A strong core means more than having a six-pack. For runners, a strong core means running efficiently, especially at the end of a run. And to do that, you need to focus on more than just the abdominal muscles.
An ab roller—or ab wheel—is one of the most efficient ab workouts that has ever come out. While it may not be the easiest exercise tool to use, with proper form and some patience you’ll find your core strength greatly improving.
Let’s take a closer look at the ab roller!
What Is An Ab Roller?
An ab roller—ab wheel—is made up of a wide single or double wheel with a rod running through its center, which also forms the handles that you’ll hold on either side.
The handles are often covered in foam or sponge to protect the hands and provide extra comfort while using them.
The wheel can be made from either rubber or hard plastic, which is textured to increase the surface friction; this prevents the wheel from slipping when you use it.
By combining your own body weight with the resistance of the wheel, you’ll get a challenging core workout.
Why Should You Use One?
When you first look at the ab roller, you may think that it’s easy to do! But the ab roller is one piece of equipment that targets multiple muscles at the same time as you roll.
Using the ab roller also requires you to control the movement going both forward and backward.
This requires synchronized muscle control from the hip flexors up towards your shoulders; you have to support your entire body on a small surface area that requires all the muscles to work together.
It allows you to strengthen your entire core, which functions as a unit and supports us through many of our daily activities.
How Does An Ab Roller Strengthen Your Core?
The ab roller engages a number of muscles with the movement, but the primary muscles are your abs.
When you move forwards and backward, you’re engaging the transverse abdominis—this is the deepest muscle layer—which wraps around your spine and your sides.
This movement also requires you to engage the external and internal obliques, the rectus abdominis and the erector spinae—the stabilizing muscles that run along your spine.
These muscles all function as a unit and allow you to twist, flex, bend, stand, walk, sit up and maintain proper posture. They also stabilize the body and act as a protective layer which can help reduce the risk of injury.
When you do an ab rollout, the movement encourages the muscles to work together as you support your own body weight.
But this movement also encourages “anti-extension”, which strengthens the lower spine and helps to prevent you over-arching your back.
Is It Good For Runners?
Runners will find using the ab roller to be beneficial, as it will help to strengthen the muscles used when running. The ab roller engages and strengthens the hip flexors and the muscles around the pelvis—lower abdominals.
If the muscles in the hips are weak or the hip flexors are tight and short, this can lead to IT band syndrome, sciatica, piriformis issues, runner’s knee, and other injuries.
A strong core will help runners with their posture, stability, overall control, and balance. It will help you maintain good running form, even when your legs are fatigued.
How Does A Strong Core Help Me Run Better?
A strong core not only acts as a stabilizer for your legs, but also allows your lower back, pelvis, and hips to work together more smoothly. When they’re all working together, you’ll find that there’s less rocking—wobbling—in the torso and less energy will be wasted.
When your core is strong, you’ll be able to recover from missteps quicker, as your balance is better.
You’ll also find that towards the end of a long run or after a grueling race, a strong core helps you to maintain good running posture. This reduces lower backaches, IT band stiffness, hip pain, and other aches and pains that come with poor form.
Having a strong core—which includes hips, hip flexors, lower back, obliques, glutes, hamstrings, and quads—can improve your running economy, help you run faster while using less energy and reduce the risk of common running injuries.
Benefits Of Ab Wheel Exercises
When you use the ab roller, you’re engaging 20 muscles.
By strengthening these muscles, you’re improving the stability of your trunk, posture, breathing, and balance. Our legs and arms are all connected to the core and with a strong core, you’ll find that your limbs will be stronger, which can increase your running performance.
Using the ab roller regularly will increase your stamina, but you’ll also see the benefits of a strong core in your everyday tasks.
Your posture overall will improve and you’ll find that you’re not slouching when sitting behind a desk. This will reduce stiff back muscles which can lead to back pain.
It also reduces the amount of wear and tear on your spine and you breathe better, which gets more oxygen into the bloodstream.
Disadvantage Of The Ab Wheel
You have to make sure that you do an ab wheel rollout with the proper technique and form. If you don’t use the proper technique, this can place pressure on your lower back.
If your hip flexors or back muscles are tight, they may not be able to support your body through the entire range of motion, especially when your abdominal muscles contract. This can lead to you overarching your back as you roll out.
To perform the ab rollout effectively, your body needs to be strong enough to support a plank position and your forearms, shoulders and back also need to have strength. If you don’t have the strength to support your body, your lats could try to compensate and this could lead to you potentially straining your lower back.
You don’t want to “dip” at your joints as you do the rollout. This will place too much stress on the back, shoulders, elbows, and wrists, which can lead to an injury.
If you’ve previously injured your shoulders—or other joints—or if you feel any pain in them or your back, stop the movement.
For those who’ve just started to exercise, then it would be advisable to build up your core and upper body strength before attempting to use the ab roller.
If you have a herniated disc or lower back problems, it would be best to chat to a medical professional before trying exercises with the ab roller.
You may have to develop your core strength over a few weeks by doing walkouts or planks and then try using the ab roller again.
Proper Technique To Avoid Injury
Kneel on the floor on all fours and then grip the handles of the ab roller firmly. The ab roller should be on the floor beneath your shoulders.
Keep your knees hip-width apart. Engage your abs by squeezing them and then slowly lean your upper body forward, keeping your back and elbows straight as you roll the wheel out in front of you.
Roll the wheel out as far as you can, making sure to keep your back parallel to the floor and in a straight line. Hold the position for a moment and then use your abs to pull you back to the starting position. Don’t use your hips to pull you back to the starting point.
If the core muscle starts to lose the contraction then you’ve gone too far. When doing this exercise you want to keep the form of a plank, as well as keep the muscle contraction of the abs while you roll out.
You may have to choose a shorter endpoint—not rolling out so far—and then gradually increase your ending point as you develop your core strength.
Try and repeat this full movement for 10 to 12 reps.
1. Arching Your back
When doing the exercise, you don’t want to roll out with your pelvis rotated forward—anterior pelvic tilt—as this will cause your spine to curve which will place too much stress on your lower back.
To help you focus on keeping your back straight, pull your navel in towards your spine. This should help you feel the squeeze—muscle contraction—in the abs as you roll out.
2. Bending Your Elbows
Bending your elbows during the rollout of the ab roller is another common mistake, and it does take some practice to keep your elbows locked straight.
But by bending your elbows when you roll out, you remove the tension from your core as you move through the motion.
Make sure to keep the tension in your abs by keeping your arms straight and only rolling out as far as you can while feeling the tension in your core.
3. Using Your Arms
When returning to the starting point, you may feel like you should use your arms to pull you back. Remember that this exercise isn’t meant to pull back with your arms, as this will cause you to lose the tension in your core.
Only use your core to pull you back to the starting position. When using the ab roller, it’s better to do fewer reps with good form than more reps with bad form!
Some people tend to use their arms to pull back the wheel at the top of the rep. Pulling with your arms takes all the tension away from the core. It allows you to do more “cheat” reps.
The ab wheel rollout should not be an arm exercise. Instead, keep your elbows locked straight and keep the tension in your abs!
Alternatives To Use Instead Of The Ab Wheel
If you don’t have an ab roller but want to try the exercise, there are ways that you can safely mimic using one.
You can use a barbell with plates attached to it as a substitute. While it works the same muscles, it will be much harder to do as you’re moving more weight. This alternative is only recommended for individuals who are at an advanced level.
For beginners or runners who have weak cores or back issues, you can use a stability ball to do the ab rollouts. This will help you to develop core strength until you can progress to the ab roller.
You can also try doing plank walkouts, but the starting position would be where your knees are still on the ground.
When you’re on all fours, tighten your abs and then walk your hands out as far as you can, making sure that you still feel the tension in your abs. You’ll hold the position for a moment and then walk your hands back to the start point.
If you have access to a suspension trainer like the TRX suspension trainer, you can do an “ab rollout” with this. All you need to do is adjust the length of the straps so that when you kneel, the handles are at hip level.
Then push forward, keeping the tension in your core, arms and back straight. The best way to describe this is that you should look similar to how Superman would fly.
Once you’ve stretched as far as you can—or you’re fully stretched—hold the position for a moment. Then use your abs to pull you back to the starting point.
It’s Important To Pay Attention To Do It Correctly
The ab wheel rollout isn’t easy to do, especially when you’re doing it with proper form. But it’s best to take your time, build up core strength and work through the proper progression.
It’s better to do fewer reps with proper form, as this will prevent the risk of injury and it will protect your back from overarching. Stick with it and you’ll start to notice that you’re building core strength.
Ab Roller Exercises
We can’t say it enough, the ab roller is tough. Even advanced fitness trainers will tell you that it’s an intense workout for them!
If you’re just starting an exercise program—a beginner—then you may find that you’re only able to do 3 sets of 5 ab rollouts. Remember that core strength will take some time to build up and it’s always better to do it with proper form!
If you’ve been exercising for a while and you’ve included cross-training where it helps develop your core, you may be able to do 3 sets of between 10 to 20 reps.
If you’ve been training your core and you’re an advanced athlete, then you may be able to do 3 sets of 30 or more reps.
1. Knee Rollout
On all fours, you’re going to start in a kneeling position. Make sure that your legs are hip-width apart and that the ab roller is under your shoulders. Keep your arms locked straight and slowly lean forward with your weight.
Engage your core—pulling your navel towards your spine—keeping your shoulders tight as well. Then slowly start rolling forward until you’re in a plank position—still on your knees and not your toes.
Keep your arms extended in front of you, holding the tension in your abs. Hold the position for a few seconds and then roll back to the starting position.
2. Oblique Rollout
You’ll start this variation in a kneeling position with your legs shoulder-width apart. With a firm grip on the handles of the ab roller, extend your arms—keeping them locked straight.
Engage your core and start to slowly roll out to your right side at a 45-degree angle until your stomach is close to the ground. Your hands will be extended “above” your head as if you’ve done a shoulder press.
Return to the starting position by rolling back to your knees—using your core and then roll out to the left side at a 45-degree angle.
Start in a kneeling position with your legs hip-width apart and with the ab roller under your shoulders. Keep your arms locked straight and slowly lean forward with your weight.
Engage your core and then extend the right leg fully by pushing your leg “downward” so that you can “rest” on the ball of your foot. Then extend the left leg fully. You should be perpendicular to the floor, with your arms extended—locked straight—out in front of you.
You’re now in a plank position! Hold the plank position for 10 seconds and then return to the starting position. As your core gains strength, you can then hold the position for a longer time.