I have been teaching Pilates for four years now, and some of my best students are very strong in their core but cannot complete a Roll Up. We have worked on modifications, used dumbbells to hold their feet down and worked on strengthening the erector spine, but nothing seems to help.
You mentioned your client’s core is very strong, but don’t forget there are other elements to this exercise that are just as important. Start by taking a fresh look at the fundamental movements incorporated in the Roll Up as well as your client’s abilities to perform them. Also, take a second look at the modifications you have chosen to help the client reach the goal. If your intention is for the student to eventually perform a Pilates exercise the way it was designed, your modified exercise should closely match the original exercise biomechanically and neurologically while also keeping the body from entering potentially injurious positions.
Full spinal flexion, spinal articulation and leg extension are very important elements in this exercise. The client must have enough length in the psoas to allow the lumbar spine to be anchored to the mat while strong abdominals complete the spinal flexion. The abs must have enough strength to maintain the flexed lumbar spine as the hip flexors bring the body into a sitting position. The hip extensors must also be engaged to oppose the hip flexors and keep the legs down on the floor in a lengthened position.
Before trying such a complex movement like the Roll Up, it’s advisable to assess your client’s ability to perform the fundamental movements separately. If a client is noticeably weak in one element, focus on strengthening this weak link until his abilities are more balanced. Once the client is able to perform all the elements successfully, then a modified Roll Up can be introduced.
Placing a weight or strap over the legs is a well known tool to assist the client in reaching a sitting position. Anchoring the feet allows the psoas to recruit more muscle fibers and contract without opposition by the leg extensors. With the psoas allowed to contract freely, the psoas has enough resultant strength to bring the trunk off the floor without the abs having to hold the spinal flexion. This is why anchoring the legs is a popular modification for those with weak abs. However, with the psoas given the mechanical advantage, it is actually even more challenging for the abs to hold spinal flexion against the pull of the overactive psoas. If the client’s abs are weak, the likelihood of the lumbar spine extending as the trunk lifts from the floor is increased, even if the client is cued to focus on the abs. This is an important thing to know, especially when working with special populations who may not tolerate this extra strain on the lower back.
In addition, the simple act of weighting down the legs has not changed the client’s impulse to fire the hip flexors. Even though the legs can no longer leave the ground, the hip flexors are still actively trying to lift the legs, and the extensors are not actively opposing this movement. This isometric contraction of the hip flexors will actually serve to reinforce and strengthen this very different motor pattern. While no movement is inherently bad, the muscle memory that this modification creates is not the same as the desired muscle intent and biomechanics of the classic Roll Up. While your client might gain strength in certain areas, this modification will not directly lead to performing the Roll Up without the feet leaving the ground.
Fortunately, Joseph Pilates created a great apparatus to help students reach a sitting position and keep the motor pattern of the hips and the lumbar spine very similar to the Roll Up. When properly cued, using the Roll Down Bar on the Cadillac is a great way to teach the Roll Up.
If you don’t have access to a Roll Down bar, try the following exercise using a small pillow and a Theraband. Keep in mind it’s easier to roll down, so allow the client to master a controlled roll down before rolling up.
Sit on the floor holding the pillow between the knees. Loop the Theraband around the soles of flexed feet. Keeping the knees slightly bent, hold the ends of the Theraband without slack while keeping the arms straight. Anchor the scapulas. Inhale and lengthen the spine. Exhale and engage the abdominals. Squeezing the knees into the pillow, roll your pelvis and tilt your pubic bone up toward your navel. Imagine your spine as a C shape while slowly lowering yourself to the floor one vertebra at a time. At the same time, press your flexed feet into the Theraband, sliding the heels along the ground and away from you. At this point, the Theraband will be taut.
Once supine, begin the modified Roll Up with an inhale as you float the head up and look at your navel. Keep the scapula anchored. Exhale and lengthen your spine as your curl one vertebra up at a time. Keep squeezing the knees together as you lengthen the legs into the Theraband, straightening them as much as possible. Imagine your hamstrings reaching into the floor. Use the Theraband to help you roll up as your abs keep the spine flexed in a C shape. Imagine the tailbone pointing towards the back of the knees as long as possible, and keep drawing the navel in as you come to a sitting position. And don’t forget to breathe!