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. (Note: Posner is not Jenkins' client, Jenkins tells SELF. They were simply at the gym at the same time. "He saw me doing something challenging and cool and wanted to try it so I was all about it," explains Jenkins.)
You can check out the video, via @msjeanettejenkins, here:
Doing a full ab wheel rollout from standing position to push-up position, like Jenkins and Posner demo, is a "super advanced challenge that should only be attempted by students who already use the wheel on a regular basis and know how to keep their core engaged," Jenkins tells SELF.
The ability to correctly execute this expert-level variation is “saying a lot [about your core strength],” James Brewer, NYC-based certified personal trainer and certified Spin and TRX instructor, tells SELF. “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?
"You are essentially extending your body into a plank position so it is like a moving plank," explains Jenkins. This requires you to engage multiple core muscles at once. 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].”
Yet the transverse abdominis (the deepest ab muscle that wraps around your sides and spine), and the internal and external obliques (muscles on the sides of your stomach) are also critical players, says Jenkins. "If you don’t engage these muscles you will either hurt your back or fall flat on your face," she explains.
On top of that, these ab rollouts engage much of your upper half, including the erector spinae (stabilizing muscles that run along your spine) and latissimus dorsi (or lats, the broadest muscles on each side of your back), as well as your deltoids (shoulders), chest, biceps, and triceps, says Jenkins. "Essentially, it is a great exercise to work the entire upper body," she explains.
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.
To use the ab wheel correctly, you need great core strength in a plank position as well as good upper body strength, especially in the shoulders, back and forearms, says Jenkins. 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 Jenkins, Brewer, and Mansour that will help you work up to ab wheel rollouts.
The first two moves are bodyweight exercises, the third requires an exercise ball, and the fourth and fifth 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.
Plank With Arm/Leg Lift
- Get on all fours and press up into high plank with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, arms extended, hands flat on the floor, wrists directly under your shoulders, and your core, glutes, and quads engaged.
- Keeping your core, hips, and lower half as still as possible, simultaneously lift your right hand and left leg off the ground and extend these limbs out as straight as possible, holding the position for two counts. Place them back on the ground and pause for a moment.
- Repeat with the opposite limbs, lifting your left hand and right leg, while maintaining the good plank positioning described above.
- Continue this pattern of lifting alternating limbs for 30 to 60 seconds.
These extensions challenge the core on a stable surface, says Jenkins. If these extensions are too challenging, regress the move to simply lift one limb at a time, or to a standard plank with all four limbs fixed on the ground.
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.
- Put your pelvis in neutral and squeeze your abs to brace your core as tight as you can.
- From here, slowly lean your upper body forward as you roll the wheel out as far as you can while keeping your back in a straight line parallel to the floor. "Visually, it will look like a moving plank," says Jenkins.
- 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.
- Try 10 to 25 reps, suggests Jenkins.
When rolling out, the goal is to extend as far as you can while keeping the abs engaged and the torso in a perfect plank, says Jenkins. "If the pelvis starts to do an anterior tilt or you lose the contraction of the ab/core muscles then you are going to far," she explains. "It’s all about keeping the contraction of the ab muscles and the form of the plank while you are extending/rolling out."
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 are very comfortable at executing reps with a full range of motion), you’re ready to try Jenkins’ and Posner’s variation, an "extremely difficult, super advanced" movement, caveats Jenkins, that should not be attempted lightly.
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.