Are well-toned arms the latest must-have body part? First Lady Michelle Obama's shapely arms caused a sensation in February after she showed them off in sleeveless dresses in her official White House portrait and during her husband's first address to Congress.
If you're ready to get your own arms buff enough to go bare, what are the best arm exercises for strengthening and toning? WebMD asked fitness experts to share some of their tips for building stronger, tighter arm muscles.
The Benefits of Upper Body Strength
Arm toning and strengthening exercises are important throughout life, says Dan Agresti, exercise physiologist and owner of ProActive Health and Fitness in Denver. And the benefits go way beyond looking good in a tank top.
Life is a lot better when you're strong," says Agresti. "It's fun to know I can do just about any task."
Having upper body strength also helps us combat the physical pitfalls of our culture.
"We live in such a flexed-posture society, says Lori Incledon, athletic trainer and author of Strength Training for Women.
Being hunched over the computer, in front of the TV, and at the steering wheels of our cars takes a toll, she says. The shoulder girdle becomes stretched, the chest muscles get tighter, and we set ourselves up for decreased range of motion and potential injury.
"We're never going to be able to reach for the cup on the highest shelf anymore" if we don't balance out our muscles with exercise, says Incledon, of Chandler, Ariz.
Arm Toning Tips: The Whole-Body Prescription
As we all know by now, you cannot spot-reduce an area. So we need to think about the bigger picture. "The emphasis should be on the entire body -- and cardio and diet," says Mark Nutting, fitness director at Saco Sport & Fitness in Saco, Maine.
Diet and nutrition are a huge part of the equation, says Agresti. If you work the arms and don't see results, look at your whole program: "Underneath that fat is the most beautiful set of arms you've ever seen," he says.
Nutting, Agresti, and Incledon all use multi-muscle, multi-joint exercises for their clients, so they work more muscle at one time, thus increasing the calorie burn.
"We need to train the body the way it was designed to work," says Agresti. Otherwise, "there's not a lot of crossover into the real world."
You need to use some sort of resistance to really strengthen the upper body and tone the arms, whether it's weights, bands, machines, cables, grocery bags, or your own body weight.
You also need to be willing to push yourself a little, says Agresti.
"If you want to tone and shape your arms, you have to use a bigger weight," Agresti says. "I don't think women tend to push themselves with sufficient weight and to the level of effort and fatigue necessary."
It's all about motivation, says Agresti. "Could you have done more? For $100,000 could you have doubled the reps?" If your response is 'You bet,' he says, you're cheating yourself.
Women sometimes ask if the workouts will lead to too much bulking up. If you feel a little bigger at first, it may not be your imagination.
"When you first start lifting, there's a big influx of carbohydrates and water to that area," as your body attempts to protect itself from something it's not accustomed to, says Incledon. "It's a beginner thing. At first, you'll get a bit more of a bulky feeling, but after a month, the body regulates."
Another reason you may look bulkier is because you're building muscle under a layer of fat. Once the fat comes off, the bulkiness gives way to the lean muscle underneath.
And you don't have to treadmill yourself to death to shed that layer of flab, says Incledon.
"It's a myth that the only way you can affect body composition is by cardiovascular exercise," she says. In a sense, "anything you do that is exercise is cardiovascular, because you have to work your heart and lungs to lift a weight."
If you're crunched for time (and who isn't?), work smart: Do exercises that use lots of body parts at once, minimize rest periods, and work to fatigue.
4 Multi-Tasking Arm Exercises
Try these four multi-joint, multi-muscle exercises from Agresti, Nutting, and Incledon to develop beautifully toned arms and upper body strength.
1. Push-up/Tricep Push-up
- Prepare: Start on your hands and knees, fingers spread, wrists under shoulders, knees under hips. Extend one leg back to rest on your toes, then the other, forming a straight line from your heels to your shoulders. Keep the butt and ab muscles tight, the ribs knitted together, and the shoulders sliding down the back. Be sure the neck is in line with the spine (don't hang your head or jut your chin out.)
- Perform: Bending the elbows, slowly lower the body as far down as you can while maintaining proper form. Then, straightening (but not locking) the arms, come back to the starting position. Repeat to fatigue (strive for 12-15 repetitions).
- For a challenge: Do the push-up with the elbows pointing back and close to your sides to emphasize the triceps.
- Working muscles: Pectorals (chest), deltoids (shoulders), triceps.
2. Reverse Plank Pull-up
- Prepare: Using an assisted machine like the Smith machine at your gym, set the bar about midway up and stand under it. Using a palms-up grip, grab the bar, aligning your shoulders with your wrists. Then walk your feet out away from you until your body is in a reverse plank, hanging in a straight line, with your heels on the floor.
- Perform: Bending your elbows slowly bring your body up to the bar and straightening your elbows, lower back down. Repeat to fatigue (strive for 12-15 repetitions).
- For a challenge: The lower the angle of your body, the tougher the exercise. Beginners should work at a higher angle off the ground.
- Working muscles: Latissimus dorsi (back), deltoids, biceps.
3. Bicep Curl/Shoulder Press Combo
- Prepare: Holding a pair of free weights or standing on an exercise band and holding it with the palms face up, stand tall with feet hip-width apart, abs tight.
- Perform: Lift the weights or band toward your shoulders (flexing elbows), turn the palms to face out and continue pushing the weight or band over your head in a fluid, continuous motion. Then reverse the motion, bring the weight down to your shoulders with the palms out, then turning them to fully extend the elbows, bringing the arms to the starting position.
- For a challenge: Chances are, you can use more weight while doing this combination move, so try it. Try not to rest between each repetition. Repeat to fatigue (strive for 12-15 repetitions).
- Working muscles: Biceps, deltoids, triceps.
4. Tricep Dips
- Prepare: Sitting with your hands on the edge of a sturdy bench, fingers pointing toward you, slowly walk your feet out in front of you and take your bottom off the bench.
- Perform: Slowly lower and lift your body weight, being sure to fully extend the arm and maintaining perfect posture throughout (do not roll the shoulders in). Whether your knees are bent at 90 degrees (easier) or legs are straight out (harder), be sure to lower yourself straight down (keeping a 1-inch gap between your back and the bench for the entire range of motion) and not in a swinging motion toward your feet. Repeat to fatigue (strive for 12-15 repetitions).
- Challenge: Try this with one heel stacked on the other.
- Working muscles: Triceps, deltoids.