A common misconception
There is a fairly common misconception in the bodybuilding community that powerlifting will thicken your core….well it kinda will. Here’s the thing: heavy squats and deadlifts require a good deal of core strength that, when trained, will also lead to some hypertrophy of the core musculature.
But the strength gains you see in the process make it more than worth it.
Why core muscles matter for powerlifters
Core work can strengthen squat and deadlift
The core is so important for both squats and deadlifts that it will oftentimes be the limiting factor with newer powerlifters. In fact the most common injuries in newer powerlifters are low back injuries. Although a combination of weak core and bad technique is usually the culprit, having a strong core can help lower the risk of serious injury when starting out. Now it is important to note that training your core and improving your technique goes hand in hand when it comes to preventing injury. But I'll share some anecdotal evidence to show just how important I believe a strong core is.
Back in 2015-2016 I was 17-18 and thought it'd be a good idea to deadlift as often and as heavy as possible. We’ll as you can guess this didn’t go well. I was exhausted for months on end, my hands would be torn nearly every day and my back felt like it was on fire almost every night. Although I did feel like shit I didn’t get seriously injured. Unintentionally I was also doing a ton of farmer's carries at the same time which helped develop my core strength. This core strengthening plus never going to total failure and being young enough allowed me to get by uninjured with this ridiculous deadlift training regime.
In short, your core strength matters a lot but I’m not gonna argue that farmer’s carries are the best way of doing so or that you need to do them. For powerlifting, farmer’s carries don’t necessarily translate as well as a lot of other core movements that offer more stimulus, skill acquisition and less fatigue. Frankly I only did them because they seemed fun when watching strongman events. Had I known any better I would’ve swapped them out for 90/90 breathing drills, banded deadbugs, planks or leg raises. All these promote core flexion which is necessary to prevent extension and maintain efficient technique on squats and deadlifts.
Core work for better squats
The main role of the core when squatting is to prevent this lower back extension. By focusing on core flexion, usually through my favorite cue of “crunch down as if someone was about to punch you”, you are able to keep your hips closer to the bar and your spine neutral. This makes for a more vertical bar path and lower stress on any single point of the back. Now this is part of proper core bracing which is also a skill. The best way to practice this skill without actually squatting is the 90/90 breathing drill.
If you struggle with proper bracing technique you would benefit from doing the 90/90 breathing drills before every squat session for 2-3 sets of 10 deep breaths. Meanwhile If you feel like your technique only breaks down after a certain weight then you may understand the necessary bracing for squatting but simply lack the strength to maintain it. In this case you are better off with a strengthening exercise such as banded deadbugs, planks or leg raises.
Core work for better deadlifts
Now, when it comes to deadlifts the focus remains fairly similar, to maintain a neutral spine position position. Deadlifts are tricky when it comes to bracing as there seems to be an even split between over extension and over flexion of the core with lifters. Granted, when failing a deadlift, you usually see a great deal of flexion as the core musculature is unable to support the weight pulling it down. But this often happens as a result of an overly flexed starting position.
In simpler terms, a lot of lifters will get to the bar sticking their butt out at the bottom of a deadlift leading to a spine that is not “locked” into position ultimately resulting in a lot of movement of the spine when performing maximal deadlifts. If this is the case for you, you may benefit from doing core flexion work in the form of the aforementioned banded deadbugs, planks or leg raises.
On the other hand, if you get to the bar very hunched over looking like a dog about to poop, you might want to start doing some core extension work such as barbell good mornings, seated good morning, back hyperextension or reverse hyperextensions. Any of these will help promote extension and strengthen the necessary muscles needed for you to maintain a neutral spine when deadlifting.
Remember, ab work ≠ core work
Lastly, notice how I never once mentioned sit ups or crunches. Not that there's anything wrong with them as an exercise but because of the very small time under tension they provide an inadequate stimulus for the core strength needed on heavy squats and deadlifts. You are better off doing a core exercise that will more directly translate to performance under the barbell. When selecting any exercise, think about why you are doing it and what you’ll get out of it. Keep this in mind when selecting your next core movement as it can mean the difference between wasting your time or keeping you powerlifting safe and efficiently.