With the right training and technique, an ab roller can be a great addition to your home workout routine. Credit: Courtesy of Luis Ruzzo Rivera

Your core is your body’s support system. These are the muscles in your pelvis, lower back, hips and abdomen and they all work together. Most physical activity — from playing sports to simply sitting up depend on those muscles. If you’re wanting to work on core strength, one of the best pieces of gear to look at is an ab wheel.

It is also something that should be eased into and not attempted if you are new to fitness training or coming back to it after a long time off. Here are important things to know about an ab wheel.

What is an ab wheel?

Credit: Courtesy of Luis Ruzzo Rivera

Also called an ab roller or exercise wheel, an ab wheel is a single wheel with a handle on either side. It looks simple, but it’s among the best for building up the core abdominal, deltoid lateral muscles in addition to the triceps.

Training for the ab wheel

This is one piece of exercise equipment you should not attempt before your body is ready. Before you use an ab wheel, you need to make sure you have what trainers refer to as a “stable shoulder girdle.” Your shoulder girdle muscles are the ones that support your shoulders and provide the range of motion for your arms and shoulders. Attempting any ab wheel exercise with a weak or unstable shoulder girdle can cause pain or risk injury to that muscle group, according to Wendy Watkins, a Bangor-based fitness trainer. Luckily, there are exercises you can do to build up those muscles.

Watkins suggests doing planks. To do a standard plank start by kneeling down on the floor and then bend forward to rest on your forearms with your elbows directly below your shoulders. You can either lay your hands flat, palms down or clasp them together. Extend your legs straight out behind you, toes down. Lift your lower body up until you are balanced on your toes and forearms. Raise your head to look straight ahead, keep your back and butt level. Hold that plank between 30 and 60 seconds.

Another exercise to work the shoulder girdle is the bird dog. Rest on your hands and knees. Then slowly raise the right arm straight out in front of you. At the same time, slowly raise your left leg until it is straight out behind you. Hold this position for several seconds. Bring your arm and leg back down and repeat with the opposite limbs.

Small movements, big impacts

When you use an ab wheel the proper way, you’re going to feel it from your pelvic muscles all the way up to your shoulders and down your arms. And you don’t need to use large motions to feel it.

“Using an ab wheel can be really hard and I know people who use them using motions in all different directions,” Watkins said. “I am not one of those people.”

Instead, Watkins is an advocate of smaller motions that challenge your muscles but are within your level of fitness. This means starting off slow and building up over time.

Buying an ab wheel

The number one thing to look for in an ab wheel is stability. A wobbly wheel can cause you to lose your balance and potentially injure yourself.

Those wheels come in narrow or wide, double or single. Wide and double wheels are more stable, but narrow single wheels let you do more kinds of exercises. You can always start with a wide wheel and, when you feel ready, move on to a narrower wheel.

Look for an ab wheel with rubber-lined wheels. These have better grip and won’t slip on a smooth floor.

The ab wheel’s handles should be thick enough so you can wrap your palms around them. A textured handle will help keep your hands from slipping and for an extra level of comfort, go for a cushioned handle. A cushioned handle also helps lessen the amount of stress on your wrist joints.

Before buying a specific ab wheel, check its weight rating against your body weight. If a wheel breaks in the middle of an exercise you can seriously injure yourself.

Plan on spending between $20 and $50 for an individual ab wheel. They are available in the athletic or exercise departments at most large department stores and online.

What can you do with an ab wheel?

Credit: Courtesy of Luis Ruzzo Rivera

In a basic ab wheel rollout, start on both your knees and place the ab wheel on the floor just in front of you. Grab the handles and with your arms fully extended slowly roll the wheel forward. As a beginner, do not even try to get the wheel out far enough to position your full body parallel to the floor. Instead, roll it out to the point your abdominal muscles feel the maximum challenge, but are still capable of reversing the motion until you are back to the kneeling position.

Throughout the exercise keep your back flat and straight and do not let it arch up. You can use either a wide or narrow, single or double wheel for this exercise.

Once you master the rollout on your knees, try the same motion but instead balance on your toes.

To add a variation to the rollout and work the lateral core muscles you will need a narrow, single wheel roller. Use the same start position as you did for basic rollout but instead of rolling straight forward, roll it out at a slight angle up and away from your body, alternating sides.

Finally, combine a rollout with a kneeling plank. Start just like you did for the basic rollout, but this time when you bring the wheel back in, do not rise back up on your knees. Keep your upper body parallel to the floor and bring the wheel back until it is just under your chest. Keeping that position, push the wheel out one more time and then return to the kneeling position.

Be easy on yourself

As in all fitness training, it’s important to listen to your body. Watkins points out that the ab wheel will probably work muscles that have not had to do much for some time.

“Once you start doing these you may find it feels really good and you may be tempted to overdo it,” Watkins said. “You are going to feel some soreness the next day, but if you are so sore that you need to use your hands to sit up, you have done too much.”

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.