Tone Up Your Arms & Shoulders With This 1 Exercise

Woman holding weights with trainer
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Within the Pilates repertoire, there are dozens of arm weight exercises designed to tone, sculpt, and strengthen the upper body. These exercises traditionally call for light weights of about 2-3 pounds. Although they can sometimes resemble old-school traditional gym exercises, they are unique in that all of these exercises call for specific positioning of the legs, the feet, and the abdominals while simultaneously working at the arms. Pilates' claim to fame is its ability to convert single focus exercises to multi-tasking moves, and this exercise is no exception.

What Is the Best Arm Exercise?

An arm exercise called "sparklers" is the perfect go-to movement for a quick arm workout. It's a traditional classical Pilates move done with light dumbbells. Historically, this exercise belongs to a larger arm weight routine, but on its own it packs a punch for arms in need of a quick pick-me-up.

The exercise is great if you are pressed for time because it works most of the arm muscles simultaneously. Done properly, you will strengthen your shoulders and arms and even tighten your core and lower body muscles. 

Step-by-Step Instructions

Grab a light set of dumbbells and let's begin.

Stand tall with your legs together and feet in Pilates position (heels together and toes apart). Hang the arms just in front of your thighs with the palms facing each other holding the middle of the weights. Open your elbows slightly so you tense your biceps muscles. Shift your body weight lightly toward the front of your feet while simultaneously pulling your abdominals inward and upward. The gluteals should tighten and the backs of the legs should pull together.

Maintain your tallest posture and begin to make small rapid circles with your arms. As you circle, raise the arms gradually. Take eight circles to raise the arms all the way overhead, then pause. Lower the arms and reverse the circles for another eight repetitions. One full set is complete when you have performed eight circles on the way up and eight circles on the way down. Perform 3-4 full sets. 

The Secret to Success

There are a dozen ways to cheat this move, so here are some tips for what not to do. It's helpful to look at what makes the move hard in the first place. From the instructions, the exercise sounds simple enough, but it is actually deceptively challenging.

The toughest part for most people is to maintain core strength and stability while your arms are rapidly circling on the way up and down. Your body will naturally try to offset the changing center of gravity by rocking back and forth or changing your spinal alignment. Resist this at all costs. By working your deepest abdominals and fighting for a stable torso you will reap all the benefits of this move as quickly as possible. 

It is also tempting to bend the elbows too much, shortening the arm distance and decreasing the load and intensity on the arms. As much as possible, extend the arms without locking the elbow joints. Maintaining long arms with a slight bend to the elbow is the ideal position to execute this move. 

Finally, work your posture the entire time. With so much happening in the arms it can be easy to let your neck or shoulders fall out of alignment. Instead, hold your torso long and taut to provide a stable anchor for your moving arms.

More Pilates Moves to Learn

The Pilates arm weight series is a terrific supplement to your Pilates mat work or your at-home Pilates routine. Consider learning how to do:

Remember that even within individual Pilates exercises all of the important principles of the Pilates method should apply. Therefore, don't focus solely on your arms but also on your abdominals. your gluteals, your coordination and control as well as your breathing. It's the Pilates way.

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