The Pilates Roll-up is one of my favorite exercises, not only because it works my core but it just feels good doing it. You’ll get that nice sensation of being stretch everywhere as your whole body moves smoothly and strongly on the mat. It is a comparable experience of sleeping and working out at the same time…that is awesomely strange, right?
The Pilates Roll-up is the second movement from the 34 Classical Mat exercises written by Joseph Pilates. The practitioner will start in a supine position with arms overhead, then roll up to a sitting position with the fingers reaching towards the toes. It works the abdominal muscles, stretches the spine and hamstrings in one movement.
Let’s go deeper with this exercise so you can understand the movement fully before you go for your next Pilates mat class.
How to do the Pilates Roll-up properly?
Though the Roll-up exercise looks very simple, it actually contains a few components that are very important to get it right to reap the full benefit of this exercise. Let’s divide the roll-up into 4 different parts to demonstrate this clearly.
This exercise starts in a supine position with your arms overhead.
It is important to take note of two things that will affect each other. First, make sure that your entire spine, especially your lower back and middle back stays flat on the floor. Second, bring your arms backward aiming to touch the floor with your elbows straight.
If your spine is arching as you bring your arms down to the floor, that could mean that your shoulders are tight or you lack the awareness to control your spine. Bring your arms up a little bit until your back is flat again then gradually work on lowering it down as far as you can without affecting the spine.
Take a few breaths from here before you start moving.
Inhale as you lift your head, neck, and shoulders off the floor. Then exhale as you continue to roll up towards the sitting position until you end up reaching forward with your fingers toward your toes.
Make sure to focus on the rolling motion of your back as you come up as this will teach your spine to articulate better as you practice the movement.
This is a momentary part of the movement where you are reaching forward but it is important to take note of a few things;
Reach forward not just with your fingers but with the top of your head to lengthen your spine fully. This means that you will be looking in between your legs and not forward to your toes.
Flex your feet so your toes are pointing backward to stretch the hamstrings fully.
This is a very important phase especially if you are new to this exercise, so do it with full control and try your best not to drop back to the mat.
Inhale as you roll back down to the mat placing your spine one vertebra at a time starting from your tailbone, lower back, middle back, and all the way until your head is resting on the floor.
Exhale as you bring your arms back to the floor making sure that your spine is fully flat before you start your next roll-up.
Here is a video that I made that explains further the Pilates Roll-up exercise.
What is the purpose of the Roll-up in Pilates?
The Roll-up exercise will give you a few more benefits aside from just an abdominal strengthening movement.
- It will improve your awareness of the entire body especially on your spine
- Improves the mobility of your spine
- Stretches your hamstrings
- Improves shoulder flexion mobility
Tips to improve your Pilates Roll-up
Since the Roll-up is more than just a single movement, we can improve it further by working on the different components of the exercise.
Since a majority of the time you’re doing the Roll-up is moving your spine up and down, we can focus more on improving your spine’s mobility in a separate exercise by doing the cat stretch exercise.
This drill will teach you how to control your hips and tailbone area with the lower abs and hip muscles. It will also increase the flexibility of your spine in both flexion and extension movement.
Our spine is more often than not tight in some areas, and this movement will slowly loosen the spine which will help you with the Roll up exercise.
Here is how you do the cat stretch:
Start on all 4s position with your hands under your shoulders and knees below your hip joint. Curl the spine from the tailbone and let the articulation sequentially go up through your back until it reaches the neck area. Reverse the pattern by starting again with your tailbone this time sticking it upwards and allow the spine to articulate into extension.
Make sure you pay attention to how your spine moves, and work on controlling it better as you do the next repetitions.
You will need a decent abdominal strength to roll yourself up smoothly, so it makes sense to target just working on your abdominal strength before tackling the full version.
Start sitting down on your mat with your legs straight, then slowly roll backward by tucking your tailbone under. This should feel similar to the initiation of the cat stretch exercise. Go all the way until you touch your lower back onto the mat.
In case you don't have enough strength to go down lower, you can place a folded towel behind your hips. Adjust the fold accordingly, a higher fold will make it easier for you. Hold the bottom position of the movement but not resting on the floor. You should feel an intense contraction of your abdominal muscles at this point.
Then you slowly go back up to a sitting position. Your aim is to do this movement with good control for at least 5 repetitions.
Once you have improved your spine’s flexibility, awareness, and abdominal strength, doing the Pilates Roll-up will be a lot easier and smoother. You will start to enjoy the movement more.
What are the muscles used in the Roll-up exercise?
As you start working with your first roll-up, you will definitely feel the work in your abdominal muscles. But as you go deeper and understand more of the movement, the Roll-up exercise will be more than just an abdominal exercise.
Here are some muscles that you end up working:
- Deeper muscles of your spine, back, buttocks, and shoulder muscles - these muscles work hand in hand together in the starting position in order for you to flatten your spine and at the same time lower your arms down to the floor.
- The front muscles of your thighs and shin area - as you improve your hamstring’s flexibility, you will learn to engage these muscles fully at the end range of the Roll-up movement.
Common mistakes of doing the Roll-up
This is a common beginner’s mistake especially if you lack the abdominal to go up.
Make sure that you are aware of the position of your neck and shoulder as you do so and correct immediately once you find yourself doing so. This is hard to spot if you are doing it on your own. So if you are working with a Pilates teacher, you can ask them to help you with the correction.
This maneuver arises if you struggle to come up either because you lack abdominal strength or your spine is too stiff to do the Roll-up. A simple solution is to do the partial range roll-up so you will work more on your abdominal strength further. This is a good option especially if you are in the middle of a Pilates mat class and you want to keep up with the pace of the group.
A very common mistake for everyone especially if you are trying to reach further than the previous attempt. All you have to do is to keep reminding yourself to look down and instead of reaching with your fingers, think of reaching with the top of your head.
If you really cannot control the downward phase of the roll-up, most likely your lower back is tight. You need to work on your spine’s flexibility by doing more spine stretch exercises. Aside from doing Cat stretches, you can work on a daily stretch routine to target the spine. Here is an article I wrote about the three most important spine stretches that you can do.
Is Roll-up bad for your back?
The Pilates Roll-up is a very good exercise for your back as it improves its flexibility and it makes the back and abdominal muscles stronger. But there might be some instances that you will need guidance in doing the Roll-up exercise. This is especially true if you are experiencing some aches and pain in your back.
It is best to ask a professional Pilates instructor with a rehabilitation background in your locality to assess your condition thoroughly.
Why you still can’t do a Roll-up?
If you have been doing all the accessory exercises to help you with the roll-up and have been practicing Pilates for years, and still you can’t do a Roll-up? Aside from blaming it on your abdominal strength, there is one more thing that you need to check. Your body proportion.
If your body is relatively longer than your legs, the Roll-up exercise will be harder for you no matter what you do. The bigger the difference is the more challenging it will be.
Unfortunately, you are dealing with the rules of Physics.
Think of a see-saw in a Roll-up exercise with your butt as the see-saw’s pivot point. If one part of the see-saw is longer or heavier, it will always fall on that side. And the only way to solve this is to place something heavier on the shorter side.
What you can do is to place a small weight on your legs, an ankle weight will do so you can roll up smoothly. The heavier the weight, the more stable you will feel but don’t place a very heavy weight or anchor your feet on something that is fixed on the ground as this will change the mechanics of the exercise.
Pilates equipment that can help you with the Roll-up
If you are working out in a Pilates studio, the Pilates Cadillac can help you with the Roll-up exercise. This exercise is called Cadillac roll down where you grab a wooden dowel that is connected to the pillars of the Cadillac with springs. You start in a sitting position and slowly roll down to the bed and roll back up.
Because of the presence of the springs, you will struggle less and you can focus more on working on the small details of the movement. This will improve your spine’s flexibility and develop your awareness of the movement.
Disclaimer: This article should not be taken as medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please consult your local physician, physiotherapist, or health provider if you're suffering from back pain or discomfort of any sort prior to commencing any exercise. This article is meant for educational purposes only and doesn't replace rehabilitation advice given by a medical professional.