Bat wings. Bingo wings. Hello Helens. Hey Nancies. Squish. Flappy arm fat. These are just a few of the not-so-nice names women call their upper arms (on Reddit, anyway).
First thing’s first, ladies: Stop it with the negative self-talk! We won’t have any of that bat wings nonsense here.
Secondly, you can do something about it, if you’re so inclined.
“Many women suffer from these so-called ‘bat wings’, or upper arm flab, because in addition to factors like genetics, hormone levels, stress, and age, they don’t strength train their arms—specifically their triceps—with the load, volume, and frequency necessary to ‘fill’ the skin underneath,” explains personal trainer and fitness writer K. Aleisha Fetters, C.S.C.S.
So, while there are some factors at play that are indeed out of your control, your upper arms can still live their best lives! Here’s what you can do to tone them up.
Reinvent Your Upper Arms
To start with: Manage stress to ward off any cortisol-related weight gain that could be contributing to soft upper arms, says Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of Movement Vault. From meditating, to cutting back on caffeine, to prioritizing sleep, to nixing sugar, there are a number of natural ways to zap stress.
Next, if you suspect some sort of hormone-related sabotage—whether you’re in perimenopause or menopause, or dealing with unexplainable weight gain, menstrual cycle changes, mood swings, or hot flashes—make an appointment with your gyno or an endocrinologist. Estrogen imbalances can be a big culprit of excess arm fat.
And then, strength train. Luckily, building muscle and losing fat go hand-in-hand. Muscle is a metabolically active tissue, which means that it requires a lot of energy to maintain, explains Wickham. So the more muscle you have, the more calories your body burns through, and the easier it is for you to lose body fat.
To get the most muscle-building, fat-burning bang for your buck, you want to build muscle all over your body by strength training regularly—but training specific muscles (like those in your arms) can help reveal the defined bod you’re after as your body fat decreases. “Many women are worried about training their arms because they don’t want them to get ‘big’ or ‘bulky,’ but they want their arms to look more toned,” says Fetters. “But what they don’t realize is that ‘toned’ is just code for more muscle and less fat.” And, fun fact: Muscle is about 18 percent denser than fat, meaning it takes up less space pound for pound—which means swapping fat for muscle definitely won’t turn you into The Hulk.
Because the tricep is the largest muscle in your arm—and covers most of the surface area you want to tighten up—you don’t want to skimp on training it, says Marie Spano M.S., R.D., C.S.C.S., C.S.S.D. Incorporate the following moves into your strength-training routine to help those upper arms shape up.
8 Triceps Exercises That Will Change Your Upper Arms
To really show your triceps some extra love, perform a mini triceps-focused circuit two or three times a week, in addition to your usual routine. “You need to train the triceps at least twice per week to really make a dramatic impact on how your arms look,” says Fetters. “One workout a week isn’t going to cut it.”
So, on two or three non-consecutive days, pick three (different) exercises from the list below. You’ll perform eight to 12 reps of each move using a challenging weight, rest for 30 to 90 seconds, then move on to the next move. Once you’ve completed all three moves, rest for two full minutes and repeat two or three more times. “You should feel like you have maybe one more rep left in the tank at the end of your last set,” Fetters says.
Start on all fours and position your hands directly under your chest with your fingers spread and your thumbs and forefingers touching, to form a triangle shape. Either perform the pushups with your knees on the ground or straighten your legs into a full plank position. Keep your back flat and your abs engaged as you bend at the elbows to lower your chest down towards the floor. (Your elbows will naturally flare out to the sides.) Keep your core braced and push back up to the starting position. That’s one rep.
Why they work: Triangle pushups are one of the most effective triceps exercises in the book. A study out of the University of Wisconsin even backs it up! The move lights up all three heads of the triceps and requires just your body weight.
The study found that triangle push-ups (along with tricep dips and tricep kick backs) resulted in the greatest muscle activity.
Single-Arm Dumbbell Kickbacks
Hold a light dumbbell in one hand and place your other hand on a stable surface, like a flat bench. Lean forward until your torso is almost parallel to the floor and stagger your feet (with the foot on the side of the dumbbell in the back). Row the dumbbell so that your upper arm is tight along the side of your torso. Without moving your upper arm, extend your forearm up and back behind you, squeezing your triceps as you go. Lower your forearm back down so you have about a 90-degree angle at the elbow. That’s one rep.
Why they work: Like triangle pushups, dumbbell kickbacks target all three heads of the triceps—which is likely why that University of Wisconsin study found them to be the second most effective triceps move. Don’t worry about going heavy with these; instead, use an easily manageable weight so you can really squeeze at the top of each rep, suggests Fetters.
Sit sideways on a bench or box with your hands planted just outside your hips. Plant your feet on the floor out in front of you, either bending at the knee or straightening your legs completely. Push through your hands to lift your butt up off the bench. Keeping your hips very close to the bench and your core tight, bend at your elbows and lower down until your elbows form 90-degree angles and point straight back behind you. Press through the bench to push back up until your arms are straight. That’s one rep.
Why they work: Dips ranked as the third most effective exercise for your tris in the study. Just make sure to keep your hips as close to the bench as possible to emphasize your triceps and avoid straining your shoulders. Because shoulder injuries are so common and so many people perform tricep dips incorrectly, Fetters recommends trying them out under trainer supervision.
Cable Tricep Push-Downs
Attach a straight or angled bar handle to a cable pulley machine so that the bar is at shoulder-height. Grab the bar with palms facing down. Stand up straight with your core engaged and brace your upper arms close to the sides of your body. Without moving your upper arms, squeeze your triceps and extend your forearms down until the bar touches the front of your thighs and your arms are straight. Hold this contracted position for one second and slowly bring the bar back up to the starting position. That’s one rep.
Why they work: “Cable moves force you to move the muscle at a different angle or direction than you would with a dumbbell or EZ bar, which the movement emphasizes different parts of the muscle fiber,” Fetters says.
Grab a set of light dumbbells, and lie on a bench on your back with your knees bent. Raise the dumbbells up and extend your arms so they reach straight up above your chest. (Don’t lock your elbows.) Keeping your upper arms still and tight to the sides of your head, bend at the elbows to slowly lower the dumbbells down toward you forehead until they form 90-degree angles. Squeeze your triceps to extend the dumbbells back up until your arms are straight up in the air again. That’s one rep.
Why they work: Skull-crushers are fun because there’s a number of ways to perform them. You can use almost any kind of weight (dumbbells, barbell, EZ-bar, or cables), and adjust how you angle the bench. The more inclined the bench is, the closer the upper arms are to an overhead position, and more of the work falls on the triceps’ long heads. Perform skull-crushers on a decline bench, though, and you’ll emphasize the lateral triceps head more than the long one, says Wickham. To get your core as involved as possible, perform skull-crushers with dumbbells, which are less stable, says Fetters.
Lying Triceps Extensions
Lie on your back on a flat bench so your head is a few inches from the end and your feet are planted on the ground. Hold an EZ bar with a narrow grip and push it up overhead so your arms point straight up in the air above your chest. Keeping your upper arms still and tight to the sides of your head, bend at the elbows to slowly lower the bar past your forehead down toward the bend above your head. Once you’ve lowered the bar as far as you can, powerfully extend through your elbows to explode the bar back up to the starting position. Squeeze your triceps! That’s one rep.
Why they work: Skull-crushers are a partial-rep movement because they stop at your forehead, while lying tricep extensions work a fuller range of motion and engage your triceps more fully.
Seated Or Standing Overhead Dumbbell Extensions
Grab one dumbbell with both hands. Either stand up straight with your core engaged or sit on a backed bench with your feet planted on the ground. Fully extend your arms up overhead with your elbows turned in close to the sides of your head. (Your palms should be facing the ceiling.) Keeping your back straight, bend at the elbows to slowly lower the dumbbell back behind your head until you have at least 90-degree angles at your elbows. Squeeze your triceps to push the dumbbell back up and extend your arms to the starting position. When you reach the starting position, turn your elbows out and squeeze. That’s one rep.
Why they work: Perform this move standing and you’ll activate your core more, but perform it sitting down and you’ll have a greater range of motion (because you don’t have to worry about balance). This move really hits the long head of the triceps, which hooks into the shoulder. Since this head is the largest of the triceps, giving it some extra TLC can really boost your upper-arm aesthetics, says Fetters.
Close-Grip Bench Presses
Lie on your back on a flat bench press so your forehead is directly under the racked barbell. Grab the bar with a close grip (about shoulders-width apart), lift the bar from the rack, and hold it straight up overhead. Brace your core and plant your feet firmly on the ground. Keeping your elbows close to your sides, slowly lower the bar down until it just touches your middle chest. Pause for a second or two and squeeze your triceps to push the bar back up and extend your arms. That’s one rep.
Why they work: If you have bench press and barbell experience, the close-grip bench press is a great way to focus on and emphasize triceps engagement, explains Wickham. To really crush your triceps, focus on the eccentric (or lowering) phase of the movement. “Lower the bar for a count of five seconds and explode it upward,” he suggests. Just make sure you use a weight you can lift properly for at least six reps, so you don’t put too much strain on your elbows, Fetters adds.