Pre/postnatal Pilates: 5 Upper body strengthening exercises (no weights needed!)
For many ladies (I’m guilty of it myself!), exercise tends to focus on the lower half of our body. We work on our core strength, and work out obsessively sometimes on our buns and thighs. One oft neglected part that tends to go missing from a balanced full body workout tends to be our upper body though! Perhaps we even resist it because we don’t want to build bulky arm muscles – that was one of the fears that I always had.
Yet it’s especially important for us to strengthen our arms and back muscles when we mummies. Why? You have to carry your baby that’s why! Thankfully, baby is born at a weight that is usually manageable for most of us, and as they gradually grow bigger, it’s almost like progressive weight training for us. Then again, it’s always beneficial for us to gently strengthen our upper body during and after pregnancy to be able to carry our babies with the right posture. With breastfeeding, or constantly poring over our babies, it is common for mummies to develop a forward slouching posture, leaving you with aches and stiffness (more about this in my next post!). Poor posture also affects your mood and overall wellbeing – try smiling when you’re slumped over, it feels so unnatural!
I’ll be sharing some of my favourite upper body strengthening exercises that use purely your own body weight. No dumbbells required, and we’ll also focus on an element of lengthening so that what we build are lean, strong muscles, rather than stocky bulk. These exercises are suitable both for mummies-to-be, and postnatal mums as well! Ready to go? All you need is a mat!
Start in your all-fours position (a.k.a. quadruped) with your hands under the shoulders and knees under the hips. Keeping the spine in neutral, and your torso stable like a tabletop, begin to extend your right arm and left leg in opposite directions till they start to float off the mat. Focus on reaching through your fingertips and toes, rather than simply kicking the arm and leg up. It’s always about length, not about height! Balance and hold for 3 counts (you can start with a shorter duration and slowly build up to even longer) before switching sides.
This exercise is great for strengthening the entire posterior sling of your body, which is good for your posture! You’ll also probably feel your arms working hard to lift you away from the ground as you balance on a single arm and leg. If this is hard for you, modify it by just extending one limb at a time.
Modified push up
From the quadruped position, walk your hands forward allowing your bottom to lower closer to the ground until your torso is in a diagonal position. Hug your baby towards you/draw your navel towards your spine to prevent collapsing into the lower back. Your hands will be directly under your shoulders. Bend the elbows to lower yourself toward the ground in a push up, going only as far as you can maintain your core connection and width across your shoulder blades (don’t squeeze those angel wings behind your back!).
Options when bending the elbows: (a) Elbows out to the side would be a chest push up or (b) Keeping elbows tucked in and close to the body would work the triceps more.
If a modified push up on your knees is difficult (especially when baby gets heavier), do your push ups while standing at a diagonal with your hands on a wall instead.
Seated tricep press
Seated tricep press
Many of us ladies (or at a least I’m one of those) tend to be concerned about those wobbly bits on the underside of our arms, which I like to call the “bye bye fats” – cue that jiggle when we wave goodbye. But did you know there are actually muscles there which you can work on toning? While I can’t guarantee that there will be zero wobble, we can try our best to strengthen those muscles with this exercise.
Sit with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground. Your hands will be placed on the mat behind your back with fingers pointing toward your body and elbows tucked in. This gets you in position to work those tricep muscles. Bend your elbows backward as you scoop your belly to roll down partway, and make sure that you stop at the point that allows you to straighten back up! Fully straighten those elbows at the end to really get into those triceps. For an added burn, add some mini pulses at the end just when you feel like you want to give up.
Sidelying tricep press up
Sidelying tricep press up
A progression of the previous exercise and also a great one for the triceps, we know turn on to our side to lie on the ground. Have your legs extended in line with your body and stacked on top of each other. Your bottom arm will be wrapped around your waist/rib, while the top hand is placed on the ground, somewhere in front of your chest/belly – feel free to play around with the position of your hand to see what works best for you. Press into the hand on the floor to lift your upper body off the ground – you’ll definitely feel the burn much quicker compared to the previous exercise!
Finally one for the shoulders – from your all fours position, tuck your toes and straighten your legs to push your bottom up into the air into an inverted V position. Mind you – the reason why it is called an inverted V is because you should be looking like an inverted V. Have your bottom somewhere in the middle of your hands and feet. If you’re leaning too far forward, it’s more like a plank position and you’ll end up putting too much weight on your hands. Instead, try to distribute your weight evenly between the hands and your feet. Spend some time in this position – you could bend one knee at a time to get a stretch into those calves and hamstrings – and you’ll feel it in your shoulders after awhile!
If you have any wrist pain (carpel tunnel syndrome is not uncommon during pregnancy), modify this by placing your elbows on the floor instead of your hands.
Hope you’ve enjoyed these upper body exercises, feel stronger and are able to stand a little straighter. After all this strengthening, stay tuned for my next post where I share about stretches to melt away the tension in your upper back and shoulders from all the baby-wearing and breastfeeding. See you then!
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