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How to perform an ab wheel workout properly for beginners, men, women & seniors
Ab wheel rollouts (or ab rolling) are not only one of the best ways to strengthen your abs, but they will also strengthen our entire body.
People often think performing sit-ups is the best way to develop their abdominal muscles. Still, ab rolls are better than sit-ups for developing muscular endurance and overall fitness when performed correctly.
The ab wheel works better than traditional abdominal exercises such as crunches because it trains our core muscles in a different way. It can look super easy but don't be deceived.
Rollouts are challenging because they take much more coordination and control than a typical ab exercise. You must squeeze your butt, engage core muscles, and keep your hips and shoulder blades stable to see progress. The ab wheel isn't just about building strength; it also helps develop flexibility.
Ab wheel rollouts primarily engages two of the most important muscles of the core: the rectus abdominis ("6-pack"), and the transverse abdominis, which are the core muscles surrounding our belly button and stabilising our torso.
Ab wheel exercises are superior to crunches and stimulate more muscle activity
The ab wheel works so well because it engages our entire core, including our stabiliser muscles.
The abdominals and associate stabilisers are the muscles in and around our midsection responsible for functions such as maintaining posture, providing core support, flexing our spine and protecting our internal organs while holding them in place.
The ab wheel can be used by anyone who needs to work their abdominal muscles, whether they're beginners or advanced athletes. In fact, studies have found the ab roller to be superior to multiple popular "ab" workouts like the crunch. For instance, researchers at California State University discovered that muscle activity was significantly higher in participants performing exercises with an ab wheel than traditional ab exercises.
However, if you've never used an ab roller before, they do require a decent amount of core strength. Therefore, if your core strength is weak or your fitness level is very low, begin with some basic core exercises to prevent injury e.g. planks, side planks, bird-dogs and anything Pilates.
Furthermore, you'll need to ensure that your form is good enough to protect your lower back. If your back cannot remain straight and begins to arch, you are at risk of a back pull or strain.
These four exercises place less stress on the back and carry less risk of injury from poor form. They are suitable for most people over 50 who want to use ab rollers to improve their core strength and posture. The exercises start in a plank position, either a kneeling plank or a full plank. If you wish, use knee pads to protect your knees.
You'll no doubt start out with a few shaky reps. That's natural, and with these exercises, you can progress at your own pace while always paying attention to your form.
Tips for ab wheel exercises, before you get started
Keep these tips in mind when performing every one of the ab wheel exercises below.
When rolling out, your spine will load up on your lumbar vertebrae (the lower part of your spinal column) by moving into extension - a sagging back. Your ab muscles are doing their best to prevent this (thus strengthening them and building a strong core).
To perform a rollout effectively, ensure that your hips and shoulders are aligned with the same form as a proper Plank. If your hips dip, you're placing unnecessary stress on your spine.
Perhaps surprisingly, it actually helps to concentrate on rounding your upper body slightly by hollowing in your chest and core.
For your core muscles to be fully activated during exercise, the ab wheel or ab roller should begin directly under your shoulders at rest and end there as well when performing each repetition.
Before each rep, take a deep breath into your stomach as if trying to fill your entire abdomen with air. Then brace your core as if you were about to take a punch.
Instructions for four exercise, three sets, one ab wheel circuit
There are four moves below. Make each move for one rep, then continue to the next without stopping. Rest for two minutes after completing the fourth exercise before starting the entire set from the top. Do three full rounds to complete the circuit.
Exercise #1: Ab Wheel Plank Hold
Absolute beginners should start here before attempting more advanced rollouts.
How to: The starting position is a kneeling plank with wrists under shoulders, arms straight, grasping the handles of the ab wheel with both hands - one on each side of the wheel - palms facing down. Hold for 10 seconds. That's one rep.
During the hold, concentrate on keeping your hips level - level from side-to-side, i.e. not rocking from side-to-side.
Exercise #2: Side Ab Wheels
How to: Start in a kneeling plank with your wrists under shoulders, arms straight, and hands gripping ab wheel. Without moving your knees, roll the ab wheel out at a 45-degree angle to the left, return to start, and then switch sides. That's one rep.
Again, it sounds a little counter-intuitive, but during the rollouts concentrate on keeping your hips level - level from side-to-side. It's possible to keep them level while rolling to one side. Also, focus on holding tension in your upper body.
Exercise #3: Ab Roller Birddog
How to: Start on all fours, in a plank position with with toes tucked and knees bent - coming up and under your hips. Place a hand on each handle of the roller and ensure your shoulders are positioned directly above your wrists.
Slowly extend one leg back and raise up and out straight, keeping your spine neutral, then slowly lower and switch your legs. You should feel this through your core as you raise and lower your legs. Do 6 leg raises for each leg. That's one rep.
This Birddog is an excellent ab roller exercise for balance and stability, and it works all your core muscles.
Exercise #4: Extended Ab Wheel Hold
How to: Start in a kneeling plank with wrists under shoulders, arms straight, and hands gripping the ab wheel. Then roll arms forward of shoulders as far as possible. Take a deep breath (into your stomach as if you were trying to fill your entire abdomen with air), and then brace your core as if you were about to take a punch.
Roll out as far as you can before either experiencing back pain or before you can no longer hold proper form or technique. Use knee pads if you start to slip when your arms are extended.
Once you've reached the end-range of your rollout, roll back approximately 25% of the way to the starting position. Hold there for 10 seconds. Then, take a deep breath and brace, holding your core tight.
Roll out to the end-range again. Then, roll back 25% again and repeat the process.
You will notice that by only rolling back 25% of the way each time that your abs and core muscles don't get a single moment to shut off and rest. This follows the principle of Time Under Tension, whereby our muscle strength and endurance develop more quickly if we keep the muscles under tension for 40 seconds plus.
Contrast this with traditional rollouts, where these muscles get a small break or get to "shut off" for a brief moment before starting each repetition. In contracts, this continual tension will tax your core and abdominals quite nicely.
Perform as many partial rollbacks as desired, then roll back 100% of the way to the starting position, then repeat. Five or so partial rollbacks before rolling back entirely for a small break is usually a good starting point. That forms one rep.
The Ab Wheel circuit
Do the above exercises as noted within the instructions for each:
The above is one set. Take a 2-minute break, and then do another set, and take another 2-minute break. Then, complete the third and final set.
The complete circuit of 3 sets will take you about 25 minutes.
Staying within a pain-free range
For all of the variations listed, it's essential to stay pain-free. We mostly tend to feel lower back discomfort at the end-range of our abilities, so make sure to roll just up to this point, but not into it.
Shoulder injuries - use common sense
Ab wheel exercises should not cause a shoulder injury. Still, if you have a pre-existing shoulder issue, I would stay away from any movement that would put a strain on it or aggravate it. Use common sense. If something hurts, assume the exercise itself has issues for you.
If you feel your form slipping at any time during rollouts (such as arching your back), lower the intensity by dropping to your knees or reverting to a more manageable level of exercise.
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