Ways to Sculpt Your Arms Without Bulking Up

Building toned, sculpted arms is a goal for many people, but if you are hoping to avoid a bulky look, you might be wondering how to attain your goal while still obtaining the look you are after. While it should be noted that getting bulky muscles is not something that happens 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 you to bulk up quickly. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Why? Bulking up comes from three things: hormones, calories, and an intentional, consistent muscle-building routine. It is improbable that you will get bulky from resistance training unless you intentionally do so.

Of course, good genetics help too. Let’s take a look at how each of these plays a part in making bigger muscles.


How fast and how easily you build muscle size will depend greatly on your genetics. Part of this reason is that the type of muscle fibers you predominately have influences how bulky you can become. There are two types: type I and type II. If you have many type II muscle fibers, you will gain muscle size more easily since these muscle fibers are larger. Genetics will also determine 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, and 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 the bulk that men can achieve more easily due to their naturally higher testosterone levels.

If you are a man wishing to avoid 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 healthy, 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.

Muscle Building

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.

Resistance Training

Why going heavy with weights matters for strength training.
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One important aspect of achieving a sculpted and shapely upper body is that you need to lift weights that challenge you. Without providing a challenge to your muscles, no adaptation will occur.

Adaptation is the process where your muscles react to the stress placed upon them during your training. During resistance training, your muscle fibers break down and subsequently recover during rest. This recovery process helps your muscles to 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 as a concept is not a physical action that your muscles can take. However, the idea of a toned physique typically infers 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.

Light weights are great for recovery from injury or to keep older adults functionally fit. As well, 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. The following workout covers all upper body muscles and takes you through something called “supersets.”

It means you will work two different exercises in a row for the same muscle group. This is a convenient way to strength train because it reduces rest times while adding a cardiovascular element to your training.

Cardiovascular exercise will help 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.

Exercises pictured are the first exercise in the set. For photos for all exercises, simply click on their name to be shown a visual demonstration.

Back Strength Super Set

Renegade Row

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Reverse Grip Double Arm Row

  • Start with legs together and sit back into a slight squat engaging abdominal. 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 and return forward with control.

Renegade Rows (Pictured)

  • Begin in a full plank with dumbbells in hands, arms extended, and on toes. (kneeling variation is fine if you are not able to do a full plank) 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. Keeping 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)

(Note: you can do a chest fly on the stability ball or also on a bench or the floor.)

  • Lay back on a bench or the floor 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 together 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.

Shoulder Strength Super Set

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. Repeat for the desired number of reps.

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

Tricep Overhead Extension

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.


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.

Just be sure to balance out your training by working on both sides of your body, regardless of which side is dominant. As well, you can try adding light-weighted boxing gloves to increase the challenge of your workout.

Yoga and Pilates

Yoga and Pilates can help you build a toned physique 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. As well, 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.

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Article Sources
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