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Toning the Upper Arms

Bryant Stamford, PhD


Exercising the upper arms—the biceps and triceps muscles—increases their tone or strength, and, primarily in men, their size. The biceps is the muscle that flexes the arm, and the triceps straightens (extends) the arm.

From any given amount of vigorous training, men generally achieve greater gains in muscle size than women do. This is good news both for men, who generally want such gains, and for women, who typically don't (see "Firming Up," below).

Training Basics

Cautions. Resistance training in a sense breaks down muscles so that they can rebuild with increased strength. This takes time, so limit your training to two or three sessions per week, separated by at least 1 full day of rest.

Zealous beginners may strain their joints, so progress slowly. Be aware that increasing muscle size requires months of concerted effort and demanding exercises.

Getting started. Isolate the triceps and biceps muscles with strictly controlled movements as in figures 1 through 4. You can use fancy high-tech gym equipment, barbells, dumbbells, or things you find around the house. A plastic 1-gallon milk container filled with water, for example, weighs about 8 pounds.

Warm up with a series (set) of 10 repetitions (reps) per exercise using a relatively light weight. Rest for a minute, then do a training set using a weight heavy enough to allow only 10 reps. Use rhythmic movements. Inhale when lowering; exhale when lifting. On each rep, completely straighten the arms at the elbows. When you can do 12 or more reps per set, increase the weight and return to 10 reps per set.

After 6 weeks of the above routine, increase to two training sets of 10 reps each. After another 6 weeks, progress to three training sets.

If you have questions, seek out a certified professional at a health club or commercial gym. This can be especially helpful when you start and before advanced training.

Maintaining gains. When you have achieved the results you want, you can shift to a maintenance program of one or two sessions per week. You need not continue to add reps or weight.

Exercise Specifics

Biceps. A variety of exercises for the biceps are variations of the curl (figure 1). Thus, you can train the biceps with just one exercise, or add others for variety (figure 2).

[Figure 1]

Dumbbells are preferable to barbells for beginners and older individuals because they allow a more natural movement that reduces stress on the arm joints. Biceps curls can be done while standing, or while seated on an armless chair or adjustable bench that keeps your back at a 90° (upright) to 45° angle. If you have low-back problems, always sit with your back firmly supported against a bench or chair back.

[Figure 2]

As you lift the weight for biceps curls, your palms should face up. If the palms face down or face one another, some or most of the effort shifts from the biceps to the upper forearm muscles.

Triceps. Besides extending the elbow, the triceps also assists in chest and shoulder movement. For maximum development, isolate the triceps with one or more exercises such as triceps extensions (figure 3) or close-grip push-ups (figure 4).

[Figure 3]

The Big Picture

The exercises described here are designed specifically for the biceps and triceps muscles. Your routine should also include exercises that strengthen the muscles of the shoulders, back, chest, and legs.

[Figure 4]

Firming Up

Many people want their arms to have a firmer, more compact appearance. Lack of firmness in the upper arms most likely reflects excess fat rather than untrained muscles. Women especially may find that their upper arms are a storage site for considerable excess fat.

Unfortunately, just exercising your upper arms won't accomplish "spot reduction." During any type of exertion, fat is mobilized from all of the body's storage deposits equally, not just from those near the exercising muscles. The best exercise to reduce overall body fat—including fat in the upper arms—is aerobic exercise such as walking, jogging, or cycling. These activities burn calories significantly faster than strength training does.

Remember: This information is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. Before starting an exercise program, consult a physician.

Dr Stamford is director of the Health Promotion and Wellness Center and professor of exercise physiology in the School of Education at the University of Louisville, Kentucky. He is also an editorial board member of The Physician and Sportsmedicine.