You're Doing It Wrong!
By Jon Robinson, BSc (Hons) Exercise Physiology
Was idly freewheeling through the channels last night, trudging through TV travesties such as When Chihuahuas Attack! and Horror Hairdo’s Gone Bad! before giving up, turning to YouTube and watching a video of a girl falling through a manhole. Then I quickly came to my blunted senses! I don’t need this bloated bellyful of voyeurism and schadenfreude! People achieving more than they think they can, that’s what I want to watch.
But let’s be honest, nobody’s perfect, and a lot of us get it wrong the first time, especially when it comes to exercising. Shooting yourself in the foot, while a completely idiomatic thing to do, is something we're all guilty of from time to time. Don't be too hard on yourself though, those smarter than me (and possibly you) balls it up at least once every now and again. Where I work, the majority of people are wasting their time and effort. Exercise is often to them a chore, and the raison d'être is results above all else. I take no pleasure in seeing [often vulnerable] people braving it in the gym, desperate to make a change, but I can only offer advice if they approach me.
And toning the arms is one area that I often see people making a real butchers of.
What we know about ‘toning’ is that it’s a combination of muscle shape and relative absence of fat. Women tend to deposit fat on the rear arm (tricep) area, therefore it’s common to see many gym-goers attacking this area ferociously with weights. To work effectively, you need to ask yourself this: are you genetically predisposed to being top-heavy in terms of body fat distribution?
If the answer is yes, then cardio is the most effective means to see the results. Even guys, who have roughly five times more than women the necessary muscle building hormone, would be unlikely to build enough muscle to be visible underneath their body fat. For women of this body type, muscle building here simply won’t work and can even make you look bulkier/chubbier. Many people mistake the tight feeling in your muscles that follows exercise for muscle tone (it isn’t).
If you are genetically predisposed to being ectomorphic (i.e. tall and thin, without curves) or pear-shaped, you can approach this differently, as you can see your muscles taking shape much easier. However, work smart and hit the biceps and chest/shoulders predominantly. While the triceps are much bigger than the biceps at the front, it’s the biceps that give the ‘look’, complemented by the chest and shoulder muscles. Big, aimless, bulky triceps might be ok on a guy, but don’t flatter women. Just look at Madonna. If she were to ease off on the tricep exercises, her arms would look shapelier, instead of just big.
So which exercises work best? Simple. Dumbbell and barbell bicep curls and for the chest/shoulders, dumbbell presses at various inclines on the bench. The lower inclines hit the front of the chest and shoulder which gives definition at the front. Also, increase the incline to move the tension upward more toward the middle of the shoulder. You need to hit all these bases to ensure the muscles adapt uniformly, thus creating the desired ‘look’.
By all means hit the triceps too but don’t make this your main focus. Most definitely stay well clear of those evil tricep dips (which can cause chronic pain when you’re older; email me if you require info on this). Regular push ups and cable pushdowns work just fine.
If results are what you want, acknowledge what your body type is, work smart, maximise your time and be proud to show off those toned arms this summer.
Jon Robinson is the founder of web-based platform Makethisworkout. For in depth instructions on how to do these exercises properly, as well as other helpful tips on duration of exercise and routine guidance, check out his blog on