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The Best Arm Exercises

Want buff arms like Michelle Obama's? Experts pick exercises that are best for strengthening and toning the arms.
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WebMD Weight Loss Clinic-Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

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.

According to news reports, Michelle Obama stays in shape with three 90-minute exercise sessions each week, sometimes hitting the gym at 4:30 a.m. to make sure she doesn't miss a workout.

woman doing push ups

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.

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