One of the more interesting things about my job is the weirdly specific questions I get from readers.
Like, “How can I get Michelle Obama’s arms?” Or, “John, how can I have a head as shiny as yours?”
Unfortunately, the lovely sheen of my head is mostly genetic. Rubbing coconut oil into your skin will get you partway there, but you’ll never look like me. Sorry.
But Michelle Obama’s arms? I can totally help you with that. Unless you actually want to be black- that’s also genetic.
But toned, well-defined arms that will make you look good standing in front of congress in a sleeveless dress? I got you.
What does “toned” even mean?
First things first: “toned” is a pretty meaningless term. When people say toned, what they really mean is they want good muscle definition. And that ultimately just comes down to having a decent amount of muscle with a low body fat percentage.
For women, the body fat percentage you want to aim for is anywhere from 16-22%. And since you can’t target fat loss specifically from your arms- at least not to any great degree- having toned arms is necessarily going to entail having a toned body overall.
And that means you need to be working your whole body, several times a week, and eating at a caloric deficit most of the time, to burn fat. It also means you should be working your arms with every workout.
Specialized arm routines do have their place though. I’ll get to that in a bit.
And there’s one last factor: skin care. This is usually considered a “beauty tip” rather than a “fitness tip,” but part of that toned look comes from having smooth, tight skin.
First off, protect yourself from the sun. This is more important the lighter your skin is. Shit, that’s genetics again isn’t it?
Second, keep your skin moist. Partly by moisturizing (It rubs the lotion on its skin!), and partly by drinking lots of water. Saunas and steam baths can help a bit too. So does eating a healthy diet with lots of vegetables.
Assuming you have those boxes checked off, you’ll also need some decent gunz. Sooo……
Work your arms with every workout
You want to train your arms at least a little bit with every workout. Not necessarily at high intensity, but you should do a little arm work even on leg day.
Pushing motions will work your triceps, while pulling motions will work your biceps and forearms. Include one pushing and one pulling compound movement for at least 2-3 sets each workout.
The most bang for your buck pulling motions are chin-ups and barbell rows. Use the assist machine for chin-ups if you need to.
The rows can be done standing or bent over- bending over will engage the lower back more, which may limit arm fatigue if your back becomes the limiting factor.
The best compound pushing motions are the dip, bench press, and push-up. Using a narrower grip with the bench press, or hand position with the push-up, will shift more of the focus from your chest to your triceps.
With dips, the top half of the motion focuses more on your triceps while the bottom half engages the chest more.
The Michelle Obama Commemorative Arm Workout
In honor of Michelle Obama’s arms, their eight years of service, and the Card Against Humanity card they inspired (seriously), here’s a 20-minute arm workout you can start working into your schedule.
A1) Parallel grip chin-ups, 4 sets of 6
A2) Dips, 4 sets of 6
Rest 30 seconds between A1 and A2, and 60 seconds between supersets.
For the chin-ups, use an assist machine or weight belt as needed so that you’re lifting a weight you could lift for six reps.
For the dips, again use an assist machine or weight belt as needed. On the last rep of each set, lower yourself halfway back down and perform a 2-3 second static hold- this should put most of the workload on your triceps, not your chest.
B1) Barbell reverse drag curl, 4 sets of 8
B2) Close grip dumbbell bench press, 4 sets of 8
For this superset, rest only 10 seconds between B1 and B2, and 30 seconds after B2.
Perform the drag curl very, very slowly, and make sure that at the top of each rep, your elbows are up enough that your arms remain engaged.
For the dumbbell bench press, keep your elbows in close to your chest to maintain a narrow grip. If your chest is fatiguing faster than your arms, use a partial range of motion, not bringing the weight quite as low as you normally would.
C1) Cable triceps extension, 3 sets of 10-12 to failure
C2) Zottman curl, 3 sets of 10-12
C3) Front plank, 3 x 30-60 seconds
Take only ten seconds between each exercise, and thirty seconds between circuits.
To get toned arms, you need to a) work your arms a little bit, a few times a week, b) work your arms intensely, about once a week, c) work every part of your arms- bicep, tricep and forearms, and d) avoiding sugar and eating mostly protein and vegetables, so you stay lean.
And that’s it for arms. I write stuff like this for my mailing list occasionally, and only some of them make it onto the blog. Which body part would you like to see me write a workout for next?