Dear Arms, Why Aren't You Getting Any Stronger?

Have you been trying to sculpt Jennifer Garner-like arms for months (umm…did you see Peppermint), yet not seen any improvement? Don’t throw in the towel (or stop those pushups). Top trainers say there are so many common mistakes women make when trying to get toned arms—but most of them are easily fixable. Whether you’re lifting the wrong size weights or simply putting exercises in the wrong order, these are the trip-ups you don’t want to make.

1. You’re doing too many isolated movements.

To get rid of pesky arm fat, it’s common to want to pull out the weights and bust out 100 triceps extensions. But isolated movements like that aren’t going to get you to your goal, no matter how heavy of a weight you choose. Those types of exercises work to expand the muscle, but they don’t necessarily burn fat, says Heidi Powell, certified personal trainer and co-creator of the Transform app.

Instead, multi-joint exercises like pushups, pullups, upright rows, and lat pulldowns help get the job done, says Lauren Williams, certified personal trainer and founder of Chisel Club. Compound movements like these primarily fire up your back and shoulder muscles, but the biceps and triceps muscles are automatically looped in too. Which basically means you get better results without having to work as hard.

2. You’re doing single-joint exercises first.

“Generally speaking, if you’re looking to gain strength and see changes in your upper body, it’s best to start your session with a multi-joint exercise,” says Judine Saint Gerard, certified personal trainer and head coach at Tone House. “Think bent-over barbell rows, pullups, chinups, and overhead presses.”

That’s because, if the first thing you do is train a single-joint directly—like you would with, say, a forearm curl—then it’s going to make performing a compound movement, like a chinup, infinitely more difficult. “Your forearms would be too fatigued to assist your larger back muscles, the primary movers, in pulling you up and over the bar,” she says. The lesson: Order matters. “You don’t want to sabotage your ability to perform the movements that will give you the most bang for your buck.”

3. Your weights aren’t heavy enough.

Gone are the days of picking up tiny weights because you’re afraid of bulking up. By now, we know that just isn’t going to happen unless you work really hard to do so, as ladies simply don’t have enough testosterone. “If you want definition, you need to train with a weight that actually stimulates your muscles and produces a training effect,” says Holly Rilinger, NIKE master trainer and creator of the LIFTED method.

To do that, Rilinger says you should aim to perform eight to 12 reps of your chosen exercise, which you can then repeat for three to five sets. “The last two reps in each set should be extremely difficult to finish without losing your form,” she explains. If it’s not—hooray!—you’ve beasted that weight and are ready for more.

4. You’re training the same muscle group back-to-back.

Kathryn Wirsing

Training in this way can improve your endurance, sure, but the combo can have a negative impact on your intensity—meaning you’re likely not getting the most out of your second exercise, because your muscles are fatigued by the first, says Saint Gerard. “Your best bet would be to alternate between different muscle groups to ensure each one gets adequate rest before attempting the next set,” she says. “That way, you’re always able to give your max effort and get the most out of the exercise.”

5. Your posture sucks.

Take a look in the mirror for a quick eval: Are your shoulders hunched forward or arched up by your ears? Williams says she often sees a lack of awareness or control over the scapula—a.k.a. shoulder—movements. “People are often hunching over in planks, pushups, and lat pulldowns instead of having a neutral spine,” she says. To counteract that, make sure your chest and shoulders are open, and don’t be afraid to shrug the shoulders down and roll them back every few exhales to make sure your form is on point.

6. …and so does your overall form.

“I know it seems obvious, but I can’t tell you how often I see people tossing weight around improperly in ways that compromise results and risk injury,” says Jillian Michaels, celebrity fitness expert and creator of FitFusion. A common offender: arching your back during bicep curls. If this is necessary, Michaels says your weight is too heavy. Once you’ve got the right resistance, “tuck your tailbone, pull your belly button in, and engage your core,” she says. “And don’t bring your elbows in front of your rib cage—that engages your anterior delts, not your biceps.” Noted.

7. You’re only working one angle of the muscle.

Kathryn Wirsing

When you think of training your biceps, what’s the exercise you turn to over and over? A biceps curl, obvi. But if that’s the only move in your repertoire, you’re missing out. “The muscle fibers of your biceps run from the top of your shoulder to the top of your forearm, [but] these fibers don’t all run along the same angle,” says Saint Gerard. Which means that you have to hit the muscle from all sides.

To do that, you have to change your hand position. Switching to a hammer curl—a.k.a. palms facing towards each other—allows you to avoid imbalances, she explains. Plus, “balance throughout a muscle is ideal for maximum strength and functionality, which will in turn improve the overall ‘look’ when the goal is to see changes in your upper body.”

8. Your exercises are too advanced.

Trying to power through movements that are too advanced for your current level of fitness is detrimental to your progress, says Williams.

Take a pushup, for example. If you’re unable to do a full one on your toes, lowering your chest all the way down to the floor while keeping your body in a straight line (don’t let those hips sag!), then you need to focus on mastering an easier variation first.

“Focus on the full range of motion so you can get higher reps and see more improvement in muscle tone and strength,” says Williams. So for a pushup, you can start doing them against a wall or a bench, and after you are able to complete three sets of 10, start moving to the ground.

9. Your diet isn’t dialed in.

If you’ve been killin’ it in the gym but you’re not seeing improvements, you may need to evaluate what’s happening in the kitchen. “Your body fat composition has to be low enough that you can see the muscles in your arms,” says Rilinger. “If you’re building muscle but eating poorly, you’ll still get stronger, but not more defined.”

In other words, keep an eye on your eats. Protein is the building block of muscle development, and it helps rebuild the muscle fibers that are torn during a workout, says Rilinger. Include it in each meal, as well as within 30 minutes of your sweat sesh, as that’s when you’re most primed for nutrient absorption. Otherwise, focus on veggies and healthy fats, and try to minimize the amount of processed foods and sugar you take in.

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