Sleek, Sexy Arms: The Workout

Varying the angles of training for better development

According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, a third of all American women are currently contemplating some sort of cosmetic surgery. This year, more than a million will actually take the plunge and go under the knife.

And what might you guess is the fastest-growing elective surgical procedure in the United States over the past decade? If you said breast augmentation, liposuction, or a tummy tuck you’d be… wrong! Far and away, it was the upper arm lift that ranked number one in the category, with an increase of well over 800 percent! And when you really think about it, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. From Hollywood starlets to elite socialites to conservative businesswomen, arm-baring garments are literally everywhere. But to feel comfortable in these outfits, your arms must be up to the task.

Surgery Not Necessary

Fortunately, you don’t have to resort to expensive, risky surgical procedures to look great sleeveless. With the right mix of targeted exercise, results can be even better than those obtained through surgery. You see, targeted exercise helps to develop lean muscle tissue. Muscle, in turn, helps to build a strong, supporting “infrastructure” that prevents your arms from sagging. Even with a surrounding layer of body fat, flabby areas appear firmer, remaining shapely and symmetrical. And when all the fat is finally stripped away, you’re left with sleek, sexy arms!

Some women, however, shy away from strength training under the misguided assumption that it will bulk them up. Curls and press-downs tend to conjure up images of big, bulging muscles, not lean muscle tone. Even in these enlightened times, many still cling to the belief that these are “manly” exercises that only serve to decrease femininity.

The truth is, however, it’s extremely difficult for a woman to develop overly large muscles. The main reason: a lack of testosterone. Testosterone is a hormone that’s secreted by the testes (in males) and, to a lesser extent, the ovaries (in females). It has two main functions. First, testosterone is androgenic (i.e., masculinizing); it promotes male-oriented characteristics such as the growth of facial and body hair, male-pattern baldness and deepening of the voice. Second, testosterone is anabolic (building); through a complex process, it interacts at the cellular level with muscle tissue to increase protein synthesis- the primary stimulus for initiating muscular growth. Hence, there is a direct relationship between testosterone and muscle mass: the more testosterone you secrete, the greater your propensity to pack on muscle.

On average, women produce only about one-tenth the amount of testosterone as their male counterparts; this is nature’s way of preserving “femininity.” As a result, it’s virtually impossible for a woman to add a significant amount of muscular bulk to her frame. Without an anabolic stimulus, muscle tissue simply has no impetus to hypertrophy (get bigger) and muscular growth remains modest, even at advanced levels of training.

Now this isn’t to say that a woman can’t put on more muscle than she might desire. After undertaking a strength training program, it’s not uncommon for a woman to complain that she’s too “bulky.” But if this is your fear, don’t worry. As you will see, the extent to which you maximize your body’s muscle mass is entirely your own decision.

The Sleek, Sexy Arm Routine

The two primary muscles of the upper arms are the biceps and triceps. These muscles have multiple “heads” (as the names imply, the biceps has two heads and the triceps has three heads) that in effect, function as separate “muscles within muscles.” What does this bit of physiology mean to you? Well, from a body sculpting perspective, a lot. Specifically, by varying the angle of training, you can selectively target the individual heads, thereby promoting optimal development.

In consideration of this fact, I’ve taken a multi-angled approach in creating this routine. Each of the exercises will work the biceps and triceps in a slightly different fashion. When performed as outlined herein, they’ll combine synergistically to create a whole greater than the sum of their parts. The end result will be arms that have symmetry and shape, with pleasing muscle tone from top to bottom.

To increase training intensity, the workout should be performed in supersets. A superset comprises two exercises that are executed one after the other without any rest. Here you will superset a triceps exercise with a biceps exercise. The triceps and biceps have an agonist/antagonist relationship, meaning that when one muscle contracts, the other lengthens. By alternating between agonist and antagonist movements, one muscle will be recovering while the other is working, allowing you to remain fresh throughout the routine.

If your goal is a sleeker physique, it’s best to train in a high rep range, employing between 15 to 20 reps per set. High reps target your slow-twitch muscle fibers (also called Type I fibers), which are predominantly utilized during continuous activities sustained for long periods of time, with a diminished reliance on Type II fast-twitch muscle fibers- the ones involved in heavy lifting. Because of their endurance-oriented nature, slow twitch fibers have only a limited ability to increase in size. Thus, by targeting these fibers, you’ll attain a lean, hard body while mitigating gains in muscular mass.

But just because you’re using higher reps doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be putting a good deal of effort into your sets. If you want optimal results, make sure to apply the principle of progressive overload by training your muscles until they’re fatigued. Accordingly, choose a weight that causes you to struggle on the last few reps. If you can easily complete the set without much effort, the weight is too light!

If you have excess fat in your arms, it’s beneficial to add in some cardiovascular exercise, particularly activities involving the upper body (such as the rowing machine or Versa Climber). Since exercise follows the laws of specificity, upper body aerobics promote the formation of additional aerobic pathways (i.e. enzymes, mitochondria, capillaries, etc.) in the arms, helping to maximize the mobilization of fat. Perform 20 to 30 minutes of cardio several times a week and you’ll go a long way to sporting a leaner look.

It must be noted, however, that upper body aerobics tend to elevate blood pressure during training. Because the circulatory capacity is lower in the arms than in the legs, there is an increased resistance to blood flow in this region, which in turn causes blood pressure to rise. So for those with existing hypertension or cardiovascular disease, upper body aerobics may be contraindicated. When in doubt, speak with your physician.

Sleek, Sexy Arm Workout Summary

Superset Sets Reps
Two-Arm Overhead Dumbbell Extension supersetted with Prone Incline Curl 3 15 to 20
Rope Press-down supersetted with Rope Hammer Curl 3 15 to 20
Nosebreaker supersetted with Drag Curl 3 15 to 20
  • Two-Arm Overhead Dumbbell Extension
  • Begin by grasping the stem of a dumbbell with both hands. Bend your elbows and allow the weight to hang down behind your head as far as comfortably possible. Slowly straighten your arms, keeping your elbows back and pointed toward the ceiling throughout the move. Contract your triceps and then slowly lower the weight along the same path back to the start position.
  • Prone Incline Curl
  • Begin by lying face-down on a 45-degree incline bench. Grasp two dumbbells and allow the weights to hang straight down from your shoulders with your palms facing away from your body. Slowly curl the dumbbells upward toward your shoulders, keeping your upper arms stable throughout the movement. Contract your biceps and then slowly return the weights back to the start position.
  • Rope Press-down
  • Begin by grasping a rope that’s attached to a high pulley apparatus with an overhand grip. Assume a shoulder-width stance with your knees slightly bent and your torso angled forward. Bend your arms so your elbow forms a 90-degree angle. Keeping your elbows in at your sides, slowly straighten your arms. Contract your triceps and then reverse direction and return to the start position.
  • Cable Rope Hammer Curl
  • Begin by grasping both ends of a rope that’s attached to a low cable pulley. Bring your arms to your sides with your palms facing each other. Assume a comfortable stance with a slight bend to your knees and press your elbows into your sides, keeping them stable throughout the move. Slowly curl the rope up toward your shoulders and contract your biceps at the top of the move. Then, slowly reverse direction and return to the start position.
  • Nosebreaker
  • Begin by lying back on a flat bench with your feet planted firmly on the floor. Grasp a barbell (or EZ-curl bar) with your palms facing away from your body and straighten your arms so the bar is directly over your chest (your arms should be perpendicular to your body). Keeping your elbows in and pointed toward the ceiling, slowly lower the bar until the weights are just above the level of your forehead. Press the bar back up until it reaches the start position.
  • Drag Curl
  • Begin by grasping a barbell (or EZ-curl bar) with a palms-up, shoulder-width grip. Maintain a slight bend to your knees. Press your elbows into your sides and bring them behind your body as far as comfortably possible. Keeping your upper arms stable throughout the move, slowly curl the bar up toward your shoulders and contract your biceps at the finish position. Then, slowly reverse direction and return to the start position.

Brad Schoenfeld, CSCS, is author of the best-selling books, Sculpting Her Body Perfect and Look Great Naked. His new book, The Look Great Naked Diet, discusses dietary strategies for optimizing body composition. Check out his wesite at