The weather is already summer like in many places on the east coast. And we all know what that means. Lighter clothing, particularly in the upper body area. Thanks to former First Lady Michelle Obama, it is now acceptable to show some bicep. Her arms weren’t just on display for special events like the Oscars or the Inaugural ball. She showed off those arms shaking hands of foreign prime ministers and presidents, at her husband’s first inaugural address, in her first official photo. Notwithstanding some unavoidable pearl-clutching (jelly much?), her arms left their own legacy as a fashion and political statement. Women in even the most conservative of professions and places like Washington, D.C. had the right to bear arms,: during business meetings, for Linkedin profile pictures, and most certainly walking around outside during the summer during the workweek. And people were going through great lengths to get those arms. Trainers and plastic surgeons alike were being told, “I want Michelle Obama arms.”,
What do we mean by “Michelle Obama arms?” Well of course we don’t mean her exact arms literally. So if you tell a trainer or a plastic surgeon that, they will probably roll their eyes when you’re not looking. My definition of these coveted arms basically can be explained by the captioned picture. Arms that are feminine, yet toned in the right places, especially the shoulder, bicep and tricep. So you can rock a sports bra and a sleeveless dress.
I for one do not believe you have to wait until we are off zoom calls to rock your arms:
How to get your dream arms
Getting teardrop biceps and dented shoulders is more than just doing a lot of bicep curls. It is a combination of cardio, overall body weight training, and accessory training.
Exercises for toned arms
DAOFitLife Arms playlist
You can find a series of great videos for arm workouts on my YouTube channel here:
Ahhh, you thought I was just going to jump into bicep curls, didn’t you? The real truth is, you cannot simply “spot-train” a single body part. That is not the way the science of the body works. What you can do is reduce overall body fat, and increase overall body muscle definition. You can do additional exercises to improve the appearance of your arms, but focusing on that first would be like putting the frosting on the cake before you bake it.
So cardio, as we have discussed, is key to managing body weight and a very important component to staying lean. So if you want lean arms, incorporate at least 3-4 hours of steady state cardio a week (preferably steady state), with 1-2 additional days of HIIT training. With both lower intensity and high intensity movements, you can blast unwanted fat to allow the definition of the muscles to pop out.
See my workout formula for success for how to structure weekly workouts. This doesn’t really change for your #armgoals; there is just more emphasis on thei arms in some of the strength training exercises.
Yoga, pilates, and barre are also excellent ways to train your arms because they work your entire body and force you to use your body weight. Sun salutations in yoga and all of the planks in barre build a strong foundation for your chest, biceps, back and shoulders.In barre classes you also typically work out with light weights and do repeated bicep or tricep movements until failure. Doing high rep low weight movements until failure is a technique known as “flooding,” So while it won’t build up your muscle in and of itself – you need to live heavier weights for that – it will flood the desired area with extra oxygen to feed the red blood cells that are already working to build up from a previous strength training workout. Precision training, therefore, can accelerate definition that is already happening through a strong strength training foundation, which we will get to next.
Read this post for more of my recommendations on Yoga, Barre and Pilates apps.
Strength training arm exercises
I have listed what I have found to be the most effective arm exercises. First, I list what I call the “compound movements” – these are movements that work multiple muscles at the same time. Then, I turn to “accessory” movements which isolate certain muscles.
I also have offered an at-home version, as I know many of us are still working out at home.You can also incorporate these extra moves into your gym circuit or do them on another day’s circuit. I like working out with free weights, body weights, cables and different equipment for arms, like the landmine press.
Compound movement exercises:
The most classic but one of the most highly underrated moves, push-ups work your entire body – your chest, biceps, triceps, your abs, and most importantly the “wing” muscles directly under your armpits, which are really hard to tone. That’s the part of your arm that meets the corner of your chest, which is key for sleeveless shirts, strapless and spaghetti strap dresses.
Push-ups can be the key to a toned winged arm, not an arm taco (that’s that little flap between your arm and where the top of your pec is that gets pushed out from the shoulder strap). Variety is key. For example, you can put a weight on your back (pictured below), or add some incline with a bench, chair, or Swedish ball. Do a combination of super fast pushups until failure, then do super slow pushups (this is known as a negative push-up, where you lower down slowly and then explode up fast.
There is also the chaturanga or closed grip push-up, a move that one of Michelle Obama’s trainers recommends. This is where you hold your elbows super close to your chest like in the second picture below.
I always thought of a chin-up as a “guy’s” workout but my trainer made me see that I was wrong. Chin-ups are also one of those all-around muscle toners. In addition to really forcing you to engage your entire core and back muscles, chin-ups make your biceps, shoulders, and lats (the muscles that starts from underneath the back of your arm). A big mistake especially women make when they focus on arms is that they only look at what they can see in the mirror. But your arms, like your abs, really are a 360 degree muscle. You can’t see your back, but a lot of other people can. So exercises like chin ups make you pay attention to all the muscles. And it is not as intimidating as it sounds. Sure, most people can’t just start doing chin ups but the assisted chin-up machine is a great way to start. Or, you can stand and balance on one of those thick bands. Start somewhere and work your way up. I think chin-ups are more accessible and have more benefits for your arms than pull-ups. Pull-ups target more of your back, while chin-ups target more of your arms because of the closed grip. This article helps explain the difference between the moves and the muscles worked.
At home version – Bent over row and bicep curl. This works a lot of the same muscles in your upper back and biceps.
Angled chest press
The chest press most of us are familiar with, and a lot of women especially choose to do so with free weights. The mistake that a lot of people make, though, is not introducing angles. Lying flat and doing a chest press is definitely worth doing, but a way you can work your chest and your shoulders at the same time is to not lay the bench flat but at a 45 degree angle.
At home version: Bicep curl to shoulder press.
This is a great way to get a good arm workout AND cardio. Do a few circuits of these, and you will be sweaty with your heart pounding. Also, you will get a great workout for your biceps, shoulders and triceps. You’ll train the muscles in your upper back, arms, abs, back, glutes and if you incorporate jumps, lunges, and squats, you can also work your legs! And if you are not back at the gym yet, you can definitely order these online (as evidence by the makeshift backyard version here).
In this Oprah magazine article, you can find a sample of Michells Obama’s arm workouts. Note that the trainer says this is a series of arm workouts that MO “might” do on a given day. That is because all good trainers know you can’t just curl your way into having awesome arms. You need cardio and overall body weight training. The additional moves he discusses in the article are examples of “accessory training,”. This is a concentrated move targeting a very specific muscle like the bicep or the tricep. It’s called an accessory move for a reason – like earrings, it’s supposed to complement something else.
Best arm accessory moves
I use 10 pound weights to start, and then upgrading to 15, and then 20. If you are in the gym, I prefer to use one of the bicep barbells, usually the 30 or 40 pound one. If you are using free weights, you can still get good results.
The mistake I often see (and have made myself) is thinking that you just have to curl light weights and rep it out to get toned biceps. Precision workouts like barre and some sculpt yoga incorporate that curl until fatigue element, but the definition you are getting is not from that movement. It’s from all of the planks and pushups that you are also doing in the class. So if you want to get defined biceps by doing bicep curls, you have to use heavier weights. Mike Matthews talks about the importance of this in a book I had recommended as one of my top fitness books, Thinner, Leaner and Stronger. According to Matthews, it is one of the most common myths that lifting heavy weights will build bulk. It’s not the heavy lifting of the weights – it’s the failure to do cardio and lose fats that causes the muscle to bulk on top resulting in an overall bulkier lok.
Around the world arm raises
This consists of a lateral raise followed by a front raise. These really hit the top of the shoulder for that “dent” at the top of the arm. You can view this Men’s health and fitness article for a demo. Men’s Health and Fitness by the way is where I get a lot of my workout move ideas !
Tricep dip, pressdown or extension
I love that you can do tricep pressdowns anytime, anywhere. You can do them on a chair. You can do them on a couch. You can do it on the coffee table with a baby in your lap. Before this gets too Dr Seussy you get my idea.
Standing tricep extensions are also great, except many people do this with poor form, hunching over with their shoulders in their ears. The correct way is to keep the back flat, and the weights above the hips.
Tricep pressdowns are one of my favorite exercises at the gym. Typically this is done on a cable machine with a v -shaped bar or rope. This was one of the key exercises that I did for toning my arms up for my wedding, and that’s like the Olympics of arms.