Give credit to Nautilus Founder Arthur Jones for inventing his seated abdominal crunch machine in the 1970’s. Not only did this machine become incredibly popular, but it inspired many copycat machines that even today can be seen in major commercial gyms. Ab machines are certainly convenient and enable you to increase the resistance of the exercise, but consider that there are many excellent abdominal training exercises that can be performed without expensive equipment. One of the best is the ab rollout.
The key muscle the ab rollout works is the rectus abdominis, which is a long, single muscle that extends from the top of the sternum and rib cage to the pubic bone. For workout design purposes, the rectus abdominis can be divided into two sections: supraumbilical and subumbilical. Supra refers to the part of the rectus abdominis area above the bellybutton, and sub refers to everything below the bellybutton. From this perspective, you could call these sections the upper and lower abdominals.
The ab rollout is an anti-gravity exercise that produces a high level of muscle tension. However, the advanced forms of the exercise can easily cause injury if you are not physically prepared to do them.
If you haven’t performed any direct abdominal training for some time, it’s best not to attempt ab rollouts until you have developed a strength base with at least a few weeks of less stressful “plank” exercises. Other exercises that strongly work the rectus abdominis include straight-arm lat pulldowns and chin-ups.
Straight-arm lat pulldowns deserve special mention because its movement is similar to the ab rollout. The late sports scientist Dr. Mel Siff said this type of pulldown produces a stronger contraction of the rectus abdominis than conventional sit-ups. For those with back pain who find that conventional abdominal exercises that involve flexing the spine cause discomfort, this type of pulldown could be a practical alternative.
When you’re ready for rollouts, there are many types of ab wheels available, and they are commonly sold at sporting good stores. Some of these are simple single wheels, some have two wheels for increased stability, and some are designed to support the lower arms. These wheels will certainly work, and you can increase the resistance by wearing a weight vest. But if you’re up for a challenge, consider that a barbell is just as good as a wheel, is more stable, and enables you to precisely control the resistance.
To begin, use an Olympic barbell with light, large diameter bumper plates—hexagonal plates will not work as they do not roll well. Start from a kneeling position. You should place some padding under your knees for comfort, and you can also place a foam roller or other pad under your ankles if you find this position uncomfortable on your shins. For maximum stability, position your knees hip-width apart and place your arms shoulder-width apart.
Start with the bar touching your thighs. Place your lower back in a neutral position (so that it is neither hypextended nor rounded), retract your chin, look down or slightly in front of you, hold your breath, squeeze the bar hard, tense your glutes and quads, and then push your hips forward. Try to keep your head in line with your spine (i.e., don’t drop your head). Only when your hips have moved forward as far as possible do you extend your arms, and only reach out to a distance that feels comfortable to you – if your lower back begins to arch, you’ve gone too far. Reverse this movement pattern and return to the start, exhaling as you do so.
It will take some time for most people to be able to perform the barbell rollout throughout a full range of motion. One way to get around this is to perform the exercise facing away from a power rack and attach light bands to both ends of the barbell. As the bands stretch, the resistance will decrease, enabling you to extend throughout a larger range of motion.
When you can perform the exercise throughout a full range of motion with bands, you can make the exercise harder by using either heavier weights or smaller-diameter plates. As a reference, Mark Cameron, the second (and lightest) American to clean and jerk 500 pounds, said he would use 135 pounds in the barbell rollout at the end of his workouts for ab training.
The next version would be to perform the exercise while kneeling on an aerobic step, or other small platform. You can use the band system again so you can perform the exercise throughout its full range.
The final, advanced stage would be to perform the exercise standing, a method that requires good flexibility in the hamstrings. Start with a short range of motion. One way to precisely control the range of motion is by standing a few feet away from a wall to stop the movement. As you get stronger, move further way from the wall.
The reps to perform on ab rollouts depends upon the range of motion used; the longer the range of motion, the fewer reps performed. As a general guideline, when performing the exercise throughout its full range, a protocol of 8-10 reps x 2-3 sets, using a 40X1 tempo with 2-3 minutes rest between sets, should do the job.
For a complete ab workout, consider adding an exercise to focus more on the subumbilical portion of the rectus abdominis, and one for the obliques. Here is such a workout:
A1. Garhammer Raise, 3 x 12-15, 20X1, rest 15 seconds
A2. Barbell Rollout, 3 x 8-10 reps, 40X1, rest 15 seconds
A3. Wood Chop, High Pulley: 3 x 12-15 reps, 20X1, rest 60 seconds
If you’re tired of sit-ups, legs raises, and ab crunch machines, give yourself a break – and possible a powerful set of six-pack abs – with ab rollouts.