One of my personal favourites when it comes to really “torching” the abs is the rollout.
Whether it’s with a loaded barbell, Swiss ball or Power Wheel, they’re always one of the first exercises I do for my abs.
But it wasn’t until I came across this study that I discovered just how effective they are, particularly when it comes to working the lower abs.
For the study, researchers from California State University set out to test the effectiveness of several abdominal exercises, including rollouts, crunches, hanging knee-ups, sit-ups and reverse crunches.
Of all the exercises tested, muscle activity in lower rectus abdominis (the lower abs) was highest for the rollout.
You can see the full set of results in the figure below.
Here are the exercises listed in order of effectiveness:
- Power Wheel rollout
- Hanging knee-up with straps
- Power Wheel pike
- Reverse crunch inclined 30 degrees
- Power Wheel knee-up
- Ab Revolutionizer reverse crunch with weights
- Ab Revolutionizer double crunch
- Ab Revolutionizer oblique crunch
- Bent-knee sit-up
- Reverse crunch flat
- Ab Revolutionizer reverse crunch
Much the same results were seen in the upper abs, with the the rollout, hanging knee-up with straps, and reverse crunch inclined 30 degrees registering the highest levels of muscle activity in upper rectus abdominis.
With all this talk about “upper” and “lower” rectus abdominis, I don’t want to give you the impression that you can work the lower and upper abs separately.
The “lower abs” isn’t a separate muscle. It simply refers to the lower section of rectus abdominis, which is one long muscle that extends down the stomach from your ribs to your hips.
Although some studies suggest that you can put greater emphasis on the upper or lower abdominals depending on the exercise you do, that doesn’t mean you can work one area separately from the other.
This study used a Power Wheel to do the rollouts, which is a useful piece of equipment if you don’t have access to a suspension trainer. As well as rollouts, you can also use the Power Wheel to do the body saw, another great exercise for working your abs.
Don’t assume that rollouts are going to be easy. They’re not. If you’ve never tried them before, start with an easier version like the fallout.
What I like about fallouts is that it’s a lot easier to modify the exercise based on how strong you are. The closer you are to a standing position, the easier the exercise. As you get stronger, lengthen the straps and gradually move closer to the floor.
If you don’t have a suspension trainer, here’s a simple way to progress from the plank to the rollout.
The exercises below are listed in order of difficulty. The four-point plank is the easiest while the two-point rollout is the most difficult.
While lying down on your stomach, raise yourself onto your forearms. Make sure that your elbows are lined up directly beneath your shoulders. Your feet should be about shoulder width apart with your toes on the floor. Avoid lifting your hips too high or dropping them too low.
Start with sets lasting 15-30 seconds and add 10 seconds each week as your muscular endurance improves. If your shoulders or elbows hurt, try performing the plank from a push up position.
Although the plank is a great way to work the abdominal muscles, it can get extremely boring, especially if you’re able to hold it for long periods of time.
One way to make the exercise harder is to remove one of the contact points from the floor. From the standard four-point plank position, lift one foot off the ground and hold it there. Make sure to hold your body still, keep your spine in a “neutral” position (no arching or rounding your back) and avoid tilting sideways. Switch legs every 5-10 seconds.
With a Swiss Ball, loaded barbell or Power Wheel in front of you, kneel down on the floor. Starting with the ball close to your body, push forwards as far as possible, pausing for a second in the end position. Pull back with the arms to return the ball to the starting position.
As with the plank, the way to make rollouts harder is to remove one of the contact points from the ground. Take your knees off the floor and straighten your legs. In this position, only your toes should be in contact with the floor. Push the ball forwards as far as possible, pause for a second, and then return to the start position.
With the advanced plank and rollout variations, it’s important to “brace” the abdominals (rather than pulling them in) during the more challenging parts of the exercise.
This involves tightening the abdominal muscles as if you’re about to take a punch in the gut. Avoid arching or rounding your back — focus on keeping your spine in a “neutral” position.
You might also find that you want to hold your breath briefly, particularly at the end position of the rollout.
Although any type of breath holding is usually frowned upon by the exercise police, holding your breath raises intra-abdominal pressure, which when combined with abdominal bracing, provides support and strength to your torso by making it stiffer.
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ABOUT CHRISTIAN FINNChristian Finn holds a master's degree with distinction in exercise science, is a former personal trainer and has been featured on BBC TV and radio, as well as in Men's Health, Men's Fitness, Fit Pro, Zest, and Perfect Body magazine.