How to The Roll Up in Pilates: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

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Targets: Abdominal muscles

Level: Intermediate

The roll up is one of the classic Pilates mat exercises. Roll up is a great challenge for the abdominal muscles and is well known as one of the Pilates flat abs exercises. It has been said that one Pilates roll up is equal to six regular sit-ups and is much better than crunches for creating a flat stomach.

Roll up is traditionally done after the hundred and is followed by the roll over.

While you will learn to roll up as one of the first mat exercises, it is challenging and you may need to modify it or build your core strength before you can do it with perfect form.

Pilates Roll Up Excercise
Verywell / Ben Goldstein

How to Do the Pilates Roll Up

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Watch Now: How to Roll Up Like a Pilates Pro

You will only need space to lay out your Pilates mat.

Lie on your back on the floor with your legs straight. Let your belly drop down toward the floor and make sure your shoulders are relaxed and away from your ears.

Take a few deep breaths as you check your alignment and tune into your body. When you are ready, leave your scapula anchored in your back and your ribs down as you bring your arms straight up over your head and back so that your fingertips are pointing to the wall behind you. This will be your beginning position. This first move is the Pilates arms over.

  1. Inhale: Leave your scapula down as you bring your arms up overhead. As your arms pass your ears, let the chin drop and the head and upper spine join the motion to curl up.
  2. Exhale: Continue in one smooth motion to curl your body in an "up and over" motion toward your toes. This is the "moment of truth" for many. Pull in your abs in and deepen the curve of your spine as you exhale. That's what gets you up (not momentum).
  3. Reach for your toes keeping the head tucked, the abdominals deep, and the back rounded. Ideally, the legs are kept straight throughout this exercise with energy reaching out through the heels. However, a modification would be to allow the legs to bend, especially as you come up and reach toward the toes.
  4. Inhale: Bring the breath fully into your pelvis and back as you pull the lower abs in, reach your tailbone under, and begin to unfurl—vertebra by vertebra—down to the floor. The inhale initiates this motion until you are about halfway down. Be sure to keep the legs on the floor and don't let them fly up as you roll down. Check that your shoulders are relaxed and not creeping up.
  5. Exhale: Continue to set one vertebra after another down on the floor. Keep your upper body curve as you roll down slowly and with control. The arms are still outstretched and follow the natural motion of the shoulders as you roll down. Once your shoulders come to the floor, the arms go with the head as you continue to roll down to the mat.
  6. Do up to 6 repetitions.

The roll up is one continuous, controlled and flowing motion. Try to synchronize with the breath. If you do this exercise with full attention, 6 repetitions will be sufficient.

Benefits of the Pilates Roll Up

With the roll up, you mobilize your spine and strengthen your abdominal muscles, putting them through a wide range of motion. With a slow and attentive pace, you practice the control that is one of the cornerstones of Pilates.

Pilates core exercises such as the roll up are excellent for increasing core strength, stability, and muscular endurance. These benefits will transfer to your daily living, improving your ability to perform tasks that require lifting and bending while protecting your spine. You'll also have a reduced risk of falls and injury.

Other Variations of the Pilates Roll Up

You can perform this exercise in different ways to meet your skill level and goals.

Bent Knee Roll Up

If you are having trouble with roll up, one of the best things you can do is bend your knees. This will help relieve the overactivity of the hip flexors, allowing you to strengthen and coordinate the transversus abdominis and other abs muscles.

  1. Perform the roll up using the basic form above but bend the knees slightly. Keep your heels away from your butt or the exercise will get harder.
  2. Bend the knees more as you come up.
  3. Use your hands to grasp behind your knees to help yourself up and support the rest of the roll up/down, if necessary.

Using a Bolster

One of the best tips for roll up is to put a small bolster under the legs, just above the knees. This has a similar effect to bending the knees, but in some ways, it feels better. It is subtler and helps the body find that important sense of letting go of the hip flexors while letting the abs drop back into the trunk.

Banded Roll Up

Another prop you might want to try is an exercise band.

  1. Wrap the exercise band around the balls of your feet and then lie down.
  2. Hold your arms down by your sides with hands holding the band.
  3. Adjust the tension in the band to give you a little support as you roll up and down.

Magic Circle Roll Up

One variation of the roll up is to use a magic circle.

  1. Start holding the magic circle up above your chest.
  2. Squeeze the magic circle as you roll up and roll down. Using it can help you concentrate on the segmental movement of the spine.

Common Mistakes

Lots of people have trouble with the roll up. Issues like trouble getting up at all, rolling up but having the feet fly up, and coming up with momentum (a jerking motion) instead of strength are common frustrations.

Using Momentum or Dropping When Half Way Down

Beginners may find themselves using momentum rather than muscle strength to roll up, and they may also have to drop down as they lose power when rolling down. The Pilates roll up requires a lot of core strength as well as a flexible spine. It can be helpful to build the strength and flexibility for roll up by practicing related exercises that introduce the roll up in parts.

  • Start with wall roll down. This exercise is an easy way to develop the articulation of the spine that you need for roll up.
  • Next, do chest lift. Chest lift will help you develop the strength for curling up the upper body.
  • Then, work on supported roll back. This is a great exercise for strengthening what feels like "lower abs," for getting that roll under motion in the pelvis, and for learning to work the spine in a deep curve.

Lifting Legs and Feet From the Mat

One frustration of the roll up is when the feet and legs want to fly up off the mat in response to the upper body lift. The reason for this is that some of the muscles that help the upper body bend forward are also muscles that flex the hips (hip-flexors).

Abs in, ribs down and in, and a big curve of the spine are crucial parts of roll up; that is what the transversus abdominis does. The transverse muscle compresses the abdomen and bends the trunk forward in flexion. It also helps close the ribs toward the midline.

Other abdominal muscles will be working in the roll up. But if you focus on the action of the transversus abdominus, it will help take the focus off the hip flexors and result in less "flying feet."

Maintaining an Overly Tucked Position

One of the most tempting misalignments of the pelvis is the overly tucked position. If you do tuck your pelvis though, it will make it much harder to get up in a roll up. All your energy will be directed down into the lower part of your body and your feet will probably want to fly up off the mat instead of your upper body.

What you need to do instead, is stabilize the pelvis in a more neutral position so that your core muscles can lengthen out of that, and all of your abs can work to carry you up-and-over.

Safety and Precautions

Stop if you feel any pain during this exercise. If you can't keep good form, use the tips to modify the exercise or discuss it with your Pilates instructor. If you have low-back pain, it is best to begin this movement using a bolster or bent knees. Speak to your doctor first if you have back pain or a previous injury.

While Pilates is excellent for postpartum recovery, it is necessary to get clearance from your health care provider first. Some women have abdominal separation and should not perform these movements before the separation is resolved. This can be the case for anyone who has been pregnant.

Try It Out

Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

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3 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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