The Truth About Training For Toned Arms

2020-07-07T14:48:17-05:00By |

Here’s What You Need To Know…

1. In today’s fitness industry, women are mislead into thinking that they must protect their bodies against meaningful strength training to avoid getting too bulky and masculine. But when it comes to achieving “toned arms” fluffy sets of 100 curls with the pink dumbbells just won’t do it no matter what the latest female fitness magazine says.

2. The obsession over toned arms, toned muscles and a tight and toned body has gotten out of hand, especially for women looking to get fit and stay healthy. Simply put, “toning” is achieved by building more muscle and losing body fat. Is your program of endless cardio, yoga and pilates doing that for you?

3. Toning is for printers! If you want to develop defined or toned arms and muscles, this is best accomplished by performing resistance training exercises with a weight that will actually stimulate your muscles and give you a training effect, period.

4. There is no such thing as a “girl version” of an exercise. This sexist and insulting term continues to perpetuate the notion that women are inherently weak and prevents so many women from from becoming as fit and strong as they could be.

5. If you really want toned arms, here’s the program that will get you there. It involves goal oriented strength training and will not only help you achieve toned arms, but will get you strong and lean in the process.


There is a huge double standard that exists in the fitness industry and society in general. If a man wants to ”bulk up,” it’s seen as a good thing and is symbolic of his strength, athletic prowess and masculinity. Conversely, women are told to do everything in their power to avoid getting bulky.

As I discussed in my popular article The Dangers Of The Female Fitness Industry, when it comes to marketing and selling fitness to women, the words “diet”, “shrink”, “lose”, “tone”, “sculpt”, “smaller,’’ “thin,’’ “skinny,’’ “tighter,’’ “calories”, “detox” grace the covers of women’s fitness magazines, and circulate on social media like wildfire. You will very rarely see the words “strong,’’ ‘’powerful,’’ “athletic,’’ “muscular,’’ “build,’’ “mass,’’ and so forth.

I hate to break it to you, but women are not feeble and delicate flowers, nor do most want to be. Females have endless potential for strength, power, and athleticism. If women were taught to embrace these fine qualities and not be fearful of them, many would work out in a way that would actually lead them to their aesthetic goals, including achieving well defined, athletic, and of course, toned arms.

And newsflash, the word ‘’toned’’ essentially means more muscle and less body fat. This is accomplished by strength training. While I do not like the word ‘’tone’’ and do not use it myself, I have decided to include it in this article, only because it is a word that many women can relate to and understand.

The Mislead Female Obsession with Toned Arms

toned arms

It is no secret that a huge percentage of the female population, including women of all ages and backgrounds, want svelte, athletic, and dare I say, toned arms? As a result of the criminally sexist, misleading, and condescending messages that women are constantly bombarded with, the vast majority avoid strength training as they believe it will cause them to morph into The Hulk, or the unnatural, aka steroid injecting, muscle-bound women who grace the covers of certain fitness magazines.

Instead, many women opt for doing endless amounts of cardio, or yoga and Pilates as they have been mislead into believing that this type of exercise will help them achieve ‘’long, lean and toned’’ muscles. FALSE!! And the women who are bold enough to strength train typically stick to performing hundreds of reps of ineffective ‘’toning’’ exercises using little to no resistance, as most of the exercises that are shown in female fitness magazines generally involve weights that can fit into a handbag.

After all, celebrity trainer Tracey Anderson, the go-to source for many unknowing women, says that ‘’women should never lift more than three pounds or they will get bulky.’’ I hate to break it to Tracey and the other misleading, fear mongering ‘’experts’’ out there, but if you want arms that are lean, toned, sculpted, well defined, muscular, or whatever labelling word your heart desires, you need to familiarize yourself with strength training, and strength training that involves lifting bigger weights that ones that can fit into a purse!

RELATED ARTICLE: “5 Female Fitness Myths Debunked By Science”

Now that I have outlined some of the extreme mental and physical hurdles that women are subjected to on a daily basis, I will discuss some common myths that are preventing countless women from achieving their goal of toned arms. Then I will provide a huge assortment of upper body exercises that will help you take your arm training to a whole other level. Lets start with a few common myths about toned arms, shall we.

Common Myths About Training For Toned Arms

toned arms

Here are some very common myths when it comes to women and strength training that are preventing many from achieving their goal arms:

#1 Women Should Avoid Strength Training & Should Just Stick To Cardio

Contrary to what you might have read in fitness magazines, seen on social media, or heard from the random lady at the gym who spends hours on end on the step-mill, if you are serious about developing toned arms that are sculpted and strong, you need to strength train. This can be accomplished by using barbells, dumbbells, bands, machines, medicine balls, and by performing body-weight exercises.

#2 Women Will Achieve Long, Lean Muscles Doing Yoga & Pilates Only

The terms long and lean are used to market products and services to unassuming women who are fearful of becoming ‘’bulky,’’ and who don’t realize that muscle length cannot be altered through stretching or light ‘’toning’’ exercises.

Bret Contreras just wrote a wonderfully insightful article that talks about muscle length. According to Contreras, while muscles cannot dramatically change in length, the best way to actually alter muscle length is to engage in resistance training that involves eccentric contractions, movements that take the joint through the full range of motion, and explosive training.

Leanness, which essentially means less body fat, is primarily achieved through nutrition. Quite often, excess body fat covers the muscles and prevents many people from achieving the lean and sculpted look they are seeking.

#3 Women Should Lift Light Weights For High Reps To Avoid Becoming Bulky

As I like to say, toning is for printers! The so-called ‘’tone’’ that many women want is a combination of muscle and decreased levels of body fat. Unless your goal is to look extremely thin (and that’s fine if it’s YOUR goal), if you want to develop defined or toned muscles, this is best accomplished by performing resistance training exercises with a weight that will actually stimulate your muscles.

Generally, I like to use an 8-12 rep range and will usually do 3-5 working sets, but you can drop your reps to 6 or fewer, or increase them to 15. The key point is that the weight you select should be heavy enough that you are close to failure on your final rep, and it should feel challenging. If you finish your set and feel like you could have performed several additional reps, the weight is too light.

The last time I checked, lifting kids, carrying grocery bags, picking up a very heavy margarita glass, moving furniture, or performing many other day to day tasks involve lifting far more than three pounds. Your workouts aren’t just to improve your aesthetics or sports specific performance. They are to help you win at every day life! But challenging yourself will lead you to your aesthetic goals, including incredible toned arms. Ha, there I go again using the word “tone” but you know what I’m saying!

#4 Women Should Perform ‘’Girl’’ Versions Of An Exercise

Unless you are living in the middle ages or in a cave, there is no such thing as a ”male” or ”female” exercise. It is either a regular version of an exercise, or a modified version, end of story. This sexist and insulting term continues to perpetuate the notion that women are weak and physically inferior, and prevents so many of them from becoming as fit and strong as they could be, and robs them of the feelings of empowerment that they so deserve.

RELATED ARTICLE: “Dispelling The Dysfunctional Kneeling Push Up”

Women are incredibly physically capable and have endless potential. Anything that discounts this notion, or feeds into some of the sexist mentalities that unfortunately still exist, need to be eliminated once and for all. How something is worded can play a huge role in a person’s mindset, so choose your words wisely.

This concept applies to female arm training and strength training in general. Women should not be scared to perform the regular variation of an exercise if they are physically capable, nor should they be ashamed to perform the modified version until they develop the requisite levels of strength, stability, and mobility to perform the regular variation.

#5 Women Should Avoid Compound Exercises & Should Stick To Isolation

Many women make the mistake of avoiding compound exercises because they think it will make them bulky. This could not be further from the truth. While I do use some isolation exercises to strengthen and develop my toned arms (this is getting out of hand!), the majority of the exercises I include in my program, and use with clients, are compound in nature as they give you a much bigger bang for your buck.

Compound exercises will help you improve your overall strength and athleticism, and will help you lose body fat, all of which will help you achieve a toned look. With my programming, I will end my workouts with some isolation exercise supersets or drop-sets, or I will occasionally follow up a compound exercise with an isolation exercise and will design my superset this way. I hate to break it to you, but doing endless amounts of bicep curls and tricep press-downs will not help you achieve your goal of toned arms, nor will it improve your overall fitness and athleticism.

Reviewing The Musculature of The Arms

toned arms

While the biceps and triceps are often thought as mirror muscles that are only important for bodybuilders, they are actually very instrumental in enhancing your performance in the gym, in sports, and even in your daily activities. The anterior upper arm is composed of a two-headed muscle (short and long head), otherwise known as the biceps, and the posterior upper arm is composed of a triple headed muscle, otherwise known as the triceps. Lets look at these in a little more depth:

The Biceps

The short head of the biceps originates at the coracoid process of the scapula, and the long head originates at the supraglenoid tubercle. Both insert into the radial tuberosity and bicipital aponeurosis into the deep fascia of the medial part of the forearm. The biceps, the agonist of the triceps, are the primary flexors of the forearm, and also serve to flex the elbow, flex and abduct the shoulder, and supinate the radioulnar joint in the forearm.

The Triceps

The long head of the triceps originates at the infraglenoid tubercle of the scapula. The lateral head originates above the radial sulcus, and the medial head originates below the radial sulcus. All three heads insert into the olcecranon process of the ulna. The triceps, the agonist of the biceps, is responsible for extending the elbow and forearm, extending and adducting the arm, and extending the shoulder.

Programming For Toned Arms

As I stated above, the bulk of my arm training consists of bang for your buck compound exercises, and I will complement them with 1-2 isolation exercises. Here are some of my favourite exercises that will add strength and definition to your biceps and triceps, or as the mainstream media likes to say, these will give you “toned arms” !! I have added in standard exercises along with modified versions to fit every strength and skill level, so check them out.

Biceps Emphasis Exercises

Negative Chin-Ups

Coaching Notes: Set up your grip so your hands are approximately shoulder width apart, and facing you (supinated). Before you initiate the pull, take a deep breath in (360° of air around your spine), brace your core, gently tuck your ribs towards the pelvis so your body is in a slight hollow body position, and squeeze your glutes. Pack your shoulders, and initiate the pull-up by depressing and retracting your shoulder blades. Keep your elbows at approximately a 45• position (similar to an overhead press) and do not allow them to flare. Take 3-5 seconds to yourself down until your arms are fully extended, and make sure that your shoulders remain packed. Your body should travel in a vertical path as this will increase your efficiency and will decrease your path to the bar.

Exercise Prescription: Do 3 sets of 5-12 reps and perform these 1-2 days per week.

If you want to add volume to your sets, you can use band assistance. However, doing so will not improve your overall ability to perform chin-ups as the assistance is provided at the wrong time, but it will allow you to get in some extra volume and this will help you develop your arms and upper body.

Inverted Chin-Ups (on barbell, TRX, Smith machine, rings)

Coaching Notes: Similar to regular chin-ups but position yourself so your hands are on a fixed barbell, rings, TRX, or Smith machine, and with your feet on the floor. As you become more proficient, you can progress by lowering the bar so you are pulling more of your body weight, and if you are on the TRX/rings, you can move your feet forward so your body is more parallel to the ground. Eventually, you can prop your feet up on a bench so you’re performing decline modified chin-ups. This will help you make the transition to regular chin-ups as you are using similar muscle groups, are performing similar movements, and have to maintain proper alignment.

Exercise Prescription: Do 3 sets of 8-12 reps and perform these 1-2 days per week.

Narrow Grip Chin-Ups

Coaching Notes: Set yourself up as you would a regular chin-up, but position your hands so they are completely together. If this bothers your wrists, place your hands slightly farther apart but still narrower than you would with a regular chin-up.

Exercise Prescription: Do 3 sets of 8-12+ reps and perform these 1-2 days per week.

Narrow Grip Inverted Chin-Ups

Coaching Notes: Same instructions as with inverted chin-ups but place your hands so they are completely together. If this bothers your wrists, place your hands slightly farther apart but still narrower than you would with a regular chin-up.

Exercise Prescription: Do 3 sets of 8-12 reps and perform these 1-2 days per week.

Legless Rope Climbs

Coaching Notes: Make sure that you keep your core and glutes engaged the entire time as a rigid body will be much easier to pull. You can do these using two ropes as well.

Exercise Prescription: Pick one of the variations, and do 3-5 sets of 1 rep and perform these 1-2 days per week.

Inverted Rope Climbs

Coaching Notes: Start with your entire back in contact with the floor. Make sure that you keep your core and glutes engaged the entire time as a rigid body will be much easier to pull. You can do these using two ropes as well, and with your feet on a bench.

Exercise Prescription: Pick one of the variations, and do 3-5 sets of 1 rep and perform these 1-2 days per week.

Double Hanging Kettlebell + Dowel Biceps Curls

Coaching Notes: This exercise will torch your biceps and will really work your core muscles. Fasten bands to 2 kettlebells, and hang them from either end of a dowel, and perform biceps curls. Make sure that you keep your upper arms still, retract and depress your scapulae, and keep your torso completely still. Brace your core and engage your glutes the entire time, and do not use momentum, aka cheating, to curl the weight. Make sure to fully extend your elbows as half reps don’t count!

Exercise Prescription: Do 3 sets of 8-15 reps and perform these 1-2 days per week.

Triceps Emphasis Exercises

Triceps Push-Ups

Coaching Notes: This type of push-up targets the triceps. With this variation of push-up, the arms are kept much closer to the body than a during traditional push-up.

Exercise Prescription: Do 3 sets of 8-15 reps and perform these 1-2 days per week. If this becomes too easy, you can make the exercise more challenging by elevating your feet on a box/bench, or placing a weight plate on your mid-back, using a band, or a combination. Conversely, you can modify the exercise by elevating your hands on a bench or barbell that is set up in a rack.

Diamond Push-Ups

Coaching Notes: This is a more advanced form of push-up that targets the triceps. Place your thumbs and second fingers together to form a triangular base, and perform your push-ups.

Exercise Prescription: Do 3 sets of 8-15 reps and perform these 1-2 days per week. If this becomes too easy, you can make the exercise more challenging by elevating your feet on a box/bench, or placing a weight plate on your mid-back. Conversely, you can modify the exercise by elevating your hands on a bench or barbell that is set up in a rack.

Body Extensions

Coaching Notes: This advanced triceps exercise also demands a lot of core stability. You can either use a barbell that is in a fixed position, or the Smith Machine. Place your hands so they are shoulder width apart, and set your body in a plank position so it is in a straight line from your head to heels. Before you go, squeeze your glutes, brace your core, and bend your elbows so your body travels forward and your forearms are in a vertical and parallel position. Return to the starting position, reset and repeat.

Exercise Prescription: Do 3 sets of 8-15 reps and perform these 1-2 days per week. To make the exercise more challenging, lower the height of the bar.

Split Stance Landmine Press

Coaching Notes: Set yourself up so you are in a split stance position. Hold on to a barbell on the opposite side of your leading leg. Take a deep breath in, brace your core, press the barbell horizontally, return to the starting position, and repeat. Make sure that your elbow does not flare out, and that it and your hand remain in line with your shoulder the entire time. Do not allow your rib cage to flare, make sure that your scapulae are retracted and depressed, and keep your shoulders pinned.

Exercise Prescription: Do 3 sets of 8-15 reps/arm and perform these 1-2 days per week.

Triceps Landmine Press

Coaching Notes: Set yourself up so your feet are roughly hip to shoulder width apart, and adopt an athletic stance. Hold on to a barbell with both hands. Take a deep breath in, brace your core, press the barbell horizontally, return to the starting position, and repeat. Make sure that your elbows stay tight to your body. Do not allow your rib cage to flare, make sure that your scapulae are retracted and depressed, and keep your shoulders pinned.

Exercise Prescription: Do 3 sets of 8-15 reps and perform these 1-2 days per week.

Double Barbell Floor Press

Coaching Notes: This exercise targets the entire body, including the triceps. Set yourself up so you are lying between two barbells. Using bigger bumper plates work best, but if you don’t have access to them, smaller metal weights will work. Grab on to the top of the barbells. Take a deep breath in, brace your core, and press one barbell vertically. As this barbell is returning to the floor, press the barbell on the opposite side. Do not allow your rib cage to flare, make sure that your scapulae are retracted and depressed, and keep your shoulders pinned. This exercise also targets the core because in order to prevent your body from rotating, you really need to engage the anterior core on the opposite side from where you are pressing the barbell.

Exercise Prescription: Do 3 sets of 8-15 reps/arm and perform these 1-2 days per week.

Half Kneeling Kettlebell Triceps Extensions

Coaching Notes: Fasten a resistance band around a pole, and to a kettlebell. Get into a half kneeling position and grab on to the kettlebell. Make sure that your upper arms remain in a relatively fixed position, and that your elbows remain in. Now perform a tricep extension. Keep tension in the band the entire time. This exercise also doubles as a great core anti-extension exercise as the muscles need to work big time to prevent the rib cage from flaring. As you become proficient at doing this exercise, you can at the intensity by using a thicker band and heavier kettlebell.

Exercise Prescription: Do 3 sets of 8-15 reps/arm and perform these 1-2 days per week.

Supine Band + Kettlebell Triceps Extensions

Coaching Notes: Fasten a resistance band around a pole, and to a kettlebell. Lie down on your back, bend your knees, and grab on to the kettlebell. Make sure that your upper arms remain in a relatively fixed position, and that your elbows remain in. Now perform a tricep extension. Keep tension in the band the entire time. This exercise also doubles as a great core anti-extension exercise as the core muscles need to work big time to prevent the rib cage from flaring. As you become proficient at doing this exercise, you can at the intensity by using a thicker band and heavier kettlebell.

Exercise Prescription: Do 3 sets of 8-15 reps/arm and perform these 1-2 days per week.

No More Excuses For Fluffy “Strength” Training For Toned Arms!

I have made it painfully clear that women are incredibly strong, and capable of performing many strength related feats, including challenging and effective strength exercises that will help them achieve the sculpted, athletic, strong toned arms that they are seeking.

Do not sell yourself short, and do not fall prey to the many fear mongering myths and misinformation that is out there. Performing effective and challenging strength training will not make you bulky. It will help you develop athletic and toned arms, will improve your overall fitness level, and will help you feel incredibly empowered. Use the tools I have highlighted and I guarantee that you’ll have those “toned arms” that you’ve always dreamed of. Ok, last time I’m going to use the term “toned” for a while!


About The Author

meghan callaway

Meghan Callaway is a prominent personal trainer in Western Canada with over 12 years of training experience coaching in the trenches. Meghan currently works with an impressively wide array of clients, ranging from the elite athlete to post-physical therapy rehabilitation and strength training and many average fitness client looking to feel and function better everywhere between.  She teaches and coaches every one of her clients with the goal of helping them perform, feel and look their very best by laying down a properly aligned foundation for every client.

Learn more about Meghan on her:  Website        Facebook       Instagram       Twitter      YouTube

One Comment

  1. Carla June 28, 2016 at 8:30 am - Reply

    There is a lot of truth to this article, however, I would not tend to agree that Pilates cannot be part of an exercise program that results in toned arms and actually most of the exercises that you demonstrate do not require dumbbells of any color….the same muscles can be equally challenged with either a pilates reformer, pilates chair or a TRX. These also maximize eccentric contraction which I might a tad bit biased about especaily as I get older. I find that a successful work out routine depends on the individual you are training, their goals, body type and injuries. Printers use toner not toning.

Leave A Comment

Go to Top