Jennifer Aniston, Gal Gadot, Michele Obama – ladies with some seriously sexy toned arms!
To get these sexy arms, you’re going to need two things: fat loss and muscle tone.
If you’ve tried to get toned arms in the past without results, here’s your guide!
Two parts: Muscle Size and Overlying Fat
These toned arms that we see and crave for ourselves have two components: muscle size and overlying fat.
How much muscle size contributes is a very minimal part of the overall look. In fact, it’s going to be roughly 99% effort minimizing overlying fat and only about 1% effort building up some muscle underneath.
I’ve seen thousands of articles detailing specific arm weight lifting exercises promising toned arms but none of them mention the fat loss component and this is where you’ve likely missed out in the past. Minimizing the overlying fat is really the vast majority of the results you’re actually looking for.
Have you ever heard the saying “Abs are made in the kitchen, not in the gym”? This is also referring to the fact that having ab definition is mostly about minimizing overlying fat by controlling how much you eat and not how much time you spend on ab exercises in the gym.
Minimizing Overlying Fat
Since the major contribution is minimizing the overlying fat in the arms, this should be 99% of your focus.
Unfortunately, there is no way to selectively burn fat off of one area of your body (except surgically/liposuction). This is extremely commonly falsely portrayed in magazines and online by trying to exercise only one area of your body so I’ll say it again: there is no way to selectively burn fat off of one area of your body.
Doing more arm workouts is not going to burn fat specifically from your arms.
The only way to burn fat is to eat fewer calories than you burn.
This is going to burn fat off your entire body but it is the only way to burn fat off your arms.
This is not easy, unfortunately, as evidenced by the obesity epidemic and longterm difficulties losing weight and keeping it off.
The best way to burn fat is to eat about 300-400 fewer calories every day than you burn (this leads to losing about 1lb per week). Low and slow is the safest way to lose weight and the best way keep it off long term.
Use a calorie-tracking app. Track the number of calories you eat and the number of calories you burn with daily exercise.
You will start to see toned arms once you are in the 15-25% body fat range.
Calculating body fat percentage can be done best by Bioelectrical impedance analysis (the video game controller-looking device with metal plates that you hold onto or scales that have the four metal plates you step on with bare feet). It can also be measured by calipers. Some online calculators can give you a rough idea but this is not very accurate.
Now this is the fun part!
Again, I want to set expectations straight though, building arm muscle is a VERY minimal component of the “toned arms” you are looking for, it is going to be mostly about losing fat, as above.
3 Workout Routines to Build Arm Muscle
I’ll describe 3 workout routines that you can use to build some lean arm muscle.
These routines will focus on the smaller, lean arm muscle look. While I am also here to help and support who do want noticeably strong arms, I will discuss that in other posts.
Home Routine, Long Resistance Bands
Repeat 3 times. Muscles should feel a bit tired after the first set of 10 and should have a mild-moderate burn at the end of the third set of 10. If you don’t feel any burn in your muscles, then use a tougher resistance band. If you can’t get to 10, then use a lighter resistance band.
- 10 Pushups: triceps
- start on knees and work up to full pushups. Be sure to keep your core tight with your body making a straight line from your head to your knees or feet (whichever are touching the floor)
- 10 shoulder press: deltoid (top of shoulder muscle)
- stand on light resistance band and loop band through palms of hands facing up at level of shoulders and press up against the band
- 10 bicep curls: biceps
- stand on light-medium resistance band and loop band through palms of hands facing up with elbows at your sides like you’re holding a tray. Bend at your elbows to bring your hands to your shoulders.
Home Routine, Light Weights (or improvised light weights)
Repeat 3 times. Muscles should feel a bit tired after the first set of 10 and should have a mild-moderate burn at the end of the third set of 10. If you don’t feel any burn in your muscles, then use a heavier weight. If you can’t get to 10, then use a lighter weight.
- 10 overhead extension: triceps
- stand with feet shoulder width apart and core tight. Holding a light weight, put your elbows up by your ears and hang the weight behind your back. Keeping your upper arm as vertical as possible, extend your elbow until your arm is straight and the weight is straight above your shoulder.
- 10 lateral arm raises: deltoid (top of shoulder muscle)
- stand up straight with light weights in hands down by your sides. Keeping arms straight, lift the weights out and up away from the sides of your body until you’re standing with arms out like a T.
- 10 bicep curls: biceps
- stand up straight and hold light weights with palms of hands facing up and elbows at your sides. Bend at your elbows to bring your hands to your shoulders.
Some ideas for improvised light weights: gallon/half gallon jugs filled with water or sand, grocery bags filled with rocks, canned foods, paint cans, let your imagination run wild!
Repeat 3 times. Muscles should feel a bit tired after the first set of 10 and should have a mild-moderate burn at the end of the third set of 10. If you don’t feel any burn in your muscles, then use a heavier weight (or less assistance on the assisted machines). If you can’t get to 10, then use a lighter weight (or more assistance on the assisted machines).
In the gym, you can use the machines that take weight off to do pull-ups and dips. These two exercises work your arms but are also so good for your core and back so I think it’s a great idea to work it all at the same time when you have access to these machines.
- 10 assisted pull-ups: biceps
- Start by setting the machine to about 2/3 of your weight (this is how much weight the machine is “assisting” or “taking off”). Hold onto the handles above your head and place either knees or feet on the knee or foot rest. Hang down with arms straight. Focus on contracting your upper back and biceps as you pull yourself upward until your chin is at the level of your hands.
- 10 assisted dips: triceps
- Start by setting the machine to about 2/3 of your weight (this is how much weight the machine is “assisting” or “taking off”). Hold onto the handles at your sides and place either knees or feet on the knee or foot rest. Let your weight hang down as your elbows come up and back behind you. Focus on contracting your chest and triceps to push yourself up until your arms are straight at your sides.
- 10 bar shoulder press: deltoid (top of shoulder muscle)
- stand up straight and hold a light barbell (20-30lbs) over your chest, resting on your collar bones, with your hands gripping the bar just to the outside of your shoulders so your forearms are vertical. Press the bar up over your head until your arms are straight.
How long does it take to get toned arms?
As I’ve discussed above, getting toned arms for yourself is mostly about losing enough fat to be able to see muscle definition.
So how long it will take to get toned arms will be how long it takes you to lose enough body fat to put yourself in the 15-25% body fat range by losing about 1lb per week.
Figure out how much weight you have to lose to put yourself in that range. The number of pounds you have to lose is the number of weeks it will take.
Will lifting light weights tone my arms?
There are two parts to this answer as toning arms involves two components: fat loss and muscle growth.
For both fat loss and muscle growth, you will see more progress if you lift moderate-heavy weights. Lifting moderate-heavy weights will have you burn more calories during your workout to help you burn more calories than you eat daily. Additionally, lifting moderate-heavy weights will help you build muscle much faster as well.
Lifting light weights for many, many, many reps at a time will eventually burn calories and eventually signal your muscles to grow but it gets very tediously boring to do sets of 30-50 reps at a time.
I’d recommend using a weight that really tires the muscle out by the 10-12 rep range. When you feel like it’s significantly more difficult to lift the weight after doing 10-12 reps than how you felt on the 1st rep.
This is a good amount of effort to both burn calories and signal the muscle to grow and is actually doable time-wise.
How often should I lift weights to tone my arms?
In general, it’s a good idea to do some form of exercise every day.
It’s a good idea for your general health to lift weights 3-5 times per week. Light cardio, HIIT, or balance/flexibility/yoga workouts can make up the other days.
Depending on your goals, you can make as much of this arm workouts as you want. I’d recommend for a nicely toned body overall, do about 1/3 arm workouts, 1/3 leg workouts, and 1/3 core workouts. You can do 1/3 of your workout every day in each of these muscle groups or you can do alternate through, doing each on a separate day (full body days vs one muscle group each day).
Can saggy arms be toned? Can I fix saggy arms?
As I’ve discussed previously, unfortunately we can’t burn fat off of one particular part of the body by working muscles nearby. We can only consume fewer calories than we burn in a day which burns fat off our entire body.
Unfortunately, while this method does burn fat off our entire body, genetics can cause us to burn fat more in certain areas than others. Genetically as a woman, we have more stubborn areas of fat that tend to decrease more slowly than others when we lose weight. These areas that we tend to store more fat are backs of upper arms, the area right below the belly button, and hips and thighs. Different women also genetically tend to store fat more in some of these areas than others compared to other women. This is determined by your DNA and we can’t change this unfortunately.
As the areas behind our upper arms are more stubborn areas of fat, we will often have to get to a lower overall body fat percentage to get muscle definition in that area. As all our genetics are slightly different, this will differ between woman to woman.
If you’re getting into the <20% body fat range, it’s important to remember your overall health and maintain a healthy level of body fat, no matter how much muscle definition you have on the back of your arms. It is not healthy to be in a body fat range less than 14-15% as women.
The best we can do is lose fat down to ~20% body fat range and build up some muscle in that area to prevent the skin from sagging.
How long should an arm workout be?
There is no rule on how long an arm workout should be but a 30 minute workout is a good starting point.
This is enough time to put sufficient strain on your muscles to signal them to become stronger but not too long that you’ll be exhausted or start using other muscles to compensate and risk hurting yourself.
If you are doing one of the workouts above, you’d do 10 reps of one exercise, rest 2-3 minutes, then do another 10 reps, rest 2-3 minutes, and then do your third set of 10 reps. This’ll take roughly 10 minutes. Then do the same with the other two exercises for a total of roughly 30 minutes.
The last few reps you do should burn your muscles to do them but you shouldn’t be struggling or compensating with other muscles.
Do pushups help you lose arm fat? Do planks help tone arms?
Similar to above, there is no way to lose fat in only one area of your body.
Doing pushups or planks (or any arm exercise) will not cause you to lose fat in only your arms.
Pushups are great arm and core work which are strenuous and will help you burn a modest amount of calories. Burning more calories than you eat daily will help you lose weight overall, including your arms.
The #1 most effective thing you can do to get toned arms is decrease the amount of fat overlying your arm muscles. The only way to lose fat is to burn more calories than you eat every day. And unfortunately we can’t selectively lose fat in one location by only working out that body part :/
*Be careful to lose fat slowly and healthily. Be aware of your body fat percentage and if it gets below 15-20%, no matter where the remaining fat stubbornly lies, do not go any lower than this!
While losing fat is going to get you 99% of the way there, building up some arm muscle will give your arms a little boost in tone. Lifting moderate-heavy weights regularly will help you burn the calories and build the muscle!
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