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Movement Monday: The Pilates Push-Up – More Than Just a Chest Exercise

Malcolm Demonstrating Pilates Push-Up: Upward Movement
Malcolm Perfecting Pilates Push-Up: Downward Phase

Understanding the Multifaceted Nature of the Pilates Push-Up

The push-up, often mistakenly perceived as a mere chest exercise, is a cornerstone in the Pilates repertoire, exemplifying the method's comprehensive approach to movement. Joseph Pilates, the founder of this transformative practise, emphasised a unique variation of the push-up, underscoring not just muscle engagement but also functional stability and spinal articulation.

The Real Purpose: Shoulder Stability and Spinal Articulation

Contrary to common belief, the primary objective of the Pilates push-up isn't to build chest muscles. Instead, it's a dynamic exercise designed for enhancing shoulder stability. This is achieved through a deliberate imbalance created as one shifts forward onto their toes during the movement, challenging the shoulder muscles to maintain stability.

Alongside this, the Pilates push-up offers an exceptional opportunity for spinal articulation. The movement begins with a roll-down, allowing for a gradual, vertebra-by-vertebra descent, and ends with a roll-up, promoting controlled spinal alignment. This not only warms up the spine but also prepares the body for the transition to the mat.

Anatomy at Play: Muscles Engaged in the Pilates Push-Up

To fully appreciate the Pilates push-up, understanding the anatomy involved is crucial. The primary muscles engaged include:

  1. Shoulder Stabilisers: Rotator cuff muscles (Supraspinatus, Infraspinatus, Teres Minor, and Subscapularis) are key players in maintaining shoulder joint stability.

  2. Core Musculature: The Transversus Abdominis and other core muscles work to maintain spinal stability, ensuring the back remains protected and supported throughout the exercise.

  3. Upper Body Muscles: While not the primary focus, muscles like the Pectoralis Major, Triceps, and Deltoids are also engaged to a lesser extent, contributing to the overall movement.

  4. Back Extensors: Muscles along the spine, including the Erector Spinae, facilitate the rolling up and down movements, promoting spinal health and flexibility.

The Original Pilates Push-Up: Starting in Flexion

Intriguingly, Joseph Pilates introduced the push-up from a flexed position in his book, rather than the conventional standing start. This variation underscores the importance of spinal articulation right from the onset of the exercise.


The Pilates push-up, a multifaceted and multilevel exercise, is about much more than chest strength. It's a testament to Joseph Pilates' holistic approach to movement, focusing on shoulder stability, spinal health, and core engagement. As Pilates teachers, it's our role to guide our students through the nuanced layers of this exercise, ensuring they reap the full spectrum of benefits it offers.


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