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This fun Pilates exercise works the entire core and stretches the back

Stop suffering through crunches. This fun exercise tones the abdominals — minus the neck pain.
The open leg rocker improves core strength and stability, while also stretching muscles in the back.
The open leg rocker improves core strength and stability, while also stretching muscles in the back.TODAY Illustration / Stephanie Mansour

Strengthening the core is one of the most beneficial things you can do for your body. The core muscles connect the upper and lower limbs, so maintaining strength in that region is vital for everyday activities. Whether it be walking up the stairs, carrying the laundry basket or bending down to grab something, common movements will feel less burdensome with a strong core.

The open leg rocker is a Pilates exercise that works the whole core. Some of my clients complain that crunches hurt their neck and back, so I suggest they try the open leg rocker instead. This move requires balance and control, as do most Pilates moves. It’s also fun once you get the hang of it! Plus, once you master the move, you’ll feel and see a difference in your core.

What does the open leg rocker do for the body?

The open leg rocker improves core strength and stability, while also stretching muscles in the back. Because the open leg rocker requires a lot of control, it’s a great exercise to practice really engaging the core. Like most Pilates moves, the open leg rocker helps improve balance as well.

The common mistakes people make when doing the open leg rocker

The open leg rocker requires balance and control and therefore can be tricky for beginners. I’ve seen a lot of my clients roll too far backward. I’ve also seen the opposite, rolling too far forward. This all stems from a lack of control and body awareness that should be understood before attempting the move.

It’s also common to rock back and forth, using momentum to return to the starting position. For maximum effectiveness, it's important to keep your core tight and use your abdominals to move you forward and backward. Make sure to avoid these common mistakes by following these tips:

  • Keep your core engaged throughout.
  • When you feel out of control, squeeze your core and take a deep breath to regain balance.
  • Keep your body from tipping or rocking when returning to the starting position by moving slowly.

How to do a modified open leg rocker

Performing the open leg rocker can be challenging for beginners. If you’re not entirely confident, that’s okay! Start with a modification: Performing the open leg rocker with your knees bent will allow you more balance and control.

Sit up straight with your legs out in front of you shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees and bring your thighs up off the ground. Keep your hands wrapped around your upper thighs, and keep your legs bent. Roll backwards onto your shoulder blades. Roll back up to the starting position with your back straight.

How to perform the open leg rocker correctly

The open leg rocker can be challenging at first. Follow these steps to remain in control of your body:

  1. Sit up with your back straight and your knees bent with your feet flat on the ground.
  2. Lightly grab your ankles and lift your legs into the air, pointing your toes toward the ceiling, so that your body forms a "V" shape. Remember to keep your legs open as wide as your hips.
  3. Roll backward onto your shoulder blades, keeping your core engaged.
  4. Roll back up and straighten your back while keeping your legs straight up and open.
  5. Repeat, rolling back and forth, pausing at the top every time.

4 exercises that will help you perform the open leg rocker better

If you find yourself struggling or making some of the common mistakes mentioned earlier, try these moves that will help you work up to the open leg rocker.

Pelvic tilt

Lie down on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the mat. Notice how there is a tiny bit of space underneath your low back and the ground. Engage your low abs to tilt your pelvis forward and press your low back into the ground. Hold for five seconds before releasing. Repeating the movement for 10 repetitions, slow and controlled.

Scissor kick leg hold

Lie down on your back with your legs extended straight in front of you. Lift your upper body off of the mat using your core so that the tips of your shoulder blades are just touching the mat. Bring your right leg toward you, keeping it straight, and grab your right calf. If you cannot reach your calf, grab behind the knee or thigh. At the same time, lift your left leg off the ground, keeping it straight, forming a 45-degree angle between your legs. Then, switch legs bringing the left leg toward you and reaching for the left calf, while lowering the right leg to a 45-degree angle. Alternate, repeating for 10 reps on each side.

Pilates roll down

Sit up straight with your feet hip-width apart and your back and shoulders relaxed. Bend your knees so that your feet are flat on the ground. Begin rolling your body backward slowly, keeping your arms straight out in front of you and rounding your back and neck. Allow your low back to touch the ground first, then your middle back, then your upper back. Lie down on the ground and reach the arms overhead. Then slowly roll back up to the starting position, first peeling your upper back off the ground, then middle back, and finally the lower back. Repeat for 10 reps.

Rolling like a ball

Sit with your knees bent and feet flat on the mat. Grab your shins with your hands and lift both of your feet off the ground. Hug your knees into your chest keeping your thighs together. Round your back slightly while pulling your abs in. Roll back onto your shoulder blades. Then, engage your core to roll back up to the starting position. Repeat for 10 reps.