L2 Fitness Blog

How to Tone Your Arms Without Building Bulky Muscle

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Aside from weight loss or fat loss, the most common goal I hear from new female clients starting up training is of attaining toned arms, without building “too much muscle”. Now, every trainer has gone through the phase of feeling the need to devalue a client’s goal if it includes the word “tone” in it. I could rant forever on what the term actually means and what it does not mean, but that won’t do anyone any favors. Landon, the L1 of L2, already wrote a fantastic article on the term toning and why, we as trainers, need to stop trying to crown ourselves superior by belittling a client’s goal of “toning”. Click here to read that article.

The Underlying Fear

Okay, so most females do not want to look like an Olympic female bodybuilder. That’s a totally valid concern, as one Google Images search of “Girls with muscly arms” show casts a variety of female bodybuilders and fitness models whose means of making a living relies on having an above average amount of muscle mass. These women dedicate a large portion of their lives to building as much muscle as possible. That degree of muscle mass doesn’t just appear out of thin air – it takes a lot of time, dedication towards that goal, and in some circumstances, Physique Enhancing Drugs (read: steroids). For the average woman not working in the fitness industry, the she-hulk look isn’t attractive – and that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with looking the way you want to look.

The idea of having toned arms means you have low enough body fat surrounding the area to show some muscular definition. The more muscle mass there is, the easier it is to see muscular definition even at a higher body fat percentage. However, past a certain body fat percentage (which totally varies depending on the person and how/where their body fat is stored and distributed) even a significantly large amount of muscle mass won’t reveal any definition or tone. This is where the scare of being “bulky” comes from – having a lot of muscle and body fat, resulting in a larger mass of the arms overall.

So, with the fear that having a lot of both muscle mass and fat mass results in bulky arms, you may think your best route to toned arms is to just lower your body fat to the point where even a small amount of muscle mass shows through. Although this may be an okay option for some, depending on your individual bodyfat distribution and where your natural bodyfat set point is, getting to the point of muscular definition with very little muscle mass to define may deem very difficult or impossible to achieve while remaining healthy. Some females naturally carry more muscle mass in their upper body, in which case the primary factor in achieving toned arms would be focusing on nutrition to lower body fat enough to see definition in that area. However, for the women with naturally smaller and less developed upper bodies, finding a middle ground between building some lean mass and achieving a relatively low body fat percentage may be the best option.

How To Achieve Toned Arms

My best advice given the most likely scenario of the average woman carrying a small amount of upper body muscle mass at a normal-high body fat percentage would be to structure training around getting stronger in a handful of compound upper body exercises, primarily in the 6-12 rep range, and implement nutrition strategies to favor body composition changes in the direction of lean mass gain and fat loss.

For a complete beginner, these two scenarios can take place simultaneously given a decently structured training program coupled with a higher protein, calorie-controlled diet. For those ladies with more than around 6 months of training experience, your best option is to focus specific time periods on one of those two goals at a time to prevent spinning your wheels. This is because muscle mass and fat loss both require opposing nutritional environments (read: Muscle mass gain requires a surplus of Calories and fat loss requires a Calorie deficit). The order in which you implement a fat loss phase and a muscle gain phase is dependent on the person and the primary goal.

For those already walking around at a lean body fat percentage, it would make more sense to implement a lean muscle gain phase first. For those walking around at a higher body fat percentage, implementing a fat loss phase first will get you closer to the physical appearance you want faster.

Exercises & Training For Toned Arms

Regardless of which nutrition phase you’re in, the structure of your workouts will remain similar to the described below protocol. Your upper body exercises should be entirely or almost-entirely consisting of compound exercises that implement more than one joint and multiple muscle groups at a time. The nature of compound exercises means they work more muscle mass and burn more energy than single joint exercises like a bicep curl. Choosing compound exercises over single-joint, isolation exercises is going to elicit more bang for your buck. When structuring your upper body routine, choose 1-2 exercises from each category:

  • Horizontal push (ex. Bench press, dumbbell press, push up)
  • Horizontal pull (ex. Cable row, barbell row, dumbbell row)
  • Vertical or incline push (ex. Landmine press, incline press, hands-elevated push up, overhead press)
  • Vertical or incline pull (ex. Cable pull down, pull up, chin up)
  • (Optional) accessory exercises: arm curls, arm extensions, lateral raises, flies)

With your list of chosen exercises, stick with those variations for at least 6 weeks and focus on becoming proficient and stronger in those movements. Ideally, spread out those exercises among 2-3 training days per week, either on their own as an upper body workout or as part of a full body workout.

If you are looking for a personalized approach, or have a few questions? Don’t hesitate to Contact Us and we’d be happy to help!

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