As soon as beginner-level crunches and sit-ups get boring, the next levels of ab training would most certainly involve doing ab rollouts, using either a wheel/roller or a barbell. Ab rollouts look fun to do, are just the right amount of challenging, and certainly strengthen the core. They’ve also been around for longer than one would think.
The inclusion of wheels into abdominal training has been traced back to a patent filed in 1934. “One of the forerunning devices in this regard is the exercise wheels sold by Harry Lawrence Gardener and E Meyers Louis in the 1930s”, said a Physical Cultural Study article titled The History of the Ab Wheel. The wheels in this case were attached to the feet though, which probably made it a tad difficult to master for people. There was thankfully more advancement in the product idea though. And it was something called the Reduce-A-Wheel which launched in the 1960s. It bears the closest resemblance to the modern ab wheels.
The same exercise can be done with barbells as well, with two plates attached on either side, which act as the wheels. The other gym equipment to use for rollouts is a medicine ball. In fact, a research tested the effectiveness of eight different medicine ball exercises and two “traditional abdominal exercises (crunch and bent-knee sit-up) on activating core (lumbopelvic hip complex) musculature.”
Published in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, it concluded that “Swiss (medicine) ball exercises employed in a prone position were as effective or more effective in generating core muscle activity compared to the traditional crunch and bent-knee sit-up. The roll-out and pike were the most effective exercises in activating the core muscles compared to all exercises.”
The key though, is to do them in a particular way, and with the right technique. When not done with the right form, rollouts can lead to injuries. A quick checklist would be: Start with the wheel directly under your shoulders, don’t let your hips dip at any point because that will put a load on the lower back, and use your lats to push out and pull back. However, the one thing you must take care of is to brace your core before every rep and not hollow out. Take a deep breath, and engage your muscles as if you are about to be punched.
The video below has an entire progression of the ab rollout, from starting with just a blank and elbow circles on a medicine ball, till the main event which is a proper rollout.
One of the worst mistakes is driving downward with your hips as you lower yourself during the rollout. This all but guarantees you will cause your lower back to arch and take the tension out of your abs, which puts your spine at risk and decreases the training benefit,” says an article written by rehabilitation specialist and strength coach Sherwin Vasallo, titled 5 Ways to Avoid Dangerous Ab Rollout Mistakes.
The most interesting part about these tips is how one must use the upper back muscles, especially when you’re pulling back to starting position, almost as if you’re doing a straight-arm pull-down. The video below of a pull-down will give you an idea of what kind of lat activation is needed during a rollout. Don’t make the lats your main driving force, but make them part of the group of muscles working. Associating an exercise you already know how to do with one you’re learning is a great way to understand the mechanics of new movements.
The other advantage of doing rollouts is how much it works the glutes as well. Glute engagement is very much part of core activation and the fact that you can’t let your hips cave in will work on glute strength. Regularly doing rollouts will make your lifting form better, which makes it a perfect accessory to other compound exercises. A good tip for doing rollouts is to not hit too many reps too fast. This is a slow concentrated exercise which will need a lot of focus. The spillover of that is better muscle-mind connection.
As for the limitations, this might not be the exercise which isolates your abs. The rollout is a full body functional move which works the entire core and will make your isolated ab workouts better as well. All in all, doing rollouts in the right way can lead only to good things.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.