If you're staring down a case of upper-arm jiggle in the mirror, brace yourself for some good news, bad news. The bad news: There are no magical exercises to lose arm fat only.
The good news is that you can do a lot to slim down your arms by reducing all-over body fat and doing some strategic strength training.
Build your arm-slimming workouts around heart-pumping cardio and upper-body strength training exercises like the chest press, lat pull-downs, triceps push-downs and biceps curls.
Spot Reduction Is a Myth
Before diving into the nitty-gritty of how you can trim down arm fat, here's a little more bad news: The whole idea of spot reducing, or being able to remove fat from just one part of your body by exercising that body part, is a myth. A combination of many factors — including hormones, gender and genetics — affect where your body stores fat and where the fat comes off first.
But again, there's some good news to be had: Although you can't target fat loss from a specific body part, if you're diligent about reducing excess fat all over your body, it will come off your arms too.
And the benefits of losing even a little bit of body fat are more than cosmetic. As noted by the Obesity Action Coalition, losing even 5 to 10 percent of your body weight provides some serious health benefits, from lower blood pressure to a better cholesterol profile and reduced inflammation.
Ultimately, the one and only tool for losing excess body fat is establishing a calorie deficit, or burning more calories than you take in.
There are two ways of doing that. You can either increase your activity level so you burn more calories, or tweakyour diet so you take in fewer calories while still getting the nutrients you need to stay healthy and fit. According to findings from the National Weight Control Registry, the vast majority of Americans who lose weight and keep it off have used a combination of both methods.
The Cardio Connection
Although aerobic activity isn't the only way to burn calories, it's one of the most effective methods out there. Consider these estimated calorie burns from Harvard Health Publishing for someone who weighs 155 pounds and spends half an hour exercising:
- Low-impact step aerobics: 260 calories
- Moderate stationary cycling or rowing: 260 calories
- Circuit training: 298 calories
- Jogging at 5 mph: 298 calories
- Vigorous stationary rowing: 316 calories
- Martial arts: 372 calories
- Vigorous lap swimming: 372 calories
- Vigorous stationary cycling: 391 calories
If you increase your workout intensity or take organized classes at your gym — which usually last for more than half an hour — you can easily increase those estimates.
Do you weigh more than 155 pounds? Then here's some great news: You basically get a calorie-burn bonus.
If all other factors stay the same, you'll burn calories faster — which translates to losing weight faster — than your lighter-weight peers who work out at the same pace and intensity.
How does that translate to arm-slimming weight loss? The accepted estimate is that you'll lose about one pound of fat for every 3,500 calories you burn or cut from your diet. So if you eat 1,800 calories in a day and also burn 1,800 calories per day (including your basal metabolism and all your physical activity), you're holding steady. But if you consume 1,800 calories and burn 2,100 calories, you've created a 300-calorie deficit that day.
Depending on how you eat, that could take as little as 30 minutes of jogging or an hour-long circuit training class. Keep that deficit up every day, and you'll burn about half a pound of fat each week. Bring it up to a 500-calorie daily deficit and, all other factors being equal, you're on track to burn around a pound of fat per week.
Weight Training for Your Arms
Weight training burns calories too. According to the same Harvard estimates, a 155-pound exerciser burns about 223 calories in a half-hour of vigorous weight training.
But there's more to enjoy about weight training than that — it also boosts your metabolism, builds lean muscle mass and stronger bones, gives you the strength and stamina to make everyday tasks easier, and, hey, sometimes a little muscle definition is all it takes to make "skinny fat" arms look sleek and slim.
How much should you lift weights? Start with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommendation to strength-train every major muscle group twice a week. Your arms definitely count as a muscle group, and they also help out with many exercises for your chest and back — so you can rest assured that they'll get a good workout.
Want more? You can up your workouts to three times a week as long as you give each muscle group at least one full rest day before you work it again. So you might do your strength-training on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, or Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday — but not on the "off" days because your muscles need those breaks to recover. You can also add extra exercises that specifically target your arms.
Exercises to Lose Arm Fat
While these exercises won't spot reduce arm fat, they will burn calories and help build sleek, strong arms that will be revealed as you reduce your body fat all over. In general, one to two sets of eight to 12 repetitions per exercise is a good starting point — although if you like the results you're seeing, you can always add more.
1. Triceps Extension
While this may be promoted as one of the best gym machines for arm flab, you can also mimic this type of workout with a cable machine or with a dumbbell. If you have access to a triceps extension or arm extension machine, here's how it works:
- Sit down in the machine's seat, and adjust its height so you can comfortably rest your arms on the elbow pad.
- Grasp the handles and contract your core muscles to keep your torso steady — no heaving your weight forward. Keep your elbows on the elbow pad as you straighten your arms against the machine's resistance.
- Slowly bend your arms back to the starting position to complete the repetition.
No gym machine? Mimic the same motion with a triceps push-down handle on a high cable pulley or by holding a single dumbbell overhead in both hands. Keep your elbows tight to your head as you bend your arms, letting the dumbbell sink down behind your head, and then straighten them again.
2. Biceps Curl
There are may variations on this popular gym machine for flabby arms. If you're using the actual gym machine to work your biceps, here's how it works:
- Adjust the seat so you can sit comfortably with your arms on the elbow pad.
- Stand up; reach down to grasp the handles with both hands in an underhand grip, and then sit back down, curling the handles up as you go.
- Stabilize your arms on the elbow pad, then slowly straighten your arms and lower the handles. Keep your hips in contact with the machine seat, and stop before your elbows lock out.
- Bend your elbows, lifting the handles against the machine's resistance. This completes one repetition.
If you don't have access to this type of gym machine or just want some variation, you can mimic the same motion using dumbbells. Start with the dumbbells at your sides, palms facing forward, then curl the weights up to your shoulders — or you can do the same exercise with a low cable pulley for resistance.
- ExRx.net: "Spot Reduction Myth"
- National Weight Control Registry: "NWCR Facts"
- Obesity Action Coalition: "Benefits of 5-10 Percent Weight Loss"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Calories Burned in 30 Minutes for People of Three Different Weights"
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 1. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"