This five-minute Pilates workout builds upper body strength without weights

Ivory Howard's equipment-free routine strengthens your shoulders, chest, and core

Woman doing a Pilates workout
(Image credit: Ivory Howard)

You may think that the only way to build strength in your upper body is by picking up a set of weights. It's an effective way to train but not the only way; this no-equipment four-move Pilates routine works your upper body and core and only takes five minutes.

It's a quick session that you can do from anywhere, though it's still worth rolling out one of the best yoga mats for a comfortable base as you'll be on the floor for most of the exercises.

When you're short on time, it's crucial to find an efficient way to train, which is why certified yoga and Pilates instructor Ivory Howard's exclusive five-minute routine is ideal for working your core and upper body on busier days.

As Howard says, "you may not have the time, space, or energy for your usual workout every day, but be sure to commit to a quick workout even when you only have a few minutes—it works the whole body, including the core, glutes, quadriceps, arms, and chest."

Pilates instructor Ivory Howard
Ivory Howard

Ivory Howard is a certified yoga and Pilates instructor. She provides her clients with challenging workouts focused on strength, balance and flexibility to help them reach their health and fitness goals.

Watch Ivory Howard's four-move Pilates routine

1. Hundred

Woman performing hundred exercises

(Image credit: Ivory Howard)
  • To warm up your body, lie on your back with your legs in a tabletop position, maintaining a 90-degree angle at the hip and knee.
  • Lift your head and shoulders, reaching your arms towards your feet.
  • Pump your arms above the abdominal wall.
  • Inhale for five counts and exhale for five counts.
  • Repeat for nine more cycles until you have reached ten inhales, and ten exhales.
  • For a challenge, extend your legs out to a 45-degree angle.

2. Roll up

Woman performing roll ups

(Image credit: Ivory Howard)
  • Lie on your back with your legs on the mat and toes pointed towards the ceiling.
  • Float your arms above your head.
  • As you inhale, peel your head, shoulders, and upper body off the mat bone by bone.
  • Inhale and exhale, then roll down with control to the starting position. Complete 5-7 repetitions.
  • Remember to use full inhalations and exhalations as you move through this pose.

3. Shoulder bridge

Woman performing shoulder bridges

(Image credit: Ivory Howard)
  • Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor, arms alongside your body.
  • Inhaling, slowly lift your hips towards the ceiling, forming a straight line from your shoulders to your knees, activating your glutes.
  • Hold for five seconds. Exhaling, slowly roll down bone by bone. Repeat seven times. 
  • Next, lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor with your arms alongside your body. 
  • Slowly lift your hips towards the ceiling, forming a straight line from your shoulders to your knees, activating your glutes.
  • Pull your right knee into your chest. Then, lengthen your right leg until your toes point towards the ceiling. 
  • Lower your straight leg until it hovers above the ground, and pull your right knee into your chest. That's one rep. Repeat seven times. 
  • After eight reps on the right side, slowly roll down bone by bone as if you were laying down a string of pearls. Repeat eight times on the left side. 

4. Front support

Woman holding a plank position

(Image credit: Ivory Howard)
  • From a standing position, with your feet hip-distance apart, fold forward from the hips into a full forward bend. 
  • Place your hands on the floor and bend your knees, if necessary, to place your hands on the floor.
  • Walk your hands out to a plank position, making sure that your hands are directly under your shoulders, close to your body.
  • Keep your neck in line with your spine and glide your shoulder blades down your back.
  • Inhale and lower for a Pilates push-up. Repeat two more times. 
  • Exhale fully to return to the plank position. Complete two more push-ups.
  • Walk your hands back to an inverted Pilates V (downward facing dog).
  • Take a deep stretch, continue walking your hands towards your feet, and slowly roll up to a standing position. That's one rep.
  • Complete three repetitions to end this Pilates routine. Finish by rolling your shoulders back three times and standing tall.

Ivory Howard's Pilates workout benefits

In just five minutes, you'll work muscles throughout your body, with an emphasis on your upper body and core, a section of mid-body muscle that includes your rectus abdominis, better known as the six-pack ab muscle. 

Your core plays a vital role in your body, helping improve stability, balance, and blood circulation. Importantly, a stronger core also helps when your posture when exercising, as these muscles connect your upper and lower body. 

If you want to work your abs some more during the week, you can fit these core strengthening exercises into your workout program or group them together for an effective equipment-free ab workout. 

Enjoy working with weights? Pick up one of the best kettlebells and give kettlebell swings a try. This compound (multi-muscle) exercise works your whole body, particularly your core, and raises your heart rate for fat-burning results. 

James Frew
Fitness Editor

James is a London-based journalist and Fitness Editor at Fit&Well. He has over five years experience in fitness tech, including time spent as the Buyer’s Guide Editor and Staff Writer at technology publication MakeUseOf. In 2014 he was diagnosed with a chronic health condition, which spurred his interest in health, fitness, and lifestyle management.

In the years since, he has become a devoted meditator, experimented with workout styles and exercises, and used various gadgets to monitor his health. In recent times, James has been absorbed by the intersection between mental health, fitness, sustainability, and environmentalism. When not concerning himself with health and technology, James can be found excitedly checking out each week’s New Music Friday releases.