How to Do a Chest Lift in Pilates

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

chest lift annotated photo

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Targets: Core (abdominal muscles, torso, upper back)

Level: Beginner to Intermediate

Whether chest lifts are part of your Pilates routine or your basic workout, the move strengthens your core and helps improve flexibility. The move can also adapt to the location and intensity of your workout. You can do it at the gym or in your living room, or try variations on the classic move for a more advanced workout.

At first glance, the Pilates chest lift looks a lot like your typical abdominal crunch, but there are several key differences between the two.

Benefits

Pilates chest lifts provide a great core workout: they tone and sculpt your abdominal muscles and strengthen the supportive muscles of your chest and upper back.

Chest lifts can also help improve your posture and keep your neck muscles strong. A unique benefit of this exercise is that, to perform the move correctly, you need to learn how to isolate muscles in your chest and back that you may not realize provide key support for your spine. Strengthening your spine's support can reduce muscle tension that can lead to back and neck pain and even headaches.

A strong, stable, core also supports the rest of your body, including your pelvic girdle, as you move through your day. As you get older, exercises that strengthen these muscles groups and keep them flexible can help improve coordination and balance.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
  2. Make sure your legs are parallel—lined up so that your hip, knee, and ankle are aligned—and the toes are pointing directly away from you. This is a neutral spine position. The natural curve of the lower spine should create a slight lift off the mat.
  3. Keep your shoulders down and bring your hands behind your head with the fingertips touching. Keep your elbows open and allow your hands to support the base of your skull.
  4. Take a few deep breaths as you take a little survey of your body. Is your body balanced? Is your neck relaxed? Are your ribs dropped? If you're new to Pilates, it can help to become familiar with imprinting.
  5. As you exhale, slowly pull your belly button down back toward your spine. Let your spine lengthen out as your lower back comes down to the mat.
  6. As you lengthen your spine, tilt your chin slightly down. Keeping your neck long, slowly lift your upper spine off the mat, leading with the front of your chest (breast bone). Keep your neck and shoulders relaxed. Don't let your legs tense up.
  7. When you reach the top of the move, inhale, drawing the abdominal muscles in deeper.
  8. Exhale as you slowly lower back to the mat. Start with your shoulders, keeping your abdominals drawn in, then your neck. The back of your head should reach the mat last.
  9. Take a deep breath in as you release your abdominal muscles and return to neutral spine position.
  10. Repeat for your desired number of reps.

Common Mistakes

You Do a Crunch Instead

Pilates chest lifts can look a bit like a crunch, and the two moves can easily be confused. Here are a few key differences to remember:

  • Chest lifts create a deep curve of the abdominal muscles down toward the mat. When you do crunches, the shortening of the rectus abdominis (the long superficial muscle that runs down the front of the abdomen) can cause the abs to pop up as they contract.
  • When performing crunches, there's a tendency to use the momentum you build up. Chest lifts are done slowly, on your breath, and have a more targeted and intense feel.
  • As long as you're in proper form for chest lifts, your tailbone and hips do not curl up off the floor, as often happens when you do crunches.

Your Deep Abs Aren't Engaged

One of the mistakes many people make in Pilates is only engaging the superficial abdominal muscles instead of the deep, transverse abdominals. Each time you breathe out, check in and make sure your core is fully engaged.

You Strain Your Neck

When done correctly, chest lifts can help reduce back and neck pain. However, if your form is poor or your core muscles aren't properly engaged, chest lifts can cause neck strain. If you feel pain in your neck as you perform chest lifts, keep your hands behind your head for support.

You're Jutting Your Chin Out

To maintain the proper form of your spine throughout the move, try to envision a tennis ball between your chest and chin—that's about how much space you want to maintain. If your chin is jutting out or too tucked in, it can add strain to your neck.

You're Going Too Fast

For Pilates moves, you might have to pause and remind yourself to slow down. Moves like chest lifts can be especially challenging because they require more engagement and focus to do slowly. If you find yourself building up and "riding" your momentum, take it as a cue to pace yourself.

Modifications and Variations

Need a Modification?

If you're taking a Pilates class or working with a private trainer, ask your instructor for modifications. Some common ones include:

  • Using ropes, straps, a spine corrector, or other fitness apparatus to provide support and a deeper stretch
  • Performing the move from a sitting-up starting position while pregnant or when you have other conditions for which supine positions are not safe or comfortable

Up for a Challenge?

To make the basic chest lift more challenging, try chest lifts with rotation:

  1. Begin on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, in neutral spine position.
  2. Slowly curl your upper body up as you exhale until your shoulder blade is just lifted off the floor or mat.
  3. Turn your upper body toward your right side.
  4. Take a breath in as you slowly lower back down to the mat, starting with your shoulders, then your neck, and finally your head.
  5. Repeat for your left side.
  6. Alternate sides for the desired number of reps.

Once you build abdominal strength, you'll have a solid foundation for adding forward flexion Pilates exercises, like the Single Leg Stretch and the Hundred, to your workout.

Safety and Precautions

If you have certain health conditions or injuries or are recovering from illness or surgery, you may need to avoid chest lifts and other exercises that work your core until you're healed. Ask your doctor before you start a new workout regimen or add Pilates to your routine.

Avoid chest lifts if you:

  • Are in the final stages of pregnancy, have just delivered, or have a condition known as rectus diastasis
  • Are healing from surgery or an injury, especially those involving your abdomen or pelvis
  • Have an abdominal hernia
  • Have osteoporosis or other conditions affecting the bones of your spine
  • Experience sudden pain in your neck, shoulder, or chest when doing the move

With the help of your doctor and a qualified Pilates instructor, modifications may be possible for some conditions.

Try It Out

Chest lifts are a fundamental Pilates move that provides a great ab workout on their own and as part of a routine. Try adding the chest lift to these routines or pairing them with other Pilates exercises to create your own full-body workout.

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