Building better arms: It takes work to have limbs as well-toned as Michelle Obama's

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Here's something that would sell briskly even in a sullen economy: one pair of Michelle Obama arms, please.

No need for a bag. I'll just slip them right on.

If only.

The First Lady's much-admired, well-toned upper arms aren't for sale, darn it. You have to fight for them on three fronts -- resistance training to build muscle in the arms and shoulders, cardiovascular exercise to burn calories and build muscle overall, and a healthy diet to lose body fat.

"It does take work," said Rebecca Boyer, a certified personal trainer and fitness director for the Summit YMCA in Toledo, Ohio. Depending on your age, body type and weight, you might not end up looking chiseled, but "everybody can look better, absolutely," Mrs. Boyer said.

If you start now, that can happen in plenty of time for tank-top season. "You can actually see results in a few weeks if you're already slender," said Cory Miller, a certified personal trainer and group fitness and promotions director for Lifestyles for Ladies Only Inc., a women-only fitness club in Toledo.

"And even if you don't see results in the mirror, you're going to feel them. Having greater upper body strength will make life's daily activities easier, from picking up your kids to carrying bags of mulch or baskets of laundry."

First step: Check with your doctor before starting this or any other fitness routine. Second step: Get acquainted with your arms. Your routine will target three muscles:

• Triceps, which are on the back of your upper arm. Triceps extend, or straighten, the elbow. These are what you might know as your "bat wings" or "grandma arms."

• Biceps, on the front of the upper arm. This is the muscle you use to raise your forearm.

• Deltoids, running from your collarbone to the long bone on your upper arm, covering the shoulders. When you lift your arm away from the side of your body, this is the muscle you're flexing.

No one set of instructions about how much weight to lift and how many repetitions and sets to do is going to apply to everyone. So here's the standard to work by: "You want to lift until your muscle is fatigued," Mrs. Miller said. If you're using a 3-pound weight and after eight or 10 repetitions you feel as though you could easily do five or six more, you need a heavier weight. Step up to a five-pounder.

Another standard, this one suggested by Mrs. Boyer: "You'll feel a warmth, a burning sensation in the muscle. That's good to feel." That won't happen when you first start an exercise. Say you're planning to do 15 repetitions of a biceps curl. By the time you've reached number 13, Mrs. Boyer said, it should be a challenge, but you should be able to finish the series. (Once the routine becomes easy, it's time for a heavier weight or more repetitions.) Expect to feel sore the next day, especially if you're new to this. "When you're weight lifting, you get tiny little tears [in the muscle], which causes the soreness, and when it repairs itself, [the muscle] gets bigger," Mrs. Boyer explained. "You don't have to hurt yourself," she went on. "There's a difference between good sore and bad sore."

Doing your resistance exercises three times a week on alternate days will provide the frequency you need to get results while giving your muscles time to recover.

A common fear among women is that they'll bulk up by using heavy weights to build muscle, Mrs. Miller observed. There's no need to worry about that, she said: "Women don't have the levels of testosterone to bulk up."

Another thing to know is that working a muscle alone isn't going to get rid of the fat that may be covering it, she said. "Until you lose the fat, you're not going to see definition."

Some exercises that will strengthen and tone the arms don't require weights. One is a push-up, in several forms: traditional, modified with bent knee, resting on an exercise ball or against a wall. Another is a bench dip -- lowering and then raising the body with the arms, hands behind you -- which can be done using the arms of a chair or standing against something like a table or kitchen counter.

Don't be in a rush to get your exercises over with. "Everything needs to be slow and controlled," advised Mrs. Miller of Lifestyles for Ladies Only. Many also make the mistake of holding their breath during these exercise. When lifting a weight or doing the up part of a push-up, exhale. Inhale when lowering a weight or doing the down part of a push-up.

Finally, be sure to warm up a little before exercising and stretch after you're done.

Not that you're ever really going to be done. "You can't just stop," said Lisa Urban, a rehab exercise specialist at the Mercy Center for Health Promotion at St. Charles in Oregon, Ohio. "Otherwise you're going to start seeing a decline over time."

First Published March 23, 2009 4:00 AM


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