Nemesis Exercise – Pilates Roll Up

After so many years teaching Pilates, one of my favorite beginner mat exercises is still the Pilates Roll Up. For many people, though, the Roll Up is their "nemesis" exercise—the one that they dread the most.

People tend to assume the Roll Up is only an abdominal exercise because it is so challenging to your abdominal strength and coordination, but if you deconstruct it, it is really about spinal articulation and hip flexion. My client Patty, for example, struggles with the Roll Up, popping her feet or thrusting herself forward to find her balance on her sitz bones. She is overusing leverage and momentum to come up, instead of curving her spine with her breath and abdominal control. Here is my basic Roll Up:

  • Lay down on your back, knees bent.
  • Lift your arms up, reaching forward like an active zombie.
  • Lift your head up, while breathing, and curl up through your spine to sitting.

Sounds easy enough and if this works well, it will feel effortless and fluid. However, if you are like Patty and it doesn’t come easily, then here are some things to observe:

  • Notice whether you feel a drop point on the way up or down. This typically means you need to strengthen your abdominals to support the choreography.
  • Notice whether your pelvis immediately tilts toward your head.

Check to see if you are squeezing your butt muscles, sitz bones or gripping in your hip flexors.

  • Notice whether your weight immediately shifts to the bottom of your ribs while coming up. This is typically a result of squeezing your butt muscles, sitz bones and/or gripping in your hips.
  • Notice if you are doing a combination of these or all of the above.

There are many ways to approach each one of these habits, and if I were working with you in person I’d tailor the exercise to your needs. Instead, I am going to offer my favorite precursor to building your foundation to a Roll Up. It’s called Mini Roll Downs.

  • Sit up on your sitz bones, knees bent, adjusting your feet forward away from your sitz bones so you are balanced and not gripping in your hip flexors and your feet are flat on the floor.
  • Place your hands behind your thighs and gently lean back, curving your lower spine, allowing your arms to extend if needed. DO NOT GO ALL THE WAY DOWN. There will be a moment when you feel your abdominals struggle, and your body will want to fall back into gravity. RESIST. Do not pass that point.
  • Take an inhale and an exhale pull into your abs to come back to the start position.
  • Repeat 4 to 6 times. Try this a few times a week, and when you notice the fall-back position is shifting closer to the floor, then congratulations—you know you are getting stronger.

Over time, your Roll Up will improve. Just last week, Patty had her first real success with curving her lower back in a Roll Up. We are still working on it, but it was a beautiful moment to see her body embrace the beginnings of spinal flexion. Feel free to write comments to let me know how this is working for you at home. If the Roll Up is your nemesis exercise, please be kind to yourself. It will take consistency and patience to strategize out of your habits.

If you are injured, please do not attempt any exercises described here without the explicit consent of your doctor.

It is important to know that there are inherent risks of injury with any exercise program without proper guidance and supervision. Please consult with your physician before attempting any exercise routines offered by Intuitive Motion Pilates.

Client names are changed to protect their privacy.      

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