Fix your Ab Rollouts With This Bear Crawl Protocol
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
Few exercises are as effective for targeting the musculature of core as ab rollouts. Unfortunately most individuals perform them incorrectly (read more about proper ab rollout technique here). Some of this is due to misinformation provided by the mainstream fitness industry and “expert trainers”. However, some of these aberrations are simply a result of the difficulty of the movement. With that said I’ve recently been having many of my clients and athletes perform ab rollouts from the bear crawl position (crawl position ab rollouts). Here I have several of my athletes including USC running back Ronald Jones, Leslie Petch, Matt Jordan, and Ben Lai demonstrating some unique variations using the extreme ab rollout, loaded barbell, stability ball, and loaded trap bar.
To perform the bear crawl ab rollout simply rest on all fours with the knees on the floor, and hands/elbows on the rolling device. Then elevate the knees several inches so that the hips and knees still maintain 90-degree angles. At this point there will only be two points of contact, namely the balls of the feet and the hands/elbows. From there perform ab rollouts with a slightly abbreviated range of motion.
Besides providing an intense full body stimulus that brutalizes the core and abs, there are 5 reasons why the bear crawl position ab rollout is so effective.
1. Perhaps the single most common mistake I see individuals make when performing ab rollouts is allowing their lumbar spine to excessively arch. Part of this is due to the fact that they’re simply attempting to roll out too far and use excessive range of motion which also overstretches the abdominal wall. However some of this is also due to the intense extension forces placed on the lumbar spine from ab rollouts. In fact, the very nature of the rollout is that it’s designed to be an anti-extension exercise where the lifter resists extension forces by keeping a neutral spine throughout. Here's what correct technique for the traditional ab rollout should look like.
However, most lifters including many coaches produce varying degrees of lumbar extension during ab rollouts which not only minimizes tension to the core but also places undue stress on the low back.
The bear crawl ab rollout directly addresses this issue head on. That’s because it’s literally impossible to hyperextend the lumbar spine if in fact the lifter maintains a perfect bear crawl position with a double 90-degree bend at the hips and knees. In other words, for the lumbar spine to extend, the knees and hips would also have to extend. I’ve used this technique on several dozen athletes and clients over the last few months and it’s been incredibly effective for eliminating most if not all traces of lumbar extension during ab rollouts.
2. The bear crawl rollout not only reinforces proper spinal positioning during ab rollouts, it also incorporates the dual-core activation method by targeting the muscles of both the lumbar flexors and hip flexors. In fact, many variable resistance companies frequently attempt to build abdominal machines that involve simultaneous lumbar flexion and hip flexion. Additionally, many popular ab exercises including hanging leg raises, knee tucks, jackknives, v-ups, and pike ups are also employed with the notion that targeting both the core and hips together will produce greater activation of the abs. Unfortunately many of these variations also sacrifice optimal spinal alignment as the athlete is forced to abandon neutral spinal mechanics.
The bear crawl rollout directly targets these same muscles using very similar activation principles, however, the athlete is able to maintain a neutral spine throughout. In other words the bear crawl rollout involves anti-extension of both the core and the hips not to mention the knees.
3. Most individuals perform ab rollouts with excessive range of motion by attempting to over-stretch their abdominal wall. As with any exercise the goal should be optimal range of motion not excessive range of motion. Although the bear crawl rollout represents a movement that involves a slightly abbreviated range of motion compared to standard rollouts, this also helps eliminate overstretching. If you tend to collapse on ab rollouts or have trouble finding your natural stopping point, bear crawl rollouts are a simple but effective method to quickly resolve this.
4. Consciously contracting your glutes while performing ab rollouts or any anti-extensor core exercise is plain wrong. Instead focus on firing your core and hip flexors. This is something I’ve stated repeatedly over the years but it’s worth repeating as many fitness professionals are still erroneously applying this cue to their training.
In fact, one of the main reasons why individuals perform ab rollouts with an excessive range of motion is because they emphasize the “glute squeeze” cue. This is the single worst training cue you could use on any anti-extension core exercise including rollouts, planks, pushups, and even hollow body holds as the hip flexors (not the hip extensors) should be firing aggressively. During any anti-extension core exercise, the stomach should remain pulled in and the hips should remain tall and relatively high as this facilitates a hollowed core position similar to a hollow body leg raise.
Dropping the hips even slightly, reduces this hollowed core position and places undue stress on the low back (i.e. extension forces) not to mention the core musculature loses significant intramuscular tension. Flexing the hip flexors helps to promote optimal mechanics as the hip flexors resist the very thing the rollout is attempting to do to your spine, namely hip and lumbar extension. Contracting the glutes (hip extensors) works against optimal body mechanics as it simply adds to the already high levels of extension forces working against the hips and core.
Simply put, because the ab rollout is an anti-extension exercise (of the spine and hips) this necessitates activating both the anterior core musculature and hip flexors as they work in conjunction with each other. Again this is similar to many core movements such as pike ups, leg raises, knee raises, body saws, and hollow body leg raise holds. Forcefully contracting the glutes on any of these would not only be detrimental and degrading to natural body mechanics but it would feel incredibly unnatural and dangerous.
In addition, squeezing the glutes emphasizes hip extension and inhibition of the hip flexors (as these muscles cannot co-contract when a prominent force vector acting in one direction is present) which is exactly the opposite of what should be occurring during any anti-extension movement. If anything there should be a slight V position in the hips as they sit tall throughout which helps to hollow the core and further resist extension.
With all of this said, the bear crawl ab rollout directly reinforces this principle as the hip flexors are contracting throughout to maintain a 90 degree hip bend. If you’re still on the fence about whether or not you should be contracting your hip flexors or hip extensors during ab rollouts, planks, or any other anti-extension exercise, give the bear crawl rollout a spin. You’ll immediately see how important the hip flexors are and how counterproductive it is to forcefully contract the glutes during anti-extension movements.
5. The bear crawl rollout is incredibly effective for reinforcing proper shoulder mechanics during anti-extension movements. Most athletes have a tendency to move their shoulders into excessive elevation and protraction by allowing the extension forces to yank their shoulders up and over. Besides ingraining faulty upper body mechanics this also reduces stress to the core while placing undue stress on the spine. Due to the semi-rigid and tighter setup, the bear crawl position helps pack and centrate the glenohumeral joint into a very natural and stable position. As a result you’ll be more likely to perform rollouts without forfeiting optimal shoulder mechanics.
Although the amount of intramuscular tension is quite high during bear crawl rollouts, some individuals will notice they need additional loading in comparison to standing/pushup plank ab rollouts due the shorter lever arm and abbreviated motion. However, focusing on performing the movement with perfect mechanics will produce incredibly high levels of core activation making these challenging even for the most advanced trainee.
If you want to take the intensity and effectiveness of your ab training a step further, try combining the bear crawl ab rollout with the anti-sliding method on the slide board. If that’s still not intense enough for your core, try adding band resistance to your legs as shown here by my awesome NFL athletes Marquell Beckwith.
This exponentially increases the level of difficulty as there are several different forces acting to extend the spine all of which the lifter must resist by firing the daylights out of their core. Think of this as a knee raise, reverse crunch, and ab rollout combined into one seamless movement.
If you’re looking for a unique and incredibly brutal method for spicing up your renegade rows try performing them from a modified bear crawl position as demonstrated by my awesome client and national level figure competitor Leslie Petch.
Similar to the bear crawl ab rollouts, these do wonders for eliminating excessive lumbar extension that many individuals struggle with on renegade rows and anti-extension exercises. They also crush the upper back and lats not to mention just about every muscle in the body.
These can also be performed from a planking (forearm position) as shown here.
These are actually conducive for overloading with fairly heavy weight as Leslie shows here with a 50 pound dumbbell using strict controlled form. Similar to the above, these help alleviate the common problems on renegade rows such as excessive twisting, rotating, and lumbar extension. These alleviate those compensation patterns due to the tighter more compact quadruped bear crawl position.
Regressions: Bear Crawl Plank
Here’s a simple yet deceptively difficult bear crawl plank (can also be modified to a bird dog) performed by my awesome client Mitch.
This has 3 benefits.
1. It minimizes lumbar extension as it’s literally impossible to hyperextend the lumbar spine if in fact the lifter maintains a perfect bear crawl position with a double 90-degree bend at the hips and knees.
2. The bear crawl plank is incredibly effective for reinforcing proper shoulder mechanics during anti-extension movements. Most athletes have a tendency to move their shoulders into excessive elevation and protraction by allowing the extension forces to yank their shoulders up and over during planks. Besides ingraining faulty upper body mechanics this also reduces stress to the core. Due to the semi-rigid and compact setup, the bear crawl position helps pack and centrate the glenohumeral joint into a very natural and stable position.
3. Consciously contracting your glutes while performing any plank or anti-extension exercise is plain wrong. Instead focus on firing your core and hip flexors. This is something I’ve stated repeatedly over the years but it’s worth repeating as many fitness professionals are still erroneously applying this cue to their training (see more at my website). With all of this said, the bear crawl plank directly reinforces this principle as the hip flexors are contracting throughout to maintain a 90 degree hip bend.
If you’re still on the fence about whether or not you should be contracting your hip flexors or hip extensors during ab rollouts, planks, or any other anti-extension exercise, give these a spin. You’ll immediately see how important the hip flexors are and how counterproductive it is to forcefully contract the glutes during anti-extension movements
Bear Crawl Bird Dog Variations
The bear crawl can also be combined with another one of my favorite core stabilization drills namely the bird dog quadruped. Here are 4 variations as I demonstrate alongside several of my GSP athletes including NFL quarterback Taylor Heinicke, NPC Figure competitor Leslie Petch, and Atlanta Falcons NFL receiver Julian Williams. Also big shoutout to expert strength coach Lee Boyce who originally posted the first version (shown by Taylor) several years ago. If you don’t already follow Lee definitely hit up his page as he just started his Instagram account last week so lets show him our support. Beside the increasing difficulty of each variation, there are 5 unique features of these drills.
1. They provide a more difficult progression of the traditional quadruped bird dog & the “kneeling on the bench” variation I posted on T-Nation a few years ago.
2. Many individuals tend to overextend their lumbar spine when performing traditional bird dog quadruped exercises on the knees. With the bear crawl position, because the knees are no longer in contact with the floor it makes it nearly impossible to compensate with the low back & hyperextend. As a result the core receives its fair share of activation while reinforcing a neutral spine.
3. Having the knees in contact with the floor or bench provides added stability. Eliminating this base of support produces greater instability as well as heightened anti-rotation and rotary stability components the lifter must deal with.
4. These drills target full body motor control and stabilization as nearly every body segment including the feet, ankles, knees, hips, pelvis, core, shoulders, and neck must be properly aligned to successfully complete this drill.
5. Similar to the kneeling on the bench variation I highlighted a few years ago, the bear crawl bird dog can be progressed to renegade row variations, shoulder raises, lever rows, & more (stay tuned for future posts).
ULTRA ADVANCED: Bear Crawl Bird Dog Renegade Rows
As if renegade rows weren't hard enough, were upping the ante exponentially. Here are 4 very unique and advanced variations as I demonstrate alongside my awesome client and national figure competitor Leslie Petch by combining the bear crawl, the bird dog, and the renegade row together to create some devastatingly brutal combinations.
I'm going to go on record as stating that these are some of the most difficult core stabilization exercises I've ever attempted period. Most core drills involve either high levels of intramuscular core tension (aka ab squeeze) or high levels of instability/balance. These have both features (to the maximum I might add) as you'll be forced not only to brace your core and abs with every fiber of your being, but literally every muscle from head to toe will be required to be fully engaged to maintain balance and control of the moments.
If you have a weakness, energy leak, imbalance, asymmetry, or any area of dysfunction these will expose it almost immediately as it will probably be impossible to perform. In fact once can successfully perform these its safe to say that you've more or less mastered your movement mechanics and motor control. Although the first two variations can involve moderate loads (I'm using a 50 pound dumbbell but typically use 80-100 on renegade rows) It's important to note that these really are not upper back exercises as the rowing feature is simply used to further challenge the core. In other words these would not substitute for heavier row or upper back movement. Think of these as the most intense and difficult core & ab exercises you probably can't do especially the last 2 variations (the ring and stability ball versions) which are insanely difficult. Think you're worthy of the challenge? Let us know in your comments.
Learn more about implementing unique exercises such as these into your routine with my Complete Templates Program.