Tank Top Workout: Upper-Body Exercises

It's not too late to buff up your arms and shoulders for tank tops. Here's how.

From the WebMD Archives

Nothing shows off a toned upper body and arms like a skimpy tank top. Firm shoulders, arms, and upper-back muscles take center stage.

If you're still wearing long sleeves to avoid the exposure, fear not. WebMD spoke to top fitness experts about how you can make your shoulders and arms more toned and fit.

Shoulder Shapers

"The shoulders are the most important muscle group of the upper body for appearance as well as function," says Brad Schoenfeld, MS, CSCS, a fitness trainer in Scarsdale, N.Y. "Even if you have nice arms, you won't look good if your shoulders are stooped." Well-developed shoulders also give the illusion of a smaller waist, like built-in shoulder pads.

The main shoulder muscles include three parts, or deltoid heads. "These include the posterior, medial, and anterior deltoid heads," Schoenfeld says. "Your workout should include exercises targeting all three."

He recommends doing the following three exercises three times per week as part of your total-body fitness routine. Each time, do 3-4 sets of 12-15 repetitions (reps) per set. Use enough weight or resistance so that it's a challenge to do 12 to 15 reps, but you can still maintain good form.

  • Overhead Shoulder Press (works the anterior deltoids): Stand with feet shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent, and hold onto dumbbells. Position dumbbells at each side of shoulders, with elbows bent at a right angle, hands stacked above your wrists (think of goal posts), and palms facing forward. Press the dumbbells upward until arms are extended overhead. Slowly lower to the starting position and repeat.
  • Lateral Raise (works the lateral deltoids): Stand with feet shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent, and grasp two dumbbells. Move dumbbells to the front of your thighs, with palms facing each other. Slightly bend the elbows and raise dumbbells up and out to the sides until parallel to the floor. Your pinkie should be higher than your thumb. "Think of pouring milk," Schoenfeld says. "You don't want to spill the milk but just tip the container." Pause, lower slowly, and repeat.
  • Reverse Fly (works the posterior deltoids): Grasp two dumbbells and stand with feet shoulder width apart and knees slightly bent. Bend forward at the waist until your back is parallel to the floor (keep knees bent); keep elbows slightly bent with arms towards the floor, palms and dumbbells facing each other. In this bent-over position, raise dumbbells up and out to the sides, moving from the shoulders only, until arms are parallel to the floor at approximately shoulder level. Lower to starting position and repeat.


Arm and Back Toners

To get the most out of an upper-body toning workout, perform exercises that work multiple muscle groups, says Pete McCall, MS, CSCS, exercise physiologist and spokesman for the American Council on Exercise.

"Pull-ups [a.k.a. chin-ups], for example, work the back, forearms and biceps," McCall says. If you're not strong enough to lift your own body weight, substitute seated pulldowns or seated rows, which work the same muscles. Here's how:

  • Seated Pulldown: Attach tubing to upper part of a door hinge. Sit tall on a stability ball or bench and grasp tubing handles. Keep feet flat on the floor and chest high as you pull elbows down and back, squeezing shoulder blades together. Pause and slowly return to starting position.
  • Seated Row (works the back and biceps): Attach exercise tubing to a door hinge and sit tall on a bench or exercise ball, grasping handles in each hand, palms facing up. Keep chest high and shoulders down (avoid shrugging) as you pull the handles towards you (tubing should be at chest height). Pause when hands reach the sides of your chest, pause and slowly return to starting position. Keep palms facing up to work the biceps; palms down strengthens forearms.

  • Plank-Ups (works the core, shoulders, chest, and triceps): If you're familiar with planks, a popular core exercise, McCall suggests adding this challenging version to your workout routine three times a week. Lie face-down on the floor and support yourself on forearms and the balls of your feet, legs straight. Keep abdominals braced and back flat. "Walk" up onto one hand and then the other, so you end up in a push-up position. Walk back down onto your forearms. Keep your body stable and avoid rocking side to side. Start with three to four reps and work your way up to 10 or so.

To firm up the backs of your arms, McCall recommends this exercise:

  • Chair Dips (works the triceps): Sit on the edge of a chair or stable bench with hands on either side of your hips, palms facing away from you grasping the edge of the bench. Shimmy off the edge of the bench, feet flat and knees at a right angle, and lower your hips towards the floor until upper arms are parallel to the floor. Push back up -- using your hands, not legs -- and repeat.


Burn Fat for Definition

To bring out muscle tone, keep body fat in check. So include cardio along with your strength training to see more defined muscles.

"Definition is usually the result of burning fat," says Michael Applebaum, MD, fitness specialist and author of numerous fitness and weight loss books.

Strive for 20 to 30 minutes of cardio on alternate days of the week from resistance training days. Applebaum recommends monitoring your heart rate after a couple weeks at the same level of intensity. "If you're working hard enough, you'll see your heart rate decrease."

How long will it take to see results? That depends on several factors, including genetics, workout intensity, body fat level, and how much room you have for improvement (if you're out of shape, you'll see results faster than if you've been exercising for years). "In general, you should see results in four or so weeks," Schoenfeld says.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on June 23, 2010



Brad Schoenfeld, MS, CSCS, CPT, ACE personal trainer; president, Global Fitness Services, Scarsdale, N.Y.

Pete McCall, MS, CSCS, exercise physiologist and spokesman, American Council on Exercise. Michael Applebaum, MD, internist and fitness professional, Chicago.

© 2010 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.


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