The History of the Ab Wheel

Who in their training career, has not used the Ab Wheel? As a teenager, I took to the device with a great deal of enthusiasm, often overextending my arms and producing undue pain in my lower back. I suspect the experience of pain is one shared by many. Despite a relatively simple premise, and a promise of good results, the Ab Wheel is one of those devices that many now seem to shy away from.

It ism nowadays, one of the stranger objects found on the gym floor. Much like the Bosu Ball, the Ab Wheel appears to be one of those devices that almost every gym seems to have, but few people seem to use. Why this is the case is beyond the scope of today’s post. Instead we’re going to look at the history of the device itself. Specifically, today’s post tracks the history of the Ab Wheel itself.

What It Is and What It Isn’t

First off, a few definitions are in order. When speaking about the Ab Wheel, we’re referring to the plastic wheel with two handles either side, which, as we’ll learn, emerged in the 1960s. Prior to this time many bodybuilders and weightlifters used barbells to perform this movement. We’re interested more so in the commercialisation of the Ab Wheel device.

Due to my own laziness – I am unfortunately all too human – we’re going to look solely at the product and not the movement. So with that point established, let’s crack into the history itself.

The Rise of the Ab Wheel 

il_1588xN.1581575734_8aga.jpg

The first reference I’ve found to the Ab Wheel itself comes from a 1960s product called the ‘Reduce a Wheel.’ Produced in the United States, the Ab Wheel specifically targeted those individuals interested in building their bodies in the shortest possible amount of time. Looking at the product’s box, we see that ‘Health and Happiness’ were promised in return for minutes of exercise a day. As discussed by Shelly McKenzie, the 1960s saw thousands of men and women take to physical exercise in a bid to improve their health. The ‘Reduce a Wheel’ was undoubtedly one of those products aimed at this growing market. But what inspired the Wheel?

Looking at old US Patents, it looks like part of the inspiration for the Ab Wheel came from similar Ab machines. One of the forerunning devices in this regard is the exercise wheels sold by Harry Lawrence Gardener and E Meyers Louis in the 1930s.

Screenshot 2020-01-08 at 16.47.07.png

More of a lower back exercise, the above wheel still set in motion the idea of wheel devices for the abdominals. It was no coincidence that many of the wheel devices – both ab wheels and these lower back devices – cited these 1930s products. This is my longwinded way of saying that the ‘Reduce a Wheel’ was one of the pioneering ab wheel products but it was inspired by previous devices.

So that helps establish an older history but when did the Ab Wheel grow in importance?

The Growth of the Ab Wheel

Writing for the Wall Street Journal in 1999, Dan Morse noted the ‘Ab Wars of 1996.’ Centered on the litany of health infomercials facing American viewers, Morse noted that one Ab Roller company (not to be confused with the ab wheel!) cleared upwards of $100 million in 1996 alone. Abs had, by then, become something of a status symbol. Furthermore, they became an ideal that many wanted but few were willing to work for.

By the late 1990s and early 2000s, Ab Wheels were now found on gym floors throughout the United States and further afield. Whether people actually managed to build six pac abs with them is another matter altogether!