The Ab Wheel is a complicated and often unsafe exercise
I’m sure many of you know of the Ab Wheel contraption in the gym. In the case that you do not, here is a picture of what the thing looks like.
(I also just wrote a new article on why you should use a Pilates exercise ball in your ab workouts).
The ab wheel exercise is done by placing your hands on the bar coming through the wheel and rolling it back and forth. Done correctly, it should give you a sufficient abdominal workout. However, the majority of the time I witness this exercise being done, it is being done WRONG!
When done wrong, the ab wheel is not just ineffective, it is unsafe and can actually harm you. Now I know what you all are thinking, that any exercise done wrong can be dangerous. My beef with the ab wheel is that it is a complex exercise that is not easy for a beginner to do, while other exercises are easier and can give you more benefit.
How to Correctly do the Ab Wheel exercise
First, let me explain how to correctly do the ab wheel exercise. To correctly perform this exercise, you start with your knees on the floor and your hands gripping palms down on the ab wheel. You are similarly positioned to women or men you sometimes see in the gym performing those easy push-ups, except now you are gripping the ab wheel.
From this starting position, you then roll out into a straightened position, like you are a plank of wood. The key here is to let your shoulders and hips roll out at the same speed. You also MUST be sure not to let your lower back sag down, as this will place significant pressure on it. You must keep your abs contracted during this exercise to stabilize your lower back.
Why I dislike the Ab Wheel exercise and Common Errors I see
It doesn’t take you through a full range of motion
The ab wheel exercise does not take you through a full range of motion when you do it and you are not maximally contracting your abs. There are many exercises out there that will maximally contract your abs and are safer to do.
Many people are not strong enough to do the exercise
The ab wheel exercise requires one to have enough core strength and shoulder strength to properly stabilize themselves during the exercise. If your core is weak and you attempt to roll yourself to a straight plank position with the ab wheel, your pelvis will sag forwards and your lower back will drop. This excessive pressure on your back is terrible for you and will quickly have your lower back screaming for mercy.
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One also needs strong shoulder muscles to control the rolling motion of the ab wheel. If your shoulders are not strong enough to control the speed of the ab wheel, you could easily roll forward or backward too fast and get a shoulder injury that could have you unable to lift in the gym for weeks or months.
If you don’t get a shoulder injury, you may roll forwards so fast you are unable to control the motion and wind up planting your face right into the floor, which I did see someone do once. I don’t know about you, but I go to the gym to look better, not to look like I just got punched in the face or walked into a lamp post.
The ab wheel is a difficult motion to execute properly
To do the ab wheel exercise effectively, you have to be mindful of many things at once. You have to be certain you are contracting your core enough throughout the exercise to keep your lower back stabilized and prevent it from sagging down. You also have to make sure your hips and shoulders are moving at the same speed. Combine a beginner’s lack of strength and experience in the gym and this can be a daunting task.
Proper form is extremely important when exercising. If the ab wheel exercise is done improperly, it is about as useful as a rubber beak on a woodpecker, or decaf coffee.
Proper Alternatives to the Ab Wheel exercise
1. Prone Planks and Side Planks
What I like about these are they are a simple to perform and safe beginner exercise that will work the muscles that stabilize your core. You simply get on the ground and use your elbows and feet for support and hold the plank position. I like to hold for 60 seconds for 3 sets, although someone just starting out may have to hold for less time and work up until they are able to hold for 1 minute.
2. Bicycle Crunches
This exercise is a little bit advanced but it is tremendously effective. I do this exercise for 3 sets and I do it until my abs are burning and take a 2 minute break. This exercise starts with you being on your back and your hands behind your head (be sure not to place excessive pressure on your neck or push too hard on your head as you may injure yourself). You then perform a bicycle motion with your legs and come up with your opposite elbow and touch the opposing leg coming towards you.
3. Roman Chair Leg Lifts
I often hear people say this exercise solely works out your hip flexor muscles, but this is simply not true. Your core is called in to stabilize to perform this exercise. You rest your elbows on the pads of the Roman Chair machine and looking straight ahead, you bring your knees bent above hip level while your core is contracted to stabilize your back. You hold the position for 1 second, then slowly lower your legs until they are straight beneath your body. I typically like to perform 20 repetitions of this exercise for 3 sets.
The ab wheel exercise is simply not worth performing in the gym in terms of risk vs. reward, especially if the one performing the exercise is a beginner. The exercise does not bring your abdominal muscles through a full range and the motion is a complex one requiring you to be hyper-aware of your form.
Not only must one be hyper-aware of their form while performing the exercise, they must also have the strength to stabilize their body while performing the movement. If proper form is not sustained while performing the movement, injury may occur that will have your body crying out in pain and preventing you from exercising in the gym for a long period of time.
Given that there are safer and more effective alternative exercises that may be done at the gym over the ab wheel, the ab wheel exercise should be avoided as you spend your time more effectively doing exercises that benefit you more.