Isolated core exercises are boring and take up valuable gym time. Are planks and other core exercises really necessary to build a strong, sculpted core, or are squats better than planks at whittling away at your waistline?
We’re all looking for ways to maximize our workouts, so let’s look at the science behind squats versus planks for core strength.
For the sake of this answer, we’re going to assume that the appearance of chiseled abdominal muscles is the goal. The most efficient exercise is squats, which produce results more quickly. Squats also offer cardiovascular benefits that isometric exercises like planks do not.
In addition to explaining why squats are an overall better abdominal exercise, we will also discuss other advantages of incorporating traditional squats and squat variations into your daily workout routine.
Muscles targeted by squats and planks
When doing an exercise, we should be aware of and focused on the muscles worked by that movement.
Abdominal muscles most notably include the rectus abdominis (visible ab muscles) and external obliques (sides surrounding the rectus abdominis). These are the muscles we picture when we think of having a defined core — a “6-pack.”
But there are 29 muscles classified as core muscles, including muscles that line the middle spine (the multifidus) all the way down to the pelvis (the erector spinae) — not to mention the muscles that are deep within the abdominal cavity, like the diaphragm.
Planks are considered an abdominal exercise, while squats are considered a lower body exercise, although the distinction between the two is not as clear-cut as it seems.
Every exercise primarily targets certain muscle groups, but other muscles can also be engaged in a lesser degree.
In the chart below, we have listed the muscles worked by squats and planks.
|Core (rectus abdominis, transversus abdominis, obliques)||Core (rectus abdominis, transversus abdominis, obliques)|
|Gluteal muscles||Gluteal muscles|
|Back muscles (multifidus, quadratus lumborum, latissimus dorsi, erector spinae)||Back muscles (multifidus, quadratus lumborum, latissimus dorsi, erector spinae)|
|Hip flexors||Hip flexors|
As you can see, there are many similarities, with squats having a slight edge. So what makes them a better exercise?
Why squats are better than planks
It really boils down to the fact that your body is doing more work during an active squat than a stationary plank.
Working your abs can only do so much, and while holding a plank isn’t easy, it isn’t a total body exercise, either.
If you want your ab work to show, you also need to maintain low levels of body fat. You need to burn abdominal fat to uncover what’s underneath. This is done through cardiovascular exercise.
While planks are an amazing isometric exercise with many health benefits, they don’t burn many calories. And as we described above, planks work fewer core muscles than squats. Not only that, but they work the muscles less vigorously.
Simply holding the squat bar on your shoulders engages the back, abdominals, and many leg muscles. And that’s before you have even begun the exercise.
Balancing weight on your shoulders also increases your heart rate due to a nervous system reaction — basically, your fight-or-flight instinct is engaged, and by holding the weight, you are “fighting.”
This triggers testosterone and human growth hormone (HGH) production in the body, both necessary for building muscle. It also increases the heart rate, making squats both cardiovascular exercise and strength training.
As you engage in the squat, keeping the core muscles contracted acts as a stabilizer for the rest of the body, making the exercise safer and developing core muscles simultaneously.
During a plank hold, you are only engaging the abdominal muscles. Your heart rate may elevate slightly, but not to the degree it does during a weighted squat.
Other benefits of squats
As seen in the previous section, squats are a more intense exercise that can simultaneously burn calories and build muscle. Squats engage much of the body and strengthen multiple muscle groups.
Here are a few other benefits of squats:
- As a foundational exercise for many powerlifters, squats are proven to build muscle fast and increase the amount a person can lift in other exercises like deadlifts and power cleans.
- As long as you start at a low weight and build up, squats are also one of the best ways to strengthen and prevent injury in the lower body joints: ankles, knees, and hips.
- Squats sculpt the lower body for muscular legs and glutes.
- Weight-bearing exercises like squats are proven to strengthen the skeletal system. Increased bone density reduces the risk of broken bones and osteoporosis in later life.
Squats, planks, or both?
Squats have long been considered one of the Big 4 of powerlifting (squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press), and based on current research, it appears that remains true. Squats are full-body exercises that engage the core and work the entire back, large, and small leg muscle groups.
Not only are you working a large number of muscles, but when doing squats, you’re also getting your heart rate higher than isometric exercises like planks, which burn fat faster.
However, squats and planks are two different exercises. If you’re looking for efficiency and time-saving exercises, we suggest squats over planks every time. But if you are looking for a complete workout, do both isometric and strength training exercises!
Planks are actually a great warm-up for squats and deadlifts because they “remind” your body how to engage your core, making it second nature when you start lifting heavy weights, and a strong, engaged core is necessary.