Thick, muscular arms from athletic workouts look great on some women, but most of us are looking to strengthen those bi’s and tri’s without too much bulking up. That can be a tricky fitness goal — and trainer Andrea Marcellus’ clients ask her how to achieve this all the time. We asked Marcellus to walk us through this often frustrating workout challenge and some of her tips might just surprise you…
Getting fit and getting “cut” do not necessarily go hand in hand. To be clear, fitness, health and all around-wellness come in all shapes and sizes. Please stop and give this fact a giant hug. That said, to answer the question about how to attain a certain appearance, namely to get “cut arms” in a healthy way, here’s the answer: do not over-exercise and instead focus on smaller food portions.
Nothing is more demoralizing than working out like a crazy person, and lifting heavier and heavier weights in hopes of getting cut arms only to end up with arms that just seem to be bigger and bigger, but still lack definition.
On fat storage + Planning Post-Workout Meals
One of the body’s favorite energy storage deposits is the back of the arms, as well as the abs, glutes and hips. The body naturally has some areas that are more prone to fat storage, i.e the belly in women as a protective layer for the reproductive system. Fat melts best with an active lifestyle and a calorie deficit. The reason big workouts leave so many people bulky instead of lean and cut is because they are eating too much to maintain the energy they need for their workout lifestyles.
Eating energy-appropriate portions of food on a schedule with at least two hours between meals allows the stomach to empty fully before your next meal. Once hunger hormones kick in, you eat again, you stop before you’re overstuffed and your metabolism will hum along more evenly. This combination of active lifestyle and smaller portions of high-quality food eaten regularly is the formula for mobilizing body fat from stubborn places. The key is not to graze, but to allow your stomach to empty between meals to keep your metabolism high.
The faster (and far more easily maintainable) path to cut arms are moderate strategized workouts, attention to food strategy and an active lifestyle including more walking and standing throughout the day (I recommend an extra 90 minutes standing minimum). The American Heart Association put out a study in 2018 showing that nothing you do in terms of exercise can undo the detrimental health effects of sitting 8 hours a day–and most Americans do way more than that. My AND/life app helps people remember to stand up throughout the day with a target of 60 minutes minimum. But at least 90 extra minutes of standing (it doesn’t have to be consecutive – in fact better if in spurts throughout the day) is even better.
Meals should be 2-4 hours apart to allow your stomach to fully empty in between (which keeps our hormones working properly — grazing confuses our metabolic hormones). Workouts should be planned so that one of the meal or snack times in your day falls within one hour after finishing the workout.
The hour after exercise is a golden time for your metabolism and food. My book The Way In: 5 Winning Strategies to Lose Weight, Get Strong & Lift Your Life helps people figure out what portions of food on what schedule works best to help them drop body fat and stay lean — nothing is more important to “looking cut” than food portions and schedule.
On Working Out Too Hard + Plateau’ing
Grueling workouts use a lot of glycogen (sugar) from muscles as fuel. Two or three 10-20 minute high intensity intervals each week is plenty to keep your metabolism moving at high speed.
Hour long fitness classes may work against your goals to “look cut” because they make you hungry. If you are at the definition phase of your fitness journey, you need to take the leap of faith and dial it down. Rely on shorter daily bouts of strength and length work coupled with more walking and standing throughout the day. Rigorous exercise is counter-productive when you are trying to get your portions ratcheted down a notch or two so that your body will mobilize stubborn pockets of fats for fuel instead.
Do too much and you run the risk of burning out too much muscle glycogen — which can make you feel funky and eat more to try to feel “right” again. Often people end up taking in more calories than they burned in their workout, plus eating regularly throughout the day — and so they stay at a plateau and never see “cuts.”
Bottom line: Believe it or not, once you have the muscle size you want, it’s time to dial it down workout-wise and focus on diet to let that muscle definition you’ve worked so hard for really shine!
What do you think of Andrea’s advice? How do you balance your diet with your workouts?