Do the opposite of what you've read elsewhere
For many years, after my gym sessions and before stretching, performed ab wheel rollouts. I did them with good form and in full control. I added progressions and felt myself getting stronger and even more stable.
But I was puzzled why, no matter how strong I became, the dull ache in my lower back never disappeared.
The ab wheel rollout is a fabulous exercise:
In theory, performing it correctly fortifies our spinal health and helps decrease low back pain. This is fantastic, especially if you are older.
But what does "correctly" mean, and why did my back always feel pressure?
Keeping your back straight is bad advice
I was shocked to discover that my "good form" was actually bad form, especially because of the strain it placed on my lower back.
I was doing it with a straight back. And many sites explain the need to "keep the back straight and flat" (here here here here here here and more). Some explicitly instruct to not arch your back - "squeeze your core tight, without your back arching, and roll yourself back to the starting position and repeat (healthline.com)".
Or, another example of the admonition for a straight back: "Engage abs, squeeze butt, and slowly roll the ab wheel away from the body keeping arms straight and back flat the entire time".
It turns out that keeping your back "straight" is bad advice.
It was by following this bad advice that the dull ache in my lower back persisted no matter how strong I became at the manoeuvre.
Keeping your back straight during ab wheel rollouts places enormous strain on your lower back.
Here's the deal - don’t keep your back straight, and don't "engage your abs" or "squeeze your core tight" (in the sense of abdominal hollowing) as you've no doubt been told to do in so many classes.
To be safe and to reduce the risk of injury, do the opposite.
Don't "engage your abs" by hollowing out
I discovered this by accident when reading a research report on the difference in effectiveness between abdominal hollowing and abdominal bracing for spine support and stabilisation. Exercise scientists have questioned the purpose of abdominal hollowing for stabilisation, and some declared it to be counter-productive. These scientists advocate abdominal bracing - not abdominal hollowing.
Powerlifters use the abdominal brace to support their spine during a deadlift, for example.
Think of yourself as about to be punched in the stomach. You brace and hold. That's abdominal bracing.
Dr Stuart McGill of Canada, a leading expert in spine mechanics, describes abdominal bracing as simultaneously co-activating all layers of core muscles "in addition to activating your lats, quadratus lumborum, and back extensors".
This means that the entire abdominal wall is activated from all angles, sides, and directions, causing the three layers of the muscles to actually physically bind together - Cassie Dionne, Breaking Muscle.
This binding enhances the stiffness and stability of the core and creates what McGill refers to as superstiffness. Superstiffness activates 360-degrees of spinal stability, making us more physically resilient and helping us run without injury, for example.
I tried abdominal bracing for my ab rollouts and found the lower back pressure was considerably reduced.
So instead of following this type of advice - "The more you can keep your core engaged by drawing your belly button toward your spine, the better your results will be" - do the opposite. Do the brace, not the hollow.
Don't keep your back straight
After feeling the satisfying result from abdominal bracing, I did a quick Google to see if I was alone. I wasn't, and I was surprised to discover another surprising price of advice.
Don't keep your back straight, but adopt a cat-pose:
Here is what I do now
Take a kneeling position with the ab wheel at arm's length, now:
To keep your core engaged, the ab wheel should start directly under your shoulders at the start and finish of each rep.
Do a small number in perfect form. Between 5 and 20 is fine, but no poor form reps are fine.
I found this explanation (plus a 4-minute video) at Breakthrough Fitness to be a good example.
Progressions if you cannot do a proper or pain-free rep
The key mistake people make when they do ab wheel rollouts is that they over-focus on rolling out as far as possible when they first get started. That leads to injury.
If you feel your abs battling your sagging back, then you need to develop more strength and a stronger abdominal brace manoeuvre. The latter takes practice, the former more exercise.
Here is how to pace your progression towards ab rollouts:
Once you have achieved the above you are set to go again with your ab wheel rollouts.
Even 5 a day is satisfying
By learning to effectively control your core, you will more efficiently transfer power and strength to your limbs to provide more stability to your back for a whole range of other movements. (Not to mention a better posture.)
Ab wheel/roller exercises are not for beginners. A great deal of existing core strength and conditioning is required to be able to perform these exercises safely, or at all!
But when you do achieve them safely, it is satisfying, and you'll feel the difference. Just five a day is fine, or five every two days - in perfect form.
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No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or another qualified clinician. Disclaimer.
Since I was diagnosed at 50 with Type 2 diabetes I've been learning how to do bone-building fitness training which lowers my age. You can too. It's your choice. Walter