A Woman’s Guide to Building More Arm and Shoulder Definition

Most women don’t want to bulk up too much when they lift. However, they do want a nice long, lean, and ‘toned’ look, especially in their arms. But they typically don’t know how to go about it. Suzanne Digre, founder of Workout Nirvana, explains how women can train to get their arms looking as sleek and sexy as possible. 

There’s nothing like sculpted arms and shoulders to make you feel sexy and fit. And let’s face it, muscle definition can make you stand out from the crowd. How many people really have the persistence and commitment to make standout muscle definition happen? Not many.

If you’ve been training awhile and still haven’t attained the look you want, it’s time to look back at old photos. They tell the whole story of how you’ve been training, how you’ve been eating, and what your priorities have been. Photos tell you whether you’re making progress at a snail’s pace or rocking freaking awesome results right up to this moment.

It can be painful to look back. Check out these two unaltered photos of myself, taken four years apart:

Training Tweaks for More Muscle Definition

These two photos are the difference between “toned” looking arms and arms that turn heads. In the first photo, I see:

  • Minimal, if any, rear deltoid development…
  • Which leads to less symmetry and well-rounded shoulders
  • Smaller forearm, biceps, triceps, and lateral and anterior deltoids
  • Less muscle definition overall

These photos also tell a story about my evolution as a lifter through strength training and my increased knowledge about eating for muscle. But it didn’t take me four years to develop my arms and shoulders – it took me that long to learn how to develop my arms and shoulders.


Fortunately, my years of trial and error plus experience as a personal trainer has taught me how to build muscle definition that stands out from the crowd.

How to Build Arm and Shoulder Muscle Definition

Sculpting More Arm and Shoulder Definition

Check out these tips and never forget the importance of consistency in both training and diet.

  • Don’t ignore your rear delts, as they add a rounded, symmetrical look to your shoulders. They are small muscles and don’t need to be hammered relentlessly, but you do need to isolate them with rear delt raises. Super tip: To really isolate your rear delts and prevent cheating, put your forehead on an incline bench for rear delt raises. Pull your abs in towards your belly button and keep your back flat (see how).
  • Train your biceps and triceps at different angles. Your biceps have two heads and your triceps have three – don’t forget to do hammer curls and different variations of triceps pushdowns and extensions.
  • Be smart about shoulder training. Your shoulder joint is fragile and you need to proactively protect them. Train the rear and lateral heads with moderate weight and remember that your anterior delts are also trained with chest presses. You don’t need to also hammer them with front raises. Stick with the same exercises for at least 4-6 weeks, but you can vary the grip and other factors such as seated versus standing.
  • GROW your muscles for more definition. If you’re female, you need to get over your fear of “getting big.” You can’t have muscle definition without larger muscle mass.  And you cannot grow muscles as big as a guy because you don’t have enough testosterone. However, for standout muscle definition you do need standout muscles! And by the way, compound exercises like pull ups and bench presses will build muscle faster, even for secondary muscles.
  • Keep your body fat percentage below the low 20’s (for women). While you have to eat properly for muscle building, you also can’t carry a lot of extra fat if you want to see muscle definition. How low should your body fat be? It doesn’t have to be in the teens; mine is rarely below 21% and sometimes it’s higher. It depends on your body type.
  • Train with varying volumes. For each muscle group you want to grow, aim for a moderate rep range (8-12) of 12-20 total sets a week. Remember that the arms and shoulders are involved in chest or back exercises as well, so you don’t need 12-20 sets of tricep isolation exercises. Doing less for more” applies to everyone; always do the least amount of work for the best training effect.
  • Adjust your training split to really bring out muscle definition. I’ve found that upper/lower and body-part splits allow you to hit the muscles in more depth than full-body splits.


Two of my clients who gained great definition in just a few months were Chris (top) and Shauna. They were very consistent, followed their programs, and enjoyed every minute of it.

So the questions to ask yourself are: What am I doing to build more muscle definition? Am I following a program that works? Am I consistent week after week?

If the answer is more of the same, switching programs frequently, or not sure, it’s time to get on a plan. Take a picture of yourself today, date it, and put it where you can see it. It will remind you that if you want to look even better and be stronger several months from now, you need to change the game. Will you?

Suzanne Digre is the founder of Workout Nirvana. She is a rebel, explorer, and mentor of women lifters. She teaches women how to own their power in the weight room and beyond.