Today at the end of my Yoga Sculpt class I encouraged my students to come chat with me after class and ask me any questions they might have. I was expecting/hoping that I might get asked to help someone with their chaturanga or tell them the name of the song that I used during squats. I got a few of those questions, but there was another one that really caught me off guard. Not knowing much about me and my views on fitness and body image, a 20-something girl innocently approached me at the front desk and asked:
“Do you know any exercises that can make my arms smaller? Not things that build more muscle, just lose the fat on them?”
Uggghhhh. For every woman who asks this question, there is a personal trainer or group fitness instructor out there who absolutely hates hearing it.
My initial thoughts were this:
- You can’t spot reduce fat. That’s not a thing. Anyone who tells you it’s a thing is either lying or trying to sell you something.
- Why is having big or strong or muscular arms such a bad thing?
- Yes, I do know how you can change the size and definition of your arms. It would involve altering your body composition though. That requires a more complicated answer. Plus an exercise and diet plan specific to your body and lifestyle, which I know little about since I just met you.
- Even if you did follow said plan, you’d probably still be unhappy with your body in some way, shape, or form.
- It goes against every fiber of my being to prescribe you such a plan, because it would likely spiral you down a slippery slope of overexercising and food obsession. I’ve been there. It sucks. You seem like a nice girl and I don’t want you to go through that.
I don’t remember exactly what I said to her, but it was some jumbled variation of 1, 2, and 3. Plus an apology for not giving her the quick fix that she wanted. And the encouragement that I didn’t think there was anything wrong with her arms to begin with. Reflecting back on our conversation, I know could have done better by her. So for that lovely girl who wants to shrink her arms, and everyone else who has ever wanted to get “toned”, this is what I really want you to know.
That “toned” look comes from changing your body composition, not one specific exercise.
Your body composition is simply the ratio of fat, muscle, bone, and water in your body. When you do strength training, you build and strengthen your muscles. When you have more muscle on your body, you increase your resting metabolic rate, which means you naturally burn more calories throughout the day. This, in combination with things like cardio, HIIT (high intensity interval training), and specific dietary changes can result in fat loss. This combination of building muscle+losing fat=a change in body composition. A higher ratio of muscle to fat is what you actually seeing in a person who looks “toned”.
You can’t spot reduce fat.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Even if you do manage to achieve an increase in muscle mass and a decrease in fat, you don’t get to choose where the fat comes off first. Sorry, but it’s true. You can choose to work on hypertrophy, or building more muscle in certain areas by working out with that specific goal in mind. If you want to get technical that’s about 6-12 repetitions and 3-5 sets of each exercise at 75-85% of your 1-rep max. Fat loss happens all over your body, and all of us naturally store more fat in different areas depending on our individual body type. Which leads me to the next point…
The way in which you build muscle/store fat is largely genetic.
It will differ greatly from person to person depending on your body type. You will likely find that you fall into one of these three categories.
Ectomorph: Small bone and joint structure, long and lean, difficulty building muscle.
Endomorph: High tendency to store body fat, difficulty losing weight. Naturally rounder, softer physique.
Mesomorph: Natural athletic physique and strength, large bone structure, builds muscle quickly and easily.
Depending on your body type, it will take an entirely different training plan to achieve the look you desire. For some, it may never be possible, at least without resorting to extreme and disordered methods. In other words, your healthiest body might actually not be the one with smaller arms.
The human body is not a math equation.
Science tells us that fat loss is a simple equation. Calories in vs. calories out. The first law of thermodynamics states that energy can not be created nor destroyed, it can only change forms. Basically, that means if you are eating less and exercising more, you will lose weight. This is what I essentially learned when I completed my Weight Loss Specialization through NASM a few years back. I should note that I achieved this credential long before I began to explore the body positive and fat acceptance movements, partially because I hoped to finally figure out how to lose those “last 10 lbs” for myself. (live and learn) The problem with this idea? The body is an adaptable living organism. Sometimes, and for some people this equation might hold true. But when you start fighting too hard against your body’s natural state, it can also respond by slowing your metabolism, meaning that you have to restrict even further to get the same results. Especially if you have been a yo-yo dieter for much of your life. You can read about how this happened to me here.
You COULD achieve the look that you want, but it comes with a price.
Just search for the hashtag #fitspo (gag), and you will see hundreds of pictures of six pack abs and peachy round booties in bikinis. This is just the highlight reel (the curse of social media). What you don’t see is the effort that went into achieving this. For example, people who compete in bodybuilding, bikini, figure, and physique competitions need to follow a very specific diet to achieve their desired look. This typically means eating only at designated times of day, only foods that meet certain macronutrient ratios, and usually out of tupperware and by themselves. Clearly, this is difficult to maintain year round, which is why they diet down for events. What you see on competition day is not a normal state for most of these people. If it is, then refer back to the part about the three body types. The price you may have to pay for tiny (yet toned) arms is quite possibly a very disordered relationship with food and exercise.
Great. Now what?!
If I just shattered all of your dreams about having having a slim yet chiseled physique, don’t worry. You are not destined to loathe (insert body part) forever! Take this knowledge and use it as a reminder that it’s okay if you don’t look like that Instagram famous personal trainer, your friend’s cousin the bikini competitor, or your sister the ectomorph. If you think some healthier habits would serve you, by all means get some more sleep, cook more meals at home, or try out a new fitness class. (Please note that the pursuit of health and fitness is by no means a moral obligation!) But if you feel like you are already doing a lot of these things, chances are you are actually in pretty good place. Let go of the idea that there is something inherently wrong with you, or that you somehow lack discipline. Stop chasing the impossible dream of perfection and go live your life. 🙂 Or check out this post for some alternative reasons to keep working out anyway, or this one about how to bust through some of the BS ideas about fitness for females.
Still frustrated with your body even after reading this? Did you ever wonder why you are doing everything “right” in terms of your health and fitness but just not seeing the results you want? I’ve got a list of 10 good reasons that you may not have considered. Want it?