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Why do we do rolling exercises in Pilates?

Updated: Apr 11, 2022

They’re not everyone’s cup of tea, but rolling exercises are a key element of the original 34 mat exercises designed by Joseph Pilates. They develop our spinal flexibility, core stability, precision, and balance. The most important thing, however, is to have a sense of humour as rolling rarely goes exactly to plan!

For those who enjoy rolling, the exercises are a great way to massage the spine after sitting in the same position for long periods of the day. The exercise variations include rolling back, open leg rocker and seal. Let’s take each in turn.

Rolling back

This exercise is a great way to introduce rolling and improves lumbar spine mobility. Sit at the front of your mat (check behind you for any obstacles!) with toes in contact with the floor and hold onto the shins. Engage your core muscles and round your spine into a ‘c’ shape. Inhale to perform a pelvic tilt and roll back (just as far as the tops of the shoulders) and exhale to roll back up. Keep the spine in a rounded position and try to keep the shape of a ball as you roll backwards and forwards. Try to avoid using momentum and for an extra challenge, try to keep your toes off the floor in between. Much easier said than done!


The benefits of the seal include spinal mobility and core strength as the exercise targets the rectus abdominis and obliques. Sit on the mat, open the knees and thread your hands between the legs, around the outside of the calves and hold the outside of the feet. Come to balance on the sit bones and do a slight pelvic tilt so the spine makes a ‘c’ shape. Feet are together and knees slightly apart. Inhale to roll back (no further than the top of the shoulders) and exhale to return to the start position. Try to keep your feet off the mat if you can and for an extra challenge clap the feet together two or three times like a seal! An alternative is to hold behind the thighs or the outside of your legs.

Open leg rocker

The most advanced of the exercises, the open leg rocker increases spinal mobility, core stability and increases flexibility and strength of the legs. Start by finding a balanced position on the sit bones and ensure you have your core engaged. Extend the legs out and up (it may be easier to do this one at a time) and hold the ankles or shins. If the hamstrings are tight, simply bend the knees and hold the calves or behind the thighs. Legs are slightly apart, and the spine is long. Inhale to tuck the pelvis under, round the thoracic spine and rock back (imagine you’re a rocking chair) no further than the top of the shoulders. Exhale to rock back to start position, spine lengthened and pelvis back to start position. You are aiming to control the movement from the centre rather than pulling or pushing the legs, and shoulders should be relaxed with the neck in line with the spine.

We’ll keep practising these in class, but the most important thing is to try to enjoy it and not take it too seriously. Just let go and have fun!

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