When you lose weight, your body reduces the padding of subcutaneous fat that sits just underneath your skin. Although you can't tell your body exactly where or in what order to remove that fat, rest assured that as you lose weight over your whole body your arms will slim down, too.
Losing weight reduces excess fat from all over your body, including your arms. However, how quickly (or slowly) the weight comes off your arms is largely determined by factors beyond your control, such as hormone levels, body type and genetics.
You Need a Calorie Deficit
To lose weight from anywhere on your body — including arms — you need to create a calorie deficit. That's just another way of saying that you must burn more calories than you take in. You can achieve that deficit by slightly reducing your calorie intake or by increasing your physical activity. According to research from the National Weight Control Registry, the vast majority of people who successfully lose weight and keep it off do it through a combination of both methods.
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Although it may be tempting to lose the weight as quickly as possible, drastic methods usually backfire, because once you go back to your normal habits the weight comes right back on with a vengeance. Instead, make healthy lifestyle changes that you can maintain over the long run, and aim for what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends as a healthy, sustainable rate of weight loss: 1 to 2 pounds per week. To achieve that, aim for a calorie deficit of 500 to 1,000 calories per day.
Although slightly reducing your calorie intake can help you lose excess body fat, don't fall into the trap of starving yourself. Nutrient-rich food is the fuel your body needs to keep itself healthy and power you through physical activity. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute states that most women can lose weight safely on an eating plan of 1,200 to 1,500 calories per day, while most men can safely lose weight on 1,500 to 1,800 calories a day. Don't go any lower than these amounts without medical guidance.
Fat Arms, Skinny Body?
Although there isn't really any such thing as "genetically fat arms," you might win the genetic lottery — or lose it, depending on your perspective — and find that your arms are the last place to lose weight on your body. Or perhaps noticeable weight gain in the upper arms is your first clue that you've started to put on a few extra pounds.
Unfortunately, there's not much you can do to change your body's preference for putting fat on your arms first, or removing it from them last. That's largely due to genetics, hormone levels and your overall body type — although both men and women may find that their hormones, and thus their body's handling of subcutaneous fat, shift as they advance through different life stages.
What you can do, however, is pay close attention to your calorie balance. If you're happy with your body weight, maintain it by aiming to eat roughly the same number of calories you burn every day; the Department of Health and Human Services offers a useful chart for estimating what that might be, based on your gender, age and activity levels.
And, of course, if you want to lose weight, aim to establish — and then maintain — the aforementioned calorie deficit so your body has to use that stored subcutaneous fat as energy.
Unless you're hooked up to precision clinical equipment, any estimates of calories burned during physical activity are just that — estimates. So don't be alarmed if you need to fine-tune the HHS calorie recommendations to suit your body and lifestyle.
Best Exercises for Weight Loss
Remember, working a body part doesn't make you lose fat from that place on your body — that whole concept, called spot reduction, is a big myth. So good exercises for losing fat from your arms are those that burn a lot of calories in general. Think running, cycling, climbing stairs, pedaling an elliptical trainer and so on.
But just because an exercise burns a lot of calories doesn't mean it's the best for you to do. For example, if you like walking enough to stick with it, you'll burn a lot more calories over time than you'd burn during a short, miserable attempt at creating a running habit. Because you're aiming for long-term results, the absolute best exercises will be those that you like enough to keep doing over the long term.
Add Some Muscle Tone
There is one healthy thing you can do to quickly change the shape of your arms: strength training. Perhaps you've heard it called toning — a general buzzword that represents the dual goals of reducing body fat and building muscle. Regardless of the name applied, the goal of strength training is to build stronger, leaner muscles. And sometimes that extra bit of muscle definition is all it takes to make your arms look slim and sleek.
Even if you have more upper arm fat than you'd like right now, don't wait to add strength training into your workout routine. It takes about two months to see significant changes in muscle mass, so you might as well start building that sleek muscle now.
Not only will that new muscle be revealed as you melt away excess body fat, it'll even help you toward that goal, because lifting weights burns calories in the moment and helps boost your resting metabolic rate — the amount of calories you burn simply by existing. Strength training also packs other health benefits, like increased bone density and improved cognitive function. In fact, it's so good for you that the Department of Health and Human Services recommends strength-training all your major muscle groups twice a week just to reach — and maintain — optimal health.
Choose the Best Exercises
Your body is designed to work as a complete unit, so most weightlifting exercises that target your upper body will work your arms to some degree. A few of the best to get you started include bench presses, push-ups, lat pulldowns, machine or dumbbell-based rows, concentration curls and triceps kickbacks.
Choose at least one pushing exercise and one pulling exercise from that list and aim to include them in your regular fitness routine twice a week, with at least one full day in between your strength-training workouts. (Your muscles get bigger and stronger during the time in between workouts, not during the workouts themselves.) To start out, do one to three sets of eight to 12 repetitions for each exercise.
As your muscles adapt to this new challenge, you can consider adding more sets or more exercises to your workout. Remember, the key word is "challenge" — if your weightlifting exercises start to feel easy, bump up the weight a little bit or choose a more difficult variation. And even if your focus is on your arms right now, don't forget to work all your other major muscle groups too, including your legs and core — your body will thank you.
- National Weight Control Registry: "NWCR Facts"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "What Is Healthy Weight Loss?"
- National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: "Healthy Eating Plan"
- Health.gov: "Estimated Calorie Needs Per Day by Age, Sex, and Physical Activity Level"
- University of New Mexico: "Resistance Training: Adaptations and Health Implications"
- Health.gov: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"