4886801.
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