How to get strong and sexy arms

Find out why you need to move past light weights, biceps curls, and triceps extensions if you want arms that look great in a tank top or evening dress.
How to get strong and sexy arms Getty

On a warm summer’s day, not long ago, I went for a bike ride. Then I stopped in a park near downtown Calgary and asked random women what they thought about my biceps.

Well, not really my biceps. Just male bicep muscles in general. I was taking a survey about their opinions for a Los Angeles Times column. The fact that I was wearing a t-shirt that showed off my arms at the time of the survey isn’t relevant. (And yes, that’s my picture in the above-linked column.)

I’ll admit to being a bit surprised at just how enthusiast the survey respondents were about male bicep muscles. I figured that some women like them, but it turns out you really like them.

I want you to know that men usually feel the same way: we dig sexy, muscular arms on the opposite sex too. No, I didn’t do a survey. This is based on 43 years of being a guy. I can say with a high degree of confidence that if you have well-toned arms that have some muscle on them, we will notice and appreciate them.

Want to know how to get those arms? Read on.

1. Lose the fat that covers them


If you’ve ever seen a strongman competition on TV, then you know those guys aren’t physique models. They’ve got incredible muscles, but they’re covered in layers of flab because all they care about is power and strength generation — not what they look like. For muscular arms to look good, you need to have a certain degree of leanness (don’t go overboard though — the skeletal look is neither healthy nor sexy).

If you’re looking for fat-loss advice, I’ve laid my soul bare in this article about how it’s done. Also, note that just like with belly fat, you can’t target fat loss on your arms. You’ve got to lose it everywhere on your body, and your own genetics are going to decide where it goes first. Know that the arms are not a primary fat storage site for women, so take comfort that it won’t be the last place you lose fat.

You are going to need to create consistent caloric deficits to lose the fat, which means focusing on eating healthy and consuming fewer calories, as well as participating in a significant amount of sustained aerobic activity that gets your heart rate elevated to at least 65 percent of its maximum (75 percent is better) for a sustained period of time. Popping pills or wearing rocking shoes or calorie-burning underwear isn’t going to burn it off, and neither is drinking some unpronounceable berry juice. If you’re overweight, then you’ve got to work hard to lose the fat.

By comparison, building up the nice muscles underneath should be easy.

2. Build up your arm muscles with weights


I wrote an article a while ago about how women need to lift heavy weights if they want to be “toned,” so check that piece out to give you some perspective on the following advice.

One important thing to remember is that low weight and high repetitions aren't going to do a thing to make your arms look better, because you'll be focusing on the tiny, slow-twitch muscle fibres. It could make you better at paddling a kayak, swimming, or some other aerobic activity that requires arm endurance, but it won’t make those arms look any more muscular.

To make them look better, and be stronger, you need to work in a lower-repetition range. This means as much weight as you can lift, for twelve or fewer repetitions. Yes, you need to lift the way most men do.

But here is the thing: I don’t want you wasting your time with a bunch of biceps curls and triceps extensions. To get the righteous arm muscles, you aren’t going to spend much time in focused arm training.

The reasons why are twofold:

  1. You won’t build much functional strength if you only work your arms.
  2. Focusing on more complex body movements will generate a bigger result on arm development.

Bear with me, because this may seem a little weird:

  • To get muscular biceps, you need to focus on exercising your back muscles
  • To get muscular triceps, you need to focus on exercising your chest muscles

Why? Your biceps assist your back muscles in back-focused exercises. Whenever you exercise your back, you are engaged in a “pulling” motion — you are pulling resistance in towards your body, and this also uses the biceps. Meanwhile, triceps assist the chest in “pushing” resistance away from the body.

Not descriptive enough for you? Okay, here are some additional details:

Biceps: About 80 percent of your workout for these should be back focused, and then you can focus the remaining 20 percent on your biceps. Some good back exercises are lat pull-downs, seated rows, upright rows, and chin-ups (assisted chin-ups are fine). Remember: all of these exercises are going to build functional upper body strength and do a lot of good for those biceps at the same time.

For the 20 percent that is biceps focused, you'll do the old-fashioned biceps curl. This can be done with dumbbells, a barbell, machines, and a preacher’s bench. Mix it up. Triceps: Again, you want about 80 percent to be chest (and some shoulders) and the remaining 20 percent to be triceps. Good chest exercises that also work the triceps are dumbbell bench press, barbell bench press, and cable cross-overs. The pec deck is a pretty weak machine that also does nothing for your triceps.


For focusing on triceps, dips are a great exercise, but they may need to be assisted. To make it more of a triceps workout, keep your arms close to your body; to make it more of a lower chest workout, let your arms flare out to the side. Other good exercises are pushdowns, kickbacks, and “skull-crushers.” There are also a variety of triceps-focused machines. Again, mix it up.

This upper body workout program will make your entire torso more functional, stronger, and sexier. I pulled you into this article with a promise of nicer arms, but there really is more to it than that. As I’ve written previously, you are much more than the sum of your various parts, so focus on improving all that is you. (This means doing legs too, so maybe also read this piece I did about Pippa Middleton’s butt!)

James S. Fell, MBA, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary, AB. He writes the column “In-Your-Face Fitness” for the Los Angeles Times and consults with clients on strategic planning for fitness and health. Get a free metabolism report at Email James at  


Subscribe to our newsletters for our very best stories, recipes, style and shopping tips, horoscopes and special offers.

By signing up, you agree to our terms of use and privacy policy. You may unsubscribe at any time.