6 Pilates Ring Exercises to Sculpt and Tone Your Upper Body

Work your arms, chest, back and shoulders with the "magic circle"

The Pilates ring, or magic circle, is a strength training tool developed by Joseph Pilates. It's also known as an exercise ring, fitness ring, and fitness circle, and is commonly used as a prop to enhance a Pilates mat workout.

Like many Pilates moves, Pilates ring exercises are performed by integrating the whole body, especially the core, versus isolating certain muscle groups. Therefore, you will need your full attention to do the exercises correctly.

A strong posture is essential to getting the full benefits of any standing Pilates exercises. The right posture will ensure that the legs and abdominal muscles are engaged and connected to the upper body.

The Pilates ring provides moderate resistance when you squeeze the sides together. Different positions create exercises that can target the arms, chest, and shoulders, although the whole body is involved in the exercise.

Here, we'll cover the Pilates ring basics for beginners, such as the ideal posture for working with the magic circle, plus a set of exercises anyone can benefit from to sculpt and tone the upper body.

Like all Pilates exercises, the key to working with the Pilates ring is a solid standing posture that connects each movement to the core. This will target the muscles in the upper body as you work with the magic circle.

How to Use the Pilates Ring

Pilates magic ring
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When you lift the ring, it's important to keep your shoulders down. Actively sliding your shoulder blades down your back will ensure they won't move forward or pull way back. This will work to strengthen your shoulders, since you are keeping them in a stable position.

In each of the exercises that follow, you will be doing pulses with the ring. A few things to keep in mind to ensure good form:

  • Use control in both the squeeze and the release.
  • As you squeeze and release, feel the width of your biceps, shoulders, chest, and back muscles.
  • Maintain an upright posture. Imagine that you are growing taller with each pulse.

The Best Posture for Pilates Ring Exercises

Woman standing on yoga mat in Pilates stance

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The Pilates stance can be used when working with the magic circle and is also a great way to activate the inner thigh muscles. Here's how to do it:

  • Stand tall with your shoulders relaxed and down.
  • Zip your legs close together with the heels touching.
  • Separate the feet to make a V-shape, which will allow the legs to rotate slightly outward at the top of the thighs.
  • Pull your abs in by drawing your navel toward your spine, and then drop your tailbone toward the floor.
  • Think of your pelvis as a bowl—you don't want anything to spill out to the front or the back.

As an alternative to a Pilates stance, you can also have the legs parallel and feet hip-distance apart, similar to a mountain pose (Tadasana) in yoga. This is a stable position that allows us to train in an upright stance that is viable in daily life.

Regardless of how you position your feet, keep your shoulders relaxed and down, and think about sending energy out through the top of your head. Breathe naturally.

6 Pilates Ring Exercises to Tone the Upper Body

1. Low Diagonal Ring

In the first three exercises, you'll be moving the ring from low to medium to high. Your arms will be extended straight, but don't lock your elbows.

As the ring moves up, notice how the exercise pattern reflects the Pilates fundamental move arms over, which maintains alignment in the torso despite the element of the arms moving. Arms over also improves the range of motion in the shoulders.

For the low diagonal ring exercise, begin by sliding your shoulder blades down your back as you hold the Pilates ring at chest height with your palms flat against the handles and facing each other. Hold your head high with your chin parallel to the floor and gaze out in front of you.

  • Lower your arms below shoulder height at a diagonal, keeping your arms straight.
  • Pulse the ring 8–10 times, controlling the release.
  • Use your chest muscles, but keep your chest open.
  • Engage all the muscles in your arms to sculpt and tone them.
  • Be sure to breathe normally.

2. Middle Ring

Woman standing on yoga mat using Pilates Magic Circle

Ben Goldstein / Verywell

For the middle ring exercise, return the magic circle to shoulder height while keeping your arms straight and shoulders relaxed down.

  • Squeeze the circle using your palms.
  • Pulse 8–10 times and then release.
  • Be sure to keep using your chest muscles and maintain an upright posture.
  • Activate all the muscles in your arms.
  • Breathe normally.

3. High Diagonal Ring

Raise the ring to a high diagonal, keeping your shoulders relaxed down and shoulder blades sliding down your back. The Pilates ring should remain visible in your peripheral vision and your biceps should be in front of your face, not back by your ears.

  • Pulse the ring 8–10 times.
  • You should really feel this exercise in your pectoral muscles (chest muscles).
  • Double-check your posture. Are your shoulders still down? Have your scapula (shoulder blades) settled on your back?
  • Lower the ring back to the middle position and take a few deep breaths before moving onto the next exercise.

4. Halo Ring

Pilates ring halo exercise

FatCamera / Getty Images

For the halo ring exercise, your shoulders should continue to stay relaxed as you bring the ring overhead again, but this time so that it is flat to the ceiling.

It's tempting to let the ribs pop forward in this position, so remember your posture and drop your tailbone down as you pull your abs in to engage your core.

  • Bend your elbows out to the side so that the ring comes to just above your head, like a halo.
  • Feel your back and chest become very wide.
  • Squeeze and release the ring 8–10 times. Inhale on the squeeze, exhale on the release.
  • Be sure to use controlled movements.

5. Pilates Ring Biceps

Pilates Ring Biceps Exercise

FatCamera / Getty Images

This Pilates ring exercise specifically targets the biceps. When you place the magic circle on your shoulder just next to the joint, be sure that it's vertical with your elbow, which is out to the side. Place your palm flat on the top of the ring.

  • Squeeze and release the ring 8–10 times.
  • Inhale on the squeeze, exhale on the release.
  • Use controlled movements.

Do this exercise with a slow pumping action to effectively tone the biceps.

6. Pilates Ring Side Press

group doing the side press
FatCamera/Getty Images

For the Pilates ring side press, you'll nestle the edge of the ring into the notch at the top of your hip. The ring will be parallel to the floor.

  • Your elbow is slightly bent as you squeeze the magic circle in toward you.
  • From there, pump the ring 8–10 times.
  • Breathe normally.
  • Feel that the lattisimus dorsi (aka lats), the big muscle that runs diagonally along your back and fans out along the side, is doing most of the work.

A Word From Verywell

The Pilates ring is a great tool for targeting specific muscle groups while also utilizing full-body awareness to perform the moves. By maintaining good form and keeping the core engaged in an upright posture, you're bound to get a workout that benefits the whole body as you sculpt and tone the upper body. If you're new to Pilates and are interested in working with the magic circle, these beginner exercises are a great way to get started.

1 Source
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Di Lorenzo CE. Pilates: What is it? Should it be used in rehabilitation? Sports Health. 2011;3(4):352-361. doi:10.1177/1941738111410285

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.