3 pilates exercises to strengthen and mobilise your upper body

Strengthen and mobilise the shoulder muscles and joints with these simple pilates moves. 

Building shoulder strength is really important – these muscles are used in pretty much every type of lifting motion, including sets at the gym and picking up heavy objects in the real world. 

The muscles in the front, side and back of our shoulders also work together to stabilise the shoulder joint and stop us hunching at our desks. In short, strong shoulders mean better function and less pain.

Typically, you might use weights to strengthen the area, pressing and raising your way to stronger shoulders. But pilates is actually a great way to target the muscles using just your body weight. 

Given the workout style has a heavy focus on mobility, it’s also a brilliant way to open the shoulders and ease tightness. 

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With that in mind, we asked Rosie Dwyer, a pilates instructor at BLOK, to share three of her favourite moves.

Pilates press-up with a spinal flow

“​​This pilates press-up variation is one of my absolute favourites because it helps build strength in the front and back of the shoulders, as well as the arms and core, while also articulating through the spine to mobilise the body.”

How to do a pilates press-up with a spinal flow 

  1. Begin in a pilates ‘shell stretch’ – similar to a child’s pose with your shins on the mat, bum towards your heels and legs pressed together. Fold towards the floor, bringing your stomach to your thighs and your arms outstretched in front of you.
  2. Slowly uncurl from the base of your spine and press your weight forwards so you are in a press-up position on your knees.
  3. Ensure the spine is straight, the body in a diagonal line from head to knees. Tuck the ribs towards the hips and pull the navel back towards the spine.
  4. Inhale as you draw your elbows back, lowering the body towards the mat until you are a few inches off the floor.
  5. Exhale to press straight back up. Immediately tuck the tailbone, scoop the belly and flow the spine back to your shell stretch and then repeat six to eight times.

Pilates press ups can build shoulder strength

Swan stretch

“This move might be called a stretch, but it’s amazing for strengthening the lats and rhomboids that are responsible for moving the scapula and shoulders. It can help counteract kyphosis (rounding of the shoulders and upper spine), which is common due to how much we hunch over our phones, laptops and desks. You’ll move through the day feeling a little taller after this exercise.”

How to do a swan stretch

  1. Lie on your stomach with your legs straight and arms in a cactus position, framing your head.
  2. Tuck the tailbone so your pubic bone is slightly pressing into the floor and pull your belly button towards your spine.
  3. Inhale to roll the shoulders back and down and engage the top of your back and then exhale as you lift your arms, head, neck and shoulders off the mat.
  4. Stay lifted as you inhale and extend the arms forwards trying to touch the other side of the room.
  5. Exhale and draw elbows back in line with the shoulders into the cactus position and release thebody down onto the mat. Repeat six to eight times. 
  6. As you perform this exercise, keep the shoulders melting down the back, away from the ears. Think more about length than height here, imagine someone is pulling a little string out of the crown of your head, helping you to create more space in the upper spine and release tension.

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Chest opener

“Not only does this mobilise the shoulders as you twist through the spine, but it also creates space in the chest. Tight chests are often the reason our shoulders are pulled forwards, so it can help to open the whole upper body. As you perform the move, think about releasing that tension on every exhale.”

How to do a chest opener 

  1. Lie on your side with your hips stacked on top of each other and your legs bent at a 90-degree angle.
  2. Place your arms in front of you, at a right angle with your body and place your palms together.
  3. As you exhale, gently float your top arm overhead painting a rainbow shape on the floor over your head with your fingertips until it reaches the other side and your arms are in a T shape.
  4. Keep your legs and hips together so you don’t twist through the lower body, but allow your head and neck to follow your hands.
  5. Inhale here, and as you exhale slowly rainbow your arm back to the original side, in front of your chest with palms together again. Repeat six to eight times.

Images: Getty

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