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Armed and Fabulous: The Secret to Toned Arms

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Our guide to sculpting strong shoulders, biceps, and triceps will have you going sleeveless way into sweater season. Because really, why hide those guns?

How to Get Rid of Arm Flab

Here's a quick question: Whose arms do you covet? Rihanna's or Madonna's? Gisele BŁndchen's or Michelle Obama's? Whether your aesthetic is model thin or athletic, there's no arguing that arms are the ultimate barometer of buffness. They immediately let people know "I'm fit!" or "I haven't lifted more than a tub of ice cream in months." And unlike your abs and thighs, which make peekaboo appearances only in hot weather, your arms have to be ready for their close-up pretty much year-round.

The tricky part is that there's no consensus on what level of perfection we should be reaching for. According to data from a national survey, the average woman over age 18 has an upper-arm circumference (typically measured around the biggest part of the biceps) of just less than 12 1/4 inches. But that girth doesn't take into account firmness versus flab. And the truth is, studies of upper-body strength showed that women tend to neglect doing the toning that would add muscle to that mix.

If you're like me, you probably have a short list of go-to exercises you've used since college to sculpt your arms and shoulders. A few curls, some kick backs, maybe some overhead presses. I've gotten by -- even received compliments -- with this repertoire, but I've recently discovered that arms are not so easily tamed. The upper arms and the shoulders have no fewer than nine primary muscles that require some serious firming if you want to make the sort of sleeveless impact you see on the red carpet.

Even if you're the type who would rather sit through a Jersey Shore marathon than grab a dumbbell, the science and sets here will make you drop the remote. These proven strategies and exercises make strong, sexy arms finally attainable. So attainable, in fact, that our plan took up to an inch and a quarter off our testers' arm measurements while building muscle-carving strength that you can see, all without dieting. If you're tired of envying other women's arms while covering your own, get ready to roll up your sleeves.

Cure for Chicken Wings

The primary complaint women have about their upper arms: flab. Turns out, this area is part of the major fat-pocket trifecta in females. "Women tend to store fat around their hips, thighs, and upper arms," explains William Kraemer, PhD, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut and a expert in resistance training. Combine that with the fact that women may be undertraining their arms and you've got the makings of a true trouble spot.

The good news is that the areas where your body likes to deposit fat are also the ones that give up the fat sooner, Kraemer says, which means you'll see results faster. By now you know that shrinking fat requires a combination of burning more calories and eating fewer of them, especially in the form of sugar. "Consuming too much sugar inhibits your fat-burning enzymes, which slows down fat loss," Kraemer says. "You can't ignore what you're eating if you're trying to improve your body composition."

Then there's the back-of-the arm muscle lying beneath that fat you're trying to fry. Place your left hand on the back of your right upper arm. The muscle you're feeling is the triceps. It's a single muscle, but the tri-part of its name refers to the fact that there are three sections, or heads -- the lateral, the long, and the medial -- that originate at your shoulder blade and upper arm and end just below your elbow. They all fire together to help straighten your arm and create force anytime you're pushing against something, like a door or the floor.

Now, thanks to research from the American Council on Exercise (ACE), we know exactly how to tackle toning this area. "To be honest, we did the study in part because of all the attention the First Lady was getting about her arms," says Cedric Bryant, PhD, ACE's chief science officer. In the study commissioned by ACE, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse rigged exercisers' upper arms with EMG electrodes and tested eight different moves, comparing muscle activation in the triceps. The higher the activation, the harder the muscle was working. Triangle push-ups took the top spot, followed by those good old kick backs and bench dips. (You'll do all three exercises in the Hot Arms Made Simple workout.)


To judge the jiggliness of your triceps, forget the bye-bye wave. "Wiggling is normal, since a relaxed muscle is soft by nature," says William A. Sands, PhD, the director of education for the National Strength & Conditioning Association. But if you're in a plank position and you don't notice even a hint of a curve in the back of your arms or you can't press yourself up, you've got some reps (or cardio!) to do.

Can You Pinch an Inch?

To ballpark your arm flab at home, try this: Get in full push-up position, then reach over with your left hand and grasp the back of your right upper arm midway between the top of the shoulder and elbow. If you can grab more than an inch of flesh, it's time to start melting the fat.

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