In The Media > Armed for a sleeveless summer

30 Aug 2012

Does the mere thought of wearing a sleeveless dress in public make you shiver in horror?

You're not alone.

Few women who have exited their 30s are comfortable enough with the size, shape and tone of their upper arms to bare them in public. All but the most fit or brave hide them in sleeves of varying lengths to cover up one of the most obvious, largely unavoidable and early signs of ageing: flabby upper arms.

Michelle Obama

Armed and dangerous ... Michelle Obama shows off her tone. Photo: Reuters

Yes, we're talking about that curtain of loose skin and fat that swings from side to side when you wave or point or dance or otherwise raise your arms higher than your chest.

Upper arms are "probably the most difficult area to tone up on a woman," says personal trainer Dina Gilbert. The upper arm is made up of the biceps muscle in front and the triceps muscle in back. "As women age, it gets floppy and the triceps gets saggy," she says.

This un-fab flab becomes most noticeable as middle age approaches, usually after age 40, but for some women as early as their 30s.

This is when women start to gain weight that isn't easily lost; the underside or backs of the arms is a favourite place for fat to collect. Middle age is also when skin starts to lose its elasticity and when formerly firm muscles seem to turn to mush (a condition called sarcopenia that really accelerates after age 50, especially if you've been inactive). Skin that used to stretch and contract with fluctuations in weight can't do that so well anymore. Once stretched, upper-arm skin doesn't snap back into shape like it used to.

It's no accident that women such as US first lady Michelle Obama, 48, and Madonna, 54, have awesome arms. They've worked at it, hard, for years.

Prevention is your best defence against flab. Specifically, maintaining a healthy body weight throughout life and including strength training in your exercise routine, particularly in your teens and 20s, are key to keeping fabulous arms.

If your arms already jiggle, you may never achieve Madonna's rock-hard triceps, but you may be able to improve upon what you have. And don't underestimate the practical virtues of strong arms - we all have to lift stuff, right?

Besides, while you're working on your arms, you're also exercising the rest of your body, including your most important muscle, your heart.

"You have to work on your whole body," says exercise physiologist and fitness trainer Jeanmarie Scordino. "You can't spot train that one muscle to be perfect," she says. "A good calorie-burning, high-intensity exercise routine along with exercises that strengthen the muscles will give shape and definition to the arms."

The favourite among trainers? Push-ups. But you don't have to start with "hit the floor and give me 50" military-style push-ups.

"I start people with kitchen-counter push-ups," Scordino says. Also known as incline push-ups, all you do is stand a few steps back from a counter, arms shoulder width apart and hands on the surface in front of you, so your body is on an incline. Holding your body in a straight line, bend the elbows, lower your chest to the counter and push back. As you get stronger, move farther away from the counter and place your hands farther apart. When that's easy, try single-arm counter push-ups.

Gilbert likes to start women with push-ups on the floor, knees bent and the back flat, arms shoulder width apart. Lower your upper body toward the floor as far as you can. "Be careful not to allow your hips to push up toward the ceiling. Keep your back flat and level with the hips," she said. At first, you may only be able to do a couple, but gradually work up to more until you're strong enough to straighten your legs fully just like they do in the military.

Lifting free weights and using resistance bands are also good for the arms. But once the exercise gets easy, it's time to kick your workout up a notch. Don't be afraid of heavy weights - you won't bulk up.

Most trainers recommend three sets of eight to 12 repetitions of each exercise.

"If by the time you get to your third set and the weight is easy to lift, it's time to move to a heavier weight (or tighter band). You must progress or you're wasting your time. You get endurance, but not increased strength. You're not stimulating that muscle to grow," Scordino says.

It's also important to rest in between exercises. Take a minute or so between sets to stretch or work a different muscle group. Work your legs, for instance, with lunges or squats. And allow at least a day off (two is even better) between arm-focused workouts to allow your muscles time to recover.

Unfortunately after age 40, women who have lost a significant amount of weight - over 20 kilos - probably won't be able to firm up their arms no matter how much they exercise and diet.


Bent-Knee push-ups: Kneel on floor, place hands on floor in front of you about shoulder width apart, arms straight and back flat. (You'll be in a slanted position.) Bend elbows and lower upper body, almost touching floor, if possible. Push back up to starting position and repeat.

Biceps Curl: With one weight in each hand, sit on the edge of a stable chair or bench, arms at your sides. Bend arms at the elbows so the weights come up to shoulders. Lower arms to starting position. You can do one arm at a time, but two at a time is more challenging and forces you to also use your abdominals.

Triceps Kickback: Kneeling on a bench with one leg, bend opposite arm at the elbow, holding one weight close to the armpit. Push the weight back until the arm is extended behind you, keeping it close to the body. Return to starting position. Complete the set, switch sides and repeat.

Biceps hammer: Sit or stand with back straight, feet about hip width apart, arms at sides holding one weight in each hand, gripping with thumbs on top. Bend at the elbow and move one arm up across your body, to mid-chest level. Lower arm to starting position. Repeat with other arm.

Dips: Sit on a stair or bench (even a gutter), feet on the floor in front of you about hip width apart. Place hands at your sides and push up to lift yourself off the seat until both arms are straight. Then lower your body, dipping down slightly in front of the bench, bending at the elbows. Push back up but don't sit, then lower yourself again. It's a small range of motion. Don't dip down too far.

Behind-the-head triceps extension: Using both hands, hold a weight and extend arms straight up, over the head. Bend the elbows and lower the weight behind the head until the arms are at a 90-degree angle, then push the weight up again. Be careful not to hit your head.

Shoulder press: Hold one weight in each hand and stand with arms raised at a 90-degree angle, the "goal-post" position. Push straight up, fully extending arms over your head. Return to starting position. Keep back straight and abdominals tight.