It’s nearly summer and the shops are full of t-shirts and skimpy tops. However it’s been estimated that three out of four women in the UK will be worrying about wearing them. Research has found that flabby upper arms and, above all, the dreaded ‘bingo wings’ concern us more than bulging bellies or thunder thighs. 80 percent of us are so self-conscious that we cover up with cardigans or shawls.
‘They’re a problem area for a lot of women, particularly as they get older,’ says personal trainer Henlu van der Westhuizen (henlupt.com). ‘There’s no quick fix but 4-8 weeks of dedication and patience should allow time to show really good results.’
First of all you need to clean up your diet, says Henlu. Cut out all sugar, processed carbohydrate and processed foods (which will pile on the pounds), while upping your intake of protein (grass-fed beef, chicken, cottage cheese, eggs, fish), vegetables, oats, whole grains, fresh berries and healthy fats (coconut oil for cooking and cold-pressed olive oil or argan for salads). These foods promote lean muscle group and boost metabolism.
Next, you need to focus on reducing overall body fat in order to slim your arm shape. ‘I suggest full body exercises using as many muscles as possible which will up your metabolism and build a more slender, toned physique.’
Finally you need to target the muscles in and around your upper arms. Although the biceps are the most obvious upper arm muscle, the triceps (which stretches down the back of the arm) actually makes up 70 percent of your upper arm. Many highly effective upper arm exercises don’t need any equipment at all (you rely on your own body weight). But, for the very best results, it’s worth including weights – as heavy as you can manage. ‘Don’t be scared of weights,’ says van der Westhuizen. ‘It is impossible for a woman to gain huge muscle mass by training with weights.’
Tone up your arms
These exercises will give your arms lean definition. Do three sets of these arm firmers three times a week (have a day off in between for muscle recovery).
1. Elbow plank pushups.
Works triceps, biceps, shoulders, lower back muscles plus your core.
Lie on your front on a mat. Raise yourself up onto your elbows, so your lower arms form a right angle – your elbows should be directly under your shoulders). Keep your hands flat on the floor. Now push up onto your toes, keeping your back flat. Stay in this position (elbow plank) for a few second and then push up, one hand at a time so you are in an upright plank position (with arms locked). Hold and then come back down, one arm at a time, to elbow plank.
Keep moving between elbow and upright plank and build up to 10-15 complete repetitions.
2. Biceps curls
Works biceps and also the brachialis (runs underneath the biceps) and brachioradialis (runs along the forearm and across the elbow).
You will need hand weights for this. Choose a weight that will stretch you for the last two or three repetitions.
Stand up straight, with your feet shoulder-width apart. Keep your back straight and your shoulders relaxed and rolled back. Hold a weight in each hand, thumbs curled around the grip. Your hands start off by your hips, palm-side facing forward. Bend your elbows and slowly curl your arms, bringing the weights up to your shoulders. Keep your elbows tucked in and your back straight (don’t be tempted to engage your back to help). Now slowly lower them back down to your sides. Repeat for 8-15 repetitions.
3. Tricep dips
Works the triceps and shoulder muscles
You will need a bench, a firm chair or wall (about knee height) for this.
Sit down. Keep your shoulders square and pull in your core to protect your back.
Place your hands either side of your body, with your fingers facing forwards. Keep your arms straight, slide your buttocks off the bench and stretch your feet out in front of you, keeping your feet together. Bend your elbows to lower your body towards the ground. Keep your body as close to the bench as possible. When your elbows reach a 90 degree angle, push back and straighten your arms, raising your body. Don’t go too low (it will put strain on your shoulders). Repeat for 8-15 repetitions.
4. Triangle Pushups
Works triceps but also shoulders, chest (pectorals) and core.
Kneel on a mat and place your hands under your shoulders. Now bring your hands together so your thumbs and index fingers form a diamond shape. If you can’t do a full pushup, it doesn’t matter. You can stay in a box shape or extend your feet back (crossing your ankles) so you’re in a halfway house between kneeling and full pushup position. Lower your body down slowly and with control, aiming your chin for the floor in front of you. Keep your elbows in by your sides. Push back up to the starting position. This is hard, so build up slowly to 15 repetitions.
5. Kettlebell swings
Works the whole body, legs, buttocks, back, shoulders and arms.
You will need a kettlebell. Choose one that will stretch you on the last few swings. Most women start with a 4kg or 6kg bell.
Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Before you pick up your kettlebell, practice the hip drive – you need to hinge forwards from your hips (not your lower back). It’s like a pelvic thrust. Now pick up the kettlebell and hold it in both hands, with your knuckles facing forward. Keep your back flat at all times and keep your weight on your heels. Swing the kettlebell forwards, building momentum, until the kettlebell reaches shoulder height. Remember to keep your back flat and to tilt your pelvis as you come up. The lower you squat, the better the workout (but watch your knees). Build up to 50 swings.
Cardio workouts for lean definition
‘Unfortunately targeted tricep and bicep exercises alone won’t give you lean, toned arms,’ says Henlu. ‘You need to focus on reducing body fat to slim the overall arm shape.’
He suggests full body exercises using as many muscles as possible. This burns more calories to ramp up your metabolism and build a more slender, toned physique.
Aim for 20-30 minutes of high intensity cardio-based exercises, three times a week. Burpies, sprints, squat jumps are great and lower body exercises for the large muscle groups (squats and lunges) also help increase lean body muscle mass.
HIIT (high intensity interval training) circuits are all excellent. Also use HIIT on bikes, cross-trainers or treadmills.
Supercharge your walking, biking and cross-trainer workouts by adding ankle and/or wrist weights – but only if you are proficient and injury-free.
A version of this article first appeared in Top Sante magazine.