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10 Tips for Strong, Defined Arms and Shoulders

lean female flexingHave you ever seen someone with super toned arms or shoulders and wondered how they achieved it? I am occasionally asked this question and although it takes hard work, anyone can have enviable arms if they’re committed.

Not only will toned arms and shoulders give you that sexy, athletic look, but you won’t have to ask someone else to get your suitcase down from the overhead compartment on an airplane. And when you strengthen your back and chest as well, you can reduce or eliminate common aches and pains in your shoulders and back.

Are you ready to see what it takes? Then take a look at these tips and adjust them as needed according to your own body type and history.

1. Perfect Your Diet

When you’re trying to build muscle, you need 250 to 500 more calories per day, depending on how many calories you typically burn [1]. Paradoxically, the only way you’ll see definition in your arms is by losing any fat that is hiding muscles.

There are many approaches and theories about how to get lean while building muscle. But no matter how you approach it, you need to eat more when you’re trying to build muscle. Find a balance for what works for you and cut back on calories if you notice you’re gaining fat. And always focus on healthy, natural foods.

Experts also agree that to build muscle, you need more protein than the daily RDA of 0.36g/lb body weight. Some suggest an average of 0.7 gram/lb body weight, depending on your training regimen [2].

2. Give Your Arms Special Attention

You don’t have to spend hours doing bicep curls but you do need to spend more time on your arms and shoulders. If you’re a beginner, a full-body strength training workout two to three times per week is sufficient to start.

As you advance, you’ll see better results with a split routine twice a week (for example, upper body and lower body twice a week or chest/shoulders/triceps and back/biceps/lower body twice a week).

3. Do The Right Number of Exercises

For smaller muscle groups like the triceps and biceps, do two to three exercises. For shoulders you can do three or four.

4. Do the Right Exercises

To avoid muscle imbalances, hit all three heads of the triceps and deltoids. For example, for triceps, do conventional pushdowns (lateral head), reverse grip pushdowns (medial head), and overhead extensions (long head).

For shoulders, do lateral raises (lateral head), bent-over lateral raises (rear head), and overhead presses (front head). For biceps, do dumbbells curls with different variations.

5. Vary Your Workout Every Time

The best arm and shoulder development is the result of changing things up to confuse your muscles into working harder. Make a small change each time you train and a bigger change every four to six weeks.

For example, change the amount of weight; hand grip; body angle; number of repetitions; order of exercises; rest between sets; type of exercise or equipment; or tempo.

6. Track Your Workouts

If you’re changing your workouts slightly each time, it makes sense that you’ll need to keep track of what you did last time. Carry a spiral notebook or use a smart phone to record what you did.

7. Create a Killer Burn

At the end of the last set, drop the weight 20 to 30 percent and continue until failure. This technique, called drop sets, will truly give your muscles the extra burn needed to grow (but don’t use this technique for every workout or you can overtrain).

There are many other ways to shock your muscles if you’ve been lifting awhile, such as pyramids (increasing or decreasing the weight each set) and supersets (doing a set of two different exercises without rest).

8. Perform the Correct Number of Reps

The rep range that provides the best muscle growth is 8 to 12. More reps than this increases endurance and fewer reps increases strength.

9. Lift Heavy

If you aren’t fatigued by the last rep, you need to increase the resistance. Whenever you can easily do more than 10 reps, safely push yourself to increase the weight next time. Don’t worry about getting bulky; it’s challenging for most people to put on muscle.

10. Strengthen Your Forearms

I can’t stress enough how important it is to have strong forearms; otherwise, you risk hurting your elbows and wrists and your grip will not be strong enough to hold heavy weights. Perform wrist curls and static holds and use grip tools such as squeeze balls.

  • Sandra

    So if you are trying to lose weight but build & tone your arm muscles at the same time, should you still increase the calories and/or protein? Or is it better to wait until you are closer to your goal weight before trying to build & tone those muscles??


    • Suzanne Digre

      You absolutely should tone while losing weight because muscle burns calories. When trying to lose weight, many women do not actually get enough calories. Going below your resting metabolic rate results in muscle loss and a slowed metabolism. Determine your daily caloric intake for the amount of weight per week you want to lose (e.g. minus 500 for 1 lb per week). If you stick to that, exercise, and get the protein I recommend above, you will be toning and losing weight :).

      • Iva

        So is that our tdee -500 calories?

  • Mary C. Weaver, CSCS

    Excellent advice from a woman who has killer arms!

    I also like to make room for some dips and pullups (most ladies will benefit greatly from the assisted dip and pullup machine) as mass builders.

    • Joanna

      I love pull ups/chin ups. My back and arms have gotten better results since I started incorporating those in my routine.

  • Rose Stevens

    will try a lot of this advice this week. Never thought about dropping the weight and continuing to failure.

  • Bev M

    How about some actual examples of exercises!!

  • Suzanne Digre

    Sure, check under #4 “Do the Right Exercises.” Other examples are dips, diamond pushups, pull ups and chin ups, concentration curls, and skull crushers.

  • Pamela Hernandez

    Love that you put nutrition first. You can build beautiful muscle and never see it because of a poor diet.

  • Jee

    Awesome, thanks for the tips suzanne. Your arms look awesome. :)

    • Suzanne

      Thanks! It’s great fun :)

  • Lisa

    Great tips! I needed these reminders. I was just thinking about it today at the gym. I definitely think I have fat hiding some muscle. Boo.

  • Joanna

    Why would you only do 2 or 3 exercises for a tricep or bicep workout? Doesn’t seem enough to me. Thanks!

    • Suzanne

      Two or three exercises (6-9 sets) is sufficient to fatigue smaller muscles. They also get trained with chest and back.

  • Shira

    Great tips and your own arms are great evidence that this approach works! My poor rotator cuff is strained and i’ve had to lay off the upper body exercises for the past few weeks and miss them sorely. :)

  • Annie

    Would love to see examples of the exercises listed in #4. I have no idea what a conventional push down is, for example. Help!

    • Suzanne

      Sure. Conventional triceps pushdowns use the palms facing down grip. You can use a cable machine with a rope, straight or bent bar, or D handle. Hold the bar (or rope) palms down at chest height and push down until arms are straight. Repeat for reps. Check for other exercises.

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  • jamie

    great advice, i found this through facebook, been at the gym for over 3 years now and loving it! im having trouble putting muscle onto my arms and will use this advice in the gym next time, getting stuck in the same bicep curl workout routine which is why my ganes have slowed i know. looks like im the only guy on here haha. suzanne you have great arms all that hard work has definatly paid off!!

    • Suzanne

      Love it! Let me know when you start seeing results – which you will :).

  • stella

    what advise do you have for a older woman ( 54 yrs ) wants to loose 10 lbs and get arms like yours…are there SIMPLE instructions , and where would I find them. Thanks

    • Suzanne @WorkoutNirvana

      The simple answer is that you should FIRST focus on losing the weight with lots of cardio, reduced calories, and weights 1-2x week. After the weight comes off you can increase your strength training days to three. You must continue the cardio to maintain your weight loss. But one step at at time – lose the weight then focus on building strong arms.

  • Vix- Miss Fitness Life

    Great article Suzanne.

    I love that you have put nutrition first becasue no workout can counteract not getting your nutrtion right.

    Low rep, heavy weights are important too- and girls you wont bulk up when your food is right, you will get nice defition and tone…and if you food isn’t right you are going to bulk up anyway…

  • sandra jackson

    I read the kind of excercises to tone arms but have no idea how to do them

  • barbara

    iI swim 3 times a week ive only started a few weeks ago . I swim none stop for 1 hour breast stroke . I want my whole body toned but mostly my arms back and tummy with also healthy diet. How long before I see my body toned im 52 . Many thanks Barbara

  • Coach Calorie

    That depends on where you’re starting from. Expect to lose .5-1% body fat per week.

  • Coach Calorie

    Continue to lose body fat. It will tighten up more than you think. Other than that, there’s either surgery or self acceptance.