Out With The Sit-Up, In With The Roll-Up

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Yesterday’s workouts are not today’s. Few of us are probably sweating with the oldies or high stepping with Jane Fonda anymore. And the sit-up may be another casualty of changing fitness times.

The sit-up was once standard practice in every serious fitness routine, even in the armed services (it first appeared in Air Force manuals in the 1950s) and in Olympic training circles. But the venerable sit-up left a trail of aching lumbar backs and injured cervical spines in the less elite ranks.  Thanks to the arrival of Pilates and anatomically-educated trainers, is that sit-ups have been replaced by the more spine-attuned roll-up which safely strengthens not just your abs, but your legs, shoulders, glutes, and even back and chest.  Indeed, the roll-up is one of a series of stabilization exercises, which target the core muscles without placing any stress on the spine. Besides being safer, roll-ups are just a heck of a lot more effective, according to studies including a 2009 randomized controlled trial published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.

Traditionally, the sit-up was done with the goal of high repetitions and speed, a combination that can lead to injury. When performed incorrectly (which is too often what happens), the risk is hurting the spine without much payoff in terms of strength or other fitness improvements.

Enter the Roll-Up

There is a better way.  Core exercises such as the roll-up can increase core strength, stability, and muscular endurance, protecting your spine when you must lift and bend in everyday life. Mastering the roll-up will reduce your risk of falls and injury. But it takes mindfulness and patience to perform correctly.  Plus you actually need some core strength and spinal flexibility to perform the movement without momentum.

Roll Up (and Roll Down)

Well known as one of the “Pilates flat abs” exercises, it is no cinch but worth it.  A single  Pilates roll up, say those who have conquered it, is equal to six regular sit-ups and is superior to crunches (also too often done incorrectly) for creating rock solid abs. Here’s how in six steps:

*Lie on your back on the floor with your legs straight. Engage the abs without arching the back.  Shoulders stay relaxed and down away from ears. Take a few deep breaths.

* Leave your scapula anchored and ribs in and down as you extend arms overhead and alongside ears so that your fingertips are pointing to the wall behind you.

*Inhale and bring arms up overhead and forward. As they pass your ears, exhale and drop the chin and begun to curl up through the spine, hugging in deeply.

* Continue in an “up and over” motion toward your toes.   Deepen the curve of the spine as you exhale.

* Reach for your toes keeping the chin tucked, the abdominals pulled in, and the back rounded throughout (legs are straight ideally) with energy reaching out through the heels. Allow the legs to bend, if necessary.

* Rolling down: Bring the breath fully into pelvis and back as you pull the lower abs in, tuck your tailbone under and begin to return to the floor.  Keep the legs on the floor and shoulders down and relaxed.  Retain the upper body curve as you roll down slowly and with control. The arms are still outstretched and follow the natural motion of the shoulders as you roll down.

Do up to 6 repetitions (or what you can with good form).

Fortunately, for those of us who cannot yet bounce tennis balls off our abdominals, there are modifications.

Bent knee Roll Up

Great for beginners. Start on your back on a mat, keep heels away from the glutes and follow the general directions above bending the knees even more as your spine lifts off the mat. Feel free to use your hands under your knees as an assist if necessary. An alternative is to use a bolster behind your knees.

Banded Roll Up

Use a long elastic exercise band wrapped around your feet as you lie fully prone. Each hand holds an end of the band. Use proper technique rolling up (see above) and if needed, bring the hands further down the band closer to the feet to make the movement a bit easier.

Wall Roll Down

Stand against the wall and walk feet 6 to 10 inches away from it. Pull your abdominals in. Keep shoulders away from your ears, arms at your sides, and chest wide with ribs down. Inhale. Bend the knees if this is more comfortable. Tuck chin and begin to slowly peel the spine away from the wall, vertebra by vertebra, while exhaling. The abdominals should stay lifted with arms moving with the body, staying parallel to ears. As you go, you can deepen the scoop of the abs even further, peeling the spine away from the wall while letting head and neck relax.  Don’t let hips leave the wall.  Feel the curve evenly along the upper, middle, and lower sections of your torso. Begin returning up the wall by using the lower abs to bring your pelvis to an upright position. Continue placing each vertebra on the wall, one by one. As you come close to upright, let ribs stay down as shoulders fall into place. Back to the starting position.


  1. Form is everything. It’s not about how many reps you do or how fast; it’s about control and attention to detail.
  2. Less is more. Leave the ego at the door.
  3. Protect your cervical spine. This means your precious and vulnerable neck. If the head is pulled to get upper shoulders off the floor there is a high risk of injuring the neck. When the hands are not placed behind the head, lack of support can lead to neck strain if the abs are weak.
  4. Use a mirror. Keep checking your posture. Don’t reinforce bad habits you may have developed outside the exercise space especially from you sitting most of the day.

Don’t get discouraged!  In the wise words of Pilates inventor, Joseph Pilates (who was doing roll-ups into his eighties) “Practice your exercises diligently with the fixed and unalterable determination that you will permit nothing else to sway you from keeping faith with yourself”.

-Frances Goulart

Photo: Unsplash



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