17 May An Abdominal Exercise That’s Not a Waste Of Time.
The key to abdominal strength and development is about training the whole body to stabilize at a high level.
What I mean is stabilizing in functional movements, not training to actively flex our trunk (as with sit ups and crunches).
One the best ways to develop abdominal strength is with basic barbell lifts.
That’s right, I’m talking about squats, deadlifts, and clean and presses.
And, of course, kettlebell exercises like swings and Turkish get ups.
Performing a heavy Turkish get up is exceptional for the abs.
I can attest to this as I recently completed a program that contained a high volume of get ups and my abs were extremely challenged with the amount of work performed.
But, there is one exercise that’s special, that literally takes abdominal strength and muscle activation to new levels.
That exercise is…
THE AB WHEEL
The ab wheel is a device that costs less than twenty bucks and it’s worth every penny.
Instead of these ridiculous devices you might see in a magazine or on a TV infomercial that are totally useless and a waste of time, the ab wheel is an incredibly valuable and effective tool.
It may not be the “sexiest” gadget from a marketing standpoint, but it’s clearly one of the best tools for trunk strengthening there is.
I use a simple, inexpensive ab wheel (here’s the one I have).
Here’s how to use it (when you start with this exercise):
- From the kneeling position, roll the ab wheel out from your body
- As the chest approaches the ground, your arms will be overhead and your body should be parallel to the floor
- Once you are fully extended (remaining on your knees), roll yourself back to the starting position
- Congrats, you just completed one rep!
If you’re just starting out with the ab wheel, it may be REALLY tough initially.
Expect it to be.
You can do partial range of motion reps until you can advance to full extension.
But, you will get stronger and you will gain strength and motor control so that you can perform multiple repetitions over time.
Eventually you’ll be able to roll through 20 to 30 reps per set for 3 to 5 sets.
That would lead to this next progression.
THE STANDING AB WHEEL ROLLOUT
This should NOT be done before the requirements above (in kneeling) for many reasons.
First, it’s way too aggressive to start out with.
And, secondly, it can be extremely taxing on the lumbar spine.
If your low back and overall core strength does not have sufficient strength, it will definitely be revealed here and place too great a demand on the lumbar spine.
The smart thing to do is progress as mentioned above and know that it will take time.
The standing ab wheel is done the same way as kneeling, except you begin in the standing position.
You roll out the way out and the only contact points are your feet and the ab wheel in the fully extended position (as shown above).
Once fully extended, the next challenge is to reverse the movement and come back to the standing position.
This takes considerable trunk and shoulder strength, but like everything else, if progressed and trained appropriately, you’ll get it.
Before you attempt this, you may need first need to work in limited range of motion doing partial standing rollouts.
There are different progressions to advance to a standing roll out, but I believe the simplest way is to just work in a partial range of motion.
Gradually work into greater ranges until you eventually are able to perform a full standing roll out.
You should work to perform 2 to 5 reps in this limited range of motion for 3 to 5 sets.
It may take a few weeks or up to a few months, but you will get stronger and more stable to perform this progression.
I like to perform the ab wheel 2 to 3 times per week, depending on how I feel (I want to feel I’ve recovered appropriately from the previous session).
If I’m sore from previous session, I don’t push it with this because it’s extremely demanding.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON MUSCLE ACTIVITY
The reason I wanted write this up is because I think this exercise is so effective for core strength.
I can’t imagine another exercise that would cause muscle firing to the extent of performing a standing ab wheel exercise.
When I perform it, the muscular contraction is incredibly high and the muscular tension is very intense.
It feels like all of my abdominals and even my low back extensors are near a maximal contraction in the extended position.
I did a little research looking for EMG studies to see if there was anything and I found this article by Bret Contreras.
Not surprised to see this, since I had the opportunity to interview Bret on Podcast Episode #34 and I know he does quite a bit of EMG research. (*EMG or electromyography measures the muscle firing activity during exercise).
The findings were amazing, but what I was interested in was to see how active the trunk muscles were during a standing ab wheel roll out (or ab wheel from feet as it’s called in the article).
What did the findings reveal?
- The Rectus Abdominis had extremely high muscle firing (not surprising)
- The Internal and External Obliques were extremely high in muscle firing throughout the motion (not surprising)
- The Erector Spinae (low back musculature) was not very high at all (very surprising, thought this would have been much higher)
The research lab show’s us an extremely high level of abdominal muscle activity with the standing ab wheel.
My own experience is the low back is also quite active and I was very surprised the numbers weren’t higher, but I have some thoughts on why this may be .
The bottom line is this is a powerful, important, and key exercise to carefully consider in your training for superior abdominal strength and development.
Progress gradually and be smart in how you use it.
It’s not an exercise that’s appropriate for everyone, but it’s clearly not a waste of time either.
Scott Iardella writes about strength training methods to optimize health and performance. If you enjoyed this article, join a strong and growing community of passionate fitness enthusiasts and subscribe below to get a ton of cool, free stuff!
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