The ab wheel is an excellent exercise for building the abs and core muscles whilst also being easy on the lower back. If you’re reading this then chances are you already know what a good exercise it is, otherwise, you wouldn’t be looking for alternatives!
An ab wheel is a relatively inexpensive item that’s easy to store in a gym bag for use at home or at a gym that doesn’t provide one but if you don’t already have one (I’d recommend picking one up) then you might need to get creative in order to use an exercise that best matches the movement pattern or muscles worked during an ab wheel rollout.
In this article, I’ll cover some of the best ab wheel alternatives including exercises that need no additional equipment as well as some more advanced moves that you can try out in the gym.
The 9 best ab wheel alternatives are:
- Barbell Rollout
- Towel Rollout
- Plank Walkouts
- V Sit-Ups
- Stability Ball Ab Rollout
- Cable Crunch
- Hanging Leg Raises
- Dragon Flag Sit-Ups
Table of Contents
What Muscles Does the Ab Wheel Work
The reason the ab wheel is such a good and effective workout is that it works multiple muscle groups. The main issue with ab training is that most people will only train the abs directly and even then, more focus is placed on the upper abs through sit-ups and crunches.
To really have a defined (and most importantly strong) midsection, you really need to be working all of the surrounding muscles of the core. You should be working the rectus abdominis (abs), transverse abdominis, internal/external obliques, and serratus anterior.
The ab wheel can work all of these muscle groups when used with variations and the static hold places the abs under a great deal of isometric contraction. If you could only do one ab exercise I would be tempted to say the ab wheel rollout or a standard plank should be your staples as a result of the multiple muscles of the midsection that they engage.
Ab Wheel Alternatives
The ab wheel might be a great exercise but that doesn’t mean that it’s irreplaceable in your workout routines. It’s actually the opposite and you’ll find there are a number of alternatives that replicate the movement and target the same muscles groups as the ab wheel.
1. Barbell Rollout
If you are looking for an ab wheel alternative, the best one in my opinion is an option available in almost every gym and that is a barbell rollout. The barbell rollout mimics the exercise mechanics of the ab wheel almost exactly but I’d go as far as to say it’s a better option.
The reason for this is that it’s easy for people to “cheat” on an ab wheel rollout and use their arms to pull themselves back to an upright position instead of letting the abs control this. With a barbell however you can take a much wider grip which not only removes some stress around the shoulder joint but makes it almost impossible to cheat the exercise.
The only downside to this is that most barbells are 6-7ft in length so finding a suitable spot to do this exercise might be a challenge in some gyms.
2. Towel Rollout
A towel walkout or towel rollout is an easily accessible alternative to an ab wheel and uses a piece of equipment that everyone owns already. For this exercise, you’ll need to use a very smooth surface with minimal friction so tile, laminate, hardwood, or vinyl flooring are going to be your main options.
The reason for this is that the towel simply replaces the ab wheel. The movement is the same and you slide out using the towel which is something that comes with friction and won’t move as smoothly as the wheel or barbell options.
This is a more challenging option but is ideal for anyone training abs at home or has limited access to equipment. As this can be a tricky exercise to pick up for beginners, I recommend starting with the next exercise on this list and then progressing to a towel rollout as your core strength improves.
3. Plank Walkouts
Plank walkouts are arguably a superior exercise to the ab wheel because you can’t cheat the movement and use any arm/shoulder drive in order to finish a rep. This is a common issue with ab wheel rollouts as people allow their arms to finish the movement if their core is not strong enough to finish the rep.
With a plank walkout, however, you are constantly working the core in order to keep the hips stable and from dropping, keeping a neutral spine and keeping your torso from twisting as you walk out one hand at a time.
This works some of the smaller stabilizing muscles around the core and hips and while it’s a challenging exercise, it’s actually a good one for beginners to start with as you have more control during the movement than you would when trying to balance on an ab wheel.
The plank is the most basic alternative on this list but it’s also one that is one of the most effective abs and core exercises you can do.
The plank is a little bit more limited than the ab wheel and some of the other rollout alternatives as all variants place the abs and core under a static contraction but with the plank, it’s purely an isometric contraction with no movement during the set.
For this exercise, you’ll also find it more difficult to progress as your only options really are improving time and adding additional sets. You could try to add additional weight as a form of progression but it’s not easy with this exercise so you should use it as a strengthening exercise rather than an abs builder.
5. V Sit-Ups
The abs have multiple functions in terms of acting as a stabilizing muscle and contracting/lengthening, I’ll cover this with some more specific exercises shortly but the V sit-up or “V ups” is an underestimated ab exercise.
The main reason being that bringing your torso towards the mid-section (crunching) and bringing your hips towards your mid-section (leg raise) combines two functions of the ab muscles for a much more effective exercise.
You’ll see V sit-ups in many 5-minute ab videos online but when using good form on this exercise, you’ll find it incredibly challenging and fatiguing as a result of the dual functionality of the movement. Therefore, do not be afraid to make use of a shorter rep range, this exercise should place a focus on the quality of each rep rather than the overall quantity.
6. Stability Ball Ab Rollout
The stability ball rollout is a good alternative to an ab wheel but is not as good as the barbell or towel option in my opinion. The main reason being that a stability ball places you into an inclined body position so there will be less tension/weight on the core during the movement.
The weight from your hips down will not be factored into this exercise so this is usually a beginner exercise used by those eventually looking to work up to an ab wheel rollout.
With that said, the wide-area for support takes a lot of strain away from the shoulders and allows you to hold a much more comfortable position during contractions.
You’ll actually see many pro athletes use this variation as a result so the only reason I prefer the other options is for muscle building and loading of the exercise and this is by no means an inferior alternative.
7. Cable Crunch
Now we are moving into alternatives that involve movement at the abs rather than a static contraction like you get with the ab wheel. The importance of this is to fully fatigue the muscle fibers in order to stimulate growth.
The cable crunch is a great ab builder because unlike a lying crunch, you remove all of the potential stress from the lower back and spine. Bad form on regular ab crunches is a primary concern and often the cause of a bad back when doing sit-ups or crunches.
By shifting the loads, you can train the abs with more weight on the cable stack without compressing the spine or causing any unnecessary curvature during the movement. To get the most out of a cable crunch, ensure that you exhale fully on each rep to really work the abs and feel a peak contraction.
8. Hanging Leg Raises
Similar to the cable crunch, I’ve included hanging leg raises as an alternative to work the lower portion of the abs. The abs have two functions and one is to bring the torso towards the mid-section (as happens during a sit-up or crunch), but the secondary function is to bring the hips towards the mid-section.
This is done via the lower abs and neglecting a movement where you basically crunch the lower half of your body means that you are seriously impacting your overall ab and core development.
The hanging leg raise is one of my personal favorite exercises when it comes to ab development and is one you don’t see performed enough in most gyms. Unlike a lying leg raise, a hanging version really challenges you to engage your core, and it’s very difficult to cheat this exercise.
Depending on your current level of strength/fitness, you can start off with knee raises and work your way up to legs fully extended over time. The key with this exercise though is to ensure you are initiating the movement with your lower abs.
The reason for this is that the rectus femoris muscle of the quadriceps crosses at both the knee and hip joint. Therefore, the lifting motion of bringing your upper thigh upwards with the hips engages the rectus femoris and makes it very easy for this muscle to receive more stimulation than the lower abs as a result.
9. Dragon Flag Sit-Ups
The final alternative on this list is an advanced exercise in the form of dragon flags. This is an advanced movement that was popularized by the great Bruce Lee.
You can think of this as a reverse movement to the ab wheel rollout. Instead of your feet being locked in position while you go through a lengthened static contraction, with a dragon flag, your upper body will be locked into positions while your legs go through the static contraction.
They are not an exact reverse and each exercise will work different muscle groups but if you want an advanced ab exercise to rival the ab wheel, dragon flag sit-ups can certainly be a great alternative.
There’s no denying that the ab wheel is a great exercise that really tests core strength and stability whilst acting as a good ab builder in the process but it’s by no means perfect.
If you don’t have access to an ab wheel or you want to try out some alternatives, a barbell, towel, stability ball, or even your hands can be a direct replacement for the ab wheel and all utilize the same movement pattern.
If you want a different type of exercise, those listed in this article are among the best ab/core developers, and adding a select few into your routine will certainly act as a good ab wheel alternative!