6 Pilates Arm Exercises That'll Unwind Tight Shoulders

A pro shares her faves.

A fitness pro shares her go-to Pilates arm exercises.
Getty Images/Westend61

Pilates arm exercises are an ideal way to strengthen your arms, and can be a nice change of pace from more traditional bicep curls or weight machines at the gym. Besides adding some variety to your upper body workouts, Pilates works your muscles in a pretty unique way.

With Pilates you actually end up reaching all the layers of muscle in the body, from the deep ones that lie close to your skeleton to the superficial muscles closer to the skin, says Chloe de Winter, a physiotherapist, master Pilates instructor, and founder of the online Pilates platform Go Chlo Pilates.

“Pilates exercises focus on building strength through all these muscular layers of the body, which means they don’t just help you become stronger, but help you build stability for the joints,” de Winter tells Bustle. You’ll get stronger biceps and triceps, sure, but also stronger shoulder, elbow, and event wrist joints. “This will translate into the way your body feels day-to-day, as you’ll feel improvements in your posture and an ease in your daily activities,” de Winter says.

This is all thanks to the way a strong upper body supports you as you move. Of course, Pilates includes a lot of bending and stretching, too, which not only feels good, but can also improve tension-related soreness and stiffness. Win-win-win, right? Here, de Winter shares her favorite Pilates arm exercises for you to try.

1. Pilates Ring Squeezes

You’ll need a Pilates ring to do this move, which de Winter says works your deep shoulder muscles, chest, and pecs.

- Begin in a kneeling, sitting, or standing position.

- Hold the Pilates ring in your palms.

- Bend your elbows to 90 degrees and keep them close to the sides of your body.

- As you exhale, squeeze in on the Pilates ring.

- Inhale and slowly release the ring.

- Keep squeezing for 15 reps.

- Do 2 sets.

2. Pilates Ring Tricep Push-Ups

De Winter likes this move to target the shoulders and chest, as well as the core.

- Begin on your hands and knees, with hands under shoulders and knees under hips.

- Place the padding of the Pilates ring on your chest vertically, with the opposite padded part of the ring on the mat underneath you.

- Move your knees back and shift your weight forward to keep your shoulders over your wrists.

- Inhale and bend your elbows. Keep them close to your body as you lower your chest towards the mat.

- As you exhale, press into your hands to lift back up.

- The Pilates ring should support you the whole time.

- Aim for 15 reps.

- Do 2 sets.

3. Weighted Arm Extensions

Weighted arm extensions strengthen your triceps, the postural muscles in your core and back, and the scapula stabilizers, like the traps and rhomboids.

- Grab a weight. A 2 to 4 lb one would be perfect, de Winter says.

- Begin on your hands and knees with the weight in your left hand.

- Stabilize through your right shoulder by pressing into your hand and lifting your chest away from the mat beneath you.

- On an exhale, extend your left hand towards your hip, lifting it to just above the height of your body.

- Inhale and slowly return your arm back to the starting position.

- Do 15 reps.

- Try for 2 sets.

4. Weighted Triceps

Give this move a go to work your triceps and postural muscles, de Winter says.

- Grab a set of weights.

- Begin in a kneeling squat or a standing squat position.

- Hold a weight in each hand.

- Bend your elbows so the weights are close to your body, facing in.

- On an exhale, keep your upper arms close to your body and extend your elbows fully straight.

- Inhale and bend your elbows back in.

- Repeat for 15 reps.

- Do 2 sets.

5. Dart

This is a good move to hit the triceps, as well as your postural upper back muscles.

- Begin by lying on your stomach, feet pointed and hip-width apart.

- Rest your hands beside you with palms facing up.

- Draw your shoulder blades together and down.

- Inhale and lift your head, arms, and chest up to a hover away from the mat.

- Engage the muscles in your upper back and shoulders.

- Exhale and slowly lower back to the mat.

- Repeat for 10 reps.

- Do 3 sets.

6. Bird Dog

Here’s another classic Pilates move to work your shoulder stabilizers, de Winter says, as well as your core and hamstrings. (Bonus!)

- Begin on your hands and knees with hands under shoulders and knees under hips.

- Press into your hands and engage your shoulders by pushing your chest away from the mat beneath you.

- As you exhale, extend your right arm and left leg away from you at the same time.

- Maintain your balance.

- Slowly return to the center and alternate to the other side.

- Do 1 set of 40 reps.

Studies referenced:

Kloubec, J. 2011. Pilates: how does it work and who needs it? Muscles Ligaments Tendons J. PMID: 23738249; PMCID: PMC3666467.

Uluğ, N. 2018. Effects of Pilates and yoga in patients with chronic neck pain: A sonographic study. J Rehabil Med. doi: 10.2340/16501977-2288.


Chloe de Winter, physiotherapist, master Pilates instructor, founder of Go Chlo Pilates