We all have our favourite Pilates exercises and the roll up is one of mine. It combines strength, mobility and coordinated rhythm and when performed well can look graceful, elegant and effortless. But many people struggle with this exercise. No matter how hard they try they can’t get all the way up.
In my years of teaching Pilates I’ve noticed three main difficulties that people have with this movement;
- They can only get up so far and then have to use their hands to pull themselves up
- They can get up but only if they use momentum – that little lurch or jerky movement
- They can manage the roll up but their legs lift off the floor
And I see how frustrating it can be, especially when you feel you are progressing well with all the other Pilates movements. So in this article I’d like to break down the mechanics of the roll up which may explain why you find this particular exercise challenging.
A roll up requires more than just strong abs; there are three key muscle groups that help with the roll up.
If we’re starting lying on the mat then the movement begins with an abdominal curl. We take a breath and as we exhale we bring our chin towards our chest and start to curl up by lifting the head and shoulders. To perform this curl we are using our rectus abdominis (6 pack) muscles plus the obliques (waist muscles) to pull our upper body away from the mat.
Now we’re at the stage where we have to lift our ribs off the floor and this is where it can get tricky! We’re still using the abdominal muscles but now they need some help. Not only are we flexing the spine but, because our legs are out in front of us we also need to flex at the hips. Cue the hip flexors. (The man in the image above needs to tuck his chin in a bit more!!)
We have deep and superficial hip flexors and both help in a roll up.
The deep hip flexor muscle (psoas) runs from the lumbar spine, across the pelvis and inserts to the top inside of thigh bone while the superficial hip flexors (quadriceps) run from the pelvis and insert just below the knee. All these muscles work to help us pull the spine up off the floor towards the legs.
So now we have the abdominal and hip flexors working to lift our upper body off the floor. But what if we can’t keep our legs down whilst performing this movement?
Now the muscles at the back of the legs, primarily the hamstrings, help us to come all the way up. Our hamstrings help to lever our body up and keep the backs of the legs on the floor. The hamstrings should work in synergy with the hip flexors to help to keep the legs straight.
So to recap: the abdominals help with the initial curl off the floor. The hip flexors help lift the upper body all the way off the floor and the hamstrings help to keep the legs down as we come all the way up to sit tall.
The final piece of the roll up puzzle
Having a mobile spine that we can roll up and down bone by bone, without any gaps, allows us to move smoothly with a nice flowing rhythm and it’s our deep core muscles that help us articulate the spine.
So if you are struggling with your roll up it might not just be your abdominals – you may need to work on strengthening your hip flexors or hamstrings or perhaps work on your core control so you can articulate more smoothly through your spine.
Please don’t get too frustrated! We all have a particular exercise that proves to be more challenging than the others. And please note that using strong, jerky movements to get up off the floor does put a serious amount of strain on your lower back – not something to be recommended.