CoreBody Blog

The Anatomy of The Pilates Roll-Up

Reasons to love Ab Prep, Hip Rolls + Spinal Articulation

The Pilates Roll-up, part of the Intermediate repertoire, can challenge even the most experienced of clients.

The essential preparatory repertoire to this movement, builds the strength and flexibility needed to roll-up and aids in many daily functional movements…so good reason to work on yours, whether you achieve a full roll-up or not!  

The repertoire that prepares one for a full roll-up is below:

Diaphragmatic Breathing, Toe Taps, Ab Prep, Hip Rolls, Hip Lifts, Half Roll-Downs, Single Thigh Stretch, Obliques + Twisting.

The Pilates Roll-Up is an element of all of the movements below, so all the more reason to master the above preparatory essential movements!

  • Back Rowing
  • Short Box Series
  • The Tree
  • The Teaser; on the mat, chair, reformer and Cadillac
  • Reverse Abdominals

What it takes to execute a Pilates Roll-up:


  1. The Pilates Roll-up Starts with Ab Prep.  Here is your reason to love the ab prep as the rectus abdominis muscle is responsible for the first 30° to 45° of trunk flexion and a 75% activation during the roll-up exercise. Building strength in your rectus abdominals is key to curl your head, neck, shoulders up without undue stress to your neck flexors! Practice: Ap prep with the Push Thru Bar + Half Roll-Downs.
  • Love the twist and oblique activation exercises.  Not only do these exercises whittle the mid-line, but the Pilates Roll-up has an activation of 70% from the external obliques. Practice: Reverse Obliques and Rotation or Twist.
  • Learn to Roll Through your Imprint with your THASS.  After the breath, and belly (transverse ab connection) with an Ab Prep, we imprint our pelvis with a posterior pelvic tilt, tucking the tailbone under, tipping the pubic bone upwards, engaging our THASS (glute activation where your thigh/hamstrings meets your buttocks!) as we do in our hip-rolls. Your THASS or hamstring + glutes are needed to anchor the lower body as your femur bones move up and back into our pelvis as we curl up and over the pelvis with our torso, creating a C-Curve.  Practice: Hip Rolls, Hip Lifts, Half Roll-Down with the Roll-Down Bar or on the mat with a yoga strap.
  • Creating the C-Curve of the Pilates Roll-Up takes Transverse Abdominals. As we roll through our imprint with our THASS, we must have equal amount of front body connectivity with our transverse abs.  The transverse abdominal muscle compresses the abdomen (abdominal organs against your spine) pulling your belly up and in away from your legs bending the trunk forward C-Curve flexion. Practice: Toe-taps in neutral + Ab Prep with thoracic flexion.
  • Spinal Articulation is needed for the Roll-up.  Having a flexible back and hamstrings allows us to articulate through the spine creating the “rolling” effect vs “hinging” from the hips. The Pilates Roll-up is not just about abdominal strength as many believe. A tight back effects segmental spinal movement, finding ease in the back so it can bend greatly effecting your roll-up. Strong and flexible hamstrings help us roll upwards and keep weight in the heels to prevent the legs and feet lifting as we roll.  What to Practice: Flexion, Extension, and Rotation on the chair.

Segmental Spinal Warm-up + Movement

  • Loosen your back with half roll downs eccentrically, working with gravity;
    • We start with spinal movement in each class, but you could do some roll downs off the wall or hip rolls prior to class, and I”d recommend daily spinal movement;
    • We work with the Push Thru Bar, and Roll down bar in class but at home use a flex band/yoga strap around your feet to help SLOW you down so you can sequence through your spine;
    • Move your spine in all directions (flexion, extension, rotation, laterally) before you attempt a full roll up.
  • Short or Tight Hip Flexors can impede movement in the Lumbar spine. Tight hip flexors shift the lower back into deeper lordosis or extension (aka an anterior tilted pelvis) creating a larger gap in the low back than you may have structurally.

What to Practice: Hip Flexor Stretches

  • We always include a low or high lunge on a mat or a Single Thigh Stretch on the reformer in most classes. This movement will help stretch the front of the hip, allowing the tailbone to drop and the spine to lengthen. These can be done in your home-based practice as well.  I’d also explore quad and hamstring stretches as well, so that the femur bones can move appropriately as you move upwards when rolling to keep your legs rooting down into the mat or carriage.
  • The Diaphragm efficiently helps lengthen the spine. It seamlessly connects the upper body to the lower body.

What to Practice: Diaphragmatic/Low-Belly Breathing

  • Your breath helps open your ribs so you can move sequentially through your spine;
    • Your breath helps engage the deepest layers of abdominals specifically your transverse abdominis to work against gravity in the roll-up;
    • Deeply exhaling helps to increase these abdominals with a deeper stretch to your spine.
    • Use the rhythm of your breath with your abs “inhale” into your diaphragm + “exhale” to engage your transverse abs as you roll upwards.
  • Body Rolling for Spinal Fascial Release. When we use the body-rolling balls or pinkie balls, we help to breakup the fascia in the back line of the spine, and our flexibility will inevitably improve.  

What to Practice: Investing in 2-3 inch rubber balls (like the pinkie balls we have in-studio) practice body-rolling and fascial release work can give you self-massage daily. I would also highly recommend “The Roll-Model” book by Jill Miller as it goes through body-rolling with amazing photos for every part of your body.

What to do: Fascial Release Work

  • Use different sized fascial release rubberized balls to help break tight fascia in areas of your body, specifically your back;
    • Tip: Start rolling with your upper traps. Then, work your way to your mid-back and through your ribs, which are usually the most compressed versus the lower back.

Pilates Equipment Aids in the Pilates Roll-up

Many of the Pilates exercises in the essential repertoire work on executing parts of the roll-up with hip rolls, twisting, half roll-downs, and ab prep. The benefits of strengthening and lengthening our bodies with these exercises far out-weigh having the most beautifully executed roll-up regardless of your goals.

When you are in-studio, the different pieces of the Pilates apparatus-based equipment such as the roll-down bar, the Push Thru bar, Cadillac springs and reformer straps all aid in building your strength in the above areas and improve your flexibility helping to achieve a full Pilates Roll-up with greater ease over-time.

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