You want nothing more than to don a tank top this summer, but thick arms make you self-conscious when you go sleeveless. Selectively losing fat in your arms isn't possible, however. Only a comprehensive weight-loss program that includes cardiovascular exercise, strength training and a reduced-calorie diet will help you shed pounds all over, including in your arms. Trading fat for bulk isn't your idea of slimming down, but know that this regimen doesn't have to lead to big muscles.
How Fat Loss Happens
Certain areas have a greater conglomeration of fat cells -- such as your abdomen, thighs and upper arms -- but your body stores fat as triglycerides in fat cells throughout your body. Genetics and hormones drive where you primarily store fat and how you lose it. When you create a calorie deficit by eating fewer calories than you require, your body targets these fat cells to provide energy.
When you lose weight, your body draws the triglycerides from fat cells throughout your body, not from an area you wish to shrink. A 1971 study proved this point when it tested fat on the arms of tennis players. If the spot-training theory were viable, these players' dominant arms would be considerably slimmer than the other -- but this wasn't the case. A more recent study published in a 2013 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that 12 weeks of strength training three times per week performed on one leg did not change the distribution of participants' fat on the lower body. This exercise did reduce the participants' upper body fat, however.
Eat a Quality Diet to Slim Your Arms
To lose fat overall -- including from your arms -- you'll need to create an energy deficit by eating fewer calories than you burn. To determine your daily calorie needs, consult an online calculator that takes into account your size, gender, age and activity level. Subtract 250 to 1,000 calories from this number to determine how many you should eat daily to lose 1/2 to 2 pounds per week. It's important to eat at least 1,200 calories per day if you're a woman or 1,800 if you're a man to keep your metabolism humming and take in enough nutrients.
Start trimming calories by reducing high-calorie, low-nutrient foods, such as sugar and refined grains, and avoid foods such as desserts, soda and white bread. Focus instead on whole, unprocessed foods, such as fresh produce, lean protein, low-fat dairy and whole grains.
When you trim calories and lose weight, you may notice areas other than your arms start to reduce first. This is the nature of the weight-loss process. Usually the first place you gained weight is the last place you'll lose it. If your arms have always been chunky, you'll need to be patient with your results. They'll eventually slim down, but maybe not as soon as you want.
Get Moving to Lose Weight
A running program, even though it works your legs, is a better bet to slimming your arms than arm circles and curls with 1-pound weights. Cardiovascular exercise increases your daily calorie burn, making your energy deficit greater and prompting fat loss. Running isn't your only option -- swimming, bicycling, kickboxing, brisk walking and elliptical exercise are all cardio activities. Aim for movement that involves the large muscles of the body, raises your heart rate for an extended period of time and gets you to break a sweat. To lose significant weight, aim for 250 minutes or more of this type of movement per week.
Arm ergometers and rowing machines provide alternative cardio exercises that can help develop svelte, toned arms for you to show off when you lose extra fat. These arm-specific exercises won't directly burn off the fat on your arms, but they do help you burn calories so overall fat loss is possible.
Strength-Train to Get Lean, Not Bulky
Strength training is regularly recommended as a tool for weight loss. It helps you maintain lean muscle so that your metabolism stays revved and muscle burns more calories at rest than does fat. One-quarter of every pound lost without strength training comes from muscle. Strength training won't directly burn fat but will reveal lean, toned muscles as you do drop pounds.
Don't shy away from the weights because you're concerned about developing bulging biceps. Women generally have too much circulating estrogen to build large muscles. It takes hours of time at the gym, precise meal plans and, sometimes, supplements to look like a female body builder. Men do have a greater amount of muscle than women and can accrue muscle mass faster, but it still takes a surplus of calories and a strategic lifting plan to gain even 1 pound of muscle.
Commit to just two or three resistance-training workouts per week that address your arms, along with the other major muscle groups in your body such as your back, chest, legs, hips and abs. Just one set of eight to 12 repetitions of an exercise using resistance that feels heavy for each of these muscle groups is enough to support maintenance of lean muscle mass and improvement of muscle function and tone. Dumbbells, barbells, weight machines and kettlebells are all options for equipment. If you'd rather shy away from iron, use rubber resistance bands or your own body weight.
- Yale Scientific: Targeted Fat Loss: Myth or Reality?
- Annals of Internal Medicine: Thickness of Subcutaneous Fat and Activity of Underlying Muscles
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: Regional Fat Changes Induced by Localized Muscle Endurance Resistance Training
- American College of Sports Medicine: Metabolism Is Modifiable With the Right Lifestyle Changes
- American Council on Exercise: Why Is the Concept of Spot Reduction Considered a Myth?
- American College of Sports Medicine: ACSM Position Stand on Physical Activity and Weight Loss
- American College of Sports Medicine: Strength Training for Women
- Current Sports Medicine Reports: Resistance Training Is Medicine: Effects of Strength Training on Health
- American Council on Exercise: What Are the Guidelines for Percentage of Body Fat Loss?