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Toning your top half: Get your upper body fit and fabulous

Do you cringe at the thought of wearing a strapless top? Ever dream of having Madonna’s shapely arms? Or would you just like to be able to lift your baby in her car seat without straining your arms? Here are some tips to help you tone your upper half for hot weather fashion and functionality.

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Benefits above the belt

The abs, hips and thighs are often the first place women look when they want to tone areas of their body, but working out the upper body — the chest, shoulders, and arms — is also a great way to make a dramatic change in appearance while building strength.

“Women have always been concerned about their hips and thighs, but over the past few years women are realizing that a defined, toned upper body is just as important, especially if they want to wear the latest fashions,” says Brad Schoenfeld, personal trainer and author of the books Look Great Sleeveless and Look Great Naked. Not only will the upper body look great, he says, but toned shoulders can also make the waist look smaller.

Develop strength

For Cinda Donovan — a 43-year-old mom from Scituate, Massachusetts who regularly works out her top half — toned arms are one of best improvements. “When I wave, I can tighten my arm and there’s no loose skin waving too,” she laughs.

But the benefits are not all aesthetic. In fact, working out the upper body can help women develop strength in an area that is sorely lacking. Women tend to be much weaker in the upper body than men, says Schoenfeld. Over time, he says, women gradually lose muscle mass — and by age 50, 15 to 20 percent of their upper body strength is lost. By working out their upper half, women can stop that loss and get stronger. Suddenly, carrying in the groceries or lifting a toddler may seem like a breeze.

Get a promotion at work

This newfound strength may also help women stand up straighter. “It actually helps with job promotion,” says Schoenfeld. “People who stand up straighter get promoted [more often].”

Dr Mimi Zumwalt, a 40-year-old mother of two from Lubbock, Texas, says having a strong upper body helps her keep up with her kids, do daily chores and perform her job as an orthopaedic surgeon. “Having a fit upper body is very important since we use our arms so much during activities of daily living,” she says.

The right moves

So how do you develop a fit upper body? According to Schoenfeld, it only takes a few minutes of targeted exercise a couple of days a week.

Divide the toning tasks at hand

He divides the upper body into four muscle groups — shoulders, chest, biceps and triceps — and suggests working each group on a different day with a day of rest in between. His book, Look Great Sleeveless, provides a variety of exercises for each muscle group. He recommends doing three different exercises in a row targeting the same muscle group and then repeating the series three times. Between each series, he suggests stretching the targeted muscle group for no longer than 60 seconds and then continuing with the next set.

Notice a difference

The good news is that the effects of exercise show up more quickly in the upper body. “Women tend to see the results more quickly because there is less body fat there,” says Schoenfeld.

Donovan says she noticed a difference in about three weeks. “When I was putting lotion on my arms, I noticed that they were firmer and smaller,” she says. Schoenfeld says usually at around three weeks, women will see an increase in strength, and a difference in tone will come at about four weeks.

He also strongly recommends a program for the entire body, but says its fine to focus more on problem areas. However, “you never want to train one part of the body to the exclusion of another,” he says.

Tools of the trade

Barbell weights

You may be wondering if all this exercise will require you to go to a gym. While joining a gym and using weight-lifting machines is certainly one way to tone the upper body, it can also be done completely at home — even while you’re watching television. But you’ll need a few tools.


Schoenfeld recommends that at a minimum, women should purchase a set of dumbbells in various weights. A set of 2- to 10-pound dumbbells should get you started. For your first workout, he recommends choosing a weight that is slightly challenging, but does not cause you to struggle — always erring on the side of caution. (Get more tips on buying dumbbells here.)

Strength bands

To do a wider variety of exercises, you might also want to purchase an adjustable weight or workout bench and/or an elastic strength band. Weight benches cost from $50 and up and can be found at discount stores or even in online auctions. They allow you to lie flat or at an angle, giving you a wider range of movement than lying on the floor. Strength bands, which usually cost less than $10, are attached to a stationary object and work like a pulley.

Get back to our hot weather guide - click here!Keeping your momentum

One of the hardest parts of working out may be staying motivated. Different techniques work for different women. For Donovan, a special treat after a tough workout does the trick. “If it’s a tough morning to get started, I have been known to reward myself with a vanilla chai tea on the way to work,” she says.

Zumwalt finds her motivation in how great she feels. “Fitness makes me feel good about

myself and that translates into feeling good in all of my roles — whether personal or professional.”

Schoenfeld says the key to staying motivated is seeing results. To do that, he suggests setting realistic, measurable goals and maintaining a consistent and proper practice.

Here’s to a top-notch upper body

There’s no doubt about it: a fit upper body is great in many ways. So start making your upper half your better half and enjoy the fruits of your labor! Says Donovan, “To wave for the first time and not have any loose flab is worth it.”

Ready for a marathon?

SheKnows is training for our first half marathon! Add running to your weekly workouts and join us in January at the P.F. Chang’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Half Marathon. Register here.

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