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Although not one of the original Pilates exercises, the Roll Down is one of the most basic exercises and can highlight many weakness or imbalances within the body.  I will very often use the Pilates Roll Down (as opposed to a yoga roll down) as a warm up exercise in my classes and it is a super exercise for improving spine and back mobility.

Caution: The Roll Down is not suitable for everyone, particularly where there is osteopeonia or osteoporosis of the spine.  Not suitable for advanced stages of pregnancy.  If you are unsure if a roll down is a suitable exercise for you then do not do it.

How to do a Pilates Roll Down

Everyone has their own version of a Pilates roll down and this is mine.

  • Stand with your feet hip width apart.  The knees should be soft and not ‘locked’.  The natural curves of the spine should be present, with your ears, shoulders, hips and ankles stacked on top of one another.  There should be a lengthened feeling to the back of the neck and the eyes looking straight ahead, arms should be relaxed by your side.  Breathe laterally thinking about expanding the ribs to the side and back.
  • As you exhale, engage the lower abdominal muscles and lower the chin to the chest.  Make sure there is a gap between the chin and the chest, be careful not to jam the chin down.  Continue to roll down one vertebra at a time starting from the neck down to the lower back.  Try to feel each vertebra moving as you roll through the spine.
  • As you roll down, be careful not to collapse through the waist, imagine you are rolling up and over a large ball.  Keep the hips over the ankle bones as you roll down.  Your arms and shoulders stay relaxed.
  • Roll through the spine until the back is making a nice long C-curve shape.  You will feel a stretch through the lower back.  In this position, focus on your breathing again and imagine you are puffing up the lower back muscles with your breath.  Hold the stretch there for three deep breaths.
  • Exhale and engage your abdominal muscles and start to stack the vertebra, slowly coming up to standing.  As you roll up, remember to keep the hips over the ankle joints and be careful not to take all the weight into your heels.  Gradually return to your start position imagining you have created space in between each vertebra.

During your roll down, take care to notice what is happening in your body.  Do you start to stand more on one foot than the other?  Do your feet roll in or out?  Do you feel big chunks of the spine roll down or up at once?  Does a particular part of your back feel more of a stretch?  By noticing these things you become mindful of your body and can start to make the changes needed to create a better posture.

As you do this exercise it may help to imagine you are pressing your back into a wall (but keep the natural curves of the spine).  The head rolls forward and pulls the body away from the wall, little by little.

Please note that if you have very tight hamstrings then you may want to bend the knees a little more to make it more comfortable.

After completing four or five of these roll downs, you should start to feel looser through your spine.  These are a great way to start or end a day!