How to Do the Pilates Roll Up Exercise

Everything You Need to Know to Do the Roll Up Exercise Perfectly

Roll Up
Ben Goldstein

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.

Lots of people have trouble with the Pilates mat exercise, 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.

But with these instructions and tips, you can learn to perform the Pilates roll up with great form to strengthen your core.

Step-By-Step Instructions for the Pilates Roll Up

  1. 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 finger tips are pointing to the wall behind you. This will be your beginning position.
    This first move is the Pilates Arms Over.
  2. Inhale: Leave your scapula down as you bring your arms up over head. As your arms pass your ears, let the chin drop and the head and upper spine join the motion to curl up.
  3. 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 the your spine as you exhale. That's what gets you up (not momentum).
    Finally, keeping the head tucked, the abdominals deep, and the back rounded, reach for your toes.
    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.
  1. Inhale: Bring the breath fully into your pelvis and back as you pull the lower abs in, reach your tail bone under, and begin to unfurl, vertebrae by vertebrae, down to the floor.
    The inhale initiates this motion until you are about half way down.
    Note: 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.
  1. Exhale: Continue to set one vertebrae 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 following 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.
  2. Do up to six 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.
  3. Next, try the Pilates roll up with magic circle.

Build Strength and Flexibility to Improve Your Roll Up

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 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.

    What's with My "Flying Feet?"

    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, the infamous hip-flexors.

    Abs in, ribs down and in, and a big curve of the spine are crucial parts of roll up; and 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."

    Stabilize Your Pelvis

    One of the most tempting mis-alignment 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.

    Learn about the perils of tucked pelvic alignment.

    Bend Your Knees

    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 over-activity of the hip flexors, allowing you to strengthen and coordinate the transversus abdominis and other abs muscles.

    Keep the basic form of the roll up and just bend the knees slightly. You you can also bend the knees more as you come up and use your hands to grasp behind your knees to help yourself up and support the rest of the roll up/down. Don't get your heels too close to your butt or the exercise will get harder.

    Use a Prop

    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 more subtle and helps the body find that important sense of letting go of the hip flexors while letting the abs drop back into the trunk.

    Another prop you might want to try is an exercise band. Wrap the exercise band around the balls of your feet and then lie down. Instead of going overhead, the arms will start from down by your sides with hands holding the band. Adjust the tension in the band so that it gives you a little support as you roll up and down.