Linda Stephens' husband laughs at her because she wears sleeveless clothing year-round. "I'm not hiding these arms. I can suck it up if I get cold. I work hard to have these arms," says the personal trainer and nutrition consultant at Infinity Fitness Gym in Darien.
When she goes out with her girlfriends, men sometimes challenger her to an arm-wrestling match, she says. Women, meanwhile, look at her with envy -- and wonder how they can get arms they want to show off as well. That's because women may disagree about which change as we age is worse, gray hair or wrinkles, but on this point most women agree: Flabby arms are a nightmare.
The good news is that flabby arms -- aka bingo wings or chicken wings -- are one of the few changes to your aging body that you absolutely can control. All it takes is dedication and exercise.
"It is definitely possible to firm them up," Stephens says. "It is important for women to keep certain muscle tone to their bodies not only for their mental health and how they feel about themselves, but for bone density. We lose calcium all the time. But weight-bearing exercises do a world of good for women. I love to preach to people that you got to pick up the weights."
For women building muscle, in general, it can be more difficult than for men. "It takes a good diet and a good exercise program. It will take time to build it, but you have to be consistent. You have to be in the gym three or four times a week and working at your body," Stephens says.
While flabby arms are increasingly obvious as women age, bingo wings can appear at any age, says JJ Virgin, nutrition and fitness expert and author of the book, Six Weeks to Sleeveless and Sexy. The Californian has successfully coached Hollywood elite, rock stars and Olympians.
"While saggy skin definitely contributes to the overall
picture as we age, poor muscle tone and excess fat are age independent," she writes in an e-mail. "Fat placement has a lot to do with genetics. But while genes load the gun, lifestyle pulls the trigger."
Where to Begin
If you want to wear strapless or sleeveless dresses and shirts when the weather gets warmer, the time to start is now.
Max Berry says women usually come to him for help in two areas -- their abs and their arms. As head trainer and fitness director at Sport & Wellness in Danbury, he works with about 50 women each week to help them improve their health, body and mind.
"There's no point to press weights less than your purse. That's just a waste of time," he says. "Most women try to do lighter weights like at 5 pounds overhead. That's not going to do it."
If your flabby arms keep waving long after you've stopped, it's time to tone up the triceps muscles that keep it all firm and in place. You also need to burn fat overall with regular aerobics to uncover those muscles that are hiding, he says.
Women naturally store fat in their upper arms just as they do in their hips and thighs. It becomes a trouble spot, though, when that part of the arm is not incorporated into a woman's exercise plan, says Stephens.
"You can't spot reduce. I hear women say they want to lose weight on their butt. It doesn't work that way," she says. "It's about consistency. A lot of women like taking exercise classes. I see women on treadmills for hours and taking classes over and over again. Those are great things to do. But if you really want to change your arms, you really need to pick up the weights and work hard."
She admits it's not easy. "But when I get compliments on my arms, it feels good. I lift heavy weights, I sweat and it hurts. I get through it, and the benefits are worth it," Stephens says.
Many women worry -- erroneously -- that using weights will make them bulk up like a man. The reality is that it
would take a lot heavier weights and a lot more repetitions to bulk up to that extent.
Virgin recommends skipping the little weights and long reps, and instead picking up the heaviest weights you can handle in good form. Focus on multiple sets of 10.
"You can transform your arms. How long it takes
depends on your starting point, but you can make a major shift in six weeks," she writes. "Multi-joint exercise helps the best, such as push-ups, pull-ups, bent-over rows, and dips."
Berry keeps his clients on their feet 90 percent of the time. "Machines don't build functional strength. You don't use your core on machines," he says.
He integrates several kinds of exercises into a routine to sculpt sexy arms, including using kettlebells and other objects in the gym besides dumbbells to just change things up. "The swing and momentum of kettlebells lengthens the arms out and adds flexibility," Berry says. "You just need to keep challenging yourself. When things get easy, do something different."
Women should focus on the upper back, shoulders and chest to help their arms become shapelier and contoured. When lifting weights, you typically do two sets of each exercise with 10 to 15 repetitions, Stephens says. Start out with 8- to 10-pound dumbbells. If the 8-pound weights feel too light, go up and continue going up as you progress.
Berry says a push-up can be the best way to get amazing arms. "Hands down, push-ups can transform your arms," he says. "Start with doing a push-up on the wall or coffee table. Then start working yourself down. If you can do 10 to 15 easily with your hands, then keep going down. Keep challenging the body."
His best advice is to not stop when you think you can't do another one. "That's where a personal trainer can truly help. We will keep you going to the next couple of repetitions," he says. "That's when your muscle starts to change."
Eating Right Counts Too
Experts say it's not just the number of reps you do that will give you defined arms. It's also about what you put in your mouth. "The first step is what is going in your mouth; (that) will be what the output is in the gym," says trainer Max Berry. "You cannot out-train a bad diet. Without being more accountable for the calories, you won't see any results no matter how much you work out."
In her book, Six Weeks to Sleeveless and Sexy, author JJ Virgin advocates a no-fuss approach to eating that increases energy, helps build muscle and helps eliminate dieting for good. She not only believes in eating the right foods but in eating them at the right time. Virgin's Rules of Meal Timing include:
- Eating a substantial breakfast within an hour of waking up.
- Stopping eating three hours before bed.
- Eating every four to six hours.
She focuses her plan on lean protein, healthful fats, non-starchy vegetables with a rainbow of colors and high-fiber, low-glycemic-index carbohydrates. Getting the sugar out of your diet is important, too.
"Before you pick up a fork, remember that, even with healthy foods, too much of a good thing turns it into a bad thing. If you consume too many calories, they have to go somewhere, and unfortunately, that usually means into those pesky fat cells in your gut, butt, thighs or arms," she writes in an e-mail.
Exercises from Linda Stephens, personal trainer and nutrition consultant at Infinity Fitness Gym, Darien.
1. Stand or sit upright, with your back straight, on a bench. (seated is recommended for beginners)
2. Grasp dumbbells with an overhand grip. (begin with 5-8 pound dumbbells in each hand)
3. To begin the movement, press the dumbbells simultaneously straight upward and slightly toward each other.
4. Continue movement until elbows are fully extended overhead.
5. Lower the dumbbells under control, until dumbbells are at shoulder level.
6. Repeat 10-15x (2 sets).
Tricep two-handed overhead Extension
1. Sit on a bench or stability ball
2. Take a dumbbell in two hands and bring it back behind your head
3. Elbows are bent and the move is to extend your arms straight up over your head and then back down to a 90-degree angle
4. 3-4 sets of 10-12 repetitions is good.
1. Pick up the appropriate weight in dumbbells
2. Standing up, palms should face the side of the thigh
3. Curl the dumbbells up so that the palms are now facing up
4. Bring the dumbbells back down so you are in the starting position
5. 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps
EXERCISES FROM ACE
The American Council on Exercise (ACE), the world's largest nonprofit fitness certification, education and training organization, recently studied the effectiveness of eight triceps exercises commonly used by people trying to sculpt and tone their arms. They found that triangle push-ups and triceps kickbacks registered the highest levels of muscle activation. According to ACE, here's how to perform the top two exercises for sexy arms:
1. Position hands directly under the chest with fingers spread and the thumbs and forefingers touching, making a triangular shape.
2. Straighten legs into a plank position or keep the knees on the floor for an easier version.
3. Make sure the back is flat and abs are engaged as you bend the elbows, lowing until your chin or chest touches the mat. If you can't go that low, go as low as you can and work to build enough strength to lower all the way down over time.
4. At the bottom of the movement, your elbows will naturally flare out to the side.
5. Press back to start, keeping the torso rigid and repeat for 1-3 sets of 8-16 repetitions.
DUMBBELL TRICEPS KICKBACK
1. Hold a dumbbell in your left hand. Stand with right leg forward and weight evenly distributed through the heels of both feet. Brace your abdominal and core muscles to stabilize the spine. Place right hand on right thigh. Slowly lean forward, shifting most of your upper extremity body weight into the right side. Pull your shoulder blades down and back. Your head should be aligned with your spine.
2. Bend your left elbow bringing your left upper arm parallel to and close to your torso, your forearm should hang vertical to the floor.
3. Exhale and slowly straighten elbow. Your upper arm remains stationary next to your torso. Don't allow upper arm to rise during the movement. Don't allow lower back to sag or torso to rotate.
4. Inhale and slowly bend elbow, returning your arm to starting position. Don't allow your torso to change positions. Keep upper arm parallel and close to your torso.