Reader’s Request: Increasing Arm Strength and Definition

I’ve received multiple reader requests regarding the subject of arm strength and definition, so today’s post is going to tackle just that.

[Just’s a heads up, if you’re struggling with anything regarding body image, this may be a post to skip. What we read can affect our body and minds, so if you don’t think it would be a smart choice to read about arm tips/strengtheners, this is one to skip. Sending love to those you who are experiencing or recovering from any type of eating disorder or body image-related illness.)

Reader Questions About Arms

“What’s the best way to increase arm strength and definition?”

“How can I get ‘tank top arms?'”

“How to you make your shoulders look chiseled?”

“I want to perk my chest up a little.”

Here’s a post with all of my arm and upper body-related tips:

Flexing at the gym

(I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to flex without making a goober face)

As always, talk with a doc before making any fitness changes. Honor your body and modify according to your unique needs and preferences.

6 Tips to Increase Arm Strength and Definition

1) Lift heavy things. Do not be afraid to up the weights, especially if you can comfortably complete more than 15 repetitions in one set. By the last few reps, you should have to CONVINCE yourself to finish. (At the same time, you should be able to finish with proper form.) Think about some exercises where you can increase the weights or if you’ve become complacent and can add a little challenge.

While you’re lifting heavy things, be sure that you’re also changing the types of weights that you’re lifting. Vary between the scary cable machine, dumbbells, kettlebells and barbells. In general, I don’t recommend strength training machines unless you’re really looking to increase your weight and want to be guided through the range of motion. To my beginner friends: strength machines are a great starting point! Once you feel comfortable with the basic movement, meet with a trainer to help you learn the moves using dumbbells or resistance bands instead. This way, you’ll be standing for the exercises (which means you’re burning more calories!) and will also recruit your core muscles to help stabilize you. You get more bang for your buck if you do the exercises with your body weight or in a standing position.

2) Add one more set. This is a great way to fully fatigue muscles, and for the last couple of months just to switch things up, I’ve been doing 4 sets instead of 3 for many of my usual exercises. 

Some magic numbers, depending on your fitness goals:

Strength endurance and stabilization: 12-20 reps per set at less intensity 

Hypertrophy: 6-12 reps per set at moderate intensity

Maximal strength: 1-5 reps at maximum intensity

I’d say in general, the average gym-going Jane is going to have a goal of hypertrophy (building lean muscle). I like 3-4 sets of 10-12 challenging reps per set.

Push up variation

3) Pull-ups, pushups and dips are your friends. These are my top three arm exercises, because between the three of them, you’ll be working almost every muscle in your upper body. If you’re looking to add new exercises to your routine, these are effective and challenging ones to add, and there’s always a way to increase stressors and change things up.

For pushup variations, check out this post.

An arm shredding superset:

(Warm up and then alternate between the two exercises until you reach 3-4 sets of each. Then, move onto the next two exercises.)

Arm shredding supersets

4) Incorporate interval training. You need to burn fat in order to see the muscle you’ve created, and clean eats in conjunction with a solid cardio routine are the sweet ticket to lean and defined physique. Aim for a balance of proteins, produce, healthy fats and smart carbs, and be sure to alternate cardio intensities throughout the week. (New to HIIT? This is a thorough post to check out.)

5) REST. Do not work the same muscles on consecutive days, and change up your routine depending on past workouts and how you’re feeling. if your body is telling you that it needs a break, it’s up to us to listen! Make sure to plan at least once full day of rest each week.

6) For goodness sake, EAT. You cannot build lean muscle if you’re depleted. Make sure that you’re getting enough fuel for your activity level, plus some extra if you’re looking to increase muscle mass.

Other random arm/upper body tips:

-Carry your baby or toddler around all the days (bonus points if they’re particularly squirmy but still want to be held) πŸ˜‰ No kiddo? A large jug of water works nicely.

-Get a pull-up bar. Each time you walk by, do 3 pull-ups. (If you can’t do a full pull-up yet, place a sturdy chair underneath the bar and use one or both legs to partially support your weight and assist you.)

Pullup bar 1 of 1

-Assess your pre and post-workout nutrition. I love a protein-packed smoothie after a great strength workout! Here are some tips for making a meal out of your smoothie.

What’s your favorite arm or upper body exercise??

Hope you have a great day!


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  1. Chrissy @Pink Polish and Running Shoes on April 22, 2014 at 10:46 am

    I’m a fan of anything that works my triceps. An upper body workout just doesn’t feel complete to me without it.

  2. FitBritt@MyOwnBalance on April 22, 2014 at 10:49 am

    This is a great post Gina! My arms are my least favorite part of my body. I train them fairly often but don’t always have the definition I want to achieve. I’ll definitely use some of these tips. Thanks!

  3. Ashley @ A Lady Goes West on April 22, 2014 at 10:50 am

    I agree with all of your tips here, especially the fact that you have to take yourself to failure with heavy reps to really get increased muscle mass.

    My favorite arm workouts are tricep kickbacks, which can be done with a plate or dumbbell from the kneeling or standing position. That, in combination with bicep curls, is a great way to get the fronts and the backs. And of course, bracing the core during all movements, driving through the heels and engaging the whole body for extra burn.

    Your arms look great!

  4. Jackie on April 22, 2014 at 10:51 am

    Love the superset workout!

  5. Kaelene@Unlocking Kiki on April 22, 2014 at 10:53 am

    Great tips in this post! Will definitely be using these tips to for inspiration in my arm workouts.

  6. Paula on April 22, 2014 at 10:53 am

    I tend to work my shoulders a lot. My goal right now is working towards a muscle-up. I just feel like it would feel pretty bad-ass to do one!

  7. Brynn on April 22, 2014 at 11:11 am

    I love using resistance bands! They give your muscles such a great workout that is an awesome change from weights.

  8. Jessie on April 22, 2014 at 11:27 am

    Pull-Ups and Dips! Oh goodness they hurt so much, but I love the progress I can see as I get better at them. I keep lowering my resistance, goal for the year is to be able to do a pull-up without assistance, I hope I can!!

  9. Erin @ Girl Gone Veggie on April 22, 2014 at 11:28 am

    I didn’t request this post but I’m so glad someone did. This is perfect for me right now. Thanks!

  10. Morgan on April 22, 2014 at 11:30 am

    Great post! Out of shear curiosity; how many pull ups can you do? I manage about 3 myself, and can maintain a few sets until fatigue sets in. Just looking for a pulse check!

    • Fitnessista on April 22, 2014 at 11:32 am

      i got so much better at them last summer when we had our pull-up bar set up and the pilot and i would challenge each other. now, i can do 7-8 with good form and then i lose it πŸ˜‰

      • Morgan on April 22, 2014 at 11:42 am

        Wow that is great! I need to follow your suggestion and do a few each time I walk by. That should increase the number in no time!

  11. Valerie on April 22, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    Push ups and burpees are my favorite arm exercises.

    Although, carrying a 21 pound toddler doesn’t hurt either. I’ve noticed that my left arm is more defined than my right. I really need to start alternating which arm I holder her in or I’m going to look all lopsided πŸ˜‰

  12. Becky@TheSavedRunner on April 22, 2014 at 12:24 pm

    I love this post! Thank you so much for sharing!!

  13. Sarah on April 22, 2014 at 12:33 pm

    7-8!! that is awesome! i can do that many chin-ups, but not pull-ups. And just so we’re clear, we’re taking strict pull-ups, yes? Not that crossfit kipping nonsense?!?

    • Fitnessista on April 22, 2014 at 5:39 pm

      haha i don’t think i’ve ever done a kipping pull-up? they freak me out

      • Sarah on April 22, 2014 at 6:07 pm

        Let’s have a pullup video! You are so inspirational.

        • Fitnessista on April 22, 2014 at 6:09 pm

          if we can figure out how to attach our bar without damaging the door frames here, i’ll instagram a video πŸ™‚

          • Sarah on April 23, 2014 at 11:16 am

            Awesome, thanks! A playground one or gym would work, too! And house looks awesome.

  14. Lauren @ Focused To Be Fit on April 22, 2014 at 12:36 pm

    I’m doing upper body during my lunch hour today. I love seeing (the little) definition that I’m getting and it keeps pushing me harder. I will have to refer back to this when I’m ready to change things up a bit! I love working on shoulders.

  15. lucie on April 22, 2014 at 12:56 pm

    Love this, thanks for the tips! I am strong in my upper body, but not lean – it’s my most stubborn part to lean out!

  16. Stephanie @ Whole Health Dork on April 22, 2014 at 1:03 pm

    Great post! Love your points and think you’re spot on! Amazing flexing pic, too!

    I have to say that I think push-ups are my all around favorite for all-over toning and overall efficacy. I’ve been unable to do them for the past 4+ months thanks to a terrible tennis elbow flare, but I think I’m finally on the road to recovery and am looking forward to getting back into them. Gotta start with wall ones, though.

  17. Nicole on April 22, 2014 at 1:05 pm

    Yes! I have been looking for a better arm routine. What do you think of routines like this one?:

  18. Kammie @ Sensual Appeal on April 22, 2014 at 1:05 pm

    These are great tips! The tip of increasing sets is a great one people often overlook. You can also either decrease or increase # of reps, so you’re always challenging yourself. I also like that you included chest and back exercises! Sometimes people only think of biceps and triceps when they think of wanting lean arms, and they completely forget about chest and back!

  19. Erin @ The Almond Eater on April 22, 2014 at 1:07 pm

    This is so helpful–thank you! I used to be afraid of push ups because I couldn’t do them but, with time, I’ve gotten pretty decent. Now about those pull ups…

  20. Tracy on April 22, 2014 at 1:18 pm

    Hate to love those push ups but you gotta love em!! I try to work a variation in to any upper body workout. This was a great summary and I love the simplicity of the supersets workout. Thanks!

  21. Jayne on April 22, 2014 at 1:19 pm

    I’ve been really wanting to get a pull up bar for home, but as a renter I’m nervous about damaging the door frame. Any suggestions? Thanks!

    • Fitnessista on April 22, 2014 at 5:37 pm

      i’m not sure about that one :/ we haven’t installed ours here for the same reason

      • Jayne on April 22, 2014 at 6:44 pm

        No problem! I’ll just do a little more research. πŸ™‚

        • Fitnessista on April 22, 2014 at 6:49 pm

          let me know what you find out!

          • Jayne on April 22, 2014 at 6:55 pm

            Will do!

    • julie on April 22, 2014 at 9:08 pm

      I have one and it definitely left marks on any part it touches. I use it often and there are indentations on the door frame where the bar braces itself.

  22. Amber @ Busy, Bold, Blessed on April 22, 2014 at 1:33 pm

    Typed a whole comment and then when I went to publish the website timed out, womp!

    Anyway… I find that my arms only look sculpted when I slim down and debloat. When I was really strict with my diet, everyone was complimenting me on my muscles, saying that CrossFit was really paying off… but it was really just the lack of fat covering my guns. Abs are the same way for me… I have to be strict in the kitchen!

    • Carrie on April 22, 2014 at 2:08 pm

      I feel this way, too. Not necessarily with just arms/abs, but all over. I was wondering if Gina or anyone else has a recommendation for the proportion for fat/proteins/carbs a typical day should consist of? I have heard a lot of varying percentages, but I was wondering what the best combo would be for the average gym-going Jane who wants lean muscle and and runs, lifts heavy weights, does HIIT and circuits, etc. Any insights?

  23. Christina on April 22, 2014 at 1:42 pm

    These tips are great! I definitely want to increase the heaviness of my weights soon – Right now, I’m working with a set of 3lb and 5lb dumbbells. Is there a weight set that you’d recommend? I’d love to see some similar tips on lower body strength as well! Thanks!

    • Fitnessista on April 22, 2014 at 5:36 pm

      how long have you been lifting these? for some exercises (definitely any back, biceps or overhead shoulders) you may be able to try 8s

  24. Megan @ The Skinny-Life on April 22, 2014 at 3:25 pm

    Shoulder presses are my favorite! Actually I really love lifting arms. I feel powerful and sexy when I do it. Actually just yesterday, I work a new dress to work and my co-workers all commented on my buff arms so I posted it on Instagram to show them off! I’m a goof!

  25. jrm on April 22, 2014 at 3:25 pm

    Tennis and swimming have worked wonders for me.

  26. Lizzy @ Fit Lizzio Fitness on April 22, 2014 at 4:04 pm

    Totes Magotes agree with all of your tips!!! Great stuff!!

  27. Lauren @ The Bikini Experiment on April 22, 2014 at 4:06 pm

    Great post! Love the tips!

  28. Melodie on April 22, 2014 at 4:12 pm

    this post caught my eye immediately! my upper body could definitely use some attention. i’ll be trying out this superset tonight!

  29. Abi@AbsofSteel on April 22, 2014 at 5:54 pm

    I agree that pullups, pushups, and dips are the best, I just recently started doing full body weight dips and they are awesome and hard as heck! I’d probably have a bent over row on my top list too.

  30. Polly @ Tasty Food Project on April 22, 2014 at 5:59 pm

    Thanks for these tips! I think it’s perfect timing since it’s spring and sleeveless tops are back in season!

    I like to do triceps dips!

  31. Michelle @ A Healthy Mrs on April 22, 2014 at 6:19 pm

    Great post! Lots of useful tips πŸ™‚

  32. Kady on April 22, 2014 at 6:27 pm

    As a physical therapist who sees a LOT of shoulder issues, can I strongly recommend all ladies do some rotator cuff strengthening? In addition, avoid lifting heavy weights with arms straight out from body (ie. no more than 5# for front raise and lateral raise) and instead focus on endurance for these exercises – the rotator cuff is composed of small muscles that don’t need heavy weights to increase strength. Any heavier and you overwork the delts which compromises the “force couples” required proper shoulder mechanics. Exercises I highly suggest based on the literature are abduction in the plane of the scapula (scaption), shoulder internal and external rotation with a band, prone I’s T’s Y’s, and sidelying shoulder ER. There are videos of all of these on YouTube I am sure.
    Gina- perhaps you could do a “healthy shoulders” post?

  33. Vivi on April 22, 2014 at 6:56 pm

    Ooh this workout is perfect! I definitely need to tone up my shoulders and arms for softball season πŸ™‚ I’d like to make a request for a “How do do a pull-up post”- I have yet to master one. Thanks Gina!

  34. alexandra on April 22, 2014 at 7:36 pm

    You read my mind! Today was arms day at bootcamp and class was full so I went on here to look at past arm burners and bam! Full post about arms. I’l trying out the supersets today πŸ™‚

    • Fitnessista on April 22, 2014 at 7:50 pm

      yay, let me know how it goes! πŸ™‚

  35. Star on April 22, 2014 at 9:23 pm

    This is going to sound really dumb but are there exercises that help tone the inner arm? I have lost 60 lbs & although my bicep & tricep are toned, the inner part of my arm is flabby. I know some of it has to do with the weight loss but it feels soft to the touch. Are there exercises I can incorporate to work that area or any tips to help firm that area?

    • Sunny on April 24, 2014 at 12:15 am

      I’m surprised no one commented to try to help you. sigh.

      I’m not a PT but I will try my best to help. What you are seeing is most likely from the weight loss so I would try to increase your reps and use heavier weights as mentioned above. Possibly even try new exercises that work the tricep area. You should also look into a firming cream that may help with the appearance. I have heard good things about palmer’s firming cocoa butter.

      BTW, I have found that you will get more help and guidance on a weight loss blog or somewhere like sparkpeople, fitday, etc. Just my 2 cents.

      • Fitnessista on April 24, 2014 at 12:40 am

        thanks for responding, sunny! i’m usually pretty good about answering questions, but sometimes some will slip through the cracks.
        star, congratulations on your weight loss success! you are AMAZING. all of the tips in the post should help with what you’re experiencing. time is really what’s going to help the most (even though everyone, include myself, hates to hear that).
        i also recommend coconut oil. it helps to firm the skin in a unique way.
        stick with it and congratulations again to you <3

  36. Karissa on April 22, 2014 at 9:57 pm

    First of all, GUUUUURRRL those arms are fine! πŸ˜‰ But seriously, nice!
    I love your tips and tricks on this stuff. I started doing more strength training and even started CF about 4 months ago because I realized that my upper body strength was, well…. non-existent. Your arm burner from last year is also another one of my faves. πŸ˜€
    Thank you for the tips/encouragement! I think strength training is something that women often shy away from (*guilty*) and it’s SO beneficial. Still working on the pull-up (strict pull-ups, not a kip fan) … I hadn’t done the chair, just bands, thanks for the idea! πŸ™‚

  37. char eats greens on April 22, 2014 at 9:59 pm

    I admit, my arms were a lot nicer before my baby started walking haha. I need to get back into an arm routine; especially the push-ups and dips! I did a late night gym sesh with the hubby last night and we did pull-ups & wall balls, so those were a nice addition to my sad arm routine as of lately haha. Great tips πŸ™‚

  38. kristina on April 22, 2014 at 10:00 pm

    Hey! So I recently stumbled on this article and was pondering its message of the negatives of smoothie consumptions… i think its a solid article..and i buy this brand of protein regularly as its popular in the crossfit community. what are your thoughts?

  39. Laura B @ FitMamaLove on April 23, 2014 at 1:03 am

    Great tips, thanks! I’ve been working on using heavier weights lately and am at least noticing a difference in my level of soreness!

  40. kim @ on April 23, 2014 at 10:27 am


    I just wanted to thank you for the disclaimers you put out when talking about information that may be sensitive for those who have struggled/are struggling with eating disorders/body image issues! It means a lot and is such a caring act. Kudos to you and all that you do.

    • Fitnessista on April 23, 2014 at 11:02 am


      • Alexandria on April 24, 2014 at 11:19 am

        agreed! this is great to see and so very kind.

  41. Katherine on April 24, 2014 at 8:34 am

    Holy Arm Shredder, Batman! I did this last night and am feelin’ it this morning – awesome! Can’t do a pull-up yet but its on the goal list. πŸ™‚

    • Fitnessista on April 24, 2014 at 11:15 am

      BOOM. great job!

  42. Alicia on April 24, 2014 at 12:56 pm

    I finally got the chance to do this workout this morning. I’ve been lifting for awhile, but this post gave me the confidence to finally increase the weight I lift. Thank you <3 I know I'll be feeling it tomorrow πŸ™‚

  43. Katie on April 28, 2014 at 1:45 pm

    Just finished this workout a few hours ago!!! Upper body is already tired & sore πŸ™‚ Just what I secretly love! Hopefully this will get me some “Wedding dress arms” by september!

    • Fitnessista on April 28, 2014 at 6:21 pm

      boom. awesome job!

  44. Lauren on May 2, 2014 at 2:41 pm

    Is there an exercise (doable at home) that we could sub for the pull-ups? I just don’t see that happening for me…

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