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A Call to (Well-Toned) Arms

Fitness: Women are trimming their triceps and building their biceps--through exercise and surgery--to get that suddenly popular athletic look.

June 12, 1997|JEANNINE STEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Toni Braxton posed for the current issue of Vibe wearing little more than a sultry look, hers ripped. So did Sarah Jessica Parker's in recent wedding photos.

We're talking arms, the body part du jour and the latest object of obsession for women already on a quest for the perfect abs, glutes and quads. Strong, lean arms are the new badge of femininity.

Women are heading to the gym--or even to plastic surgeons--to shave or stave off those flaccid flaps of skin that hang under the upper arm like pockets of Jell-O.

Fat cells tend to accumulate there, making the area workout-resistant and, for some, a cruel and obvious reminder of age.

"I've had clients call me just for that. They say they want to go get rid of what they call their 'grandmother arms,' " says Los Angeles professional trainer Gina Lombardi. "One of my clients, Kirstie Alley, said one of the reasons why she called me was because she ran into a woman I had been working with. She saw her arms and said, 'Oh my God, you look like an athlete!' "

This new yen for awesome arms is not only making the triceps push-down machine more popular, she adds, but also sports like boxing and kick boxing, which offer demanding upper-body conditioning.

What's the payoff for all that effort? How about a sexy, curve-clinging gown by New York designer Marc Bouwer? Major celebs with incredible bods like Whitney Houston, Braxton, Diana Ross and Sigourney Weaver shimmy in his styles, which run about $2,500 and often reveal bare arms.

"The kind of woman who wears my clothing is definitely a toned woman," Bouwer says. "She works hard at keeping that body in shape, no matter what her age." And that means no "flappies," as he calls them, although he considers the mini-Schwarzenegger look over the top.

A high-profile, defining moment usually kicks off such a trend. One had to be Linda Hamilton's macha turn in 1991's "Terminator 2"; another, Angela Bassett's 1993 portrayal of Tina Turner in "What's Love Got to Do With It." Her sculpted physique--and the focus wasn't just on her lean, mean legs--looked as if it were straight out of the pages of Muscle and Fitness, making her the Wonder Woman for the '90s.

Credit trainer David Sinnott for those sinewy arms. He says he had exactly 28 days to get Bassett into Tina-shape, and the actress was no gym rat. Training smarter, not harder, was the key. Her daily routine included a sane hour to 90 minutes of weights and cardio.

"We did everything within her ability," he says, "And I made sure Angela had perfect form. After the workouts she felt good and strong, not depleted and burned out." At the end, "She was happier than anything" with the results. "She owned the screen."

Both Lombardi and Sinnott swear that cut biceps are attainable by mere mortals as well.

"I have people who look better now in their 40s than at any point in their life," Lombardi says. "Skin elasticity is a factor, but the underlying muscle and the amount of body fat is changeable. Maybe your skin doesn't hang perfectly, but if you have good muscle mass in your arms, you can fill them out."

Adds Sinnott: "I do believe that no one is hopeless."

Take Leah Remini, for instance. The 26-year-old actress was an admitted Taco Bell addict who equated exercise with torture used on political prisoners. But in the two years she's been training with Lombardi, she has shed 20 pounds and added muscle mass.

"I was never really aware of my arms at all," she confesses. "But when I started to work with Gina I started noticing people's arms. Now mine are toned."

But sometimes, despite countless bench presses and biceps curls, those little flaps still swing back and forth annoyingly.

Most live with it, while others decide to have liposuction and, if necessary, surgery to remove the excess skin. Dr. Peter Bela Fodor, a Los Angeles plastic surgeon, has seen an increase in requests for underarm liposuction in the last three to four years.

"Some say, 'I just want to look muscular.' It's in now," Fodor admits.

Others want to avoid what he calls the "bat wings" they see on their mothers, aunts and grandmothers. The underside and back of the arm, Fodor adds, can be resistant to diet and exercise, much like love handles or those outer thigh "saddlebags."

"Genetically," he explains, "there are more fat cells in those body regions, and some people have too many fat cells. After they're removed, diet and exercise programs are met with much better success."

Heredity, age and skin elasticity are all factors in the surgery's results. And, he stresses, liposuction is not a substitute for diet, exercise and good nutrition.

But even small gains can mean big self-esteem boosts.

"Sometimes I'll see people looking at my arms," says Remini, "and that's cool. I have these little biceps."

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