Strong, sculpted arms are something many people aspire to have – whether that’s for extra strength or just for anyone who just wants limbs to rival Jennifer Aniston. But how do you actually tone them?
In your crusade to sculpting your arms, you might be falling foul of some simple mistakes that may end up hindering your progress. Matt Harras, Head of Programming at Virgin Active, talks us through some of the most common arm toning errors he sees.
1. Doubling down on bicep curls
‘No tickets to the gun show needed here. Unless you’re a bodybuilder and are looking to enhance the definition and size of the arms, there is no real reason to pump out the bicep curls,’ says Haras, in news that may well surprise you.
‘Muscles in the arms are fairly small in comparison to the major muscles in the back and chest. When you break down the movement, for the bicep you’re closing at the elbow joint, and for the triceps you’re opening the elbow joint. These movements are replicated in all push and pull exercises, which are much more beneficial,’ he continues.
2. Cheating by swinging
‘Arm exercises are easy enough to build into a novice workout using free weights, but they’re just as easy to cheat a full rep,’ warns Haras. ‘As you fatigue, you may find you begin to lose some momentum from the shoulder, meaning you swing the final few reps on the curls to complete your set.’
If you’re guilty of this, Haras has a solution: ‘If you’re struggling to complete a full set with the correct form – drop the weight, otherwise, you’re only cheating yourself. Another option is to use a bench or machine to hold the arm in place, forcing correct form.’
‘By keeping your form strict, you’ll isolate the muscle and overload the desired area, resulting in quicker and more efficient toning or muscle increase over time.’
3. Speeding up your reps
Sure, workouts can be painful, so it makes sense that you’d want them to be over as quickly as possible. But, as Haras points out, ‘completing quick reps isn’t going to give you the strength gains you desire.
‘You should be aiming for a 1-2 second contraction and eccentric phase (the raising and lowering down of the weight)’ he advises. ‘If you’re going any quicker than this, you won’t be applying enough resistance on the muscle. Slow it down and drop the weight if needed.’
4. Trying to target a specific area for fat loss
Perhaps the most common insecurity women have about their arms is the back – often delightfully referred to as the “bingo wing“. But with a desire to reduce “bingo wings” can often come the mistaken assumption that arm workouts are going to help strip any fat build up in this area.
‘Fat loss targeting is virtually impossible,’ says Haras. ‘Body fat is effectively your body’s fuel reserves, and is distributed throughout the body, which means the most effective way to target fat loss is through a calorie deficit diet and a balanced workout of cardio and weights,’ he adds, pointing out that larger muscles = a higher calorie expenditure.
‘Arm exercises will strengthen the muscles, but will have little-to-no effect on the fat stores in the arms.’
5. Focussing on just one muscle
⚠️ Science lesson klaxon ⚠️ ‘The arm is made up of two muscles (biceps) and three muscles (triceps), but a common mistake when training arms is to focus on the same exercises which challenge only one of them, resulting in an imbalance over time,’ says Haras. Note to self: don’t forget there’s more than one muscle in the arm.
6. Only sticking to one type of cardio machine
Cardio machine? You might think. What’s that got to do with arms? May we refer you back to point number 4 about the futility of trying to target fat loss.
‘Your arms aren’t built for the same level of endurance as your legs,’ says Haras, ‘but if you’re looking to build some upper body work into your cardio routine, switch the bike for the assault bike or the treadmill for the rowing machine.
‘By incorporating both upper and lower muscle groups, you’ll increase your calorie burn during a workout. If combined with a balanced diet, this can aid with fat loss as long as there is a calorie deficit over the day.’
7. Training arms too frequently
‘The muscles in the arms are much smaller than the rest of the body, so you need to ensure you have enough rest between workouts to continue progressing with your training,’ advises Haras.
‘If you overload the arm too often in a week, not only will you negatively impact your strength gains because your muscles don’t have time to recover, but you’ll also impact upper body workouts more generally, meaning you’ll struggle with chest, back and shoulder workouts if the arms are feeling tired.
‘Aim to train the arms a maximum of two days a week, and schedule your workouts so a lower body session follows are a tough upper body day,’ suggests the expert. ‘This will help the upper body recover whilst still remaining active,’ he says.
8. Failing to rest your entire body
And… rest. ‘Rest days are some of your most important days because without adequate rest you will quickly enter an overtraining phase and you’ll begin to see your fitness gains reduce,’ says Haras.
‘The key is to listen to your body. If you begin to feel a little lethargic and under the weather, rest up or switch to a restorative yoga class, take a walk, or generally chill out and take it easy.’