You can bet that when it comes time to pull out the T-shirts and tank tops at the onset of spring, there's a collective sigh heard round the world. Warm weather is a little less appealing when it means you have to show off your flabby arms. You may ask yourself, "How can I get my arms in shape fast?" Well, there's no secret — it's all about being consistent with diet and exercise.
Eat less and get active to slim down your arms.
How to Lose Arm Fat
Fat is a complicated topic. There are many factors involved in how you gain fat and how you lose it. It has a lot to do with genetics, which also affects where on your body you are most likely to store fat. Those places are what people typically refer to as their "problem areas;" Try as they might, that stubborn fat just won't budge.
Blame your genes but don't give up, thinking that losing your arm fat is totally out of your control — it isn't. You have a lot of control over your body's calorie balance, which is how many calories you consume versus how many you expend. You, alone, can create a calorie deficit, consuming fewer calories than you burn each day, which will cause your body to stop storing fat and start using it for energy.
You also have control over your lean muscle mass. How many calories you eat and how many you burn is a large part of fat loss, but so is building muscle. Muscle is metabolically active, much more so than fat. Having more muscle increases your resting metabolism, so you burn more calories even when you're not doing anything. If you do the work to build muscle mass as well as burn calories, you will lose fat a lot faster.
Here's something you definitely don't have control over: Where on your body you lose fat from first. The idea that you can target just your arms for fat loss is a myth — you have to lose total body fat. That makes it hard to say just how long it will take to see noticeable results in your arms. You may see your legs and hips slim down first, but your arm fat may be slower to budge.
Read more: How to Get Started With Weightlifting
Do Over Your Diet
All calories aren't created equal, and eating the wrong foods can sabotage your arm fat loss efforts no matter how much you exercise. In fact, research shows that diet plays a significantly larger role in how to lose arm fat loss than exercise.
In a study published in 2012 in Obesity, researchers assigned 439 overweight/obese women a weight loss regimen consisting of a low-calorie diet and no exercise, an exercise program and no diet or an exercise and diet program.
At the end of the 12-month trial, the diet-only group had lost an average of 8.5 percent bodyweight, while the exercise-only group had only lost 2.4 percent body weight. The group that followed a low-calorie diet plus an exercise program lost the most weight — 10.8 percent.
In addition to lowering your calorie intake, you have to choose the right foods. Whole foods fuel your body and are metabolized differently than processed foods.
According to Beth Haney, DNP, FNP-C, assistant clinical professor at the University of California, Irvine, 100 calories of broccoli isn't metabolized in the same way as 100 calories of a sugary snack or soda. Sugar causes a range of metabolic adaptations that lead to obesity and Type 2 diabetes, while broccoli provides dietary fiber and other nutrients necessary for a healthy metabolism.
So choose your calories wisely. If you want to lose arm fat fast, you'll have to cut out sugary, refined and processed foods that offer little nutrition and have deleterious effects on your metabolic system. Fried, fatty foods are in the same category.
Instead of these foods, focus on eating more fruits and vegetables and lean protein from chicken, fish and beans. Consume moderate amounts of whole grains and low-fat dairy and small amounts of healthy fats from nuts, olive oil and avocado. These foods will keep you satisfied and make it easier to control your calorie intake, and they'll provide the nutrients you need to stay energized for your arm-fat-busting workouts.
Up Your Cardio Game
You can't burn arm fat by doing targeted arm exercises, just like you can't shed belly fat by doing crunches. To deepen the calorie deficit you've created with a healthy diet, you need to burn calories — the more the better. To burn more calories, you've got to move more and more vigorously.
Here's the cold, hard truth: Significant fat loss often takes a lot more exercise than people think. Simply walking 3 miles a day isn't going to do it in the majority of cases. You have to work for it.
If you've previously been sedentary, you may need to start out with brisk walking, but once you have built a foundation of fitness, it pays to leave your comfort zone. Just check out some of these statistics from Harvard Health Publishing on the number of calories burned by brisk walking versus doing more challenging activities. In 30 minutes, a 155-pound person will burn:
- 167 calories walking (4 mph)
- 372 calories running (6 mph)
- 372 calories cycling (14 to 15.9 mph)
- 372 calories swimming laps (vigorous)
- 316 calories rowing (stationary)
So what's it going to be? Running, cycling, rowing, stair climbing? If you can't keep up such a vigorous pace to start, try interval training, alternating periods of vigorous effort with periods of moderate effort.
For example, on a treadmill, you could walk at a pace of 4 mph for 90 seconds, then increase your pace to a 6 mph run for one minute, then repeat the intervals for the duration of your workout. You can gradually increase the pace and duration of your work intervals.
Build Muscle, Burn Fat
You've already learned that having more muscle mass can help you burn off your arm fat more quickly, and you know that spot-training isn't effective. Here's another myth dispelled: Doing moderate-intensity strength training isn't going to make you big and bulky. It will make your arms look toned when you lose the fat covering your lean muscles. Women who want to build a lot of muscle mass typically do so through high-volume weight training, special diets and supplementation.
So don't believe the hype about doing biceps curls with 2-pound weights. Work your way up to 10 or 15 pounds. Just like with cardio, if you really want to make progress quickly, you have to challenge yourself. Of course, if you've never strength-trained, you will want to build the challenge gradually to avoid undue soreness and injury.
Should you do biceps curls or triceps kickbacks? If you want to burn the most fat, no. Those are isolation exercises that only work one muscle group at a time.
Compound exercises, on the other hand, work more than one muscle group at a time. Recruiting more muscle fibers at once has greater calorie- and fat-burning potential.
Start out with bodyweight exercises to target all your major muscle groups (not just your arms): squats, lunges, push-ups, bridge, planks and supermans. Master the correct form, doing two sets of eight to 15 reps for each exercise.
Gradually increase either your reps or your sets so that you really fatigue your muscles by the end of your workout. That fatigue is a sign you've challenged your muscles enough to grow.
There's no reason to lift weights if you don't want to. Plenty of people get strong and ripped just using their own bodyweight. However, you might be interested in weightlifting or just enjoy more variety in your workout. If so, start to include a few weighted exercises in your program, such as kettlebell squats, rows, shoulder presses, deadlifts and flyes.
- Diabetologia: "The Genetics of Fat Distribution"
- University of New Mexico: "Controversies in Metabolism"
- Obesity: "Effect of Diet and Exercise, Alone or Combined, on Weight and Body Composition in Overweight-to-Obese Post-Menopausal Women"
- Journal for Nurse Practitioners: "Is Diet More Important Than Exercise?"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Calories Burned in 30 Minutes for People of Three Different Weights"
- ACE: "5 Benefits of Compound Exercises"