Use Eccentric Isometrics to Fix your Ab Rollouts and Blast Your Core
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
The abdominal rollout movement is one of the most effective anti-extension and core activation exercises there is. Unfortunately most lifters, coaches, and trainers perform them incorrectly either using an excessive range of motion or allowing the hips to drop during the movement (oftentimes in a subtle fashion). Rather than extending the hips by contracting the glutes, the core should remain hollowed and the hips should stay tall by activating the core and the hip flexors. Here’s one of my awesome clients Matt Jordan showing the proper form and optimal range of motion for a weighted eccentric isometric ab rollout variation.
This represents the ideal range of motion not only for this particular variation but for any ab rollout as going significantly farther overstretches the targeted musculature and reinforces dysfunctional body mechanics. By incorporating the eccentric isometric weighted variation this gives further proprioceptive feedback to the lifter allowing them to tune into their body mechanics and fine-tune their positioning based on the incoming somatosensory feedback.
In fact incorporating a slow and controlled eccentric isometric on the ab wheel rollout is almost a surefire way to eliminate excessive range of motion and sagging hips as the lifter has an enhanced sense of what the proper mechanics are. Essentially the athlete can tune into where the natural stopping point is and feel how going further would breach the body’s natural range of motion and protective barrier. Simply put, they can feel where the muscles are at their max functional length for absorbing and producing force as well as how going further would place greater strain on the connective tissue and joints and less tension on the targeted muscles.
If the goal is optimal performance, joint health, spinal rigidity, core strength, and reinforcement of proper body mechanics on all movement patterns then focus on using a natural range of motion on ab rollouts with tall hips and a hollowed core.
If you’re goal is aberrations in natural body mechanics, low back pain, hip inflammation, poor postural control, unstable spine mechanics, and bulging hernias then performing ab rollouts with a maximal and excessive range of motion is ideal. Before I discuss in detail optimal range of motion, hip position, the faulty “glute squeeze cue”, and proper shoulder positioning (all of which will be addressed in later paragraphs), I’m first going to lay out some basics of the ab wheel rollout.
The Basics of the Ab Rollout
Essentially the ab wheel rollout motion applies extension forces to the body that are attempting to drive your spine and hips down and forward into the floor. It’s for this reason that the rollout is considered an anti-extension movement as it forces the lifter to resist these extension forces. This is done by isometrically activating and contracting nearly all of the musculature of the anterior core as well as deeper core stabilizers. This includes the transverse abs, rectus abdominals, external and internal obliques, serratus anterior and even the deep underlying quadratus lumborum to a degree.
The ab rollout exercise is particularly effective at strengthening the entire abdominal musculature not only because of the high amount of tension placed on the core but also because of the emphasis on the stretched position which produces a very intense eccentric or lengthening contraction. This creates extreme levels of mechanical tension and muscle damage in the core muscles, which produces incredible gains in strength as well as functional hypertrophy in the targeted musculature.
An Inverted Pullover
The ab rollout is quite similar to the pullover motion as it involves anti-extension of the core while placing the arms and shoulders into an overhead stretched position. In other words the arms and shoulders move from a flexed position (at the end of the eccentric phase or stretched position) into shoulder extension as you move into the concentric phase (where the hands finish directly under the torso). In many ways the ab rollout is an inverted pullover. If you were to flip the movement over 180 degrees, it would look identical to the pullover motion.
In essence the only difference is that the pullover is performed in a supine position where the lifter is moving an external load. In contrast the rollout is performed in a prone or kneeling position where the lifter is moving his or her body With this in mind the rollouts are also excellent movements for the lats, triceps, chest, and shoulder stabilizers provided proper mechanics are employed. Although the pullover and ab rollouts hit the same muscle groups, the pullover usually places slightly greater emphasis on the upper torso whereas the rollouts typically place slightly greater tension on the core. However the recruitment patterns and involved musculature are very similar.
Why Not Greater Range Of Motion
Although many lifters are capable of performing rollouts with very large range of motion this is not ideal from a functional performance perspective or from a strength and hypertrophy perspective. Even if you’re capable of incorporating a large range of motion without glaring aberrations in technique, it’s still promoting faulty activation patterns and dysfunctional movement. That’s because the abdominal wall and shoulder girdle are not meant to be overstretched when the spine has extension force vectors placed against it. Just because your body may be capable of doing this doesn’t make it beneficial or optimal.
By teaching your body to overstretch the abdominal wall this promotes and reinforces into the CNS the breaching of the core musculature on other movement patterns (due to the effects of motor learning and movement transfer). As a result this can produce faulty postural alignment, unstable joints, hypermobility, and biomechanical aberrations to a variety of movements including other lifts, walking, and running. The reason for this is that proper movement requires the spine to be in a neutral and rigid/stable position.
Consistently performing movements that emphasize an unnatural lengthening of the core musculature and compromise the structural integrity of the surrounding tissues reduces spinal rigidity as it reinforces poor spinal positioning. Based on the concepts of motor learning and transfer of movement, this compromises natural biomechanics on nearly all movement patterns, including daily functional tasks. This also destroys optimal mechanics in the lumbo-pelvic hip complex by overstretching the pelvic floor (which can lead to hernias, groin pulls, and other related issues). Unfortunately I’ve seen this be the very thing that can lead to serious low back and hip problems not to mention other less severe issues in the surrounding joints and extremities.
Stop Squeezing Your Glutes
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 possible use on any anti-extension core exercise including planks, pushups, rollouts, or hollow body holds as the hip flexors should be firing aggressively, not the hip extensors. During any anti-extension core exercise, the stomach should remain pulled 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 be co-contracting 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.
Optimal Shoulder Mechanics
Many individuals allow their shoulders to excessively elevate and protract during the eccentric phase of the ab wheel rollout. This is often a result of faulty postural positioning and over stretching of the core musculature as previously described. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to apply ab rollouts to an athlete with a shoulder injury this becomes immediately obvious as going even a millimeter too far can result in excruciating pain. Even in healthy shoulders the same stopping point is ideal as going further can actually cause chronic shoulder inflammation.
Ironically the optimal stopping point during the ab rollout in terms of ideal ROM for the shoulder girdle and ideal ROM for the abdominal wall is the same exact position as the ab rollout movement. Simply put, it’s the ideal stopping point and range of motion previously discussed throughout this article. Besides highlighting the incredible craftsmanship and brilliant design with which the human body was created, this helps further emphasize how optimal spinal positioning (as a result of proper core activation) is ideal for optimizing joint mechanics in every area of the body such as the shoulders and hips. It’s only when the core musculature is not firing properly and spinal integrity is breached that range of motion in the shoulder girdle becomes excessive as the body is never given the optimal sensory feedback to signal where the natural stopping point should be (short circuiting of neural signals).
Additional Pointers on The Ab Rollout
1. If you think performing ab rollouts as previously discussed (with tall hips, hollowed core, and moderate range of motion) are easier, think again. Besides taking stress off your low back don’t be surprised if you feel like someone sucker punched you in the abs after completing just one set of a properly performed rollout.
2. Super-setting or staggering rollouts with squats, deadlifts, hinges, overhead presses, and any movements involving spinal compression is a great way to decompress the spine and ensuring the core musculature stays activated throughout the heavy axial loading.
3. To take tension off the low back and ensure there is not excessive lumbar arch, focus on pulling the stomach in, bracing the abs, and hollowing the core which will involve activated hip flexors. Don’t squeeze the glutes as this will disrupt the hollow body position.
4. It’s very common for athletes to feel ab rollouts and similar variations in their low back and spine. This indicates poor mechanics typically involving too much hip and low back extension, or weak core musculature, or both. Trying to rollout too far and overstretch can also contribute to low back pain.
5. When in doubt on ab rollouts it’s better to stop short in the range of motion than to breach your optimal body mechanics and stretch too far. In addition its better to have the hips too high than too low as too high of a position may take some tension off the core however dropping the hips too low can wreak havoc on the spine.
The True Test: Trap Bar Ab Rollouts
This may not look like a large or difficult movement but performing ab rollouts with a trap bar is one of the most challenging and brutal anti-extension core exercises you’ll ever attempt. In addition, it helps drive home every component and technical cue previously discussed. Here I have one of my awesome clients and NPC figure competitor Leslie Petch performing these from a pushup plank position. I recommend starting with the kneeling variation before progressing to the plank version as the movement is deceptively challenging.
In addition, the trap bar provides leverage disadvantage in comparison to a normal ab rollout making the concentric phase (the portion where you roll the weight back to the starting position/under the chest) exponentially more difficult thereby keeping constant tension on the core. Trap bar rollouts also crush the lats, triceps, chest, and shoulder stabilizers similar to pullover variations.
These also provide two unique bonuses that are difficult to replicate with other ab rollouts. First, they're much more shoulder friendly because of the neutral grip. Most if not all ab rollouts involve a pronated grip which can commonly cause shoulder issues in lifters when performing any type of repeated shoulder flexion/extension pattern. This variation resolves that.
The second bonus is that this particular variation eliminates sagging hips and excessive range of motion via hyperextension that so many liters employ with rollouts. if you roll out too far with these not only will it be nearly impossible to pull the bar back to the starting position but the bar will also twist and rotate rather than staying parallel to the ground. That's because too much force will be driving into the bar with horizontal force vectors rather than vertical force vectors (which is ideal).
Due to the intensity of these I recommend going slow and using a brief eccentric isometric protocol for several sets of 5-8 reps. Also avoid rolling the weight out too far as the trap bar will slide out from the lifter and place strain on the low back.