What are “Pilates Barrels”?

The “Pilates Barrels”

The Short Version: Click here to watch the videos below to get a good idea of what you can do on Pilates Barrels.

All the Pilates Barrels, regardless of type, are perfectly designed to allow both passive (using just body weight) and active (using muscular force) spinal extension.  This backwards spinal work  is just about a prerequisite to resolving any issues related to a slumped forwards posture.  This is the most commonly experienced postural problem today.

"The Mermaid": lateral sit ups...

“The Mermaid”: lateral sit ups…

But don’t think that the Pilates Barrels are limited to just simple back stretches.  Like all Pilates apparatus, they can work the body through almost endless varieties of exercises!

Joseph Pilates: original footage:

What are the Barrels?

There are two main types of Pilates Barrels: the Ladder Barrel (aka the High Barrel) and the Step Barrel (aka the Pilates Arc or Spine Corrector).

The Ladder Barrel consists of a short but  wide ladder connected to a Barrel which is set to the height of the ladder.  The distance between the ladder and the barrel can be adjusted to suit people of different heights.  The combination of ladder with high barrel allows for standing stretches, and, in comparison to the other barrels, more acrobatic full body weight exercises and handstands to be practised.

"Climb A Tree": combines both spinal flexion and extension

Ladder Barrel: “Climb A Tree” – features both spinal flexion and extension


The Step Barrel consists of a step integrated into a barrel. It’s much lower than the Ladder Barrel and is usually used on a mat.  There are several variants including the Pilates Arc by Balanced Body which not only features more ergonomic curvatures but is lighter (being made out of hard polystyrene like foam rollers) and is designed to be used in conjunction with reformers.  As such it’s versatility is massively increased. Finally, there is the Avalon which uses springs. These springs are used to add resistance to passive stretches and add versatility to the repertoire of exercises that can be done on the apparatus.

Balanced Body

The “Pilates Arc” – a development of the Step Barrel


A variation is the Baby Arc.  It has a reduced barrel height with an increased circumference, in other words, a gentle arc.  This soft curve is ideal for people with reduced spinal articulation in extension, thereby making it a less intimidating proposition for beginners.

The beautiful Baby Arc

The beautiful “Baby Arc”


For general spinal work in flexion, extension and in rotation, the Barrels are second to none.  The generally held idea that the “core” refers to abdominals and perhaps more specifically, the “six pack” (rectus abdominis), means that both spinal extension and rotation are often overlooked.  Spinal extension corrects poor posture by stretching out the front and strengthening the spine. Strengthening the rotatores is not only of vital importance in sports that involve rotation: running, swimming, golf etc., but is utterly essential in safeguarding ourselves against accidental spinal injury in everyday life.  Nearly all acute spinal injuries occurs in an action that involves some degree of rotation: turning to pick up the (…) – fill in the blank yourself!

What can you do on Pilates Barrels?

You can do exercises lying on the seat or lying sidewaysface down or on your back, lying in front or standing behind…  Perhaps you’ll be moving between a seated position and sideways position. All these require abdominal and spinal, scapular and pelvic strength and control.

Spinal flexion – abdominals

Using your abdominals to bend forwards (spinal flexion) is a very common type of exercise, but the Barrels allow the trunk to be supported and so allows these exercises to be performed with greater safety in mind.  Muscles activated: rectus abdominus, to a lesser degree internal and external obliques.

Spinal extension – shoulder (blade) work

Similarly, bending backwards (spinal extension) can be done both passively by simply allowing our body weight to help us bend over the barrel, or actively, by using our spinal extensors to lift our torso off the Barrel.  Activated muscles: lower fibres of the trapezius, subclavius, latissimus dorsi.

Lateral work – internal and external obliques

Finally, side (lateral) bending can easily be performed with support from the apparatus.  Activated muscles: internal and external obliques, the quadratus lumborum and the erector spinae.

Flexion and Extension with Rotation

Barrels, in all their variants, offer spinal articulation in all planes: both extension (bending backwards), flexion (bending forwards) and lateral flexion (bending sideways) can be done in both clockwise and anti-clockwise rotation on all the Barrels.

If you consider that spinal injuries most often occur in slightly rotated positions, then the importance of strengthening in rotational planes becomes more apparent.

  • Exercises involving rotation with flexion and extension are often overlooked in Reformer and Mat work.  Perhaps this is because there is less support for the trunk, making them particularly challenging to perform.
  • They offer support for passive spinal extension in relaxing poses which stretches all the trunk flexors and pectorals: vital to counteract postural problems caused by modern lifestyles.
  • In forward abdominal flexion the barrel supports the spine and this support is significant in conditions where deep forward flexion of the spine is contraindicated – osteoporosis being a common example…
  • In lateral flexion exercises the trunk is also supported so as to engage the only the lateral / oblique trunk flexors rather than the common compensation of going into forward flexion.


The "Teaser": abdominal work... and so much more ...

The “Teaser”: abdominal work… and so much more …


This work is done in an inverted position and stretches the muscle groups associated with tight hips: both hip flexors and hamstrings as well as adductors.  This position offers possibilities to learn and develop pelvis stability and develop coordination.

It allows for much more accessibility to these exercises than does the Matwork as the Step Barrel offers wonderful support for the lower spine and pelvic girdle, freeing us up to concentrate on the actual opening up of the hips.

Alignment and Stretching 🙂

Because of it’s size, the Ladder Barrel is perfect for alignment and stretching: it allows excellent and strong stretches of the hamstrings, glutes and piriformis, adductors, and hip flexors and lateral hip (Tensor Fascia Lata).

Not only that, the Ladder Barrels can offer possibilities for advanced abdominal work, introductions to advanced reformer work (Grasshopper, Horseback series) and more advanced hip work than the step Barrel or Matwork.


If you have any questions on how to work with the Pilates Barrels, then get in touch via our contact page, or better still, make an appointment for a Free Trail Lesson, using our button on the side bar.

Thanks for reading – hope to see you soon 😉

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