The Pilates Roll Up by Lizzie Tuff

The Roll Up is a Pilates exercise that is often used as it’s a great transition exercise. However, have you noticed that clients can either perform this exercise with ease or they really struggle with it? What is it that determines the ability of some participants to achieve this complex exercise?

School Of Pilates Posted Apr 08, 2013 Future Fit Training


The Pilates Roll Up by Lizzie Tuff

In this article, we take a look at the bi-mechanics involved and provide you with a few tips on how you can teach the Roll Up in a way that helps your clients achieve this movement more easily.

Let’s begin at the beginning

Ideally when lying in the supine position with the legs extended there would be a natural lordotic curve with the anterior superior iliac spine level with the pubic bone. Imagine a triangle from the anterior superior illiac spine (ASIS) on the right hip to the ASIS on the left hip and meeting at a point on the pubic bone. Any kind of deviation anatomically from this position could result in restrictions on the Roll Up, whether the client has an excessive lordotic curve with tight/short hip flexors and weak abdominals or tight abdominals and weak hip flexors resulting in a posterior tilt on the pelvis.

Client type 1 - strong abdominals and weak hip flexors

When the abdominals are strong and the hip flexors are weak the abdominal curl phase of the Roll Up can only be completed and it does not matter whether the legs are extended or straight, the client will find it extremely difficult to attempt to curl through the rest of the spine to able to perform a Roll Up. When the knees are bent on this type of client the abdominal curl phase can be compromised further because the pelvis has the freedom to gain a posterior tilt with the contraction of the rectus abdominus acting on the pelvis and thorax.  This will result in the thorax not being able to leave the floor as much. It’s like doing an abdominal curl upside down on a slide.

Client type 2 – weak abdominals and strong hip flexors

If the abdominals are weak and the hip flexors are strong then the pelvis will tilt anteriorly, hyper-extending the back. This means these types of clients are able to perform the roll up with the hip flexors instead of the abs and the back in hyperextension. Furthermore, in trying to roll up the client ends up requiring more extension through the leg, or more pressure added from the teacher holding the client’s feet down. The client may even utilise momentum by using the arms to be brought up over the head quickly. Yes, the client can complete the Roll Up like this but only to the point of compromising the safety of the lumbar spine in hyper extension and causing strain and stress.

As Pilates teachers we can be drawn to believe that the hip flexors can be deactivated by bending the knees. The problem with the knee bent position is that the one joint hip flexor illiacus and rectus femoris one of the quadriceps group, is shortened over the hip and extended over the knee so are not actually deactivated.

So what is the answer bent or straight legs?

For the lordotic client with short hip flexors, the knees should be bent a little in order to help tilt the pelvis back to passively flex the hips e.g. place a rolled blanket under knees in the supine position.

It is advisable that these lordotic clients just perform the curl up phase of the roll up to begin with and slowly increase the range of motion through the curl up phase whilst looking to lengthen the hip flexors. Adding a Pilates wedge, pillow or mini ball behind the client to lift the head and shoulders from the mat will assist the client so that they can work within a smaller range of motion. As the client improves in abdominal strength the size of the wedge or pillow behind can be decreased or the Pilates mini ball moved further away behind the client.  Eventually the client increases the range of motion of the abdominal curl phase of the roll up and with commitment and regular practise the client may be able to perform the roll up with extended legs.  

For the client who has weak hip flexors it is advisable to allow the client to complete the abdominal curl phase unsupported as this is their strongest point. As the abdominal curl phase completes to the point approximately where the thorax leaves the floor, the hip flexors kick in to draw the spine up and over, this is where the teacher should hold the client’s feet to assist.

If your client is always struggling to perform in each class this can be very demotivating and they eventually lose faith and give up.  Assisting clients can help them feel inclusive within a group and attain a sense of personal achievement, which in the long term will help them make a regular commitment to their practise.

Written by Lizzie Tuff

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