The Rolling Pilates Exercises

Using Abdominal and Back Muscles to Support a Flexible Spine

Rolling exercises, where the spine rolls and unrolls, have a special place in the Pilates system. They increase the flexibility of the spine, they teach us to lengthen and support the spine through the powerhouse muscles, and they increase circulation. Because they take so much support and control from the abdominal muscles, these spinal articulation exercises are the truly intense ab exercises. Joseph Pilates also saw the rolling exercises as valuable in calming the nervous system. He even recommended them for better sleep.

Here we have a reference with basic instructions for the rolling and unrolling back exercises that are part of the classical Pilates mat exercise sequence. Exercises that both roll and twist, such as saw and corkscrew, are not included; nor are the back and forth rocking exercises such as open leg rocker and seal, though they also stimulate the spine. Do click on the full instructions if you have not done the exercise recently.

These Pilates exercises are not necessarily meant to be practiced one after the other. A balanced workout incorporates a variety of moves. However, it is beneficial to have an easy reference for these rolling back exercises so that you can incorporate them into your workouts or do a few when needed. You may wish to warm up before practicing rolling exercises.

Not all of these exercises are appropriate for beginners. They are also not for those with back or neck issues. Since we are online and can't see you, we are trusting you to take care of yourself.

Pilates Roll Up Exercise
Pilates Roll Up Exercise.
Set up: Lie on your back. Legs extended. Feet are flexed or lightly pointed.
Bring your arms overhead as far as you can without popping your ribs up.
Inhale: Bring the arms overhead. As the arms continue past your ears, nod your head, deepen your abdominal muscles toward your spine and roll your upper body off the mat.
Exhale: Continue curling up. Support the spine with the abdominal muscles in a big curve.
Reach for your toes but don't lose the scoop of the belly and curve of the spine.
Inhale: begin to roll down. Start with the low abs. Exhale: Continue to roll down, vertebra by vertebra, using the abs for control and lengthening the spine.
Return the arms to the start position as the upper back and then the head roll down.
Repeat 3 times.

Also see Tips for Mastering the Roll Up


pilates roll over
Getty Images

Set up: Lie on your back. Legs extended. Arms by your sides, palms down. Toes slightly pointed. Bring your legs up, toes to the ceiling. Exhale: Lower the legs slightly
Inhale: Curl your pelvis off the mat and press the backs of your arms into the mat to roll the pelvis up.
Exhale: Continue to roll over, keeping the hips lifted (don't slump into your spine) until your weight is on the broad part at the base of your shoulders.
Legs are straight and parallel to the floor. If you are flexible and have control, touch your toes to the floor.Exhale:
Inhale: Flex your feet, open your legs shoulder width.
Exhale: Roll down with control.
Repeat 2 more times with this foot pattern, then switch to 3 times going over legs open feet flexed and coming down legs closed feet pointed. Also see Tips for Roll Over


Pilates spine stretch
courtesy of Peak Pilates
Set up: Sit tall on your sit bones. Legs extended shoulder width apart. Arms Overhead or straight in front.
Exhale:Nod your head and your curve your spine forward, lengthening with an up and in motion of the abdominal muscles.
The arms follow the motion of the spine throughout the exercise.
Reach toward your toes.
Exhale: Bring your pelvis upright. Unfurl your spine, lengthening up between your shoulders (which are relaxed) and letting the head be the last part to float up.
Repeat 3 times.


Pilates neck pull
(c)2010, Marguerite Ogle

Neck Pull is an advanced Pilates mat exercise.

Set up: Lie down with legs extended, hip distance apart, feet flexed.
Hands are behind the head -- elbows open, shoulders down.
Inhale: Lengthen your spine, nod your head and curl your upper spine off the mat. Legs stay down.
Exhale: Continue to support the length and curve of your spine with your abdominal muscles as you curl all the way up and over so that your head curves toward your knees.
Inhale: Bring your pelvis to upright, stack your spine on top.
Exhale: Starting with the low spine, roll your spine down onto the mat. (see full instructions for the version with the straight back lean)
Repeat 3 times.

Also see: Alisa Wyatt's Neck Pull Tips from the Masters


pilates jack knife
(c)2010, Marguerite Ogle
Set up: Lie on your back. Arms along sides. Bring your legs up, toes to the ceiling.
Inhale: Press the backs of the arms into the mat as you roll over legs parallel to the floor.
Exhale: Shoot the legs up to the ceiling by pressing the arms and backs of shoulders against the floor, extending the hips open and lengthening the spine.
Suspend at the top
Inhale: Return the legs to parallel to the floor.
Exhale: Lengthen the spine out along the floor sequentially until pelvis is down and toes point to the ceiling. The legs do not drop as you go.
Repeat 3 times.


Pilates Teaser Exercise
Pilates Teaser Exercise.

Set up:Begin lying down, legs extended and together. Arms along your sides.
Inhale: Nod your head, and begin to curl your upper back off the floor as you reach your hands toward your knees.
Continue to roll up as you lift your legs. Arms come up and fingers reach toward the toes.
Hold a moment with your chest open. Your abs are holding your legs up.
Exhale: Roll down simultaneously bringing your legs down.
Repeat 3 times.
Note: In Return to Life Through Contrology, Joseph Pilates begins this exercise seated and rolls back to the legs up position.

Also see One Leg Teaser (modified) and How to Perfect Your Teaser.


It is important that you practice all of these exercises with the Pilates principles -- centering concentration, control, precision, breath and flow -- in mind. In particular all of these moves are to be carried out with full Pilates breathing. Use the deep inhales and complete exhales that propel movement and circulation.