Upper-Body Progressions on the Reformer

by Portia Page on Mar 14, 2013

Sample Sequence

Help clients strengthen, define and refine their arms and shoulders.

Developing upper-body strength and stability is often a challenge, especially for female clients. Balanced strength, stability and range of motion are critical for everyday movements such as pushing, pulling, reaching, carrying, holding and even breathing.

Every regimen benefits from exercises that support healthy range of motion in the upper body. Balanced strength creates ease and efficiency, promoting proper posture and aiding in several functional movements. Clients stay more alert and look and feel better.

The upper body comprises the head, neck, trunk, ribs, mid and upper back, shoulders and arms. Within this grouping, the shoulder area is one of the most complex; the exercises covered here will mostly target this area. Each separate part of the upper body affects the entire region. Alignment, stabilization and strength in the whole area are the goals with each exercise.

Exercise 1: Scapular Mobility: Protraction/Retraction

This exercise helps create mobility in the scapulae as they glide over the rib cage.

The two variations presented here protract and retract the scapulae, yet the sitting positions and the way the muscles are activated provide a unique experience in each case.

Facing Foot Bar

Springs. One yellow to one red (light resistance).
Foot bar. Position 1, high.

Start Position

  • Kneel and face foot bar, hips resting on heels, tops of feet down, toes at head rest.
  • Place hands on foot bar, arms straight.
  • Keep arms straight, flex at hips and shoulders, and push carriage back (head will line up within “framework” of arms or be just above, depending on flexibility).

Movement Sequence

  • Inhale: Push carriage back by “shrugging” shoulders without rounding back.
  • Exhale: Draw shoulders down by pulling scapulae down with lower traps.
  • Repeat 6–10 times.


  • double arm press (Bend and straighten elbows.)
  • single-arm scapula glides (Hold one hand behind back or beside torso.)
  • rotation (Release one arm behind back, and rotate torso toward arm on foot bar.)
  • Observe client’s ability to mobilize the scapulae with the lower trapezius. Check for proper torso alignment.

    Facing Pulleys

    Springs. One blue to one red (range).
    Foot bar. Position 4 (in the middle), vertical.

    Start Position

    • Sit facing pulleys with legs crossed or extended.
    • Place hands on foot bar, arms straight (handgrip can be wide, narrow, overhand, underhand or one over/one under).
    • Pull hips under shoulders and ribs to sit upright, arms extended.

    Movement Sequence

    • Exhale: Draw shoulders together toward midline of back, pulling carriage back within normal scapular range of motion; keep torso upright.
    • Inhale: Abduct scapulae, allowing carriage to move back to start position.
    • Repeat 6–10 times.


    • biceps curls
    • single-arm movements (scapula glides, biceps curls)
    • rotation (Release one hand, and rotate away from hand on foot bar.)
    • spinal flexion/extension added
    Observe client’s ability to mobilize scapulae with lower trapezius. Check for proper torso alignment.

    Exercise 2: Chest Expansion/Thoracic Extension

    This exercise creates strength for pulling and pushing movements. It also helps clients develop safe and effective thoracic extension.

    Springs. One yellow to one blue (range).
    Foot bar. Not needed.

    Start Position

    • Sit facing pulleys, legs extended or crossed (this can also be done seated on a box if client has limited flexibility in hips and low back).
    • Hold handles with arms straight in front of body, palms facing inward.

    Movement Sequence

    • Inhale: Open arms to pull straps back at shoulder height.
    • Exhale: Return arms to start position.
    • Repeat 4–6 times.


    • V-arms (overhead diagonal)
    • V-arms with thoracic extension
    Observe client’s torso alignment, scapular mobility and range of movement.

    Exercise 3: Rotator Cuff/Overhead Press

    This exercise creates strength and endurance in the rotator cuff muscles; develops safe and effective lateral flexion in the torso; and teaches clients to anchor the pelvis when reaching overhead.

    Springs. One yellow to one blue (range).

    Foot bar. Not needed.

    Start Position

    • Sit facing side with legs crossed (this can also be done seated on a box if client has limited hip and low-back flexibility).
    • Hold rear strap with hand closest to shoulder rests. Bend elbow and hold handle at waist height with one hand, palm facing toward midline of body.

    Movement Sequence

    • Inhale: Pull strap toward foot bar (internal rotation), keeping elbow bent and forearm parallel to carriage.
    • Exhale: Return arm to start position.


    • external rotation (Hold strap with arm farther from shoulder rests.)
    • namaste hands (up/down)
    • overhead reach (same as above, but lifting arms overhead without letting shoulders lift)
    • overhead reach with lateral flexion (Add side stretch toward foot bar.)
    • Repeat 4–6 times each arm, each exercise.
    Observe client’s ability to stabilize torso while moving arms and shoulders.

    If done daily, these exercises will not only enhance upper-body aesthetics (especially in the arms and shoulders) but also improve posture, breath, strength and range of motion. These upper-body progressions on the reformer are great for athletes, yogis and everyone who wants to stand tall and move with confidence in the world.

    Photo credit: Nora St. John. Model: Lizbeth Garcia.

    IDEA Pilates Today, Volume 4, Issue 2

    © 2013 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

    About the Author

    Portia Page

    Portia Page IDEA Author/Presenter

    Portia Page is a faculty member of Balanced Body® as well as the Education Project Manager and a STOTT PILATES®-certified instructor. She has been in the fitness industry for over 20 years and...


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