Every woman has her own set of upper-body goals. Some want toned arms and shoulders, while others desire Instagram-worthy biceps. Others just want to look great in a cold shoulder dress. And every mom just needs the arm strength to lift kids into and out of car seats over and over again.
No matter whether your goal is to add size and strength to your arms, or to shed some fat to show off the muscle that’s already there, chances are that you’ve found your arms to be, well, pretty stubborn.
You’ve tried Michelle Obama’s favorite exercises for toned arms. You even went so far as to add an “arm day”—an entire workout dedicated solely to building your bi’s and tri’s—to your weekly training rotation. But after countless sets of biceps curls and triceps kickbacks, you haven’t seen the results you expected.
Say goodbye to days when you only did lighter weights with higher reps. That alone won’t get the job done.
So where are your toned arms and definition? Or better yet, are certain people simply incapable of having more defined arms?
The short answer: no — “toned arms” are not reserved for winners of the genetic lottery. (Although, some will find their desired look easier to achieve.)
The real problem is that your workouts — the constant focus on biceps and triceps exercises in one rep range — are suffering from a lack of TLC.
“Toning up” is a magazine favorite, but it’s misunderstood. Achieving “tone” (a concept of what you desire, more than a scientific reality) results from a combination of adding muscle and losing fat. So if you want to truly have a set of arms that reflect the work you’re putting in, you need to shift your mindset and your workouts. Say goodbye to days when you only did lighter weights with higher reps. That alone won’t get the job done. [Eds. note: keep reading, and we’ll provide two different workouts programs that you can download for free.]
The solution starts with one simple idea: Volume. What does that mean? In the simplest sense, you need to do more reps and sets of certain exercises and not fear that those movements will make you bulky. Because they won’t. Instead, it will shape your body in a way you desire. [Note: Bulk does not come from any particular exercise, which is why you shouldn’t worry.]
“Women can handle a lot more upper-body volume than they tend to lift,” explains Colorado-based online personal trainer Kourtney Thomas, C.S.C.S. “A couple of push-pull and isolation movements once per week isn’t going to be enough to trigger significant change.”
“Volume” is exercise-speak for the number of reps you perform, multiplied by the weight lifted during each of those reps. While it might sound surprising, you can steal a few tricks from the guys in the gym with muscular upper bodies. (Again, don’t worry, you won’t end up looking like this men). This strategy can help turn up the volume on your workouts, and make sure you finally see the results from your time with the weights.
Here are four strategies that will help you reveal the “toned arms” (or muscular, stronger, more capable) you want.
Arms Workout Upgrade #1: Increase Your Intensity
“In general, the biggest thing that I see keeping women from their arm goal is using pink dumbbells for 20 reps,” says Minnesota-based exercise physiologist Mike T. Nelson, Ph.D., C.S.C.S.
It’s not that higher reps are bad. And it’s not that women are afraid to use heavier weights, it’s that they are selective with the body parts they target and don’t train their upper body — particularly their arms — with both high and low reps.
“Women seem to be more comfortable lifting heavy weights for their lower body than for their upper body,” adds Nelson.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, 2016 research published in the Journal of Applied Physiology shows that lifting light can trigger muscle size increases similar to those from lifting heavier weights. But here’s the thing: That’s true only if you are willing to perform enough reps so that your arms reach a point of fatigue on every set.
So yes, lifting the pink dumbbells will get you there—but it’s going to take a looooong time to do it. Bumping up the resistance will save you time and get you more results a lot faster.
(If you need extra convincing why heavier weights do not make you bulky, this is a myth that has been debunked over and over again. And if you need even more proof, here’s Kate Upton squatting some serious weight and looking decidedly not-bulky while doing it.)
If you want to build muscle — the type that gives you the definition you desire — shoot for sets of six to 12 reps on movements that require more overall muscle (think rows, press, pushups, pulldowns), and then sets of 8-20 reps (oftentimes in the higher range) for the more focus movements, like curls and triceps pressdowns. The most important part: you do both types of movements (more on this). If you only do direct arm exercises, then you will limit your ability to go heavier, as rows and presses are the best (and safest) way to accomplish this goal.
The weight you use should be heavy enough that you can just barely squeeze out the very last rep of your last set—but also manageable enough that you’re able to perform every rep with perfect form. Put another way, if you’re sneaking in extra reps after your form has completely broken down, you should either stop or lower the weight slightly.
Arms Workout Upgrade #2: Do More “Arm Days”
OK, so now that we’ve covered the sets and reps part of the equation, the other half involves how regularly you perform those exercises.
“If you arms are a major training goal for you, you need to put more attention there and start skewing the percentage of your total training that targets your arms,” Thomas says. “For example right now, upper-body work is literally like 75 percent of what I’m doing. I lift four days per week, and three of those days are upper-body days.”
After making the switch from two to three upper-body days, she notes that it took less than four weeks to see results in the mirror.
Here’s why: while it differs for everyone, women tend to carry less fat in their arms compared to their thighs, butt, and pelvic area. From what we understand, this is merely an evolutionary trait and should not be viewed as a bad thing. The fat stored in those areas are a byproduct of two things: 1) your higher levels of estrogen and 2) the fat levels appear to act as a storage center for the demands of your body should you become pregnant.
Let’s be clear: the fact that women carry a little more fat around their lower body is a physiological advantage that prepares you for the unique responsibilities of being a woman.
Lactation requires a lot of energy, so your body has adapted to store more fat to be prepared for that need (think from an evolutionary standpoint of undernourished females needing to provide for their babies; the energy needs to come from somewhere, so the body has created reserve storage — just in case.)
Comparatively, men store much more fat in their stomach, and it’s a much worse situation. While you might not like the way fat loss around your legs or butt, it should be embraced because it doesn’t create any health threat, per se. [We realize you might not like the way it looks, but it’s completely natural.]
On the other hand, fat storage in your gut — as men experience — is dangerous. If your waist dimensions are bigger than your hips, it can be strongly correlated with a host of medical problems including risk of coronary artery disease, diabetes, elevated triglycerides, hypertension, cancer and general overall mortality.
So while you can’t “spot reduce,” knowing that certain body parts are naturally leaner means that a target focus can make it easier for results to come faster — if you provide them with a little extra attention.
At a minimum, Thomas recommends that you have at least two upper-body training days per week if your goal is to improve your arms. Two ways you can break down those training sessions are:
One “push” day, one “pull” day
On a push day, you’d perform exercises like the bench press, shoulder press, and tricep pushdowns, while on a pull day it’d be movements like pull-ups or chin-ups, rows, and bicep curls.
One full body day, and one “accessory” day
Here, you’re spending one day on the bigger lifts that involve more musculature (such as the standing shoulder press or pull-ups), and day two on smaller, more targeted lifts like biceps curls, triceps push-downs, and shoulder raises.
However you divide those lifts across training days, Nelson recommends that you perform compound exercises in sets of six to eight reps. For the accessory, isolation-focused exercises, go with sets of eight to 15 reps.
Bonus tip: You can actually use higher reps with triceps exercises, such as 20-25 reps. This is because they involve such a small range of motion that you might need more reps fatigue your muscles to the point you need them to show, Thomas says.
Arms Workout Upgrade #3. Work Your Legs
While it’s totally true that you’ll need to do more training specifically targeted toward your upper body, you can’t dismiss the importance of big lifts such as deadlifts and squats—especially if you arm goal involves developing more muscle tone, which requires you to also lose some fat, Nelson says. Remember, if you’re going for a “toned” look, it’s a two-part equation of gaining some muscle and losing fat.
As we already mentioned, spot reduction of fat does not exist. For example, in one Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise study, when 104 people worked one arm crazy over the course of 12 weeks, and MRI scans showed that the trained arm didn’t lose any more fat than the untrained one. So if you want to ditch the fat that hangs onto your arms, you have to work to lose fat, and build muscle in the specific areas you want to improve (a process some call spot-enhancement).
From an exercise standpoint, the best way to achieve a fat-burning effect is through performing large, compound lifts that involve the most musculature possible, Nelson says. While upper-body compound moves such as rows, pull-ups, and bench presses use a lot of musculature for a sizeable caloric burn, lower body exercises like deadlifts and squats will take that caloric burn to the next level, Nelson says.
So if your upper-body physique goals require you to reduce body fat, it’s best to incorporate lower-body compound lifts in your routine at least twice a week.
Before you start to panic about the number of days adding up in the gym, it’s not as time-intensive as it sounds.
Let’s use the examples above for how you could structure your workout.
Option 1: One “push” day, one “pull” day
On your push day, you could do exercises like shoulder presses, chest presses, squats, lunges, and then triceps pushdowns and extentions.
On your pull day, you’d combine rows, pull-ups (or lat pulldowns), deadlifts, kettlebell swings, and biceps curls variations.
Option 2: One “compound” push-pull day, one “accessory” day
This variation will require at least 2 push-pull days, and then, at least, one accessory day. So day 1 of the push-pull days could include squats (push), row (pull), shoulder presses (push), and step-ups (push). Day 2 (accessory) would then focus on biceps curls, triceps pushdowns and extensions, and shoulder raises. Day 3 could include deadlifts (pull), chest presses (push), and pulldowns/pull-ups (pull), and lunges (push).
THE LAB: Want to try one of a workout we’re testing with our Born Fitness coaching clients? Join “The Born Fitness Lab” to receive your free full-body workout with an arms emphasis.
Arms Workout Upgrade #4. Adjust Your Nutrition to Meet Your Goals
The right nutrition will fuel your workouts, support your recovery, and help you build and maintain the muscle you want. But what—and how much—is “right” for you depends on your goals.
For instance, it is totally possible to build some muscle while losing fat if you increase your training volume (using the tips we provided) while keeping your caloric intake relatively consistent. This is where we recommend you start. It’s impossible to know what you need until you consistently apply the right techniques and see the results you get. Try an approach consistently for 8-12 weeks before making any decisions on how you need to adjust.
If you find that you are not moving in the right direction, you might need to making some additions to your diet. To build the most muscle, you need to be in a caloric surplus (a.k.a. you consume more calories than you burn per day). Simply put, you have to eat to see results.
Meanwhile, if your goal is to lean up and lose fat, you must achieve a caloric deficit (a.k.a. you burn more calories than you consume per day).
No matter your caloric approach, both building strength and muscle as well as losing weight from fat (rather than from muscle) requires consuming adequate levels of protein, of which women are notorious for not getting enough.
According to the American Council on Exercise, to build muscle mass, you should eat 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of your body weight per day (if you weigh 150 pounds, that works out to 75 to 120 grams of protein per day). Nelson recommends that women eat 30 grams of protein at least three to four times per day to promote healthy muscle levels. Reach for complete sources such as eggs, meat, fish, dairy, soy, and quinoa.
Whether you choose to eat more or less, your right to bare your arms is about you determining what goals are most important to you, and how you want to look and feel. If you’re seeing results in the gym, are stronger in your day-to-day life, and loving how you feel, don’t feel as if you have to adjust to meet an image perception that isn’t your own.
Great results start with the understanding that appearance is not the end goal. The process, the enjoyment, and the fulfillment of how you feel are what will keep you working hard and seeing results. Whether you are adding calories or subtracting them, both can feel difficult. So it’s important to gravitate towards the path that feels both sustainable and like it’s the right fit for what you’re trying to achieve. When that happens, success is almost an inevitability now that you’re not wasting time with your training.