Before You Do Rolling Exercises

Woman practicing open leg rocker pilates mat exercise
Angela Coppola/Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

Rolling exercises are part of the classic Pilates exercise repertoire. They create a unique abdominal workout where we have to use a lot of control to initiate and support the movement. Rolling also gets the blood flowing, stimulates the spine, and coordinates the breath and movement.

I have a fondness for rolling exercises because they teach me so much about using my abdominals for power and support.

But I know that not everyone shares my enthusiasm. Safety concerns and the sheer unusualness of the exercises can make these moves scary.

Use these tips to help you get the most out of rolling exercises:

Roll On the Right Surface

Do not roll on the hard floor or on a surface that is too soft. The hard floor will hurt your spine as it is exposed in a curved shape. A surface that is too soft will not give you balanced support (plus it will slow down your roll). So, at the risk of sounding like Goldilocks, you have to get this one just right.

I suggest a firm Pilates exercise mat. You can also experiment with a folded blanket on the floor, stacking a couple of thin, yoga-style mats, or rolling on a firm, thick rug.

Warm Up First

It is important that your abdominals and your back muscles be ready to work hard before you launch into a roll.
Some good warm up exercises:

Focus On the Abdominals

These exercises may look exotic, but basically, they are abdominal exercises. Your abs will have to stay pulled in and working for you the whole time. If the abs don't do the work, your back will take the brunt of the workout and that is not what you are after.

Tune in to the Flow of Energy

This is one of the exciting parts of understanding the rolling exercises. There is a sequence to the flow of energy through your core that will help you roll once you learn to use it. In general, the energy moves from low abs to upper on the way up and over, and then you reverse that and focus upper then lower abs on the way back. It's not just a physical thing; it's the way you direct the movement with your mind. Imagery, like thinking of a wheel or a spiral can help.

    Use Your Breath

    The power of the breath is key to getting these rolling exercises to flow smoothly. Allow yourself to breathe out loud for these. Don't be shy; exaggerate for a while until you get the breath coordinated with the movement.

    Initiate the Roll with Your Powerhouse

    The biggest problem I see people have with rolling exercises is trying to get their roll started by tilting themselves backward from the head and shoulders. This never works. The rolling starts with a deep pull in of the lower abs and strong use of the breath.

    Stay curved, use your breath, focus your intention, and pull the abs in so much that you have to roll back; it works.

    Another tendency is to try to use the momentum of throwing the legs to get the roll over and back. This can harm to your back and it takes the focus off the abs, which is where you want it.

    Stay in Your C Curve

    Repeat: Stay in the C curve the whole time. There is a tendency to undo the curve and layout at the top end of a roll. This will cause you to lose your momentum.

    Rolling exercises treat the head as an extension of the spine, so your neck continues the curve of your spine and your head is not overly tucked. Remember, you want to be a perfect wheel.

    Roll Only to the Shoulders

    It is important to protect your upper back and neck. Roll only onto your shoulders, just above the lower tips of your scapula, and never up onto your neck.

    A big part of working with the shoulder area as a support station is keeping your chest open, back wide, and shoulders down. This will help you roll evenly and have a good platform to roll onto.

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