You can't wish fat away from a specific body part. If you have plump biceps or extra fat at the back of your arms, a comprehensive diet and exercise program is the only way to slim them down. When you reduce overall body fat, your entire body -- including the arms -- shrinks. Targeted biceps curls and triceps extensions will help tone up the arm muscles, but you won't see that tone until you get rid of the overlying fat. Losing weight will give you the thinner arms and more slender frame you're after.
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The Myth of Spot Reduction
Fitness magazines and gadgets want you to believe that you can curl and extend your arms into perfection. But, spot training isn't possible -- it's not the way the body loses fat. When your body needs energy due to a calorie deficit, it turns to your fat stores for energy. You can't decide from where your body mobilizes this fat, and often, your "trouble area" where you tend to store fast is the last place you'll lose it.
When you do arm exercises, you're simply burning fat that's stored all over your body, not just what's stored in your arms. Cardiovascular exercise requires a lot of energy so it burns through fat more effectively than isolation exercises for smaller muscle groups, which don't burn a lot of calories or fat.
If your arms are stubbornly plump even when you're of normal weight, you may have to become exceptionally lean to thin them out. Your genetic profile may be such that they're the last place to slim down as you drop weight.
Research on Targeted Fat Loss
Anecdotal evidence shows that targeted fat loss isn't possible, and so does scientific research. A study performed in 1971 and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine demonstrated that tennis players had no significant difference in the amount of fat on each arm -- despite having a dominant one with which they threw most fore- and backhands.
A more recent study published in a 2013 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found spot training ineffective too. Participants performed three workouts per week that included up to 1,000 repetitions of the leg press on only one leg. After 12 weeks, researchers recorded no notable difference in the fat levels in the worked and unworked legs, but did observe some fat loss occurred in the upper body.
These results confirm you can't slim down your arms simply by doing arm exercises; you need to burn fat all over your body.
About Fat in the Arms
Arm fat is subcutaneous, meaning it lies just under the skin. Because subcutaneous fat provides important bodily functions -- including regulation of your body temperature, padding for your bones and muscles and support for blood vessel and nerve cell function -- it's harder to lose than deep-abdominal fat, which surrounds your internal organs.
If you create a calorie deficit, meaning you eat fewer calories than you burn, you will reduce body fat all over your body, including your arms. A 500- to 1,000-calorie-per-day deficit yields a fat loss of 1 to 2 pounds per week, since a pound of fat equals 3,500 calories. To create this deficit, plan to eat less and move more. Where you'll lose fat first depends on your genetically determined weight-loss pattern
Determine your current calorie needs to maintain your weight by using an online calculator that accounts for your age, gender, size and activity level. Plan on eating 250 to 500 calories fewer than that maintenance number and adding physical activity to burn 250 to 500 calories. Do not eat fewer than 1,200 calories per day if you're a woman or 1,800 if you're a man, though, or you risk stalling your metabolism and becoming deficient in some nutrients.
Eating for Fat Loss and Thinner Arms
The quality of the calories you consume when trying to lose weight matters. Every meal needs to contribute to your nutritional load and satisfy you so you don't feel overly deprived and abandon your goal of getting thin, shapely arms. Mealtime plates contain a serving of lean protein, such as poultry or fish, whole grains and generous amounts of watery fibrous vegetables. Ideas for meals include eggs with peppers, mushrooms and spinach with 100-percent whole-wheat toast at breakfast; a leafy green salad with a whole-grain roll and grilled chicken for lunch; and 100-percent whole wheat pasta with broiled flank steak and roasted summer squash for dinner.
Snacks are important, too. They help keep you from feeling overly hungry between meals and give you an opportunity to sneak in additional nutrients, including protein and fiber. Stay away from processed snacks containing loads of sugar, refined grains and saturated fat. Choose an orange with a cheese stick, deli turkey wrapped in lettuce with mustard and grape tomatoes, peanut butter on an apple or almonds with a pear instead.
Comprehensive Exercise for Fat Loss
Fat loss in your arms doesn't occur with targeted exercise, but with cardiovascular exercise and total-body weight training. This comprehensive approach to exercise burns a greater number of calories overall so you create a calorie deficit and lose weight.
At least 250 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise is necessary for significant weight loss, notes the American College of Sports Medicine. A brisk walk, swimming laps or light cycling fulfills this requirement. Some weekly exercise sessions performed as intervals, meaning short bouts of high-intensity work alternating with lower-intensity work, can help your body mobilize fat more effectively, noted a review published in the Journal of Obesity in 2011. Try increasing your intensity for a minute or two during your workout, then slowing your pace for a minute to recover, and repeat the 2- or 3-minute intervals over the course of your cardio session.
Strength Train Your Whole Body, Not Just Your Arms
Strength training doesn't burn as many calories per session as cardio, but it does help you preserve and develop lean muscle mass. The more lean muscle mass you have compared to fat tissue, the better your metabolic burn rate and the easier it is to manage your weight.
Your arms are just one part of your body to train with weights. The chest, abs, back, shoulders, hips and legs, must also be included in a minimum of twice-weekly sessions for effective weight loss. Do at least one set of eight to 12 repetitions of an exercise for each muscle group, using a weight that creates fatigue by the last few efforts. Such weight-training efforts creates an overall body leanness that will also be apparent in your arms. The process won't make you tank-top ready for the beach in a week, but it will help you look stronger and leaner over the course of several months.
To develop shape in your arms that will be evident as you lean out, perform biceps curls, triceps kickbacks and overhead triceps extensions. The arm muscles also get worked during upper body compound exercises, meaning those that engage multiple joints, such as rows, pushups, chest presses, pull-ups and military presses.
Additional Fat Loss Steps
Getting adequate sleep -- seven to nine hours per night -- contributes to a healthier body weight. When you sleep, hunger hormones are better controlled, and you're less likely to reach for high-calorie energy drinks and snacks. When you're well rested, it's easier to get to the gym to work your arms and other muscles.
Reduce stress to help you lose weight as well. Yoga, meditation and other self-care practices help calm your system so you don't stress eat, which undermines calorie goals. Focus your energy on healthy eating and exercise when your goal is eliminating excess body fat.