They say nothing worth having comes easy, and that goes for slimming down. If you have plump biceps or extra fat at the back of your arms, it's likely you have other problem areas.
Since you can't choose a specific area to lose fat, you have to lose total body fat. Reducing your calorie intake and increasing your physical activity is the easiest — and only — way to get slimmer arms.
The Myth of Spot Reduction
Many fitness magazines would have you believe that doing a few different arm exercises will give you the slim arms of your dreams. That's called spot training and it isn't possible — it's not the way the body loses fat. When you do arm exercises, you're primarily building muscle but not burning fat. That will tone your arm muscles but do very little about the layer of fat covering them.
Anecdotal evidence shows that targeted fat loss isn't possible, and so does scientific research. A study published in a 2013 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found spot training ineffective. Participants performed three workouts per week that included up to 1,200 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 significantly greater fat loss in the upper body.
How to Lose Fat
In most cases, excess fat is the result of a caloric surplus. You're consuming more calories than your body needs for energy, and it stores the extra calories as fat. Therefore, to lose fat the simple answer is to reduce your calorie intake and increase your activity level to create a calorie deficit.
How many calories you need to consume each day is highly individual. It depends on many factors including your age, weight, activity level, gender and genetic factors that determine how your body metabolizes food into energy. Your doctor or a nutritionist can help you figure out your target calorie budget for weight loss.
Once you have that number, eating less and exercising more will cause your body to begin to burn fat stores. Where you'll lose fat first depends on your genetically determined weight-loss pattern, but you'll eventually see slimmer arms.
Eating for 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 deprived and abandon your goal of getting thin, shapely arms.
Mealtime plates should contain a serving of lean protein, such as poultry or fish, small servings of whole grains and generous amounts of watery, fibrous vegetables such as leafy greens and bell peppers. Small amounts of healthy fats from avocados, fatty fish, olive oil and nuts and seeds are also important for satiety and health.
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, almond butter on an apple or almonds with a pear instead.
Juices, sodas, sweetened coffee drinks and other sugary beverages are a no-no. Many of the additional calories in your diet leading to fat gain may be coming from sweetened beverages without you even realizing it. Drink plain water, unsweetened tea and coffee. If you need a little sweetness, use a small amount of calorie-free stevia.
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.
Unless you significantly reduce your calorie intake, you may need to do 60 to 90 minutes of moderate exercise each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Examples of moderate cardio activity include brisk walking and leisurely biking.
If you engage in more vigorous exercise, you will burn more calories in less time. Examples of vigorous exercise include jogging and running, cycling, rollerblading, swimming laps and most competitive sports.
The more vigorously you are able to exercise, the more calories you'll burn in an equal amount of time. For example, a 155-pound person burns about 150 calories walking at a pace of 3.5 miles per hour; the same size person burns 300 calories running at a pace of 5 miles per hour.
Total-Body Strength Training
Building lean muscle mass helps you manage your weight because it gives your metabolism a boost. Contrary to what many people think, weight training doesn't make you bulky if you do it the right way. Using lower weight and doing higher repetitions will build lean definition in your arms, which you'll be able to see once you've lost the fat.
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 — those that engage multiple joints — such as rows, push-ups, chest presses, pull-ups and military presses.
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 one to three sets of 12 to 20 repetitions of an exercise for each muscle group, using a weight that creates fatigue by the last few efforts.
- Annals of Internal Medicine: Thickness of Subcutaneous Fat and Activity of Underlying Muscles
- Yale Scientific: Targeted Fat Loss: Myth or Reality?
- American Council on Exercise: Why is the Concept of Spot Reduction Considered a Myth?
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: Regional Fat Changes Induced By Localized Muscle Endurance Resistance Training
- Ask the Dietitian: Overweight and Weight Loss
- Harvard Health Publishing: Calories burned in 30 minutes for people of three different weights
- CDC: Physical Activity for a Healthy Weight