Every woman has her own set of upper-body goals. Some want defined arms and strong 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 strong 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.
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 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.