8 mistakes people make when toning their arms

a person lifting weights
8 mistakes people make when toning their armsskynesher - Getty Images

Forget leg day - toned arms are something many of us aspire to have. Whether we're looking to sell tickets to the gun show, or have taut and tight triceps, many of us are descending on the dumbbells at the gym to try and get arms even Jennifer Aniston would be jealous of (although, quick reminder before we deep-dive into how to tone arms: all bodies, of every shape and size, are worthy of love and respect... and you don't need to change a! damn! thing!).

If you've been trying to tone your arms for a while though and aren't seeing the results, it's possible that your crusade to sculpted arms may be falling foul of some simple mistakes that are hindering your progress, rather than helping it. And if you've been left scratching your head wondering just why your arms aren't as toned as you'd like then fear not – Cosmopolitan UK has contacted the experts.

Matt Harras, Head of Fitness at Virgin Active, and Fitness First personal trainer Olly Banks are both here to talk us through some of the most common arm toning errors they see...

1. Focusing too much on bicep curls

It's easy to assume that if we want to get enviably muscular arms, we need to be doing lots of bicep curls. Not so. "Unless you're a bodybuilder and are looking to enhance the definition and size of the arms, there is no real reason to pump out the curls," says Harras, in news that may well surprise you.

"Muscles in the arms are fairly small in comparison to the major muscles in the back and chest. When you break down the movement, for the bicep you're closing at the elbow joint, and for the triceps you're opening the elbow joint. These movements are replicated in all push and pull exercises, which are much more beneficial," he continues.

Some of the push exercises Harras would recommend instead include shoulder presses, chest presses and push-ups, while his suggested pull exercises include rowing, upright pulls and seated rows.

If you do want to do some bicep curls, though, it's important that you do them properly.

"Bicep curls focus on strengthening the bicep muscles and forearms," Banks explains. "They are essential for upper body strength, aiding in lifting and pulling movements."

To perfect a bicep curl, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand at arm's length. Make sure to keep your elbows close to your torso, and rotate your palms to face forward. Then, curl the weights upward to your shoulder level while keeping your upper arms stationary. Pause at the top, then slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position. Et voila - the perfect bicep curl.

woman lifting dumbbells in a bicep curl
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2. Cheating by swinging

"Arm exercises are easy enough to build into a novice workout using free weights, but they're just as easy to cheat a full rep," warns Harras. "As you fatigue, you may find you begin to lose some momentum from the shoulder, meaning you swing the final few reps on the curls to complete your set."

If you're reading this and thinking: "Yep, that's me", Harras has a solution: "If you're struggling to complete a full set with the correct form - drop the weight, otherwise you're only cheating yourself. Another option is to use a bench or machine to hold the arm in place, forcing correct form.

"By keeping your form strict, you'll isolate the muscle and overload the desired area, resulting in quicker and more efficient toning or muscle increase over time."

3. Speeding your reps

Sure, workouts can be painful, and sometimes the last thing we want to do is be in the gym. It's fair enough that you might be desperate to race through reps. But as Harras points out: "Completing quick reps isn't going to give you the strength gains you desire."

"You should be aiming for a 1-2 second contraction and eccentric phase," he advises. "If you are going any quicker than this, you won't be applying enough resistance on the muscle. Slow it down and drop the weight if needed."

4. Trying to target a specific area for fat loss

Perhaps the most common insecurity women have about their arms is the back - which can sometimes (savagely) be referred to as 'bingo wings'. But with a desire to reduce 'bingo wings' can often come the mistaken assumption that arm workouts are going to help strip any fat build-up in this area.

"Fat loss targeting is virtually impossible," says Harras. "Body fat is effectively your body's fuel reserves, and is distributed throughout the body, which means the most effective way to target fat loss is through a calorie deficit diet and a balanced workout of cardio and weights," he adds, pointing out that larger muscles = a higher calorie expenditure.

"Arm exercises will strengthen the muscles, but will have little-to-no effect on the fat stores in the arms," says the expert.

There are plenty of other reasons why you may want to take to your triceps, without necessarily toning them.

"From a performance perspective, doing tricep exercises will help increase the strength of any pushing exercises, for example, push ups and shoulder presses," explains Banks. "They are also great, when performed correctly, for maintaining and improving the joint health of your elbow."

5. Focusing on just one muscle

⚠️ Science lesson klaxon ⚠️ "The arm is made up of two muscles (biceps) and three muscles (triceps), but a common mistake when training arms is to focus on the same exercises which challenges only one of them, resulting in an imbalance over time," says Harras. Note to self: don't forget there's more than one muscle in the arm.

a woman exercising on wooden floor
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6. Only sticking to one type of cardio machine

This may baffle you - cardio has more to do with your arms than you'd think. May we refer you back to point number 4 about the futility of trying to target fat loss.

"Your arms aren't quite built for the same level of endurance as your legs," says Harras, "but if you're looking to build some upper body work into your cardio routine, switch the bike for the assault bike or the treadmill for the rower.

"By incorporating both upper and lower muscle groups, you'll increase your calorie burn during a workout. If combined with a balanced diet, this can aid with fat loss as long as there is a calorie deficit over the day."

7. Training arms too frequently

It's easy to fall into the trap of doing as much as you can, but less is definitely more when it comes to arms. "The muscles in the arms are much smaller than the rest of the body, so you need to ensure you have enough rest between workouts to continue progressing with your training," advises Harras. "If you overload the arm too often in a week, not only will you negatively impact your strength gains because your muscles don't have time to recover, but you'll also impact upper body workouts more generally, meaning you'll struggle with chest, back and shoulder workouts if the arms are feeling tired.

"Aim to train the arms a maximum of 2 days a week, and schedule your workouts so a lower body session follows a tough upper body day," suggests the expert. "This will help the upper body recover whilst still remaining active."

a woman lifting weights
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8. Failing to rest your entire body

And... rest. "Rest days are some of your most important days, because without adequate rest you will quickly enter an overtraining phase and you'll begin to see your fitness gains reduce," says Harras.

"The key is to listen to your body. If you begin to feel a little lethargic and under the weather, rest up or switch to a restorative yoga class, take a walk, or generally chill out and take it easy." We like that one...

So...what exercises should we try?

Want to build the strength in your arms? Then Banks has some suggestions, with pull-ups and planks a good way to get your biceps burning.

"Pull-ups primarily target the upper back, specifically the latissimus dorsi, along with the biceps, shoulders, and core. They are effective for building upper body strength and muscle definition," he explains.

"The plank exercise works your entire core and arms, especially the rectus abdominis. It involves maintaining a position similar to a push-up for as long as you can.

"However, it’s always best to either reach out and get a PT or go to a fitness class to ensure your form and technique are correct to prevent any injuries."

Hopefully, you're now more clued up when it comes to the actual exercises that will help you tone up those arms and strengthen your body overall!

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