The Only 7 Pilates Moves You Need for a Stronger, More Toned Upper Body

You don't need a ton (or any) equipment to strengthen you upper body with Pilates.
Image Credit: Zinkevych/iStock/GettyImages

If you want a stronger, sculpted upper body, you probably think you need to hit the weight rack. While weight-lifting is a wonderfully effective way to strengthen your upper-body muscles, it's not your only option.

Pilates — which only requires your body weight and a mat — develops upper-body strength through isometric exercises (ones you hold still rather than moving through), says Nikki Chrysostomou, PMA-CPT, a Pilates instructor, licensed movement therapist and founder of Movement Integration.

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And while weight-lifting often focuses on larger muscle groups, Pilates builds strength by targeting smaller, stabilizing muscles, Chrysostomou says. "This creates better stability around the joints, decreasing the risk of injury and giving support to our larger muscles."

Plus, Pilates also incorporates functional movement patterns such as pulling, pushing and reaching overhead. This supports you in your daily activities like reaching for something on a shelf or lifting a child and reduces the risk of injury, Chrysostomou says.

When you're just looking to switch up your sweat session, these seven mat Pilates moves — which will smoke your shoulders and arms — are guaranteed to upgrade your upper-body training.

1. Buoyant Plank

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Reps 10
Activity Pilates
Region Upper Body
  1. Start in a high plank with your hands beneath your shoulders and your body in a straight line.
  2. From your shoulders, pull yourself forward so you rock forward on the feet. As you move, lift through your armpits and keep your elbows in line with your arms.
  3. From the shoulder, push yourself back so you rock back on your feet.
  4. That’s one rep. Repeat for 8 to 10 reps.

Tip

This move increases upper body strength while it improves shoulder stability and challenges core strength, Chrysostomou says.

2. Seated Twist

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Reps 4
Activity Pilates
Region Upper Body
  1. Start seated, leaning on your left arm and butt cheek with your right leg bent, crossing in front of your left foot.
  2. Press into your left hand and push up onto your feet, lengthening your body and straightening your legs. Reach your right hand toward the ceiling.
  3. Then rotate forward and reach your right arm down toward your feet, lifting the hips to the ceiling and pushing back off your left hand.
  4. Reverse the move, so that you return to an elongated side plank, then sit back down.
  5. That’s one rep. Repeat the sequence for 3 to 4 reps, then switch sides.

Tip

“Engage the inner thighs to help you balance,” Chrysostomou says.

3. Leg Pull Up

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Reps 8
Activity Pilates
Region Upper Body
  1. Sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you and your hands on the floor behind you (fingers pointing toward you) and slightly out to the side.
  2. Reach your toes down to the floor and lift your pelvis up toward the ceiling, creating a straight line from your head to your toes.
  3. Brace your core and lift the right leg, then slowly lower.
  4. Repeat on your left leg. That’s one rep.
  5. Continue alternating for 8 reps.

Tip

This move not only builds strength in the upper body, core and hip flexors but also improves hamstring flexibility and pelvic stability, Chrysostomou says.

“If you feel pain in the back of the knee, lift your toes to the ceiling and come onto the heels,” she says.

4. Kneeling Side Kick

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Reps 8
Activity Pilates
Region Upper Body
  1. Start kneeling on both knees with your arms straight out to your sides.
  2. Lean over to the right side and place your right hand onto the floor as you extend the left leg out to the side and lift the left arm to the ceiling.
  3. Kick the left leg forward and then back. That’s one rep.
  4. Repeat for 8 reps, then switch to the other side.

Tip

This exercise creates strength in the upper body, core and glutes while simultaneously improving balance, pelvic stability and flexibility in the hamstrings and hip flexors, Chrysostomou says.

Press the hip forward to help maintain alignment and pelvic stability, she says. And if the move feels too challenging, drop down to an elbow side plank.

5. Push-Up

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Reps 8
Activity Pilates
Region Upper Body
  1. Position yourself on your hands and your knees, then step your feet back and straighten your legs so that you're balanced on your palms and toes.
  2. Check your body and hand position: Your body should make a straight line from head to hips to heels, and your hands should be directly under your shoulders or slightly wider apart.
  3. Bend your elbows at a 45-degree angle to your body and lower your body to the floor.
  4. Make sure to keep the body in one straight line from the neck through the spine to the hips and down to the heels.
  5. Press into your palms and push the floor away from you to come back up to a high plank, still keeping your body in one straight line.

Tip

If the traditional push-up is too difficult, drop to your knees, Chrysostomou says.

6. Saw Combination

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Reps 10
Activity Pilates
Region Upper Body
  1. Sit with your legs in front of you, mat-distance apart, and arms at your sides at shoulder height.
  2. Rotate to your left, reaching your right arm across your body to the outside of your left leg as you bend forward over it.
  3. Then, lean back and place the left hand on the floor. Push through the hand and press down onto the back of the heels as you lift your pelvis up to the ceiling and stretch your right arm toward the ceiling.
  4. Return to seated, again reaching your right arm across your body to the outside of your left leg.
  5. Bring the body upright and rotate back to the center in the starting position, then repeat on the other side.
  6. Repeat the whole sequence 6 to 10 times.

Tip

This move builds core and upper-body strength as it increases flexibility in torso rotation and stretches the lower back and hamstrings, Chrysostomou says.

7. One Leg Elephant

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Reps 10
Activity Pilates
Region Upper Body
  1. Start in a high plank with your hands beneath your shoulders and your body in a straight line.
  2. Push back off your hands until your body forms a V shape and lift the right leg to the ceiling.
  3. Pull your body forward back into the plank position and bring your right knee into your chest.
  4. That’s one rep. Repeat the sequence for 8 to 10 reps, then switch sides.

Tip

This is a full-body strength and mobility move that works your upper body, core, glutes, hamstrings and hip flexors, Chrysostomou says. But if the leg lift is too tough, modify by doing a plank into pike instead, she says.

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