AB ROLLOUTS : The Key to bigger overhead presses and pulls!

By Chris Carlsen

AB ROLLOUTS: The key to bigger overhead presses and pulls!

Being 6’2 has its advantages and disadvantages. A notable disadvantage is the greater responsibility placed on my core to stabilize the larger surface area of my body.   The core is challenged even more when my arms are overhead. In such a position, I have added nearly another foot to my height, and in turn, the core must work harder to maintain balance and tension throughout my kinetic chain. The ability to stabilize in such a position is crucial for my performance and health. The better I can stabilize, the more I will be able to express my strength (or move more weight) and keep my joints stacked. This will also eliminate any undue stress on my lower back, as I can safely lock out without hyper-extending.  One exercise that has invaluably aided my strength and health is the abdominal (AB) wheel rollout.

The AB rollout is the ultimate anti-extension training tool and can be considered a “complete package” exercise for numerous reasons. For starters, it teaches you how to hollow your core and keep your musculature (abs, glutes) tight.  Second, it trains one of the primary movements of your trunk from a functional perspective: anti-spinal extension.  Lastly, as previously noted, the exercise has enormous carryover to many other strength and conditioning staples.  Becoming proficient with this particular exercise will make you a better puller and pusher and allow you to proliferate weight on the bar.  It also encourages safer lifting technique. 

The rollout is initiated by the hips. As I begin the movement, I think to myself “glutes ,glutes, glutes” and squeeze my butt to drive the ball or wheel forward using forceful hip extension.  I also keep my armpits tight, which allows me to soften my elbows and extend my arms. The ability to execute this last component of the exercise signifies that I am using my scapula to stabilize and not my elbows and neck.  When combined, the abs, glutes and scapula synergistically work together to enable the movement.  (Of note, if the armpits do not stay tight on the rollout, I will undoubtedly observe the same movement pattern deficiency in the pull-up and overhead press, leading to unwanted tightness in the forearms and neck muscles. In such cases, the elbow and neck are picking up slack for the scapular stabilizers but are ill equipped to handle this job.)

Before delving into proper form, it is first important to understand the necessary prerequisites to the rollout. You must first master the plank, which I covered in the Secrets of Strength video that Iron Lion blog subscribers receive for free. After the plank, I progress to kneeling anti- extension exercises such as overhead shoulder presses and pullovers with a medicine ball and/or cables.  I prefer a kneeling position as opposed to utilizing the floor because it enables hip extensor integration (e.g. glutes and hamstrings) and transfers well to the rollout.  Weighted carry variations also build strength endurance for your core and scapular stabilizers; think farmer’s walks with specialized bars, kettlebells or even dumbbells.  

For years, I concluded my own workouts with three sets of rollouts, performed for eight reps. I eventually read Dan John’s illuminating T-Nation article on increasing pull-up strength and since then, I experimented with incorporating a set of 3 rollout reps between overhead shoulder presses and pull-ups.  Doing so has ingrained the movement pattern into my nervous system and makes pressing and pulling easier, as my core is activated and my body is prepared to mimic the rollout during these other exercises.  While my enhanced pressing and pulling performance may be attributed to increased confidence (since I just performed a rollout and therefore feel comfortable with the movement), I have nonetheless broken past plateaus with this method. I added myriad weight to my pull-up and presses using the rollout, and I’m confident that it will help you do the same.


Keep these tips in mind as you perform the rollout:

1.  As I noted earlier, begin with the Swiss ball.  It will provide more stability and develop your core strength so that you can eventually progress to using the wheel.

2.  Don’t lead with your arms.   This will be apparent if your hips go backwards first.  Make sure to squeeze your glutes before initiating the movement and then lead with your hips. 

3.  Keep your armpits tight and your elbows soft.  Also keep your nose to the ball. If your head is upright, it will be difficult to achieve the hollow position.  When hollowing, the scapula slightly flare and the chest caves in a bit.  Imagine drawing your belly button in and creating a “C” shape with your spine and torso.   At the same time, flare your latissimusdorsi muscles so they are wide and strong

*As a quick note, “LatissimusDorsi” translates to “widest back” from Latin. When lifting we must think of making our lats wide. The lats are assigned the important task of posterior spinal stabilization (keeping our spines steady).  We will get tight, compressed lats (not in a good way) if we do not exert equal tension between our anterior (front) and posterior (back) stabilizers.The ab rollout en grains the balance in tension between both anterior and posterior stabilizers and this relationship will carry over to pull-ups and presses. Spreading the lats and hollowing the core prevents these muscles from having to pickup energy lost from the anterior core stabilizers, making your back both long and strong.  This finding has been empirically supported by massage therapist Devin McGilvery, who reported an actual change in the lat muscle length of my students after conducting soft tissue work both before and after they incorporated rollouts into their program.Working together, Devin and I are able to get feedback on our respective strength and massage methods. 


I hope you found this information helpful, and that you will begin programming the rollout into your workouts.  It’s a useful tool to add to your core exercise repertoire and will certainly mitigate your strength in a number of areas.  Also, be sure to leave any feedback, comments or concerns below.  I look forward to hearing about the gains you’ve made.