Ab Wheel Alternatives: How to Target the Same Muscles

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
January 31, 2022

A core strengthening exercise primarily making use of a type of exercise equipment known as an ab wheel, the ab wheel exercise of the same name involves an individual starting by kneeling against the ground with their arms extended forward while gripping the ab wheel.

A repetition of this exercise is then completed by the individual contracting their core and lowering their torso, rolling the ab wheel forward as they become nearly parallel to the ground and thereby bringing their abdominal muscles to near full suspension.

However, certain health conditions or training requirements may necessitate that the ab wheel and its subsequent isolation exercise be substituted with either an alternative to the ab wheel itself or another type of core exercise that activates the abdominal muscles in much the same manner.

What Muscles does the Ab Wheel Target?

The ab wheel primarily induces an intermediate level of training stimuli to the muscle groups located in the abdominal cavity, of which are referred to as the rectus abdominis, of which is supported on either side by the external obliques, of which act as secondary stabilizer muscles during the performance of the exercise.

ab wheel

Are There Better Abdominal Exercises than the Ab Wheel?

No one exercise is objectively better than another due to the widely varying differences between required types of training stimuli, individual exerciser’s biomechanics or even the volume of repetitions needed in order to fulfill one’s training program.

That being said, however, several abdominal exercises that present a similar intensity of training stimuli and thereby accrue similar levels of benefits also do exist, the majority of which do not require the same specific type of equipment that the ab wheel rollout and similar exercises need.

As such, while these substitute abdominal exercises are not necessarily better in every way than exercises involving an ab wheel implement, they may still fulfill or surpass the role of said exercises within the capacity of certain aspects of training.

Why Should the Ab Wheel Exercise be Substituted?

The ab wheel exercise may be substituted in the case of individuals requiring a more dynamic core exercise routine be developed, if they are unable to perform ab wheel rollouts for an extended period of time, or even in the event that an ab wheel is not available for the exerciser’s usage.

Other reasons an alternative to the ab wheel should be found are injuries preventing the exerciser from performing ab wheel related exercises or the need for a similar but different sort of training stimuli.

Alternative Equipment Assisted Ab Wheel Alternatives

This particular section of the article focuses on the use of alternative but similar exercise equipment that may be used so as to recreate the rollout exercise normally reserved through the use of an ab wheel, allowing the exerciser to retain the usage of an ab rollout exercise without the presence of an ab wheel itself.

Keep in mind, however, that while the following alternative equipment assisted exercises may impart a similar intensity and area of training stimuli, the difference in equipment used may equate to a slightly different form requirement, and it is best to first consult a coach or physical therapist prior to performing these exercises.

Barbell Rollouts

Performed by creating a pair of “wheels” through the attaching of two equally sized plates at both ends of a barbell, the exerciser will kneel on a padded or cushioned surface and roll the barbell close to their knees, much like the starting position of an ab wheel rollout.

barbell rollout

The exerciser will then lower their torso while simultaneously rolling the barbell forward, bringing their chest parallel to the ground as their arms are extended beyond their head, all the while fully contracting their core and ensuring that their back is flat and straight.

If performed properly, the tension that is induced in the abdominal muscles should be practically indistinguishable from that of an ab wheel rollout, essentially recreating the exercise without the presence of an ab wheel.

Stability Ball Rollouts

Somewhat different in form and muscular activation due to the particular shape and size of most stability balls, the stability ball rollout is nonetheless a suitable substitute to the ab wheel rollout exercise due to the similarity in which it can cause the core muscles to contract, especially if using stability balls of smaller sizes.

stability ball rollout

To do so, one simply needs to assume the starting position that is standard form for the majority of rollout exercises – kneeling with both hands on the exercise equipment – prior to pushing the ball forward while simultaneously lowering their chest to approximately parallel level with the ground, fully contracting their core both dynamically and in a static manner.

Slider Slide-outs

An aptly named exercise utilizing a type of less commonly seen fitness equipment known as “sliders”, slide outs using this particular type of exercise equipment involve the individual finding a suitably smooth part of the floor on which the slider pads may easily skid on, with the exerciser placing their knees on a mat or cushion so as to form a more stable point at which their torso may hinge from.

Kneeling in the starting position that is shared between all rollout or slide out exercises, the exerciser will place both hands on a separate slider and lower their chest towards the ground, thrusting their hands forward with the sliders reducing the friction between their palms and the floor.

At the lowest point of the exercise, the individual should feel a distinct tightening in their core as the brunt of their torso’s weight is carried and stabilized by their abdominal muscles, wherein most of the training stimuli will be accrued.

To complete the repetition, the exerciser simply must raise their torso back to the starting position while dragging the sliders back to within a handbreadth of their knees.

Calisthenic Ab Wheel Alternatives

In the event that no equipment at all is available, the ab wheel rollout and similar exercises may still be substituted by way of the individual’s own bodyweight, allowing them to still activate the same muscle groups used in an ab wheel rollout without the usage of any actual exercise equipment.

The presence (or lack thereof) of suitable exercise equipment for which the exerciser may train their core does not equate to a more or less effective workout, however, and as such the primary difference between the use of a calisthenics-based exercise and an ab wheel based exercise is simply the particular form followed and what muscles are used as accessory movers.

Planks

Perhaps the most commonly seen exercise alternative to the ab wheel rollout is that of the plank, in which the exerciser will lie in the push-up position while tensing their core, forcing their abdominal muscle groups to bear their own body weight as well as stabilize their torso.

plank

While nowhere near as dynamic as the ab wheel rollout or other exercises involving some level of concentric and eccentric contraction, the plank is nonetheless the king of isometric abdominal muscle contraction, both improving the relative endurance under strain of the exerciser’s core as well as imparting some level of muscular hypertrophy.

Plank Walkouts

Similar mechanically to the ab wheel rollout sans for the addition of the pectoralis muscle groups as well as the deltoid trio of muscles, the plank walkout exercise is performed by the individual entering a plank position with their hands positioned along their sternum or stomach, depending on what is more comfortable with their unique biomechanics.

The repetition begins by the individual “walking” their hands outwards by incrementally moving one of their hands forward, all the while contracting their abdomen in order to retain trunk stability and activate the abdominal muscles better.

Once the individual has walked their hands as far as they are comfortable with, they will then proceed to reverse the action and walk their hands in the opposite direction, returning them to their original place beneath their stomach or sternum.

While slower and somewhat more intense than the ab wheel rollout, plank walkouts are nonetheless a truly excellent substitute to the exercise that are capable of instilling similar levels of isometric muscular contraction.

Dragon Flags

Significantly more difficult than any other exercise listed in this article, dragon flags are less a substitution to the ab wheel rollout and more a direct progression from the exercise. 

This is primarily due to the fact that performing a dragon flag exercise with proper form often requires an advanced level of abdominal strength, as well as a well-honed sense of one’s own body and how it may be moved while under mechanical tension.

dragon flag

Dragon flags are performed by the athlete gripping a bench behind their head as they lay atop it, before contracting their abdomen, straightening their back and pressing their legs together. This will have the effect of making their body stiff and rather straight in shape, which will make subsequently raising their entire body below the shoulders somewhat easier to perform.

At the apex of the exercise, the exerciser will have raised their buttocks off the bench by several degrees, with their feet pointing above parallel with the ground, supported entirely by their core muscles.

Reverse Crunches

Quite dissimilar in mechanics but nonetheless an excellent substitution to exercises performed with the use of an ab wheel, the reverse crunch is a core isolation exercise primarily utilizing eccentric and concentric muscular contraction so as to induce neurological strength adaptations as well as muscular hypertrophy in the abdominal muscles.

The reverse crunch is performed by the exerciser lying flat on their back on a suitably comfortable part of the floor, with their hands braced either beneath their buttocks or at either side of their hips.

reverse crunch

The exerciser will then raise their legs at the knee, drawing their shins upwards until it is at least parallel with the ground, all the while maintaining a tight core and flat back so as to maximize the abdominal muscular hypertrophy accrued by performing the exercise.

To complete the repetition, the exerciser will simply lower their legs back to the ground in a slow and controlled manner, all the while ensuring that their core remains firmly braced and contracting.

References

1. Hildenbrand K, Noble L. Abdominal Muscle Activity While Performing Trunk-Flexion Exercises Using the Ab Roller, ABslide, FitBall, and Conventionally Performed Trunk Curls. J Athl Train. 2004;39(1):37-43.

2. Rafael F Escamilla, Eric Babb, Ryan DeWitt, Patrick Jew, Peter Kelleher, Toni Burnham, Juliann Busch, Kristen D’Anna, Ryan Mowbray, Rodney T Imamura, Electromyographic Analysis of Traditional and Nontraditional Abdominal Exercises: Implications for Rehabilitation and Training, Physical Therapy, Volume 86, Issue 5, 1 May 2006, Pages 656–671, https://doi.org/10.1093/ptj/86.5.656

3. Norris, C M (March 1993). "Abdominal muscle training in sport". British Journal of Sports Medicine. 27 (1): 19–27. doi:10.1136/bjsm.27.1.19. ISSN 030 6-3674. PMC 133 2101. PMID 8457 806.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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