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Breakdown Barrels

Updated: Oct 22, 2021

What are barrels, what would I use them for, and what kind should I get?

Today, I will only focus on Step Barrels and I'll blog about the Ladder Barrel another time.

Step Barrels are usually put into two categories (pending your training):

-Small Barrel - looks like half a circle; has a curved surface

-Spine Corrector - looks like a small barrel with a "seat" attached

Picture shows a Small Barrel and two different Spine Correctors in the background

I completely understand that the word barrel may bring forward a memory of the game 'barrel of monkeys' or maybe a reminder of where your favorite whiskey comes from, and a Spine Corrector might sound like a medieval torture device...but I swear, these small props (or apparatus) are an amazing addition to the Pilates method.

These are my personal Barrels, so we'll focus on these for the conversation and demonstrations:

  • Half Barrel

  • Arc

  • Clara Barrel

These are the common shapes you'll see when looking to purchase at an online Pilates store. All three of mine were purchased from Balanced Body and are the "Lite" version, which means they are made from a specific material, are light in weight, and more affordable for the Pilates beginner.

To note - the Half Barrel Lite is no longer available (2020), but I am still going to talk about it because you can buy a more expensive version that has some padding at almost any Pilates equipment online store.

What kind of exercises would I use a Step Barrel for?

-Honestly, you can add a step barrel to your mat routine to make things more accessible or more difficult, pending what you're after!

  • Example of accessibility: You could place the barrel under your hips for Control Balance to help you lift up into position. Or you could use simply use it to lift your hips and do the leg movements, instead of rolling up and balancing on your shoulders.

  • Example of increased difficulty: You could do your 100 while balancing on the hump of the barrel. It decreases the body's amount of contact to the mat, making it more difficult.

-I also like to talk about how a step barrel can help in the following areas (even though there are more ways):

  • Posture, Extension, & Spinal Articulation

  • Opening up Space for a Bigger Body

  • Tail Lifting Practice

Posture, Extension, & Spinal Articulation

Posture: An arm series can be performed to help reduce forward head and rounded shoulders. Performed daily, over a course of time, posture can be improved immensely.

-Examples - arm scissors, arm circles, and hug.

Extension: Barrels can help provide gentle support for those who have trouble with extension.

-Example 1 - using the barrel to create space between face and mat during Swan on the mat.

-Example 2 - using the barrel for a gentle backbend to help open up the chest and improve posture (much like what I described under posture).

Spinal Articulation: Barrels can help create connections due to the shape.

-Example 1 - Roll Up in Mat and Roll Down on Tower.

-Example 2 - Mermaid while sitting in the Spine Corrector seat (side body)

Opening up Space for a Bigger Body

-Barrels can create space for someone practicing in a bigger Pilates body.

Examples of Opening Space:

-Sitting on the hump during Spine Stretch for more flexion (and to relieve hip flexor pain).

-Sitting on the hump during Saw creates space for more flexion and rotation.

-Placing hands/elbows on the barrel during Planks creates space for better alignment.

-Placing feet on a barrel during Shoulder Bridge creates space for more lift and articulation.

Tail Lifting Practice

-"Tail lifting" would be any exercise where legs leave the mat and come up (possibly toward the sky or overhead) and the tailbone comes off the mat.

-Barrels help lift the hips off the mat, so the starting position of certain exercises make it a bit easier to trial and practice.

Examples of Tail Lifting exercises:

-Roll over


-Control Balance


-Short Spine

What should I think about when deciding on a Step Barrel?

-The following questions may help narrow down which type of Step Barrel may suit:

  • Who will be using it?

  • What are you willing to spend?

  • How tall are you?

  • What goals are you trying to accomplish by using the barrel/what exercises are you thinking about doing?

Who will be using it?

-If you are buying a barrel for your home practice, you can choose whichever barrel you think will benefit your goals. However, if you are buying for a home studio or want to get a set for a brick & mortar studio, you may want to consider your clientele and how versatile the barrel you choose will be for your client population.

-Another factor to think about it how you want your barrel to feel - for yourself or clients. The "Lite" barrel are a pretty dense material with no padding. You can use some black "sticky" pads to help with comfort, but for the most part the "Lite" is a solid piece. If you prefer padding, or need padding, you'll want to look at the more expensive options.

What are you willing to spend?

-I mentioned that the "Lite" options available from Balanced Body are an affordable option. I also mentioned that they are a solid material that isn't padded.

-Based on who is using it and your budget, you'll need to make some decisions. If you need to buy multiple, the Lite option might be your best bet. If you are buying for yourself and only want one barrel for everything, you might want to splurge a little.

  • Example cost: The Arc Lite (Spine Corrector) is ~$160 USD + tax + shipping (at the time of this post). A similar padded option ranges from $425-525 USD + tax + shipping if you choose something with handles.

  • I mentioned that the Half Barrel Lite (no seat) is no longer available, but a similar barrel with padding is $300 USD + tax + shipping with two handle positions.

How tall are you?

-Height and weight may play a role in your decision if you are over 5'8" and over 200lbs (I'm just throwing a random weight out).

-Picking a barrel to ensure it fits the length of your body and will hold your weight should rank at the top of your list, especially if you are opting for a more expensive barrel. *I will show pictures of the same exercise on each barrel later in this post.

-Most sites do not list height ranges or weight limits for barrels. I would suggest emailing or calling to find out about weight ranges. If you do not get the information you need to help your decision, you may want to look at a different vendor/online store.

-I mention weight here because there are some barrels that have no "insides" or handles. These types of barrels may not be "available" for people practicing Pilates in a bigger body. I don't have this type of barrel, so I won't be showing a picture. You'll know it when you see it.

-I can personally attest that the "Lite" barrels I am chatting about will likely hold over 300lbs based on who I've used them with. I have not seen them compromised during any of the exercises I've taught.

What goals are you trying to accomplish by using the barrel/what exercises are you thinking about doing?

-Thinking about your goals thoroughly before making your purchase is an excellent exercise.

  • What do you want to do with your barrel?

  • Are you just starting out and need help with articulation and extension?

  • Are you having trouble with connection somewhere?

  • Are you hoping to reduce your forward head and rounding shoulders?

  • Are you hoping to gain strength for "tail lifting" exercises, such as Roll Over, Jacknife, Short Spine, etc?

  • Do you want to incorporate side extra side body work?

  • Will you need handles to help you do the work?

Don't forget to answer these questions for your clients' needs if you are purchasing for your studio.

-Based on how you answer these questions, you'll want to round back on the above and then assess the type of barrel options out there to suit your ultimate needs. But, before you do that, I want to show you a closer look at the barrels I have.

A closer look at the Step Barrels, in pictures.