In the years I’ve been teaching, the one exercise that baffles, frustrates, annoys, enrages, puzzles, and flabbergasts students the most is the Pilates Roll Up. For some, it looks effortless. Some people can execute a reasonably good one their first try. For others, like Fuse Ambassador Stephanie Yu, it is the worst. exercise. ever.
If you’ve read the “We Suck” blog, you know that I would personally disagree and say that Kneeling Side Kicks takes the cake for the worst Pilates exercise (and other teachers have their least favorites, too).
But, for many of you, it’s the Roll Up that makes you cringe. Why is it so hard?
The main culprit keeping you from mastering the Roll Up is abdominal weakness, and that only improves when you work on abdominal strengthening exercises. In fact, the Roll Up works your ab muscles up to 30% more than a regular crunch.
A great place to start your relationship with the Roll Up is at Fuse. But as Stephanie tells us below, your journey might start elsewhere.
Confession: Two years ago, I couldn’t do a full Pilates roll up even if you dangled a box of Thin Mints in front of me.
The few times that I ventured to a mat Pilates class, I hid in the back of the room (to the extent there was a “back”) because I knew that my core strength was abysmal. When it came time to do Roll Ups, I’d come into something that resembled a C-curve, curl up another inch, get stuck, and reach my fingers behind my thighs to get the rest of the way up. Sure, this was preparing me to ultimately do a full Roll Up, but in the meantime, it wasn’t awesome on the ego.
Then two things happened. First, I broke my tailbone. Second, I moved to the Pacific Northwest for six months. By the time I got out west, I had taken over nine months off from running. My original plan was to pick it back up again once I got out there, except, my broken tailbone thwarted that plan. Although I could painlessly sit and walk, running remained a pain in the rear.
I put running on the back burner and focused instead on my yoga practice. Back in DC, I had a regular led Ashtanga yoga practice, but elements of the practice, like effortless-looking jump backs and jump throughs, eluded me. Conceptually, I knew that they required core strength and control. Now in Seattle and shopping for yoga studios and teachers, I saw a common theme: Seattle yogis were really into core work. In nearly every yoga class that I attended – it didn’t matter the time of day or day of week – teachers incorporated non-yoga asana, core-strengthening exercises. Studio after studio, teacher after teacher, they all cued moves straight out of my broken tailbone physical therapy sessions, and I realize now, probably also from Joseph Pilates’ book.
At some point, I discovered that I was able to painlessly run. I attribute this to all the glute strengthening that was happening in the yoga classes. The next thing I noticed, which I have no problem attributing to the core work, was that all my standing yoga poses – including the single leg balances – increased in stability. And while I wasn’t consistently floating up into crow pose, arm balances were easier, too.
Without getting too bogged down in the details, many yoga poses involve both strength and flexibility. Like many practitioners, though, I often used the wrong muscles, particularly in arm balances. “Arm” balances are a misnomer. To me, the term “arm” balance suggests that all of the weight is distributed on the arms, supporting the rest of the body. Instead, structurally sound arm balances are borne from core engagement. It is the core that lifts the body; the arms are there only because we haven’t figured out how to levitate (Mariska tells me she’s working on this!)
After six months in the Pacific Northwest and practicing the local style of core-infused yoga, I returned to DC. I checked into a Fuse mat class. I did a Roll Up. And another one. And another. It was amazing.
As for the proper Ashtanga jump back and jump forward, they still elude me, but I’m sure with more Fuse, they’ll appear one day.
We’re confident we’ll have Stephanie doing the yoga jump back and jump forward soon. As for the answer to “why is the Roll Up so difficult?” well, in addition to abdominal strength, it often has to do with body proportions. A long-torsoed person is going to have a tougher time than someone with long legs and a shorter torso. That’s about the amount of weight you’re lifting up compared to the amount of weight that gets to stay down on the ground (the good news for this group is that teasers will be easier for you than your leggy classmates).
For others, tightness in the lower back is the culprit keeping you down. Drawing your abdominals inward with your back in a C-curve can help stretch a tight back, and strengthening the abdominal muscles overall will balance out the tightness. If you “kerplunk” on your way down instead of rolling smoothly down one vertebra at a time, that’s often a sign that tightness is the problem. So, exercises that stretch your back and strengthen your abdominals will help. Start with a half roll down – from seated, roll back halfway, drawing your abdominals toward your spine and creating that famous Pilates C-curve. We do a ton of variations of these exercises at Fuse – all to get our students into stronger, better, more efficient Roll Ups.
Stay hard core!