The Simple Way To Boost Upper-Body Strength

If you’re anything like me, you actively avoid exercises that look even remotely like a push-up. Let’s face it, planks and push-ups are difficult—especially for us women, whose strength tends to reside in the lower body.

However, when it comes to feeling great and preventing injury, the body must be strong uniformly. Attention to upper-body training is paramount to overall fitness.

My job as a Pilates instructor is to create physically challenging exercises that are also mentally engaging, helping the client to focus on form and flow while distracting them from the difficulty and discomfort of the movement. Traditional push-ups, despite their effectiveness, aren’t what I’d call “engaging.” The down-up drudgery can be a downer!

With that in mind, I’ve created some dynamic exercises that most certainly aren’t your mama’s push-ups. These movements are certain to spice up your upper-body strength routine.

DISCLAIMER: These exercises may be contraindicated for shoulder or wrist injuries. If you feel any discomfort, be sure to modify by reducing range of motion, or omit the exercise.

Cat Back Hover

Starting position: Cat (rounded) Back, on all fours

Reps: 5 sets, 5 breaths each

From Cat Back, lift the knees 2 inches off the floor and hold this "hover" position for 5 long breath cycles, focusing on squeezing the abdominals inward on the exhale, bring the knees slowly down and arch the back into Cow, then repeat for 4 more sets. Modification: Keep knees on mat if kneecaps are uncomfortable; if wrists are sensitive, pack the fists and balance on the knuckles.


  • Go deep! With each exhale, round more, draw the shoulders back more, curl the tail more, lift the kneecaps up more!
  • Prevent any weight transfer back over the heels; the weight of your body should be over your shoulders.
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A-Frame Pumps + Push-Ups

Starting position: Place hands at front of mat, thumbs and first fingers touching (A-Frame); step feet back into plank, about mat-distance apart

Reps: 10 tricep pumps, 10 deltoid pumps, 5 push-ups

Reach one arm back alongside the body, slightly higher than the hip, palm up; from here, pump the arm up 10 times (tricep pumps); repeat with the other arm. Then, reach one arm forward alongside the ear, palm facing in; from here, pump the right arm up 10 times (deltoid pumps); repeat with the other arm. From here, with both hands on mat in A-Frame position, inhale and bend the elbows, lowering the chest slowly for 5 counts, then exhale and extend the elbows slowly back into plank (push-ups); repeat 5 times. Modification: Perform the exercise with the knees down.


  • Draw your abdominals in and keep the hips stable.
  • When pumping the arms, imagine pushing through heavy water, creating resistance.
  • Keep the supporting shoulder plugged into the socket with the shoulder blade drawn down the back so that you’re using use the entire shoulder musculature, not just the chest.

Forearm Oblique Twist

Starting position: Forearm plank, hands interlaced, feet together

Reps: 5 alternating sides (10 total)

Inhale and rotate the pelvis to the right, rolling onto the knife edge of the foot. Exhale and squeeze the abdominals in as you drive back to center. Repeat on other side, and continue this alternating twist 5 times for each side. Modification: Place knees on the floor.

  • Press the back of the rib cage into the shoulder blades and reach the collarbones forward.
  • Keep the hips low and the tailbone curled under to retain work in the core.
  • Keep both elbows on the floor and the feet glued together to increase the challenge of the oblique twist. Imagine, as you exhale and return to center, that you have to drag your body back through thick mud. Create resistance!
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Side Plank Twist

Starting position: Side Plank or Forearm Side Plank (supporting arm in slight external rotation), other hand behind head; feet stacked and together

Reps: 5 twists on each side

Exhale and slowly rotate the upper body toward the floor, trying to reach the elbow underneath the body. Inhale and return to side plank, reaching the chest toward the ceiling. Repeat 4 more times, then repeat on other side. Modification: Place the top foot behind the bottom foot for greater stability, or place lower knee down if full position too challenging.

  • Keep the underarm musculature engaged and stable throughout movement, with the supporting shoulder connected to the back.
  • Engage the obliques, glutes, and inner thighs to keep the body solid from head to toe.
  • Use the breath to create a solid, fluid rhythm of motion—no loss of control.

A-Frame Snake

Starting position: A-Frame (thumbs and first fingers touching), body in Downward-Facing Dog

Reps: 10

Exhale, bend the elbows, and lower the sternum diagonally down toward the thumbs, creating a snake-like action. Transition through the bottom of a push-up, then inhale and extend the arms, reaching the spine into an Upward Dog position. Exhale and lift the hips back up to Down Dog; repeat 9 more times. Modification: Perform exercise with knees down; if the shoulders are tight, separate the hands a few inches.


  • As you lower the chest, energetically reach back with the hips, creating opposition.
  • Keep the shoulder blades pulled down the back—no shoulder elevation or internal rotation of the arms.
  • Keep the abdominals drawn into the low back to support low back, especially during Upward Dog.

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