How to Do Rocking in Pilates

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Targets: Back extensors, glutes, hamstrings

Level: Advanced

Rocking is a classical Pilates mat exercise that helps you stretch and strengthen your back. It builds on other back-extending exercises, such as swan and swimming, and requires strength in your core as well.


Back extensions like rocking strengthen your back and act as a counterbalance to the forward bending exercises common in Pilates—as well as any slouching you do in daily life. Rocking helps you elongate your spine and stabilize your torso. These will both contribute to good posture and a healthy, flexible back that allows you to pursue your daily activities without pain.

Step-by-Step Instructions

Begin on your belly with your head turned to one side and your arms along your sides. Take a moment to lengthen your spine and engage your abdominal muscles. Bring your mind to the midline of your body.

  1. Bend one knee and grasp your ankle. Bend the other knee and grasp that ankle. Keep your head down for now. As much as possible, you will keep your legs parallel throughout the exercise. Engage your inner thighs to help you do this.
  2. Inhale and press your ankles into your hands as you simultaneously lift your head, chest and knees away from the mat. This is a long back extension with your neck extending through your shoulder girdle as your arms reach back, chest open and face forward.
  3. Start rocking: Hold the crescent shape you have created and keep legs parallel. Exhale to rock forward. Inhale to lift. Stay balanced on your hips; don't lean to one side or the other. The rocking is accomplished mostly with the breath and subtle shifts in the way you use your abdominal and back muscles, much like you do in Pilates swan dive.
  4. Rock back and forth 5 times.

Common Mistakes

Be sure you are fully warmed up before you attempt this challenging exercise. As you do it, watch for these problems with form and execution:

Pulling on Your Ankles

The lift of the legs has to come from an activation of muscles at the back of the leg, especially where the back of the leg and buttock come together. Don't just pull your legs with your hands.

Crunching the Back

Lengthen both the front and the back of your body to create an arc. Remember, you are extending your spine, not crunching it. Lifting your abs also protects your low back.

Using Momentum

The rocking should not come from dropping the upper body front and then punching out with the legs. Take your time and find the movement from inside. Connect your mind and your breath to the movement of your body.

Modifications and Variations

Just getting into Pilates rocking position is an advanced exercise. If it feels good, great; you are ready to move into the rocking movement.

Need a Modification?

If you don't feel comfortable in the starting position, build up to Pilates rocking by practicing pelvic curl, single leg kick, and lunge, along with other back extension exercises, such as dart, swan, swimming, cat-cow, and plank. You can also use a strap to help reach your feet.

Up for a Challenge?

Once you get rocking, exaggerate the movement to get a high lift of the legs as you rock forward, and a high, open chest as you rock back.

Safety and Precautions

You should avoid this exercise if you have any shoulder, back or knee injuries or pain. Also avoid this exercise in the second and third trimester of pregnancy.

Try It Out

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

By Marguerite Ogle MS, RYT
Marguerite Ogle is a freelance writer and experienced natural wellness and life coach, who has been teaching Pilates for more than 35 years.