If you want a stronger, sculpted upper body, you probably think you need to hit the weight rack. While weightlifting is a wonderfully effective way to strengthen your upper-body muscles, it's not your only option.
Mat Pilates — which only requires your body weight and a mat, as opposed to other types like reformer Pilates that require equipment — 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.
And while weightlifting 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 for your shoulders and arms are guaranteed to upgrade your upper-body training.
1. Buoyant Plank
- Start in a high plank with your hands beneath your shoulders and your body in a straight line. Think about pulling your bellybutton toward your back to brace your core and protect your back.
- From your shoulders, shift your weight forward. Your feet will rock forward, too. As you move, lift through your armpits and keep your elbows in line with your arms.
- From the shoulder, push yourself back so you rock back on your feet.
- That’s 1 rep. Repeat for 8 to 10 reps.
This move increases upper body strength while it improves shoulder stability and challenges core strength, Chrysostomou says.
2. Seated Twist
- Start seated, leaning on your left arm and left glute with your right leg bent, crossing in front of your left foot.
- Press into your left hand and push up onto your feet, lengthening your body and straightening your legs (your right foot should still be in front of your left). Reach your right hand toward the ceiling.
- Rotate forward and reach your right arm down toward your feet, lifting your hips toward the ceiling and pushing back off your left hand.
- Reverse the move, so you return to an elongated side plank, then sit back down.
- That’s 1 rep. Repeat the sequence for 3 to 4 reps, then switch sides.
“Engage the inner thighs to help you balance,” Chrysostomou says.
3. Leg Pull Up
- 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.
- 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.
- Brace your core and lift the right leg, then slowly lower.
- Repeat on your left leg. That’s 1 rep.
- Continue alternating for 8 reps.
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
- Start kneeling on both knees with your arms straight out to your sides.
- Lean over to the right side and place your right hand onto the floor as you extend your left leg out to the side and lift your left arm toward the ceiling.
- Kick your left leg forward and then back behind you. That’s 1 rep.
- Repeat for 8 reps, then switch to the other side.
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 your 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.
- Position yourself on your hands and your knees, then step your feet back and straighten your legs so you're balanced on your palms and toes.
- Check your body and hand position: Your body should form a straight line from head to hips to heels, and your hands should be directly under your shoulders or slightly wider apart.
- Bend your elbows at a 45-degree angle to your body and lower your body until your chest hovers a few inches from the floor.
- Make sure to keep your body in one straight line from your neck through your spine to your hips and down to your heels.
- 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.
If the traditional push-up is too difficult, drop to your knees, Chrysostomou says.
6. Saw Combination
- Sit with your legs in front of you, mat-distance apart, and arms at your sides at shoulder height.
- Rotate to your left from your waist, reaching your right arm across your body to the outside of your left leg as you bend forward over it.
- Lean back and place your left hand on the floor. Push through your left hand and down onto the backs of your heels as you lift your pelvis and stretch your right arm toward the ceiling.
- Return to seated, again reaching your right arm across your body to the outside of your left leg.
- Bring your body upright and rotate back to the center in the starting position, then repeat on the other side.
- Repeat this whole sequence 6 to 10 times.
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
- Start in a high plank with your hands beneath your shoulders and your body in a straight line.
- Push back off your hands until your body forms a V shape and lift the right leg to the ceiling.
- Pull your body forward back into the plank position and bring your right knee into your chest.
- That’s 1 rep. Repeat the sequence for 8 to 10 reps, then switch sides.
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 a V shape instead, she says.