Build Upper-Body Strength Without Weights Using This Pilates Workout

Woman performs push-up
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You don’t need a well-stocked weights room for an effective upper-body workout, and there are plenty of ways to challenge your muscles using your own bodyweight.

To prove the point, Helen O’Leary, physio and clinical director at Complete Pilates, has put together some Pilates-inspired exercises to help with building arm strength and muscle.

If you train regularly, they might seem easy, but moving slowly throughout each movement will challenge your muscles in a different way while also engaging your core and back.

And of course, if you typically don’t strength train it makes sense to start training without weights.

“Women notoriously struggle with upper-body strength movements,” says O’Leary, although it doesn’t have to be that way. “Working on your arms two to three times a week is enough to notice strength changes. However, it is important to remember you should recover before attempting your next arm workout.” Make sure to leave at least a day before repeating this workout.

How To Do This Workout

This workout is arranged into two tri-sets. To complete a tri-set perform all the reps of exercise 1A, then 1B and finally 1C, then rest for two minutes. Repeat that sequence a total of three times, then move on to the second tri-set.

1A Quadruped (bird-dog)

Woman performs quadruped exercise

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Sets 3 Reps 12 to 15 each side Rest 0min

Start on all fours. Engage your core, and lift and extend one arm and the opposite leg. Pause, then return to the start. Move slowly with control. Alternate sides with each rep.

1B Leg pull 

Woman performs leg pull

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Sets 3 Reps 12-15 each side Rest 0min

Start in a high plank position with your arms and legs extended, hands directly under your shoulders and your body in a straight line from head to heels. Engage your core and, keeping your hips as still as possible, raise one leg. Slowly lower it to the floor. Do all your reps on one side, then switch. 

1C Triceps push-up

Sets 3 Reps 12-15 Rest 2min

Get into a high plank position, with your hands directly under your shoulders and your body in a straight line from head to heels. Engage your core and then bend your elbows to lower your chest to the floor, keeping your arms close to your body. Push through your hands to return to the start. 

2A Assisted pull-up 

Woman performing an assisted pull-up using a resistance band

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Sets 3 Reps 12-15 Rest 0sec

Loop a heavy resistance band around a pull-up bar and step or place one knee on the bottom of the band. Hold the bar with an overhand grip with your hands just wider than shoulder-width apart. Engage your core and pull yourself up, aiming to get your chin above the bar. Lower under control. 

2B W-I-T

Sets 3 Reps 12-15 Rest 0sec

Lie on your front holding your head off the floor. For the first set, bend your elbows to 90° and extend your upper arms to the sides. Engage your back and lift your arms just off the floor, then lower. For the second set, extend your arms forward. For the final set, extend your arms out to the sides.

2C Banded overhead triceps extension

Sets 3 Reps 12-15 each side Rest 2min

Kneel on a long resistance band and, keeping a neutral back and engaged core throughout, press the band overhead, keeping your hands shoulder-width apart. Lean to one side so one hand is directly above your head. Bend the elbow of that arm, keeping your upper arm stationary, and lower your hand to the back of your head. Using your triceps extend your arm to return to the start. Complete all the reps on one side, then switch sides.

Lucy Gornall

Lucy is an experienced health and fitness journalist, and was formerly health editor for TI Media’s portfolio of women’s titles. Lucy qualified as a level 3 personal trainer with Train Fitness in 2016, and also holds qualifications in pre- and post-natal fitness, as well as in nutrition for exercise.