At first glance, the ab wheel may look like an innocent—and perhaps even fun—gym accessory. Yet in practice? It’s an advanced tool that delivers a seriously intense, next-level core challenge.
For proof, just watch an Instagram video posted last week by celebrity trainer Jeanette Jenkins, in which she and singer-songwriter Mike Posner do the most common ab wheel exercise, ab wheel rollouts, while audibly groaning.
You can check out the video, via @msjeanettejenkins, here:
The ab wheel delivers a “really great challenge,” James Brewer, NYC-based certified personal trainer and certified Spin and TRX instructor, tells SELF. Correctly doing a full ab wheel rollout from standing position to push-up position, like Jenkins and Posner demo, is “saying a lot [about your core strength],” says Brewer. “It’s not easy to do.”
Ab wheel rollouts are so tough—and so effective—for several reasons.
Groans aside, Jenkins and Posner may appear to roll in and out with ease, but as mentioned, using the ab wheel correctly is no simple feat. Why? “All of your body weight is on that wheel,” says Brewer. “You need to have a lot of strength to hold yourself up and prevent yourself from face planting.” As the name suggests, the primary muscles worked during ab wheel rollouts are your abs (technically called your rectus abdominis), which are “the main driver [of this movement],” Stephanie Mansour, Chicago-based certified personal trainer, tells SELF. “That’s the strength that needs to be built up in order to progress [the exercise].”
That said, compared to other core-focused movements like crunches that require strength from only your abs, these ab rollouts engage essentially your entire body as well, including your transverse abdominis (the deepest ab muscle that wraps around your sides and spine), obliques (muscles on the sides of your stomach), and the stabilizing muscles that run along your spine, as well as your latissimus dorsi (or lats, the broadest muscles on each side of your back), deltoids (shoulders), and triceps, says Mansour.
The rolling out movement primarily works your lats and deltoids, whereas the second half of the movement—the rolling in portion—really targets your core, specifically your rectus abdominis, says Brewer. On this portion, “you really have to engage your abs starting from lower abs all the way up to upper abs,” adds Mansour.
But ab rollouts don't just require strength from your abs and the other muscles mentioned. They require synchronized control as well. As you perform the rollouts, “you need to exert so much control from your hip flexors all the way up toward your shoulders,” says Mansour. “The whole chain [of muscles] needs to work together and there can’t be any breaks in the chain.” On top of that, the move is made even more challenging thanks to the very small surface area—just the short handles on the wheel where you place your hands—that you have to support your entire body.
Ab wheel rollouts are not a great exercise for everyone, though. Here’s what you need to know before giving them a go.
Depending on your current fitness level, it can take a couple months of hard work to build up the strength needed to effectively do the ab wheel rollouts that Jenkins and Posner demo, says Mansour.
If done the wrong way, ab wheel rollouts could become a lat-focused exercise and could potentially strain your lower back, says Brewer. If you feel any pain in your lower back as you use the ab wheel, stop and build up your core strength with other exercises, like planks and walkouts (described below), before giving it a go again.
It’s also easy to “dip into your joints,” as you do the rollouts and place too much stress on your shoulders, wrists, elbows, and back, explains Mansour. If you have a history of injury in any of these places and/or they begin hurting as you do this movement, stop and regress the exercise.
Here’s a progression recommended by Brewer and Mansour that will help you work up to ab wheel rollouts.
The first move is a bodyweight exercise, the second requires an exercise ball, and the third and fourth require an ab wheel.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Fold forward at the waist and place your hands on the ground.
- Without moving your legs, slowly walk your hands out in front of you until you're in plank position, with your palms flat on the floor, shoulders over your wrists, core engaged, glutes squeezed, and back flat (not arched or rounded).
- Bend your elbows and lower your chest to the ground to perform a push-up.
- Slowly walk your hands back toward your feet and return to standing. This is 1 rep.
- Repeat for 10 reps.
Walkouts work your core and teach your body the basic movements of the standing to push-up position ab wheel rollouts, says Brewer.
Stability Ball Forearm Plank Rollout
- Get on all fours, with a stability ball in front of you.
- Bend your elbows and place your forearms on the ball.
- Press through your toes to lift your knees off the ground and bring your body into a forearm plank position, with your shoulders over your elbows, core tight, glutes squeezed, and your back flat (not arched or rounded).
- From here, maintain an engaged core and flat back as you roll the ball forward several inches, pause, and then roll it back to the starting position. This is 1 rep.
- Do 8 to 12 reps.
This exercise works your core, including the smaller stabilizing muscles. If doing it from a fully extended plank is too much, drop to your knees, says Mansour. If the rolling portion is too difficult, simply hold a plank atop the ball, she adds.
As you perform this move (and the progressions listed below), it’s easy to sag in your upper back and shoulders and not engage your triceps correctly, says Mansour. Think about pulling your shoulders down (don’t let them hunch up toward your ears), and make sure your neck stays long. Press down through your forearms and life out of your upper back to activate your lats and shoulders, she says.
Kneeling and Planked Ab Wheel Rollout
- Get on all fours and place your knees on a mat and your hands on the floor.
- Grip the ab wheel firmly with both hands and position your shoulders over your hands. Your knees should be hip-width apart.
- Squeeze your abs to brace your core and make sure your back is flat (not rounded or arched).
- From here, slowly lean your upper body forward as you roll the wheel out as far as you can while still maintaining the body positioning described above.
- Pause for a moment at the end of the movement, and then slowly roll the wheel back in, stopping about halfway. You don’t want to return to the starting position, says Brewer, as this would reduce the tension on your core and essentially "reset" the movement. This is 1 rep.
- If you’re a beginner, try 3 to 6 reps. If you’re intermediate level, aim for 8; if you’re advanced, try for 12 to 15, recommends Brewer.
In terms of the pace at which you roll out and in, “the slower the better,” says Brewer, because it will keep your abs under tension for a longer period of time. As you get stronger, you can amp up the difficulty of the move by increasing both the time and the distance of each rep. If you’re a beginner, roll out and in for two counts each. If you’re more advanced, roll out and in for three to four counts each. Ideally, you want to roll out and back in for the same amount of time, says Brewer, but because the inward portion is more challenging, it might initially be shorter than the outward portion, and that’s OK.
Once you’ve mastered the kneeling ab wheel rollouts (meaning you can easily do 12 to 15 reps in a row with proper form), progress the move by lifting your knees off the ground and performing the rollouts from a plank position. Once you’ve mastered rollouts from this position, you’re ready to try Jenkins’ and Posner’s variation.
Standing Ab Wheel Rollouts
- From a standing position, grip the ab wheel firmly in both hands and fold forward at the waist.
- Place the ab wheel on the ground in front of your feet and slowly roll it forward, keeping a tight core as you extend your body into a plank position.
- Pause for a moment in the plank position, keeping your back as flat as possible, and then brace your core to slowly roll yourself back up to the starting position. This is 1 rep.
- Start with 1 to 2 reps and increase the number as you build your strength.
If you don't have an ab roller, here’s where you can buy one.
Among the highest rated on Amazon are the Valeo Ab Roller Wheel ($ 11.44 with an Amazon Prime subscription), the Elite Sportz Ab Equipment Roller ($ 17.97 with Prime), and the Perfect Fitness Ab Carver ($ 32.99 with Prime), which has a wider wheel for more stability in your rollouts. You can also find ab rollers with foot straps, like the Lifeline Power Wheel ($ 39.99 with Prime), that allow you to do additional moves, like pikes and glute bridges.
Whatever wheel you use, remember that it takes a lot of control and strength, from both your core and your entire body, to use the tool correctly. If you need to regress your movement, that’s OK. “Don’t feel discouraged,” says Mansour. Instead, keep at it—grunting and all.