How to Use Hand Weights in a Pilates Workout

Young female friends exercising with dumbbells while sitting on pilates balls in gym class. Horizontal shot.

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It's easy to imagine adding hand weights to a Pilates mat workout, and many people do. But should you? Here we take a close look at the role of wrist and hand weights in Pilates workouts.

Using Light Weights

First, let's be clear that we are talking about light hand weights—for women, usually 1-3 lbs; for men, a little more. We use light weights because there are risks associated with using heavier weights when doing exercise other than focused weight training.

Heavy hand weights create leverage and momentum challenges that can pull you out of alignment; stress your neck, shoulders, and back; and shift the emphasis of an exercise from the core to the extremities. These are just the opposite of what we want in Pilates.

Ankle weights can also be used. They also present alignment and stress issues if they are too heavy.

Benefits of Using Hand Weights in Pilates

There are some benefits to occasionally adding hand weights or maybe better, wrist weights, to your workout:

  1. Muscle Toning. Even lightweight will add some extra muscle toning potential to exercises. Depending on the exercise, you could call on an extra effort from muscles in your arms, back, shoulders, chest and down into your core. In true Pilates style, we practice resistance on both the exertion and release. That way we use eccentric contractions that build long, strong muscles. Again, one of the reasons we use lighter weights is to control the challenge level and not invite muscle use that is out of balance with the exercise.
  2. Weight Loss. We love to do things that help us with weight loss. Every little bit counts. Adding weight to your workout will increase the amount of energy you expend on the exercise and that will increase calorie burning. But let's be realistic, not by a whole lot. I have also seen Pilates DVDs add hand weights to increase the cardio aspect of a warm-up based on jogging in place or dance-like moves.
  3. Core Awareness. Ideally, you will use hand weights as you would other Pilates equipment, meaning that the equipment is used in a way that sends attention, information, and energy back to your core. Also, even if the weight is light, hand weights will create extra stability work for your shoulders, core, and pelvis.
  4. Variety. Keeping variety in your routine is a good hedge against workout burnout. If hand weights have some upsides, which they do, why not add them in occasionally? Personally, I don't like the idea of using them all the time because they can distract from the deep core attention that is so important in Pilates, not to mention they can interrupt the flow of a good mat workout. Flow is a key aspect of Pilates workouts.

Pilates Exercises You Can Do With Hand Weights

Here are some classical Pilates exercises (even though we are doing something not so classical) you might try hand weights with:

Of course, you can be creative. There are many other Pilates fundamentals and exercises weights can be added to—ankle weights as well. You can even add weights to exercises done on other Pilates equipment. If you want to use weights on the reformer, they need to be wrist weights, but the exercise ball and Pilates chair are good candidates for hand weights.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that you don't want the hand weights to interfere with the intent of an exercise. Therefore, you wouldn't use hand weights in exercises where they literally get in the way. In Pilates, that would include the rolling exercises like rolling like a ball or seal, and exercises where you need to use your hands for stability or weight-bearing.

Remember too that weights at the ends of your arms or legs are increasing the leverage challenge in exercises. You might want to modify by holding your hands closer to your body. Spine twist and roll back, just, for example, can be done with the elbows bent and held shoulder height while the hands with weights are in front of the chest, fist to fist.

Have fun and use weights safely.

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