Deadlifts, Squats & Leg Raises: The Best Exercises to Strengthen Abs & Core

Updated on May 4, 2019
Rain Defence profile image

Rain has been an online writer for over seven years. His articles often focus on weightlifting and martial arts.

Halfway through. The dog approves.
Halfway through. The dog approves.

Have you been working out your abs, or are you about to start? Well, don't waste your time messing about with spine crippling sit-ups and ab exercising machines. Just do the most effective exercises and you won't have to worry about a weak core or non existent abs again.

There are many benefits to having a strong core. Not having any back issues or pain, having decent posture and also lastly having a strong stomach that instead of hanging out, is flat or possibly defined if your bodyfat is low enough. All good things.

To build a strong core traditionally people think that you have to do crunches and situps. This will work to some degree of course. However if you're actually going to get really strong there, then crunches aren't the best. For a start you're only working your abs so if you do a lot of crunches witghout strengthening uyout lower back you can develop an imbalance.

Something else to consider is that doing a lot of high rep low resistance reps of crunches (some people can do 50 or more reps) gives a good burn due to lactic acid build up, but isn't the best way of developing real strength and muscle. Your muscles need some proper resistance to make them stronger!

This is an example of an extremely strong core. Franco knows a thing or two about abs.
This is an example of an extremely strong core. Franco knows a thing or two about abs.

So What Should You Do, Then?

The most effective way to work out your core is by performing compound exercises like the deadlift and squat, combined with a high intensity tough exercises like the hanging leg raise.

If you are squatting and deadlifting then you need a solid and strong core and it will develop as your weight increases. As you start either lift, you tighten your abs as hard as you can to stabilise your core and keep it flexed for the whole lift. After a squatting or deadlifting session my abs are often aching the next day as much or more the next couple of days as they used to when I used to mess about in the gym doing situps and crunches endlessly. The difference is now my core is completely solid.

The Deadlift

The deadlift is the best exercise out there for overall strength and development. It works the whole body, but mainly the core, along with the legs and upper back. Plus your grip strength increases massively if you deadlift regularly.

The lift set-up.
The lift set-up.
If you can look this casual at the end, then you're super strong.
If you can look this casual at the end, then you're super strong.
Don't think that you can't do them because you're a woman.
Don't think that you can't do them because you're a woman.

You don't have to use weights as large as Franco is lifting in those photos (although if you can then you'll be extremely strong!) but as long as you're deadlifting and keeping your abs tight, then you'll be developing a strong core. As well as all of the other muscles developed by the lift, which are basically most of the muscles in the body.

The squat is the other exercise that is an essential in anyones routine, men or women. For some off reason women are often scared of both exercises, thinking they'll get 'too big'. This is impossible. No one gets big accidentally and it is extremely difficult for women to get big anyway due to their lack of testosterone. Squat and deadlift as heavy as you can and all that will happen is you'll develop a great core, backside, legs, back etc etc.

What I found when I started squatting was that my legs were reasonably strong from my years of other activities, but when I got the bar on my back and started to get fatigued I could feel my core starting to collapse and me starting to fall forward, even though I still had power in my legs. This is because my core simply wasn't strong enough, even after my thousands of situps and crunches. I worked my way up slowly with the squat and now weights that I used to crumble under I can lift with ease with my core staying tight. It doesn't happen overnight, but keep those abs flexed and be consistent and it will happen.

The Squat

The squat is an extremely effective ab exercise as well as hitting the rest of your lower body of course. Pretty much the whole body is used to stabilise the weight as again you have to keep your core tight and your abs fully flexed or you'll collapse forwards. I find that I even get a pump in my arms as I'm squeezing the bar.

Franco making it look easy again.
Franco making it look easy again.
She's smiling. You won't be.
She's smiling. You won't be.

The Hanging Leg-Raise

The hanging leg raise is one of the toughest ab exercises there is. Because of this its one of the most effective. Don't expect to nip into the gym and knock a few out with ease, it's a very hard exercise to do properly, but your abs will thank you.

To do the exercise properly, you must make sure that you don't swing at all. Start the exercise from a full hanging position on a chin up bar. Raise your legs slowly and try to keep your legs straight until they touch the bar. Then lower as slowly as you can, get back to the start position and repeat.

I’ve linked the chin up bar I use at the bottom of the article. I use it most nights for chins and leg raises, plus it’s useful for hanging and stretching after lifting weights to stretch your back.

Start like this.
Start like this.
Halfway through.
Halfway through.
The finish position.
The finish position.

If you can't go all the way up to the bar at first, don't worry about it, get your legs as high as you can. Over time you'll work your way up. If you can work your way up to the point where you can do 10 leg raises with no cheating or swinging, then your abs will be extremely strong. To make it easier to start with you can either bend your legs and bring them into your body, or not raise them as high. If you're truly hardcore and want the best results, keep your legs completely straight though and your abs will really develop.

Then you can add the ankle weights!

To be honest even without any other exercises, deadlifting and squatting will develop your core very well, deadlifting really hits your lower back muscles and squatting develops the whole area. Your abs take a serious beating with just those exercises. However a few hanging leg raises just finishes you off.

Any exercise routine that mainly uses free weights will help your abs as you need to keep your core tight for pretty much every free weight barbell exercise, even bench press. Machine work takes the strain off your core, so if you can do it, try to minimise the use of machines in your workout and your abs will thank you.

Something to remember is that you can develop your abs so they are very strong, but if you have a layer of fat over the top, then you'll still not see them. Abs are created in the gym, but exposed in the kitchen, so you will need a proper diet if you want to see a six pack.

If you have any comments, please add them below. Thanks for reading!

This is what I have on my wall in the back yard. All you have to do is get one and do a couple of sets of pull-ups and leg raises every night before dinner. Plu

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Rain Defence


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    • greenmind profile image

      GreenMind Guides 

      3 years ago from USA

      I really like this -- it's smart and well-written, thanks.

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      "Abs are created in the gym, but exposed in the kitchen, so you will need a proper diet if you want to see a six pack."

      Can someone elaborate on this ? I have been working out for over a month (I know it needs more patience), but I feel I need to get rid of the fat over my abs too. So how do I go about getting rid of that extra useless skin ?

    • Rain Defence profile imageAUTHOR

      Rain Defence 

      6 years ago from UK

      Squatting and deadlifting definitely help with knee pain as they strengthen the joint. You just have to be sure to keep your form right and not let your knees cave in.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I have a torn medial meniscus and was terrified of doing deadlifts or squats, but I did start, and in 6 months even at the age of 56, I lost 75lbs and my legs and knees feel much stronger than in the last 10 years, when I first hurt my knee.

      So, I can understand not deadlifting when your knee is hurt, I was just as concerned, but so far, I can see why having experienced the great benefits of deadlifts myself even for my knees as is explained on

    • Rain Defence profile imageAUTHOR

      Rain Defence 

      6 years ago from UK

      That's a shame. If you form is good on squats you can build muscle and strengthen the knee though. You just have to be sure you're doing it properly!

    • greatstuff profile image


      6 years ago from Malaysia

      I can't do dead lift and squat that often as I got bad knee. Leg raises maybe, otherwise for my abs I try all the standing exercises that do not put too much pressure on my knee. Mountain climber and spiderman crunch are my other favorites.


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