A Farewell to Arms

Reshaping and strengthening your arms through daily exercise.

By Mary Marino


Those annoying flaps of flesh on our upper arms are referred to as “batwings.” These days mine shake like a California earthquake every time I salt my salad. Years ago, as a young taut aerobics instructor led my class through endless groan inducing arm curls, she warned us that as the body ages the triceps are the first to go. And right she was. On some of us, they turn to mush.

Of course it could be worse. There are a lot of things more wretched to lose than muscle tone, but it’s also one of the things we can fight either with exercise and discipline or a checkbook and a good plastic surgeon.

The sagging can actually happen at any age when there is a dramatic weight loss. But around age 40, muscle tissue starts to decrease even in women who exercise regularly. The skin and fat layer that lies on top of the muscle sags when this happens and leaves loose hanging skin.

Exercising the Arms into Shape

I spoke with fitness coach and training mentor, Ray Dente of Get Fit With Ray (32 Union Square East, 908-380-0092). Before he would focus on arms, Dente explained that the body is an entire  machine and we can’t fix one part without engaging the rest. Food is the foundation of his total body transformation philosophy. “Real food gets you everywhere,” he says, “so consider toning and strengthening the arms as part of something bigger.”

Dente designs his exercise plans around the four pillars of movement: Pushing, pulling, rotating and elevating. We push and pull with the body, rotate with the core and elevate using the lower body to drop down and get up. “The human body is the best machine on the planet, Dente says, “and exercise movements should mimic movements we use in daily life.” He uses stretch rubber cables anchored to the wall of his studio and coaches his clients through repetitions of various pulling movements that work the whole upper arm. I tried it, and felt my sluggish triceps wake up from a deep sleep.

Dente also uses a challenging series of front curls (for biceps) and back curls (for triceps) using light weights. You can do this at home starting with 20 front curls and 2 back curls, then 18 front curls and 4 back curls, subtracting two from the front curls and adding 2 to the back curls until you’ve completed the whole sequence in reverse.

Start with one or two pound weights and don’t worry if you can’t complete the series at first. Progress happens fast and is easy to measure; the stronger you get the more you will be able to do until gradually you can power through the whole series.

I’ve worked out all my adult life, but had been slacking off for almost two years. My meeting with Ray Dente motivated me to reverse this pattern; I put myself on a 30-day plan of doing the series of curls every other day. I started today using 5-pound weights and finished the series with difficulty. I’ll let you know how it goes; I need to be tank top ready for an upcoming trip that includes both a bathing suit and a sleeveless party dress.

Surgically Sculpting the Arms 

There is a way to re-shape what nature gave you without lifting anything heavier than a checkbook. It involves either minimal surgery or a lot of nip and tuck depending on your body.

I visited Colen MD Plastic Surgery, (742 Park Ave, New York City, 212-772-1300) and spent time with Dr. Helen Colen. A specialist in plastic and reconstructive surgery, Dr. Colen has a background in delicate microsurgery. She shed a candid light on her profession: Cosmetic surgery affects people mentally,” she said, it affects self-perception. The surgeon needs to able to intuit what the patient wants and make sure expectations are realistic. No surgeon wants a patient to come out of surgery and say this is not what I expected.”

Dr. Colen usually recommends a combination of liposuction and brachioplasty for arm-toning surgeries, especially on women over 40, when there is usually age-related decreases in skin elasticity. Liposuction removes the excess fat and allows the surgeon to sculpt the arm; brachioplasty removes the excess skin.

Even though arm re-toning surgery is fairly simple because it does not involve muscle, it is tricky because of the choice a woman needs to make before committing to it,” said Dr. Colen. She explained that with most elective surgeries, including breast augmentation, face lifts and eye lifts, the scars can be completely hidden in folds of skin, hairlines or clothing leaving a noticeable transformation, but no visible signs. This is not the case with the arms. While the liposuction scar is tiny and invisible, the brachioplasty scar, which generally runs between the armpit and the elbow, cannot be hidden without wearing a sleeved garment. So if you want arm surgery in order to wear sleeveless garments, this may defeat the purpose.

Scarring will depend upon each patient and how she heals. Post-surgery requires the patient to wear an elastic sleeve for a week or so to prevent swelling. There is about six weeks of down time when the patient cannot do any lifting, driving, or working out. This is mainly to allow the scar to heal; every movement has the potential to pull on the incision and make the scar wider and more noticeable. The procedure requires anesthesia and though there is always the potential for infection or a hematoma, risks are minimal.

The estimated total cost is $7,000+ tax. This includes a $4,000 surgical fee, a $2,000 facility fee and $1,000 for anesthesia. Dr. Colen’s advice for anyone considering elective surgery is to look for a quality surgeon who is associated with a reputable facility: Don’t let cost be your only criteria.

Mary Marino is the co-founder and editor of Flashionista.com, a fashion jewelry website for women. Mary was a designer in the fashion industry for 25 years.

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