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Do the opposite of what you've read elsewhere
For many years, after my gym sessions and before stretching, performed ab wheel (exercise wheel) exercises. 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 my core muscles became, the dull ache in my lower back never disappeared.
The ab wheel rollout is a fabulous exercise:
At the gym or in your home, the exercise wheel is an easy to use piece of exercise equipment, that can be used by beginners as well as experienced fitness pros - as long as you do it correctly.
In theory, performing it correctly fortifies our core strength, 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 for this type of wheel exercise.
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. You want to extend to be as flat as you can go safely, but that's not by keeping your back straight.
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 - a genuinely strong core. 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 roller at arm's length, now:
To keep your core muscles 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.
Use ab wheel exercises as challenging progressions from the plank; once your plank variations start feeling too run-of-the-mill, use an ab wheel to spice things up. In fact you can start ab rolling from a plank position, which makes a natural progression. But if you don't yet have the strength to do proper ab wheels, do more plank progressions.
Here is how to pace your progression towards ab rollouts in a format which will strengthen your entire body:
When 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.)
Abdominal 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! The brilliant thing is that once mastered, this single exercise builds your abs, arms, shoulders, chest, back, and lower back.
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 of course.
Good luck, keep moving.
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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