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With summer right around the corner, most women want to start an “arm toning” routine. I’d be a millionaire if I had $1.00 for every time a client has asked me to make their arms look like FLOTUS, get rid of their arm jiggle, bat wing, or flabby underarm skin. I always laugh when reading various fitness magazines and their feeble attempts at toning the female arm. In what reality would a 3 pound dumbbell used 15 to 20 times ever build muscle or strengthen an upper body muscle? A bag of potatoes weighs more than that!

As I’ve mentioned in my previous articles, genetics will play a major factor in your ability to increase your arm muscle and definition. I was born with the boniest shoulders on the planet, and no amount of deltoid work is going to change that. I just work around the bones and concentrate on the biceps, triceps, pecs, and lats. Diet as always will affect the muscle definition you see from your upper body weight training. Believe it or not, the triceps is a common area to store body fat. Skin caliper test use the triceps as a measurement site when evaluating a overall body fatness. In order to get rid of the arm jiggle, you will need to have a lower amount of body fat and some rock hard triceps. Follow my tips below for sculpting the arms you desire, and find out the science of why those silly magazine exercises just won’t work.

Just Plain Nonsense!

For some reason, the “arm toning” routines you find in magazines annoy me more than most other gimmick exercise routines. Now that’s saying a lot because there are a TON of ridiculous, ineffective, and often dangerous workout routines out there. I can’t stress enough how important it is to evaluate the source of the exercise routine and caliber of the trainer suggesting these exercises. As I mentioned in my other toning critiques, most magazine articles feature celebrities, fitness models, and personal trainers that have superior fitness levels. Think about the target audience of the publication with most of their subscribers probably not being in perfect physical shape. I would also warrant that most magazine subscribers are over the age of 40 and have a few aches, pains, and maybe a muscle imbalance or two due to a sedentary lifestyle. So the elaborate, balance challenging, and just plain difficult exercises are probably not appropriate for most readers.

The most common exercises I see in “arm toning” routines are tricep push back, arm circles, boxing drills, lateral raises, and upright rows. The tricep push backs, arm circles, and boxing drills will in no way increase your muscle size, muscle strength, or reduce your body fat. The only place tricep push backs or arm circles should be used are in a chair aerobics class. I’ve worked and taught chair aerobics at a wonderful retirement facility so I feel that my opinion is quite valid on this point. Other exercises such lateral raises, front raises, and upright rows (with 3 pound dumbbells I may add) can potentially harm the shoulder joint more than it strengthens it. Sedentary lifestyles and horrible posture are a huge problem for the average American. It makes no sense to reinforce the excessively tight anterior upper body muscles while neglecting the degenerated upper back muscles of most clients. Always evaluate an exercise before attempting it to determine if it makes sense, is right for you, and could do more harm than help.

Potentially Dangerous Exercises

Two of the most common injuries seen by physical therapist are rotator cuff tears and shoulder impingement. I think everyone knows someone who has hurt their rotator cuff in the gym and it can be a quite painful experience. What’s worse is the recovery from a rotator cuff repair seems to take FOREVER!

The two exercises I am going to highlight in this section are the lateral raise and upright row. Both of these exercises are used in every “arm toning” exercise routine, and you should know WHY they can potentially hurt your shoulders. It is documented that improper exercises or techniques may exacerbate or contribute to the development of glenohumeral joint hyperlaxity, instability, or impingement (1). When a lateral raise is performed with the palms facing down, this causes internal rotation of shoulder that can lead to rotator cuff impingement (1). To minimize the risk of injury, clients should maintain a neutral grip keeping their shoulder externally rotated with thumbs pointing to the ceiling (1). Most publications neglect to properly document or display appropriate form making it easy for reader to do an exercise incorrectly and hurt themselves.

The old school and most disastrous of the arm toning exercises is the upright row. An upright row also can lead to subacromial impingement since the arm is internally rotated during the entire range of motion (1). I have never had a client perform an upright row due to the fact that this exercise causes more harm than benefit. An upright row with higher resistance will most likely lead to chronic joint pain or worse, a trip to the orthopedist. In addition, repeating any exercise for 80 to 100 repetitions like most magazines suggest can most certainly cause tendonitis and potential injury.

The Science Behind It

I am sure it is blatantly clear how I feel about workouts using 3 to 5 pound dumbbells for three sets of 15 - 20 repetitions. My clients would have at least a quarter of their workout completed by the time those three sets were done. It is our duty to help our clients achieve their goals and time-crunched clients make our jobs all the harder. With time being a huge factor, doesn’t it make sense to do more work in less time? I always have my clients do multi-joint, dynamic and functional exercises to “get more bang for their buck.”

I will give you an overly simple example using a chest press with 5 pound dumbbells and a regular pushup. Let's assume when I do a pushup I am moving 50% of my body weight, which maybe be more or less for each individual. Using an online power and work output calculator, here is how it breaks down:

Pushup (50% body weight)
Sets: 1 Reps: 10
Total Work : 2855.98 joules
(Notice half the reps so half the time!)

Chest Press with Dumbells (5 pounds per hand)
Sets: 1 Reps: 20
Total Work: 391.42 joules
(It would take 7 sets to accumulate the same amount of work as 10 pushups!)

Another factor I take into account when programming time-crunched clients, is how many different muscles can I activate per exercise. More muscles utilized means more calories burned and generally the more functional an exercise becomes. Last time I checked, when shoveling mulch I couldn’t “turn off” my chest and back muscles so my shoulder only work. It just makes sense to recruit more muscles per exercise than isolating individual muscles like most arm toning exercises. In a study by Dillman et al., researchers evaluated the electromyographic activity of six different upper body muscles when a pushup and bench press was performed. The study revealed there is a vast difference between the force and absorption values between the push-up and unloaded bench press exercises. The push-up exercise is recruiting a much higher amount of muscle activity out of the six muscles selected. Talk about bang for your buck!!!

I hope I have enlightened you about why “arm toning” routines just simple do not work. I am a huge advocate for time-effective, high calorie burning and multi-joint exercises that help clients achieve their goals and shed pounds fast.  But, if you want Michelle Obama arms, you are just going to have to work for them.  So the next time you or your client thinks about grabbing the 3 pound dumbbells, switch it out for the ten pounders. YES, WE CAN!

Durall, Chris J., Robert C. Manske, and George J. Davies. "Avoiding Shoulder Injury From Resistance Training." National Strength and Conditioning Association. 2001, 23.5. 10-18.
Dillman, Charles J., Murray, Tricia A., Hintermeister, Robert A. “Biomechanical Differences of Open and Closed Chain Exercises With Respect to the Shoulder.” Journal of Sport Rehabilitation, 1994, 3, 228-238.

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