Arm Workouts for Women: 3 Workouts to Build Size and Strength

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If you want to really rock that tank top at the gym or go sleeveless during summer, then girls gotta do curls, too. Learn all about arm training and try three full workouts to sculpt your arms!

Arm Workouts for Women: 3 Workouts to Build Size and Strength
Joanne Lee Cornish

Joanne Lee CornishFebruary 19, 2019 •  7 min read

Arm day is constantly dubbed every guy’s favorite day in the gym, second only to training chest. What’s interesting is that for however many guys overtrain their arms, it seems just as many women undertrain theirs. And this is unfortunate. Instagram might convince you to emphasize training only your lower body and abs, but overall muscle development shouldn’t be neglected if you want that complete fit look.

Take a look at your favorite female physique competitor, or even some actresses with athletic builds (think Brooke Ence in Wonder Woman or Gina Carano in Deadpool). You probably admire their arms just as much as their legs and abs. In our enthusiasm to build arms like female action movie stars, we’ve got three different arm workouts for you to implement into your training. But first, let’s get familiar with the anatomy and function of our upper extremities.

Arm Yourself With Education


The biceps brachii and the brachialis make up the pull and curl portion of the upper arm. The name comes from the Latin “biceps” meaning “two heads” and “brachii” meaning “of the arm.”

The two heads are generally known as the long and short heads of the biceps. Although they connect at different parts in the shoulder, they do share a common insertion point on the elbow tendon.

Anatomy of Your Biceps

The biceps brachii has two functions. The first is to flex the elbow. As you bring the wrist closer to your face (like when you pop that biceps pose) you’re flexing the elbow. The second is rotation of the forearm. Forearm supination is when you’re checking the time on your watch—any rotation of the forearm requires the biceps brachii.

The brachialis is seldom seen, so it’s often the forgotten part of the pulling group. The brachialis sits deep between the triceps and the biceps and is mainly activated with shoulder flexion, in isometric movements, or when a biceps movement is paused during activation. When developed, the brachialis can push the triceps and biceps apart, making the arm look bigger. As it pushes the biceps higher it can add to the peak of the muscle.


If biceps pull and curl, then their opposing muscles push and extend. And that brings us to the triceps. Triceps brachii translates to “three heads of the arm.”

Arm Training For Women

The three heads of the triceps are the long head, the lateral head, and the medial (deep) head. As females age, we tend to hold more body fat in this area, making triceps development more of a priority as the years pass. The long head of the triceps sits right in that troublesome posterior part of the upper arm. So, while the guys might focus on the horseshoe shape and thickness that develops the lateral head, women may want to prioritize long head exercises.

In doing this, it’s important to remember that shoulder extension is ideal for long head activation. This means any exercise where the arm goes behind the body, such as in a triceps kick-back or a single-arm cable push-down. It also means keeping your form as perfect as possible on any overhead extension or dip.

Notes For Beginners

Muscles contain high amounts of oxygenated blood; cut into a muscle and it’s red, fleshy tissue. Tendons and ligaments are pale and tough and don’t have the same sort of blood supply. Muscle can adapt well to the first few months or even years of training, whereas connective tissue can take a lot longer.

The muscles of the arms complement and assist all the other muscles of the upper body. In doing so, they can be unintentionally overtrained. As a rule, for the first year of serious lifting, it may be wise to partner arm exercises with a larger muscle group. The textbook workouts include biceps with back in the same session (“pulling” muscles), and triceps with shoulders, chest, or both (“pushing” muscles). These routines are etched in stone because they work for growth and allow strength gains without overdoing it.

Arm Training For Women

If you have under two years of training, keep it strict and simple. Training arms need never be boring as we can incorporate bars, cables, dumbbells, different body angles, and different hand positions. What all these variables have in common is elbow bend, and incorrect form, overuse, or both can end up leading to a very frustrating elbow injury. Such injuries are notorious for taking a long time to heal and are the common curse of the newbie lifter.

Training Tips

Think through your wrist. Be it a biceps or a triceps movement, the position of your wrist will dictate how much strain you are putting through the complementary muscles of the forearms. If your wrist looks like it’s cocked to sniff perfume, then you are truly setting yourself up for an elbow strain. Advanced trainers cringe when they see this on a barbell curl, skullcrusher, or triceps push-down. Keep the weight on the heal of your hand (not in your fingers) and keep the wrist neutral (straight) or ever so slightly flexed.

Stay where you start. We’ve all seen the videos of someone performing a standing curl where their back flexes more than their biceps, or the push-down that is doing more for the anterior deltoid than it is for triceps. A good reminder to avoid these things is to “stay where you start.” You may be seated or standing, but wherever your upper body is at the beginning, keep it right there. Don’t tilt, sway, roll your shoulders, or lean back. Lock your shoulders down away from your ears and concentrate on the position of your elbows and the movement of your wrists.Beginner’s WorkoutUse this workout following training a larger muscle group, like deadlifts and back training, or squats and chest. Rest for 60 seconds between sets.Print1Barbell Curl4 sets, 12, 10, 8, 8 reps

2Two-Arm Dumbbell Preacher Curl4 sets, 12, 10, 8, 8 reps

3Lying Triceps Press4 sets, 15, 12, 10, 6 reps

4Standing Dumbbell Triceps ExtensionCable or dumbbell4 sets, 12, 10, 8, 8 reps

5Tricep Dumbbell KickbackDumbbell or cable4 sets, 12, 12, 10, 10 reps (per arm)

The Fast-Paced Arm WorkoutKeep this workout fast-paced! Rest only between each triset or superset for 60 seconds.Print1TrisetLying Triceps PressUsing EZ-Bar4 sets, 15, 10, 8, 8 reps

Cable Rope Overhead Triceps Extension4 sets, 12, 12, 10, 10 reps

Barbell Curl4 sets, 8-10 reps (each with a rest-pause, then 4-5 extra reps at the end)

2TrisetPreacher Curl4 sets, 12, 10, 8, 6 reps

Cross Body Hammer CurlAlternating4 sets, 10 reps

Triceps Pushdown4 sets, 15, 12, 12, 10 reps (each with a rest-pause, then continue to failure)

3SupersetStanding Biceps Cable Curl4 sets, 12, 12, 10, 10 reps

Tricep Dumbbell Kickback4 sets, 12, 12, 10, 10 reps

The Advanced Lifter’s Arm WorkoutThis one is all about volume! Because of the continual repetition of either the curling movement or extension movement, this workout is for lifters with at least a few years of experience in the gym (the intensity of this comes with the risk of repetitive strain injuries for those new to lifting).Print1Circuit 1Repeat this circuit 4 times with no rest in between. Rest 1 min. before the next circuit.Incline Dumbbell Curl4 sets, 15, 12, 10, 8 reps

Drag CurlPerform with EZ-Bar4 sets, 15, 12, 10, 8 reps

Hammer CurlsPerform seated4 sets, 10, 10, 8, 8 reps

One Arm Dumbbell Preacher Curl4 sets, 10, 8, 6, 6 reps

2Circuit 2Repeat this circuit 4 times with no rest in between. Rest 1 min. before the next circuit.Standing Overhead Barbell Triceps ExtensionPerform with EZ-Bar4 sets, 15, 12, 10, 10 reps

Lying Triceps PressPerform with EZ-Bar4 sets, 15, 12, 10, 10 reps

Dips – Triceps Version4 sets, 12 reps

Tricep Dumbbell Kickback4 sets, 12 reps

3SupersetRepeat this superset 3 times with no rest in between.Barbell CurlPerform 7 reps at the bottom half of the movement, 7 reps at the top half of the movement, and 7 reps through the full range of motion. Keep constant resistance throughout.3 sets, 21 reps

Triceps PushdownPerform 7 reps at the bottom half of the movement, 7 reps at the top half of the movement, and 7 reps through the full range of motion. Keep constant resistance throughout.3 sets, 21 reps

Once you’ve completed the arm workouts in this article, it’s time to graduate to All Access. 30 Days To Your Best Arms with Julian Smith is a great next step on the road to amazing arms!


Joanne Lee Cornish

Joanne Lee Cornish

Joanne Lee Cornish is a British, European, and World Bodybuilding champion. A former IFBB pro, she competed in the Ms. Olympia twice before retiring to concentrate on her personal training…

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Thank you so much to Monica, presenter of On The Brighter Side Of Life podcast

If you know me, you know I have NOOOOOO problem speaking about my work. This will become apparent when hear how fast I speak on this podcast. How to get everything into 30 minutes!!!

You can find the book mentioned at All versions of the book are available worldwide

Ep 37 – Body Composition and Weight Loss with Joanne Lee Cornish

By Monica Tanner | 02/18/2019 | 

Joanne Lee Graphic

Today’s episode is so much fun. I’m chatting with Joanne Lee Cornish, the author of When Calories and Cardio don’t Cut it. We are talking about body composition and what happens to our food when we eat it. Once lypolosis was explained to me, I feel like I can easily shed this extra 10 pounds that…Listen to this episodePlay / pause1x

  • Ep 37 – Body Composition and Weight Loss with Joanne Lee Cornish


Here is the direct link to listen to the podcast in full, look for episo 37

How to Succeed in Personal Training

6 Life Lessons from Working at Gold’s Gym Venice

Spend some time in the Mecca of Bodybuilding, and you’ll learn far more than just sets, reps, and training techniques. Here are six time-tested truths from a top trainer at Gold’s for over 20 years!

6 Life Lessons from Working at Gold's Gym Venice
Joanne Lee Cornish

Joanne Lee CornishFebruary 13, 2019 •  9 min read

If you’re going to be a personal trainer, there’s no better place to work that Golds Gym in Venice, California. It gets called “The Mecca of Bodybuilding,” and having spent 24 years there as a trainer, I can say that the title is well earned.

I was 27 years old when I entered the Mecca in its heyday. It was 1993, right in the middle of what I maintain was a golden era for the gym and the sport of bodybuilding. I had a few training and nutrition qualifications under my belt, but nobody was particularly interested in seeing them. The real qualifications for the job were:

  • How buff you looked
  • How much you lifted
  • Your ability to play well with others (don’t underestimate how important this one is!)

Back in the 90s there were over 140 independent trainers working at Gold’s. That number is now closer to 40, and many of them have been there as long as me, or even longer. If you visit the Mecca you might not notice them among the chaos, but there are some legends working that 30,000-square-foot floor.

In a place that has lasted for generations, and that thrives on the quest for eternal youth, how do you survive the test of time? Here are my lessons—and you don’t have to be in Gold’s Venice to use them. If the gym is a major part of your income, or just a major part of your day, then take note.

Lesson 1: Stay Away From Center Stage

To train in Gold’s and to work in Gold’s are two very different things. A little like a stage performance, there were a few main characters under the spotlight each and every day. You knew them when you saw them. They were the reasons tourists traveled—and continue to do so—from all over the world to enter those famous glass doors and go back home with a story to tell. They’re what give Gold’s its “wow” factor.

And often, these characters changed with the season. Every year I’d see a few main characters get run out of Gold’s, or a trainer or two get kicked out, often for good reason. The Mecca is not the place to make enemies, but it is an amazing place to meet friends.

And often, these characters changed with the season. Every year Id see a few main characters get run out of Golds, or a trainer or two get kicked out, often for good reason.

That’s all fun if you’re in there for just an hour or so a day. If you’re a trainer, or just someone with truly elite training goals, your day is far longer. If you’re going to play a lead role, it’s going to be exhausting and you’re likely to tread on some toes. The secret to longevity is to stay in the shadows and do your work. Watch the stories unfold without getting dragged into them.

Of course, for some people it is impossible to stay entirely out of the spotlight. Gold’s Venice is brimming with celebrities, and yet it is the only place I know where the famous really can go about their workouts without being overly bothered. You may be training next to 50 CentThe RockArnold, or Shawn Rhoden, but aside from the odd tourist selfie, they pretty much blend into the crowd. If they can, we all should.

The Lesson for You: Every gym has its own occasional whirlwind of drama going on, and if you’re just passing through it can be fun for a few minutes. But if you plan on staying awhile, know when to step back and watch from a distance. No matter what: Do. The. Work.

Lesson 2: Look For Opportunities, And Grasp Them

We all ended up in Gold’s because of our love of lifting weights, first and foremost. And once in Gold’s, you’re rubbing shoulders with plenty of the best and most famous lifters in the world.

They may look a little intimidating, but generally they are the kindest muscle heads you will ever meet. If you’re willing to put your ego on the back burner, you can draft the energy of your peers to smash any limitations you may have put on yourself at a different gym.

The opposite is true, too. At Gold’s, if you think you’re big, there’s someone bigger. If you think you’re strong, there’s someone stronger. If you think you’re lean, someone walks in and shows you what “peeled” really looks like.

I’d been in Gold’s barely a year when Robby Robinson suggested we train together. I was 27, and he was a legend both for what he had achieved, and what he was still achieving. That year, 1994, he won the Masters Mr. Olympia, and I was able to be part of his preparation. It’s that sort of experience you can only get at Gold’s Venice.

Robby was a very quiet guy, but that didn’t mean he had nothing to teach me. It just meant I needed to pay close attention to learn it! And I picked up so many valuable training tips in that year or so of training.

The following year, I got a lesson in strength. I started training with Billy “Thunder” Smith, a longtime bodybuilder who had recently finished a three-year run on “American Gladiators.” Now, there were quite a few 300-pound men in Gold’s in the 90s—this was the dawn of the age of Dorian and the “mass monsters,” after all—but the weights Billy and his buddy Jim Quinn moved brought the gym to a standstill.

I didn’t really know how strong I thought I was, but when I started training alongside Billy for two years, there was one thing I knew: It was either give it a go with the weights he was using (at least some of the time), or strip all the weights off and put them back on for every set for every workout. So, whenever I could, I stepped up to the plate.

Guess what? I gained more muscle in those two years than I had in the 12 years of lifting that came before.

Guess what? I gained more muscle in those two years than I had in the 12 years of lifting that came before.

The Lesson for You: To really excel, don’t train with someone who makes you look good. Train with someone who gives you a few sleepless nights, an anxious drive to the gym, and someone you’re in awe of. It’s better to look up to your training partners than to look straight at them. That desire to live up to your partner’s example can result in gains you didn’t think possible.

Lesson 3: Blatantly Copy, But Give Credit

When I first arrived at the Mecca, I had been training for over 12 years and was already an IFBB pro. But I was still baffled by some of the equipment in the gym.

Going from a 2,000-square-foot gym in the North of England to a 30,000-square-foot gym in SoCal was quite an adjustment, and to make sense of it all, I had to put my pride aside and copy the heck out of the people who knew what they were doing. Seriously, I had no problem watching other people work and trying out their techniques for myself.

There were two people I hounded, especially in my younger years: Charles Glass and Jerry Brainum. And why wouldn’t I? Charles is known as “The Godfather of Bodybuilding,” and Jerry is “The Muscle Guru,” and both nicknames are well earned. Even 20-plus years ago, these guys knew it all, and had seen it all.

In the 90s there were always at least 10-12 people getting ready for the Olympia—including me on a couple of occasions. But whoever they were and wherever they were from, Charles Glass seemed to train all of them! Over the decades I have quizzed Charles whenever I could about his training principles and contest prep techniques. Wouldn’t you?

Jerry’s experience and research with regard to nutrition and training spans over 40 years, he has written for every publication you can name, and is a straight shooter who has no tolerance for “bro science.” I’m a morning person and preferred to train at 4 or 5 a.m., but Jerry was a night owl and could only be found in Gold’s at 10 p.m. or later. If there was something I was studying or wasn’t sure about, I would go back to Gold’s at night just to track him down. Then I would pester him with question after question.

Both Charles and Jerry tolerated me at first, and soon enough, we became dear friends.

The Lesson for You: If you have a Charles or a Jerry in your gym, you can save yourself a lot of time by (politely) bugging the hell out of them. Seeking the advice of others does not reduce your value as a trainer or competitor in any way. I would actually argue the opposite! As long as you’re honest and open about what you’re doing, what you learn, and who you learned it from, it’s to your credit.

Lesson 4: Find Your Niche

In Los Angeles, it seems like everyone is either an actor, a realtor, or a trainer. To succeed in such a saturated environment, it’s necessary to find a niche—an area of expertise you can excel in and be known for.

When I arrived at Gold’s, everyone was a bodybuilder. Half the guys walked around north of 300 pounds and the girls were already on every cover of the fitness magazines. So being a professional in the sport wasn’t going to do me much good. I believe there are two things that over time served me well.

When I arrived at Golds, everyone was a bodybuilder.

First, I devoted myself to learning about nutrition. Back in the days before apps and online nutrition programs, clients were more reliant on their trainers—and very few trainers could handle anything beyond a basic bodybuilding diet. In a gym like Gold’s, the best marketing you could do was through the transformation of your clients. My clients changed, and people noticed that.

No, your clients don’t have to get onstage. But when they get stronger and leaner, or when their posture or confidence improves, it is a reflection of your work. People notice that.

The second thing that served me well: Once I retired from competition in 1996, I decided I wouldn’t be “stage ready” twice a year anymore and would instead simply focus on maintaining an attainable year-round physique.

Of course I wondered if it would affect my business, and it did: Almost instantaneously, my workload doubled! I had thought my work hinged on my being a competitor, but it was exactly the opposite. My clients couldn’t care a hoot if I stepped onstage! My weight no longer fluctuated 20 pounds, and I built a reputation as the trainer who was in shape all year. It was this year-round consistency that people admired more than my bi-annual striated ass.

I can’t tell you how many times over the years I have been approached by strangers in the gym who have told me that they have been visiting Gold’s for years, and that I always look the same.

The Lesson for You: What you take for granted, people pay attention to. It used to drive me crazy that outside of the gym people would always assume I was a trainer. In hindsight, that was not a bad thing. Build your expertise, and don’t shy away from it.

Lesson 5: It’s Not A Job, It’s Your Career!

It’s great to not have to put on a suit and half an inch of makeup to go to work, but that doesn’t mean that you can take your role as a trainer casually.

You can have more qualifications than any other trainer in your gym, but if you don’t shower, turn up late, take a personal call, or cancel last minute on your client, you will not last long. Like begets like: If your training gig is not your priority, your clients won’t make you a priority.

The Lesson for You: This may sound like it just applies to trainers, but it can be applied to any job. If you carry Tupperware and eat on your client’s dime, you are diminishing their value. If you answer a call when they’re doing a set, the same is true. If your CPA was having lunch or taking calls during your appointment, it would be insulting.

No matter how big or small your job, treat it with the same professionalism. Do this, and you will stand out. Don’t do it, and you will stand out for the wrong reasons.

No matter how big or small your job, treat it with the same professionalism. Do this, and you will stand out. Dont do it, and you will stand out for the wrong reasons.

Lesson 6: Don’t Let Fame Blind You

Gold’s had—and still has—no shortage of celebrities. It was tempting to focus my efforts primarily on them. Honestly, if you’re a trainer in Los Angeles and haven’t trained a celebrity, it’s probably a strategic move on your part because they are literally everywhere!

It’s always great to have these names and physiques to add to your resume (or today, your website or Instagram feed). They can increase your visibility, and their names sometimes bring more short-term value than any continuing education credits you’ve done. They are also generally very fun to work with and take their training seriously.

However, having trained quite a few celebrities over my 24 years at Gold’s, I can say that there are some big downsides. They leave town for months at a time and have erratic schedules that you have to work with. If you’re training them for a movie, they can take up a huge amount of your time, then when they disappear, you have enormous gaps in your day that you now have to fill.

In that time, you will have probably turned away—or just not noticed—plenty of potential “bread and butter” clients. Sure, you can usually charge a high-profile client for the inconvenience they pose, but the ultimate math often doesn’t make sense.

The Lesson for You: Your gym may not have “celebrities” per se, but wherever you’re a trainer—or wherever you work—there will always be those big fish you want to hook. They can undoubtedly create a buzz about your work, but be sure to balance your portfolio with your regular day-to-day rock stars.

No matter your calling, think in broad terms, not just big terms. That’s advice you can build a career by whether you’re training clients in the Mecca of Bodybuilding, out of your garage, or any point in between.

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Fat is future energy; excess nutrients stored in adipose tissue, aka BODY FAT. Although we tend to loath bodyfat, we should actually be somewhat appreciative of it because BODY FAT IS A BEAUTIFUL THING! So is body fat good or bad.

Before you roll your eyes at this post, I’m not about to tell you to embrace and accept any extra pounds you may be holding on to, but I do want to explain how the alternative would be far far worse! bODY FAT GOOD OR BAD?

Is body fat good or bad? Body fat is stored “future energy”, the average woman has 2 months supply of fuel before she would ever find herself in trouble. The body can also use carbohydrates for fuel, but there is a limit to how much glycogen (the storage form of carbohydrates) we can store. Glycogen is stored in muscle and a few hundred calories in the liver, the carbs stored in muscle cannot leave their storage site, meaning that carbs/glycogen in your bicep cannot leave that bicep to scurry on down to your quads to help you in that spin class. Carbohydrates in muscle STAY IN THAT MUSCLE, they are not an available form of ‘body fuel’. It is only that glycogen that is stored in the liver that can re-enter the blood supply and provide fuel to the tissue that needs it. The reality is we can store a lot of fuel as body fat but very very little a glycogen.

Fat cell is mostly lipid not water

Fat also does not hold on to water (hydrophobic) whereas for every unit of glycogen (stored carbohydrates) we hold onto two units of water. Ever felt super bloated after a high carb meal? you’re not imagining it, carbs trigger the kidneys to reabsorb sodium and water follows that sodium. High carb meals will indeed make you feel “fluffy” and add pounds to the scale, and if those carbs are stored in muscle, they will be stored with those extra two units of water for every glycogen unit present. Its why when we cut carbohydrates we might experience a sudden drop in body weight as that extra water gets excreted.

With all the low carb diets flying around this is probably nothing new to your ears, so let me share some math with you.

If we didn’t store future fuel as fat but stored it as carbohydrates we would all be HUGE. If our storage form of fuel was carbohydrates we would also have to store a HUGE amount of water.

A 165lb person with 20% body fat would weigh over 240lbs if that same energy were stored as carbohydrates and not as fat.

Just another example of how incredibly smart our body is!

Going off on a slight tangent here, but its along the same lines. People are always terrified of losing muscle. With all the Fasting diets going on it would seem a relevant issue to be concerned about. What we have found (and what makes perfect sense) is that fasting is muscle sparing. Why would the body be so great at storing body fat only to burn up pounds of lean muscle tissue if we missed a few meals – it would make no sense!

The one exception (there are probably more) is when someone is in a highly stressed state. Prolonged stress equals prolonged and elevated cortisol. Cortisol will keep blood sugar high which over time will lead to elevated insulin. Insulin halts fat breakdown meaning that stored body fat cannot be readily available for fuel. Cortisol in the short term is not an issue, but over an extended period of time cortisol with burn up muscle and promote fat storage. Interestingly it often strips muscle off the extremities whilst adding inches to the waist – not a good look.

So be thankful that it is fat (not carbs) that is our storage fuel of choice. All we have to do is to make stored fat can be accessed, and we can start to do that my being kind to ourselves, getting some great sleep and doing anything that makes you 🙂

If you like this type of information please check out my book on Midlife Weight gain. When Calories and Cardio Don’t Cut it will explain what influences our weight and body shape and tell you how to control it. All formats available worldwide.

international and non amazon resources

My very best

Joanne Lee Cornish


Golds Gym Venice

Are plastics making men less male?

A friend of mine sent me this fascinating read on the declining male sperm count and are plastics making men less male?

The average male sperm count is half that of a generation ago. The article really seems to join some very interesting dots of society today and the problems we face.

I’d love to send you updates

Sperm Count Zero

A strange thing has happened to men over the past few decades: We’ve become increasingly infertile, so much so that within a generation we may lose the ability to reproduce entirely. What’s causing this mysterious drop in sperm counts—and is there any way to reverse it before it’s too late?

Men are doomed. Everybody knows this. We’re obviously all doomed, the women too, everybody in general, just a waiting game until one or another of the stupid things our stupid species is up to finally gets us. But as it turns out, no surprise: men first. Second instance of no surprise: We’re going to take the women down with us.

There has always been evidence that men, throughout life, are at higher risk of early death—from the beginning, a higher male incidence of Death by Mastodon Stomping, a higher incidence of Spiked Club to the Brainpan, a statistically significant disparity between how many men and how many women die of Accidentally Shooting Themselves in the Face or Getting Really Fat and Having a Heart Attack. The male of the species dies younger than the female—about five years on average. Divide a population into groups by birth year, and by the time each cohort reaches 85, there are two women left for every man alive. In fact, the male wins every age class: Baby boys die more often than baby girls; little boys die more often than little girls; teenage boys; young men; middle-aged men. Death champions across the board.

Now it seems that early death isn’t enough for us—we’re on track instead to void the species entirely. Last summer a group of researchers from Hebrew University and Mount Sinai medical school published a study showing that sperm counts in the U.S., Europe, Australia, and New Zealand have fallen by more than 50 percent over the past four decades. (They judged data from the rest of the world to be insufficient to draw conclusions from, but there are studies suggesting that the trend could be worldwide.) That is to say: We are producing half the sperm our grandfathers did. We are half as fertile.

The Hebrew University/Mount Sinai paper was a meta-analysis by a team of epidemiologists, clinicians, and researchers that culled data from 185 studies, which examined semen from almost 43,000 men. It showed that the human race is apparently on a trend line toward becoming unable to reproduce itself. Sperm counts went from 99 million sperm per milliliter of semen in 1973 to 47 million per milliliter in 2011, and the decline has been accelerating. Would 40 more years—or fewer—bring us all the way to zero?

I called Shanna H. Swan, a reproductive epidemiologist at Mount Sinai and one of the lead authors of the study, to ask if there was any good news hiding behind those brutal numbers. Were we really at risk of extinction? She failed to comfort me. “The What Does It Mean question means extrapolating beyond your data,” Swan said, “which is always a tricky thing. But you can ask, ‘What does it take? When is a species in danger? When is a species threatened?’ And we are definitely on that path.” That path, in its darkest reaches, leads to no more naturally conceived babies and potentially to no babies at all—and the final generation of Homo sapiens will roam the earth knowing they will be the last of their kind.

If we are half as fertile as the generation before us, why haven’t we noticed? One answer is that there is a lot of redundancy built into reproduction: You don’t need 200 million sperm to fertilize an egg, but that’s how many the average man might devote to the job. Most men can still conceive a child naturally with a depressed sperm count, and those who can’t have a booming fertility-treatment industry ready to help them. And though lower sperm counts probably have led to a small decrease in the number of children being conceived, that decline has been masked by sociological changes driving birth rates down even faster: People in the developed world are choosing to have fewer children, and they are having them later.

The problem has been debated among fertility scientists for decades now—studies suggesting that sperm counts are declining have been appearing since the ’70s—but until Swan and her colleagues’ meta-analysis, the results have always been judged incomplete or preliminary. Swan herself had conducted smaller studies on declining sperm counts, but in 2015 she decided it was time for a definitive answer. She teamed up with Hagai Levine, an Israeli epidemiologist, and Niels Jørgensen, a Danish endocrinologist, and along with five others, they set about performing a systematic review and meta-regression analysis—that is, a kind of statistical synthesis of the data. “Hagai is a very good scientist, and he also used to be the head of epidemiology for the Israeli armed forces,” Swan told me. “So he’s very good at organizing.” They spent a year working with the data.

“We should hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” said Hagai Levine, a lead author of the study. “And that is the possibility that we will become extinct.”

The results, when they came in, were clear. Not only were sperm counts per milliliter of semen down by more than 50 percent since 1973, but total sperm counts were down by almost 60 percent: We are producing less semen, and that semen has fewer sperm cells in it. This time around, even scientists who had been skeptical of past analyses had to admit that the study was all but unassailable. Jørgensen, in Copenhagen, told me that when he saw the results, he’d said aloud, “No, it cannot be true.” He had expected to see a past decline and then a leveling off. But he couldn’t argue when the team ran the numbers again and again. The downward slope was unwavering.

Almost all the scientists I talked to stressed that not only were low sperm counts alarming for what they said about the reproductive future of the species—they were also a warning of a much larger set of health problems facing men. In this view, sperm production is a canary in the coal mine of male bodies: We know, for instance, that men with poor semen quality have a higher mortality rate and are more likely to have diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease than fertile men.

Testosterone levels have also dropped precipitously, with effects beginning in utero and extending into adulthood. One of the most significant markers of an organism’s sex is something called anogenital distance (AGD)—the measurement between the anus and the genitals. Male AGD is typically twice the length of female, a much more dramatic difference than height or weight or musculature. Lower testosterone leads to a shorter AGD, and a measurement lower than the median correlates to a man being seven times as likely to be subfertile and gives him a greater likelihood of having undescended testicles, testicular tumors, and a smaller penis. “What you are seeing in a number of systems, other developmental systems, is that the sex differences are shrinking,” Swan told me. Men are producing less sperm. They’re also becoming less male.

I assumed that the next thing Swan was going to tell me was that these changes were all a mystery to scientists. If only we could figure out what was causing the drop in sperm counts, I imagined, we could solve all the attendant health problems at once. But it turns out that it’s not a mystery: We know what the culprit is. And it’s hiding in plain sight.

The sixth floor of the Rigshospitalet, a hospital and research institution in Copenhagen, houses the Department of Growth and Reproduction. The babies are all a few floors downstairs—on six, the unit is populated not with new parents but with doctors and researchers hunched over mass spectrometers and gel imagers and the like. I was there to meet Niels E. Skakkebæk, an 82-year-old pediatric endocrinologist, who founded the department in 1990. After walking me through the lab, he showed me to his office, a cramped, closet-like space—modest for someone who is a giant in his field. Male fertility and male reproductive health, Skakkebæk told me, are in full-blown crisis. “Here in Denmark, there is an epidemic of infertility,” he said. “More than 20 percent of Danish men do not father children.”

Skakkebæk first suspected something was going wrong in the late ’70s, when he treated an infertile patient with an abnormality in the cells of the testes that he had never seen before. When he treated a second man with the same abnormality a few years later, he began to investigate a connection. What he found was a new form of precursor cells for testicular cancer, a once rare disease whose incidence had doubled. Moreover, these precursor cells had begun developing before the patient was even born. “He had the insight that testicular cancer, which is a cancer of young men, is something that is actually originated in utero,” Swan told me. And if these testes had somehow been misdeveloping in utero, Skakkebæk asked himself, what else was happening to these babies before they were born?

Eventually, Skakkebæk linked several other previously rare symptoms for a condition he called testicular dysgenesis syndrome (TDS), a collection of male reproductive problems that include hypospadias (an abnormal location for the end of the urethra), cryptorchidism (an undescended testicle), poor semen quality, and testicular cancer. What Skakkebæk proposed with TDS is that these disorders can have a common fetal origin, a disruption in the development of the male fetus in the womb.

So what was causing this disruption? To say there is only a single answer might be an overstatement—stress, smoking, and obesity, for example, all depress sperm counts—but there are fewer and fewer critics of the following theory: The industrial revolution happened. And the oil industry happened. And 20th-century chemistry happened. In short, humans started ingesting a whole host of compounds that affected our hormones—including, most crucially, estrogen and testosterone.


The scientists I talked to were less cautious about embracing this explanation than I expected. Down the hall from Skakkebæk’s office, I met Anna-Maria Andersson, a biologist whose research has focused on declining testosterone levels. “There has been a chemical revolution going on starting from the beginning of the 19th century, maybe even a bit before,” she told me, “and upwards and exploding after the Second World War, when hundreds of new chemicals came onto the market within a very short time frame.” Suddenly a vast array of chemicals were entering our bloodstream, ones that no human body had ever had to deal with. The chemical revolution gave us some wonderful things: new medicines, new food sources, faster and cheaper mass production of all sorts of necessary products. It also gave us, Andersson pointed out, a living experiment on the human body with absolutely no forethought to the result.

When a chemical affects your hormones, it’s called an endocrine disruptor. And it turns out that many of the compounds used to make plastic soft and flexible (like phthalates) or to make them harder and stronger (like Bisphenol A, or BPA) are consummate endocrine disruptors. Phthalates and BPA, for example, mimic estrogen in the bloodstream. If you’re a man with a lot of phthalates in his system, you’ll produce less testosterone and fewer sperm. If exposed to phthalates in utero, a male fetus’s reproductive system itself will be altered: He will develop to be less male.

Women with raised levels of phthalates in their urine during pregnancy were significantly more likely to have sons with shorter anogenital distance as well as shorter penis length and smaller testes. “When the [fetus’s] testicles start making testosterone, which is about week eight of pregnancy, they make a little less,” Swan said. “That’s the nub of this whole story. So phthalates decrease testosterone. The testicles then do not produce proper testosterone, and the anogenital distance is shorter.”

What’s more, there is evidence that the effect of these endocrine disruptors increases over generations, due to something called epigenetic inheritance. Normally, acquired traits—like, say, a sperm count lowered by obesity—aren’t passed down from father to son. But some chemicals, including phthalates and BPA, can change the way genes are expressed without altering the underlying genetic code, and that change is inheritable. Your father passes along his low sperm count to you, and your sperm count goes even lower after you’re exposed to endocrine disruptors. That’s part of the reason there’s been no leveling off even after 40 years of declining sperm counts—the baseline keeps dropping.

With all due respect to Dr. Swan and the problems of extrapolating beyond one’s data, I wanted to get back to What It All Means. The answer, I thought, might be found at the 13th International Symposium on Spermatology, which took place in May, on Lidingö, a small island in the inner Stockholm archipelago. A hundred spermatologists in one place: You’d think (incorrectly) that the jokes would be good. Skakkebæk had told me I’d be able to find some dissenters to the conclusions of Swan’s meta-analysis there, but what I witnessed instead was the final vanquishing of the few remaining doubters.

At the welcome dinner (reindeer and rooster), I met Hagai Levine, the Israeli co-author of the Hebrew University/Mount Sinai meta-analysis. Levine, who is 40, told me we had reasons to worry. “I’m saying that we should hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” he said. “And that is the possibility that we will become extinct. That’s a possibility we must seriously consider. I’m not saying it’s going to happen. I’m not saying it’s likely to happen. I’m not saying that’s the prediction. I’m just saying we should be prepared for such a possibility. That’s all. And we are not.”

His session the next morning—“Are Spermatozoa at the Verge of Extinction?”—would be the defining event of the conference: It cast a shadow over all the other talks. At a panel discussion that followed his presentation, Levine continued his argument for addressing the causes of the crisis, saying, “My default, if I don’t know, is that it is up to the manufacturers of chemicals to prove that their chemicals are safe. But I don’t feel like I need any more evidence to take action with chemicals already known to disrupt the endocrine system.”

The organizer of the symposium, Lars Björndahl, a Swedish spermatologist who had presented earlier in the morning, urged caution. “I have great respect for epidemiological studies, but we should remember that mathematical correlations don’t prove that there is a causative relation,” he said. Questions from the audience—often taking the form of statements—were much along the same lines: Be careful of a bias toward the assumption that all these things are connected. Levine nodded with only a hint of chagrin, like a patient professor waiting hopefully for his students to catch up.

David Mortimer, who runs a company that designs and establishes assisted-conception laboratories, was one of the only members of the audience willing to question Levine’s study itself. He pointed out that methods for measuring sperm had changed dramatically over the time period of the study and that the old studies were profoundly unreliable.

Levine was ready with an answer. “So that’s one of the reasons we also conducted a sensitivity analysis,” he said from the stage, “with studies with sample collection only after 1995—and the slope was even steeper. So that could not explain the decline we see after 1995.”

Mortimer came around and ended up signing the statement. When I caught up with him later, he wasn’t nearly as dismissive of the study’s conclusions as I expected. He agreed there was little question that sperm counts were dropping, and he even embraced some of the direst predictions of scientists like Levine. “The epigenetics are the scary bit,” he told me, “because what we’re doing now affects the future of the human race.” When even the skeptics are scared, it’s probably time to pay attention.

Can anything be done? Over the past 20 years, there have been occasional attempts to limit the number of endocrine disruptors in circulation, but inevitably the fixes are insubstantial: one chemical removed in favor of another, which eventually turns out to have its own dangers. That was the case with BPA, which was partly replaced by Bisphenol S, which might be even worse for you. The chemical industry, unsurprisingly, has been resistant to the notion that the billions of dollars of revenue these products represent might also represent terrible damage to the human body, and have often followed the model of Big Tobacco and Big Oil—fighting regulation with lobbyists and funding their own studies that suggest their products are harmless. The website for the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade association, has a page dedicated to phthalates that mostly consists of calling Shanna Swan’s research “controversial” and asserting that her “use of methodologies that have not been validated and unconventional data analysis have been criticized by the scientific community.” (Cited critics of Swan include Elizabeth Whelan, now deceased, an epidemiologist famous for fighting the regulation of chemicals from her position as president of the American Council on Science and Health, which has received funding from Chevron, DuPont, and other companies in the plastic business.)

Assuming that we’re unable to wean ourselves off plastics and other marvels of modern science, we may be stuck innovating our way out of this mess. How long we’re able to outrun the drop in sperm count may depend, finally, on how good we get at IVF and other fertility treatments. When I spoke with Marc Goldstein, a urologist and surgeon at Weill Cornell medical center in New York City, he said that while there was “no question I’ve seen a big increase in men with male-factor infertility,” he wasn’t worried for the future of the species. Assisted reproduction would keep the babies coming, no matter how sickly men’s sperm become.

It’s true that fertility treatments have already given men with extremely low sperm counts the chance to be fathers. Indeed, by looking at their cases, we can glimpse what our low-sperm-count future might look like. We know that it will be arduous to conceive, and expensive—so expensive that having children may no longer be an option available to all couples. A fertility-treatment-dependent future is also unlikely to produce a birth rate anywhere near current levels.

Not long ago, I spoke with Chris Wohl, a research materials/surface engineer at the NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia, who spent six years trying to conceive a child. Both he and his wife had fertility problems: Wohl’s sperm count was under 2 million per milliliter—the average count we’d expect to reach, at the current rate, by 2034. “We started in the normal way of trying to have kids,” he said, “and after a few years, we said, ‘Okay, let’s talk to some folks.’ ” They went through several rounds of intrauterine insemination. “And then after that sixth time, we said, ‘This isn’t working. We need to kind of up our technology game.’ So we went to a reproductive endocrinologist and went through several rounds of IVF. And then when that failed, we were going to look into adoption. That’s when somebody came forward and said that they would be a surrogate for us.” Finally, with the surrogate, the process worked. He and his wife now have a healthy, strong-willed 4-year-old girl.

So perhaps that’s the solution: As long as we hover somewhere above Sperm Count Zero, and with an assist from modern medicine, we have a shot. Men will continue to be essential to the survival of the species. The problem with innovation, though, is that it never stops. A new technology known as IVG—in vitro gametogenesis—is showing early promise at turning embryonic stem cells into sperm. In 2016, Japanese scientists created baby mice by fertilizing normal mouse eggs with sperm created via IVG. The stem cells in question were taken from female mice. There was no need for any males.

Such an interesting and thought provoking article

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