5 Ways to Use Pilates in Upper Body Workouts

Raise your arm and breathe slowly
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Your upper body will benefit from Pilates as you tone and gain flexibility in your arms, shoulders, and back. But it isn't done with isolation exercises. An upper body workout with Pilates exercises must be considered in the context of the uniform development of the whole body. Flexibility and strength in the upper body are integrated with the core and come together toward a greater functioning of the whole.

With these key factors in mind, here are five ways you can use Pilates to focus on the tone and flexibility of your arms, shoulders and upper back.

1. Learn the Movement Fundamentals of Your Arms and Shoulders

Before adding exercises and strength challenges, you want to be sure you are moving your arms and shoulders in ways that keep them integrated, connected to your core, and don't throw your posture out of whack. This is an easy but important part of a Pilates-based upper body workout.

Shoulder stability or scapular stability is something your instructor will coach you on during exercises. You will hear your instructor say to draw your shoulder blades (scapulae) down, relax your shoulders, and settle your scapulae on your back. Where your scapulae are placed is a visual clue of your shoulder stability. If you have them drawn up, drawn together, or winged out they are less stable than when in the neutral position.

  • The arms over position help you keep the alignment of your torso. Your arms are raised up over your head as you are lying in neutral spine position. You then bring them down to the floor behind you while exhaling and then back up overhead while inhaling. It also helps improve the range of motion in your shoulders.
  • The angel arms motion is also done when lying in neutral spine position. It helps you learn how to use your arms and shoulders without losing the alignment of your back and rib cage. You sweep your arms out from your sides along the floor as if you are making a snow angel.

2. Work Arms and Shoulders With the Whole Body

Planks and plank-based exercises like the Pilates push-up are perfect for building upper body tone and core integrity.

  • There are three versions of plank often used in Pilates. The plain plank is done with straight arms and your hands on the ground directly under your shoulders. The dolphin plank is done with bent arms and your elbows and forearms on the ground. The side plank challenges you as it is inherently unstable. Your whole body will need stability to support you during side plank.
  • Pilates push-ups are very different from the gym classic. Starting position is standing and you curve down and walk into a plank position before lowering into a push-up, then reversing to a plank and walking back up to a standing position.
  • Back extension exercises include swan, cow, swimming, and plank. They strengthen the back and are an important counterbalance to the forward-bending Pilates exercises.

3. Use the Pilates Magic Circle

The magic circle, also known as the Pilates ring, will help you tone all areas of your upper back and arms. It adds resistance for the arms and shoulders and gives feedback to the core. If you use it properly, resisting the release as well as squeezing it in, you will be using eccentric contraction which helps create longer-looking muscles. Pilates magic circle upper back workouts use this device.

4. Add Hand Weights to Your Mat Workout

Adding light hand weights, toning balls, or wrist weights will increase the toning effect on your arms and shoulders and challenge you to keep the shoulders integrated with the core. There are many ways to put hand weights into your Pilates mat workouts. The key is that they must be light (1 to 3 pounds) and not pull your body out of alignment.

5. Increase Shoulder and Arm Flexibility

Stretch and strength go together. You don't want strength without flexibility and you don't want to be flexible without the strength to integrate and use it. This is very important in upper body work where you frequently have a goal of developing a good range of motion and flexibility for everyday life. Incorporate arm and shoulder stretches into your daily routine.

A Word From Verywell

To get in shape with Pilates, you will be using these ideas in full body Pilates workouts. Enjoy mat exercises at home and expand your workouts with Pilates equipment classes. You will build your upper body strength and flexibility.

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.