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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.

Picture of Half Barrel Lite (no longer available for purchase - similar barrel would be the "Baby Arc, East Coast Style" from Balanced Body)

Picture of Arc Lite

Picture of Clara Barrel Lite

Picture of Half Barrel Lite, Arc Lite, Clara Barrel Lite - from the SIDE - showing height of each barrel and length. I've lined up the highest point of the hump for comparison.

Picture of Half Barrel Lite, Arc Lite, Clara Barrel Lite - from the TOP - showing width and length of each barrel. I've lined up the highest point of the hump for comparison.

As you can see, these Step Barrels are very different.

Looking specifically at the Arc vs Clara - I want to note that the Clara Barrel may look to be the closest thing to the "traditional" Spine Corrector when looking online, but I challenge you to take a close look at the photos below and see how all three (3) barrels look on a body that is 5'9" tall. After you take a look, I'll give you my opinion.

Arm Series demonstration using Half Barrel Lite, then Arc Lite, then Clara Barrel Lite:

-Part of the "Posture, Extension, & Spinal Articulation" category mentioned earlier.

Spine Stretch demonstration using Half Barrel Lite, then Arc Lite, then Clara Barrel Lite:

-Part of the "Opening up Space for a Bigger Body" category mentioned earlier.

Saw demonstration using Half Barrel Lite, then Arc Lite, then Clara Barrel Lite:

-Part of the "Opening up Space for a Bigger Body" category mentioned earlier.

Hip Extension demonstration using Half Barrel Lite, then Arc Lite, then Clara Barrel Lite:

*look closely to see spine contact

-Part of multiple categories mentioned earlier - we can get extension of the back and hip flexors, while opening up space for the body.

Control Balance demonstration using Half Barrel Lite with arm support (because it is a wide barrel), then Half Barrel Lite, then Arc Lite, then Clara Barrel Lite:

-Part of the "Tail Lifting Practice" category mentioned earlier.

Wall variation demonstration using Clara Barrel Lite, but works great with Arc Lite:

*Bonus: This exercise helps stretch the back of the body category mentioned earlier.

Final Opinions & Thoughts

Barrels can be an amazing prop to create accessibility or increase difficulty. Barrels can also help stretch out the body, help with posture, help articulate the spine, help with extension practice, help create more open space, and help with tail lifting practice. I find barrels to be an essential part of my personal practice.

Half Barrel

  • This is the lowest hump barrel I mentioned in this post.

  • You may have to find your "work" more with this barrel for some of the exercises mentioned.

  • The nice part about this barrel is that it is wide enough to place my hands on top and press into the barrel.

  • I can get quite a bit of my spine on the barrel for the arm series, as well.

  • It has different "handle" options for multiple body sizes.

Arc Lite

  • The Arc lite breaks apart, so you can use it with or without a seat.

  • Without the seat, it has two sides: a long side and a short side. The short side is higher than the longer side.

  • One could use the short/higher side to help build strength before moving over to the longer/lower side. Basically, it has a built-in progression option. I have always felt that this is a good barrel for beginners all around because of the progression option.

  • The longer side allows more of the body on the barrel, which makes the arm series feel really nice for those who have trouble with extension.

  • It has different "handle" positions, which make it a good option for different body sizes.

  • Myself and my family like to use seat to stand in for that back body stretch. Plus, my autistic son is a toe-walker and standing in the seat helps his posture.

  • The only con to this one would be for those in a bigger body who have wider shoulders because this barrel is a bit more narrow. I have wide shoulders and I do quite fine with it.

Clara Barrel

  • The hump height and shape is quite severe, in my opinion. I originally wanted it because it looked like the typically "Spine Corrector" - however, it is steep!

  • At 5'9" tall, it "feels" almost too tall for me and I always pull out my Arc to swap out exercises. Because it is tall, it might be a good option for someone over 6' tall.

  • Exercises in the seat tend to be more accessible than exercises using the barrel side

  • It does have the different "handle" positions like the other two.

  • It has a very nice seat in it for the back body stretch I mentioned above.

All the Balance Body "Lite" options are sturdy and I believe they would hold >300lbs. The drawback is a lack of padding.

To note - I did do an Instagram post (Feb 13, 21) where I compared these three barrels doing a Short Spine variation and explained the pros/cons of each for that particular exercise. I also used the Arc lite from both sides. Overall, I think it all goes back to the questions I wanted everyone to think about before buying. Buying a Barrel is a Big Decision, in my opinion.

If anyone still has questions, please reach out via my website.

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