Sculpt Your Arms Without Bulking Up

Building toned, sculpted arms is a goal for many people, but if you are hoping to avoid looking bulky, you might be wondering how to attain your goal. While getting bulky muscles doesn't happen easily or quickly, there are ways of training that can minimize muscle size while still providing that sleek, firm look you are after.

Build Muscle Without Bulking

Woman's back
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It’s a common misconception that lifting heavy weights—especially for the upper body—will cause bulkiness. The truth: Bulking up comes from hormones, extra calories, and an intentional, consistent muscle-building routine (genetics play a role too). It is unlikely that you will get bulky from resistance training unless you deliberately work toward it.


How fast and how easily you build muscle size will depend greatly on your genetics. This is partly because the type of muscle fibers you have influences how bulky you can become. If you have many type II muscle fibers, you will gain muscle size more easily since these muscle fibers are larger.


Genetics also determines your hormone levels. Testosterone is the hormone that helps to grow big, bulky muscles. Women generally do not have enough natural testosterone to grow bulky muscles, especially not quickly. Men have 15 times more testosterone than women.

If your goal is to build lean, firm muscles as a woman, you are best off lifting weights that challenge you without worrying about bulk and size. If you are a man wishing to build bulky muscles, this takes time, even with higher testosterone levels.

Most women with large, sculpted muscles have that type of body built into their genetics.

Caloric Surplus

Bulking up can only happen when enough calories are added to your diet to support muscle growth. Gaining any mass on your body—muscle or fat—must be accomplished through extra calories.

If you eat a nutritious, moderate diet, you will not bulk up by weight training. You will, however, remove some of the fat covering up your muscle, creating a firm, toned look.

Strength Training

Big, bulky muscles are not achieved without spending consistent hours in the gym lifting weights with intentional muscle-building techniques. Lifting weights for 30 to 45 minutes, 2 to 3 times a week, will not make you bulk up substantially, but it will help you achieve a more sculpted, fit appearance.

Use Resistance Training to Tone Arms

Why going heavy with weights matters for strength training.
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To achieve a sculpted and shapely upper body, it's important to lift weights that challenge you. If you don't challenge your muscles, they won't adapt and change.

Adaptation is the process in which muscles react to the stress placed upon them. During resistance training, your muscle fibers break down, then recover during rest. This recovery process helps muscles grow.

Keep in mind that this doesn't mean you will get bulky. Muscles have two actions when it comes to size; they either grow or shrink. "Toning" is not a physical action that muscles can take. However, the idea of a toned physique typically refers to a lean, firm body with lower body fat. To obtain the firm look, you will need to build muscle.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends full-body muscle-strengthening activities at least twice per week for fitness, health, and weight maintenance.

Light weights are great for recovery from injury or to keep older adults functionally fit. And some movements isolating smaller muscle groups like side or front shoulder raises might require something lighter.

However, to sculpt your arms, you will need to lift weights or use resistance bands that challenge you. Try exercises like these that cover all upper body muscles and use “supersets.”

Supersets work two different exercises in a row for the same muscle group. If you move quickly from one exercise to the next, without rest, this adds a cardiovascular element to your training. Cardiovascular exercise helps to reduce body fat so that your sculpted physique will be visible.

What Size Weights Should You Use?

If you want to change the shape of your body to build a toned and sculpted-looking physique, you need to lift weights that challenge you. If you perform all of your repetitions and could keep going, your weights are too light. However, if you can’t maintain proper form during your set, the weights are too heavy. Choose something challenging, but doable.

Back Strength Super Set

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Reverse Grip Double Arm Row

  • Stand with legs together and sit back into a slight squat, engaging the abdominal muscles. Arms are in front of the body holding dumbbells at hip height with palms facing the ceiling.
  • Draw elbows back past hips gently hugging the side body, so you feel lats and triceps engage. Return to starting position with control.

Renegade Rows (Pictured)

  • Begin in a full plank with dumbbells in hands, arms extended, and on toes. (To modify, drop the knees to the mat.) Engage your abdominals drawing the belly inward towards your spine.
  • Pull the right dumbbell up toward right hip bone, keeping the weight close to your side. Slowly return it to the floor and repeat with the left dumbbell.

Chest Strength Super Set

Multi-ethnic group of people working out at fitness facility
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Shoulder Tap Push-Up

  • Begin in a plank position with hands directly under shoulders and feet hip-width apart. Keep abdominals and legs tight as you slowly lower your chest toward the ground with elbows bending and pointing behind you.
  • Exhale as you push back up to lengthen arms into plank. Then lift your right hand to tap your left shoulder at the top. Repeat with the other arm tapping.

Chest Fly (Pictured)

  • Lay back on a bench, the floor, or an exercise ball and hold a pair of dumbbells close to your chest (if on the ball, place your shoulder blades and head on top of the ball).
  • Raise dumbbells straight above the chest, palms facing in.
  • Slowly lower arms out to the side with a slight bend in your elbow, until elbows are about chest level.
  • Squeeze chest and bring hands back together at the top, then slowly lower to starting position.

Shoulder Strength Super Set

Shoulder Overhead Press

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Shoulder Press (Pictured)

  • Start with feet hip-distance apart. Bring elbows out to the side creating a goal post position with arms. Dumbbells are at the side of the head, and abdominals are tight.
  • Press dumbbells slowly up until arms are straight. Slowly return to starting position with control.

Lateral Raise

  • Begin in standing position, feet a few inches apart and arms alongside body holding dumbbells.
  • Keeping a slight bend in the elbow, lift your arms to the side until they are parallel to the floor, and return back to the starting position with control.

Bicep/Tricep Strength Set

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Bicep Curl

  • Stand with feet hip-distance apart, arms fully extended with a slight bend in the elbow.
  • Bring weights in towards shoulders to complete bicep curl, lower slowly back to start.

Tricep Extension (Pictured)

  • Standing with feet hip-distance apart holding dumbbells straight overhead and keeping your spine long and abs tight.
  • Bend elbows lowering dumbbells behind the base of the head. Keep your elbows hugging in towards your head and pointing forward. Then extend your arms long returning to your starting position working the triceps.

Combine Cardio and Strength Training With Boxing

woman performing boxing exerise

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Boxing is an excellent method of building lean muscle in your arms and shoulders while reducing body fat through cardio. While you will likely still need to perform resistance training exercises for a more sculpted look, boxing is an excellent addition to your workout routine.

Balance out your training by working on both sides of your body, regardless of which side is dominant. You can also try adding light-weighted boxing gloves to increase the challenge of your workout.

Add Flexibility and Strength With Yoga and Pilates

Yoga and Pilates can help strengthen and tone arm muscles by challenging you with resistance from your own body weight. On top of a resistance training routine, adding yoga and Pilates can increase your balance, flexibility, and range of motion, making your muscle-building endeavors more successful. Pilates is especially good for increasing core strength and stability.

A Word from Verywell

There are many different ways to build a stronger, leaner upper body. Everyone has a different body type, and how you look, even after training consistently, will depend greatly on your genetics. Be sure to eat a healthy, balanced diet and take rest days. Remember to always listen to your body while exercising.

6 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Council on Exercise. Building Muscle for Women.

  2. National Academy of Sports Medicine. Fast-Twitch vs. Slow-Twitch Muscle Fibers.

  3. Handelsman DJ, Hirschberg AL, Bermon S. Circulating testosterone as the hormonal basis of sex differences in athletic performanceEndocr Rev. 2018;39(5):803-829. doi:10.1210/er.2018-00020

  4. Ribeiro AS, Nunes JP, Schoenfeld BJ, Aguiar AF, Cyrino ES. Effects of different dietary energy intake following resistance training on muscle mass and body fat in bodybuilders: A pilot studyJ Hum Kinet. 2019;70:125-134. doi:10.2478/hukin-2019-0038

  5. American Council on Exercise. 4 myths about strength training for women.

  6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd Edition.

By Rachel MacPherson, BA, CPT
Rachel MacPherson is a health writer, certified personal trainer, and exercise nutrition coach based in Montreal.