Back of the Arm Pilates Workout for Tone and Stability

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Arm workouts are part of both mat and equipment Pilates exercises, targeting the back of the arm quite well. However, there are Pilates exercises that should include arm work but aren't being done that way.

If you learn to engage your arms, particularly the back of the arm, during most exercises you will get an arm workout from exercises you didn't even think of as arm exercises. And, you will create much more upper body stability for your exercises. That will open up a whole new level of Pilates for you. Here is the basic activation of the arm:

Engage Your Whole Arm, Especially the Back of the Arm

When you do an exercise on the mat or on a piece of equipment that has you lying flat with your arms at your sides, use your arms. Don't let them just lie there. Here's how:

  • Feel the weight of your arms, shoulders, and rib cage on the mat.
  • Open your chest and let your shoulders be down, away from your ears.
  • Get energy going in your arms. Then send that energy out your fingertips so that it shoots past your feet on its way to outer space.
  • Press your palms, the underside of your forearms, and the backs of your upper arms into the mat.
  • Lightly tack the backs of your armpits down.
  • Notice that all of this activity is connected from your core through your shoulders into your arms and back to the core. It's not separate.

The Back of the Arm Workout

Now let's look at three Pilates mat exercises as examples of how to apply the arms to exercises that don't "look" like arm exercises:

Pelvic Curl

Look at the image above. Notice how our model's arms are active. She is pressing the backs of her arms down, her hands and wrists are flat, and her fingertips are reaching. This is going to make pelvic curl a full body exercise, which is what we do in Pilates. It is also going provide a stable base when she takes moves like this to more challenging levels. Shoulder bridge would be an example of that; so would bottom lift on the reformer and a host of others. The more you get this principle, the more applications you find.

Roll Over

If you keep your chest wide and press the back of your arms with flat wrists and hands onto the mat as you do roll over, you will get over much more easily. Feel the oppositional energy of the press down and away of the arms and hands as your hips lift and you roll over. Then, really press the back of the arms and hands into the mat as you roll back down. That will stabilize the roll down, making it easier, safer, and more flowing.

Once you get this arm activation idea in the roll over, carry it with you into other spinal articulations such as Pilates jack knife. You will be amazed at how much better it feels. Then, try an exercise like inverted scissors and bicycle. There, your elbows are bent with your hands helping to support your hips, but if you get the backs of the upper arms activated, open the chest, and press the backs of the armpits down, you are going to have more strength and a stable base to extend out of -- and it takes the pressure off your spine which is very important. In image two above, you see the "arms and shoulders for power and stability" idea demonstrated in short spine exercise on the reformer.

Single Leg Circle

Experiment with engaging the backs of your arms along the mat as you do exercises that challenge your upper body stability as they leverage side to side. Single Leg circles is the first of those in the classical Pilates mat sequence. We always teach stability from the core as the leg moves, but if you add the activity of your arms, you will be that much more stable, and get that much more arm work. Then, you will be prepared for more difficult upper/lower body differentiation exercises like corkscrew.

The Whole Arm, to the Core

We've been focusing on the backs of the arms because people tend to forget them and favor activating the front of the arm. But now that you have that back of the arm workout going on, you can use that feeling even when you are not pressing your arms into that mat. Many times people find that connecting the back of the arm into the core was the piece they were missing in exercises like kneeling side kick and side stretch, not to mention equipment exercises like reformer tendon stretch, long back series, or swan on anything. 

You need full arm aliveness in just about every Pilates exercise, mat, and equipment. Wait 'till you see how using this simple technique opens up the possibilities for the exercises you can do, and how toned the backs of your arms get.

By Marguerite Ogle MS, RYT
Marguerite Ogle is a freelance writer and experienced natural wellness and life coach, who has been teaching Pilates for more than 35 years.