Wednesday, February 20, 2013

What to do when you can’t do a Pilates Roll Up

Imagine this scenario.  A person starts taking a Pilates Mat Class.  She might be an active person who wants to see what this “core strength” thing is all about.  She goes to her very first class, and it is hard.  She feels work in her belly muscles, and quite frankly, this first class is just a little confusing.  What is this move vertebra by vertebra business?  When was she supposed to exhale again?  She might have even found herself holding her breath completely.  Maybe some exercises seemed absolutely impossible.  She may have learned that there is a completely different way of thinking about the body.  The movement might seem foreign.  The necessary awareness may feel very different than other fitness classes. But at the end of the day she decides a Pilates Mat Class is worth a second try.

Fast-forward two years…She has been going to Pilates Mat Classes twice a week.  She has made friends with her classmates, and it has become a way of life for her.  She loves the way she feels after a Pilates Class.  She feels longer and stronger. Her Forward Leg pull rocks. Her balance is improved, and she is more flexible.  Everything seems better, except for one pesky exercise…The Pilates Roll up still feels elusive…She has practiced and tried and practice and tried some more, but she simply just can’t get past the ribcage when doing the Pilates Roll up…She finally goes to her teacher after class and says, “What can I do? I’ve practiced and practiced, and no matter how hard I try I just can’t seem to do the roll up.” 

This did happen, and when my client came to me, we talked about her posture and about the fact that The Pilates Roll up isn’t about abdominal strength.  Her abdominals were strong.  The Pilates Roll up was about finding segmental spine movement.  The Pilates Roll up was about finding ease in the back so that the spine can bend.  We talked about the fact that simply “practicing” the roll up might be reinforcing the movement patterns that are impeding her progress.  Then we set up an appointment so that we could design a workout that would help her body prepare for the roll up.  Will it work?  I hope so, and I think so. 

Try the following video.  Let me know what you think.  Might this work?  Would you be willing to try this for two weeks?

Like so many workouts, this series has basis in many different movement theories.  I think of it as collecting the tidbits of information and then connecting the dots.

Tidbit #1 I have learned this tidbit many times in many different ways.  And simply stated, it doesn’t matter how strong your abdominals are if your back doesn’t move.  So in my opinion the first steps in training to do the roll up is to loosen the back of the body.  In the video I do this with The Hamstring Release Series and several Spine Stretches that move the spine in several planes of motion.

Tidbit #2 Shortness in the Hip Flexors can impede movement in the Lumbar Spine.  The Hip Flexor Stretches with the Magic Circle on the Foam Roller can open the front of the hip, which will then allow the tailbone to drop and the spine to lengthen. These are dynamic stretches that allow the bones of the legs to move in the hip socket so that any fascial “stuckness” can be released.

Tidbit #3 Using the diaphragm efficiently helps lengthen the spine, and can connect the upper body to the lower body.  When designing this workout I coupled this idea with the fact that throughout my practice most of the people who have trouble with the roll up get stuck at the ribcage.  I also thought about how thanks to Tom Myers I know that the diaphragm and the psoas are fascially connected, and I connected this to the idea that we often forget to get all of the air out of our lungs…(This might need to be Tidbit #3a-3d)  It’s important in all of the exercises to understand that the breath can move the body.  It can open the ribs.  It is the Olive Oil of any Pilates Recipe! 

Tidbit #4 The Roll up is about segmental spinal movement…What’s another exercise that increases segmental movement yet uses gravity to help?  That’s right the bridge…There is a reason that I teach the bridge in almost every single pilates class…It is safe, effective, and uses the breath to find segments of movement that might be stuck.

Try the workout and see what you think?  Let us know if you think it might just work for you!   

Katrina Hawley PMA-CPT, C.M.A
Director of Instruction at The Pilates Studio


  1. This story is about me! I have the same problem! I practice pilates for 4 years and still have some problem with the roll up. Now it is improving..I'm not sure why..mayby it is caused by my better contact with deep core muscles.
    But I've check out your tips and I've noticed that I forget to get all of the air out of my lungs! So when I stuck at the ribcage I try to use my diaphragm and to get all of the air out of the lungs. I have to try all our workout! I only need roller.

  2. This is a wonderful post-- Thank you for sharing! I have been running into the same issues with a couple of my Pilates clients, and it is difficult to find a straightforward answer anywhere. This post truly helped. Would you mind if I shared with some of my followers? I will, of course, link it back to your page and studio! Thank you!

  3. Thank you so much for providing these practice tips. Can you please do a similar tips series to help us with conquering the roll over?

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