Does a trip to the gym send you on a beeline to the hip and thigh machines? Since Mother Nature tends to send any extra weight on most of us on a downward spiral, you’re not alone. The mantra, “Do these jeans make my rear look big?” is spoken in several languages around the globe and around the clock. While our male counterparts are on a quest for big biceps, we are on the warpath for all things trim, along with a lean gluteus maximus.
But be warned that if you concentrate your fitness efforts below your belly button, you may be in for a big disappointment after the age of 30. When the spring thaw hits and you replace your sweaters with trendy sleeveless tops and dresses, one look in the mirror may prompt you to notice that your sleek arms of your 20s have… changed.
Atrophy: The “A” word
If you don’t regularly exercise your upper body, you are likely to notice a negative difference in your muscle tone in that area after the age of 30. “Generally, after about the age of 30 to 35, you start to lose muscle tissue,” says Brad Schoenfield, CSCS, CPT, author of Look Great Sleeveless: The Ultimate Workout Guide to Awesome Arms, Sultry Shoulders and a Beautiful Bust (ISBN-13: 978-0735203044). “This is called atrophy, which means the muscle becomes smaller [due to lack of use].” Some studies have shown that in general, women lose from one half to one percent of their muscle tissue per year past the age of 35. Atrophy, therefore, causes the skin to lose its tautness. “Muscle takes up space in the arm, and when that space is diminished, there is nothing to take up the space,” says Schoenfield. Muscle provides a toned look to the body because it stretches out the skin — in a good way.
It is never too late to reverse the effects of atrophy, though — which is good news for women in their 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond. However, being sedentary for a long time will result in excess damage, which will take longer to correct. Schoenfeld says that the majority of women in their 30s have experienced very little damage in muscle tissue and it can be reversed fairly quickly.
If you are in your teens or 20s, training your upper body now may lessen the affects of arm droopage in your 30s. Starting an upper body workout early can offset the loss of muscle tissue in a healthy woman. In other words, you are never too young or can look too good to initiate an upper body fitness program.
Lean and sculpted vs big and bulky
Many of us strive for a firm, sculptured upper body and don’t want to bulk up too much. But don’t worry — even if you train intensely, and with heavy weights, it’s still not likely you’ll build biceps bigger than any guy in the gym. “The vast majority of women, about 95 percent, do not have the ability to do this,” says Schoenfeld. “Women have one-tenth to one-fiftieth of the testosterone that a man has. Testosterone is the primary anabolic hormone that is the muscle-building stimulus for the body.”
In general, the upper body strength of women is about 50 percent than that of most men. This has a profound impact over time, because we also start out with only half the upper body muscle as a man does. Then, as we age and start to lose muscle mass, this affects our functional capabilities such as the ability to pick up children or grandchildren. “To neglect the upper body is a really big mistake,” Shoenfeld says.
All muscle groups should be worked from different angles to tie in a maximal amount of muscle fibers. “Muscles have generally different attachments and different heads. For instance, the triceps have three specific different heads,” Schoenfeld says. “To maximize development, utilize different movements from different angles to target each muscle based on its attachments. A complete workout will result in a symmetrical body.”
Barb Abromitis from Wheaton, Illinois, has been running regularly for over 20 years, and recently added weight training to her program. “Running is best for my mental health, and it is the only thing that keeps the weight off my hips and thighs,” she says. When she started weight training, she burned calories more efficiently and built good muscle definition in her upper body. “My shoulders, arms and back muscles are more toned, and that wouldn’t happen at all with running.”
Special concerns for moms
If you have breastfed an infant or are currently doing so, you may notice some changes in your chest and upper body. “Childbearing and lactation produces changes in the breast,” says Martha Roseen, RN, BSN, IBCLC, a lactation consultant at Rush Presbyterian St Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago. “For most women, the greatest growth of the breast tissue occurs during the pregnancy.” Sagging, which many women worry about, is primarily due to the effect of gravity, the weight of the breasts, and the aging of the Cooper’s ligaments, a net-like web of tissue that supports the breast. And, Roseen adds, “Breasts are always changing in response to the hormonal milieu and other influences.”
If you are currently nursing, you can work now to improve the muscle tone of your upper body. Roseen says that moderate exercise is very compatible with breastfeeding — and stresses the importance of wearing a good support bra for comfort. She also recommends nursing your baby or pumping milk just before exercising. “It can be difficult to find the time and energy to exercise in the early months with a new baby, but it is beneficial,” says Roseen. Lucky for you, you have a 10- to 20-pound little person in your arms much of the time, which is perfect for weight training.
Arm yourself with these exercises
Laura McDonald is an ACE-certified personal trainer and AFAA-certified fitness instructor who works with clients independently and at Core Fitness in New York City. She has provided these simple, effective exercises that can help strengthen your upper body. If you haven’t already, incorporate these valuable basics into your weight-training program.
- Bicep curls:
stand or sit with feet shoulder-width apart, knees soft, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Keep elbows and upper arm stationary alongside ribcage. Slowly lift weights for a count of three and lower for a count of four. Engage biceps muscles on the up and down movement.
- Lateral raises:
With a dumbbell in each hand, stand or sit with feet about shoulder-width apart, knees soft. Hold arms at sides with palms facing in. Slowly raise arms straight out to the side — no higher than shoulders — with a slight bend in the elbow. Do not let wrist droop. Use the same count as above. Works the deltoid muscles and helps give the upper arm more definition.
- Overhead presses:
Works the shoulders. Stand or sit with feet shoulder-width apart while holding a dumbbell in each hand. Extend elbows to shoulder height and raise forearms toward ceiling, palms facing forward. Raise arms above head to an almost straight arm and lower back to elbows even with shoulders. Use same count as above.
- Tricep extensions:
Place right knee on bench or low table. With a weight in left hand, lean forward and place right hand on other end of bench. Keep back flat, abs pulled in and spine neutral. With left foot on floor, extend left elbow behind until arm is parallel to the floor, palm facing torso. Engage triceps at the top of the move and raise and lower with controlled movement. Repeat for desired reps, switch sides.
Pressed for time? Do one set of 12 repetitions of each exercise. Rest one minute after you’ve completed all the exercises and repeat this circuit two more times, increasing the weight and decreasing the number of reps with each circuit.
No matter how you do it, the most important thing is to do it — keep those arms strong. You’ll not only benefit now from easily being able to heft everything from a car battery to four bags of groceries in one fell swoop, but in the long term, you’ll avoid injuries and look utterly fabulous. So raise those arms and give yourself a cheer!