Great Alternatives to Abdominal Crunches: Anti-Extension Roll Outs (aka: Ab Wheel Roll Outs)

Quick Tips

Crunches are dead?

It’s been said that traditional abdominal crunches are a dead exercise, and I mostly agree with this position.  Actually, I don’t think crunches are as bad as most people claim they are.  The micro-trauma to the lower back is definitely there and further shortening the abdominal muscles even more than they already are in people who sit a lot can be disastrous.

But the biggest issue that I have with crunches is that I have no idea what they are good for?  There are one of the most non-functional exercises I have ever seen.  Laying flat on your back, performing hundreds of tiny little crunches to make your belly burn is ridiculous to think about.  Flex, extend, flex extend, flex, extend.  My personal belief is if I cannot justify why I am including something in a workout, than it should be discarded immediately.  I cannot justify crunching.

I’ve transitioned my stance on crunches to the following statement:  “I don’t hate crunches, but I do think there are much better alternatives to the traditional crunch that deserve exploring”.

Websites and magazines that are bashing crunches rarely provide any alternatives in their articles.  If you’re going to tell the world how shitty an exercise is, tell us what to do instead.  Ranting about how shitty crunches are isn’t doing anything for anyone.  Sure, maybe you’ll raise some awareness to the cause, but help us find a better solution to the problem.  

Building on that point, simply naming an alternative isn’t enough.  You have to not only identify a better alternative, but then teach people how to properly execute that alternative.  This is a value that I really want to provide on this blog moving forward.  No secrets or Jedi mind tricks, just good information that you can apply immediately.

Video: Anti-extension roll outs look like this:

What it is: Anti-extension roll outs are a core exercise variation for the anterior (front) of your torso, which as the names implies, are designed to reinforce your body’s ability to resist falling into extension.  If you watch the video above, you can see how gravity wants to pull my body towards the floor as I roll out further into extension.

How to do it: The cues for an exercise like this are rather simple.  Actively pressurize and brace your core prior to initiating any movement.  As you begin to roll out, consciously avoid breaking at the lower back while maintaining a straight line from knees to the top of my head.  Doing this makes this exercise very challenging, especially as you increase the distance that the hands travel away from your knees, which increases the range of motion.

Regressions: How to make ab roll outs easier:  If you’re a beginner or simply lack the strength and the stability to execute a full roll out, fear not because there are several options to acclimate yourself to this exercise.  The first option would be to roll out on an incline, which would ease you into extension and also give you momentum as your return back to the start position.  The second option would be to roll out toward a wall, having the wall provide a contact stopping point when the wheel hits the wall.  This is a great option because you can be extremely precise with the distance the wheel travels, progressing each week as you gain strength and stability.

Progressions: How to make ab roll outs harder: If you’re strong, there are several progressions to make this exercise killer.  The first option is to roll out on a decline.  The decline will cause the wheel (and your body) to gain momentum and travel faster away from the knees, and also make it more difficult to return to the start position.  In other words, the extension part of the exercise and the contraction back to start part of the exercise both become more challenging.  The second option is to anchor one end of a resistance band to an immovable object- like a bench, squat rack or door- and loop the other end around the handles of the ab wheel.  The band provides forces that act to pull you into extension sooner, and also gives added resistance on the return to the start position.  This is a flat ground variation of the decline roll out.

If you’re really a stud, forget about rolling out on your knees.  Stand up and roll out from there.  Yup, that’s correct, you’re going to start bent over with your hands on the wheel, rolling out slowly until you reach full extension- arms extended above the head and chest facing the floor- and then return without any break of the lower back.  I would say that 1-2% of the population will be able to execute a technically acceptable standing roll out.  But hey, it’s something to work toward.

When and where to do it:  Core training can happen wherever you want it to in a workout.  Beginning, middle or end, it doesn’t matter much in my mind.  If you’re especially weak in the mid-section, you might want to save your ab rollouts for the end of the workout so that it doesn’t adversely effect any of your other lifts.  Adding rollouts to a tri-set is very time effective and keeps the pace of the workout high.  It would look something like this:

1a)  Squat

2a)  Chin Up

3a)  Anti-Extension Rollouts

You’d work from 1a to 2a to 3a, then after finishing 3a, you repeat the process until you finish the sets you’ve got planned for the workout.

As for sets and reps, it’s dependent on your current fitness level.  However, ideally you can get 2-4 sets of 8-10 reps for each set, using a 30X0 tempo on the movement itself.  What does 30X0 mean?

3 – The number of seconds that it takes to go from the start position into full extension (end range of motion).

0- The number of seconds spent at end range of motion.

X- The speed with which you return, which in this case “X” means explode.

0- The seconds spent at the starting position of the exercise

Exercise tempo has great influence on the training effect of an exercise.  Time spent under tension is important to exhibit body control in space and also to develop useful lean muscle.  Increasing the time that your core musculature are aggressively contracted will work wonders in your quest to achieve elusive six-pack abs.

My personal take on six-pack abs:  They should be a reward for smart training, never the sole goal of working out in the first place.  If you are doing the right things- eating smart and training smarter- anyone can have a six-pack without putting much thought into it.

Some professionals have included roll outs into circuits, but I am not a fan.  Core training is extremely detailed training.  You should be nearly fully recovered before starting each set.  Fatigue is an exercise technique killer, so I haven’t found intra-circuit ab roll outs to be very smart.  I’d rather save my core work for the end of the training session, when all of my energy and attention can be directed to executing each rep with perfect, or near perfect form.  This is just a personal preference based on my experiences.

—> Other variations I have played with:

Half/quarter reps:  These are more challenging than you might think because your core gets no relief from contraction by going half-way out.  It is tough to stop the movement short and bring it back in.  Sometimes I will execute a full rep roll out, come back in  half way, then go back out to full extension in an alternating fashion.  Your abdominals will be on fire in short time by doing this.

Right/Left roll outs:  Instead of going dead center, roll slightly left and right of your body, alternating every rep.

Decreased base of support:  Instead of supporting on two knees, remove one from the ground surface.  As you roll out, hover one knee above the ground as the other knee supports.  This is extremely challenging.

Slow reps:  Instead of 3 seconds on the way out, make it last 10+ seconds.  This is tough.  Or, make the roll out last 5 seconds, hold extension for 5 seconds, roll back for 5 seconds.  That’s 15 seconds of TUT (time under tension).  1-3 reps of this will make your muscles tremble.

Equipment Substitutions:  While the anti-extension roll out is most commonly executed using an ab wheel, it doesn’t have to be.  Suspension trainers, carpet slides, physic-balls, barbells, ab dollys, power wheels, etc.  I won’t go into detail here because I could write 4 more posts about awesome exercise variations.  I’ll get this done for you.

Here is a clip of what suspension trainer variation:

Anti-extension roll outs are an effective exercise for building the core aesthetically and reinforcing important functional features of the torso muscles.  It’s important to be able to resist forces (known or unknown) that act on the body.  The core is the conduit that connects the upper and lower halves of the body.  It’s important to be mindful of building the core to preserve body health and also to take your performance to another level.  As we age, it is also important to keep the core functioning as it should to reduce the likelihood of unnecessary injuries.

Cheers to more effective core training!



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