The Right to Bare Arms

Michelle Obama’s unconcealed ‘guns’ inspire women to tone up their biceps and triceps.


Body & Soul
1. Michelle Obama sets the tone for sleeveless style. 2. A simple set of dumbbells is a smart way to keep arms firm and fit. Vary your routine and use a combination of elbow-flexion and -extension exercises. 3. Resistance bands are “the ultimate in workout convenience,” notes personal trainer and fitness expert Brad Schoenfeld.

Just as pillbox hats helped to define Jacqueline Kennedy as a fashion icon during her husband’s presidency, sleeveless sheaths have established the current first lady as a serious trendsetter.

It’s a look that begs to be imitated, especially during the summer months. But women need more than sleeveless dresses to mirror Michelle Obama. Her sheaths may be chic, but the sleeveless style would be a complete flop (literally) if her “guns” weren’t so beautifully toned.   

So how can women get a similar sculpted effect? Personal trainer Brian Schwab runs Orlando Barbell in Oviedo. He says that working out arms with a variety of equipment, such as free weights, weight and resistance machines, and cable exercisers, is ideal. “This way, the muscles will be exposed to different kinds of resistance.”

But not everyone has a gym membership or fancy equipment at home. Not a problem, says Schwab: Toned arms can be achieved with only a set of dumbbells, or even milk jugs filled with water or tote bags loaded with books. Or resistance bands, now so mainstream they can be found at big box stores, are “the ultimate in workout convenience,” notes personal trainer and fitness expert Brad Schoenfeld, author of Sculpting Her Body Perfect. “They are very inexpensive and can be toted around in a purse for a great workout anywhere.”

In a pinch, you can work your arm muscles with no equipment at all by doing such floor exercises as pushups or triceps dips, which both use your body weight as resistance. While at your desk job you can sneak in a set of triceps dips without getting your hands dirty: While standing, face away from your desk and lean back at a slight angle with your knees bent, arms straight and your hands grasping the edge of the desk. Carefully lower your body as far as you can, bending your arms at the elbow, then straighten your arms as you push your body back up.

Whether you work out using state-of-the-art machines or only the floor as your equipment, the key to a successful arm routine is to do a variety of exercises, using enough weight or resistance to achieve fatigue after eight to 12 repetitions. The arm-shaking fatigue that sets in lets you know that you’ve achieved hypertrophy, a state in which microscopic tears occur in the muscle. Hypertrophy causes the muscle to rebuild and become firmer, stronger and more defined over time. Schwab recommends doing three sets of eight to 12 repetitions for each exercise three times a week.

The most effective exercise routines for arm sculpting include a combination of elbow-flexion movements and elbow-extension exercises, including biceps curls and overhead triceps presses, respectively. With the former exercise, resistance is felt as the elbow bends to lift the weight; with the latter the greatest resistance occurs as the arm is straightened to complete the motion of lifting the weight. Try different combinations during workouts, advises Schoenfeld. “The more you vary your routine, the more you challenge the muscles in ways they haven’t been previously challenged. This fosters optimal development,” he says.

If you’re dedicated and disciplined in your arm-sculpting routine, you could start to see results in four to six weeks, says Schwab. By then there’s still plenty of warm weather left for women to go sleeveless. And when you’re packing a pair of powerful– yet feminine–“guns,” why would you want to conceal them?

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