Well-contoured, muscular arms are not made overnight. However, they will grow with hard and consistent work using heavy, simple, basic exercises because the arms respond best to this type of stimulation. If you want to stretch the tape measure a bit, you cannot neglect the triceps brachii, because it makes up two-thirds of the upper arm girth. Larger triceps can be built without fancy or specialized machines as long as you’re persistent and willing to exert an all-out effort in every set. Although all regions of the triceps must be developed to ensure symmetry, the inner region of this muscle is the largest component of the triceps brachii and its development is crucial to possessing great-looking arms. The triceps is also critically important in sports like football, many track and field events and most activities that demand pushing as part of the activity.
The triceps has three heads (tri=three; ceps = heads) with fibers that attach to a single triceps tendon that crosses the elbow joint posteriorly. The tendon anchors to the olecranon on the ulna bone (the olecranon makes up the point of the elbow). Contraction of the triceps brachii muscle primarily extends the forearm at the elbow (straightens the elbow joint). Someone who has a relatively long triceps tendon will also have “peaked” triceps, but one with a short triceps muscle belly. The long head of the triceps brachii (or the “inner head”) begins on the scapula (shoulder blade) just below the head of the humerus at the shoulder joint. This muscle belly crosses the shoulder joint posteriorly, so the arm must be moved into shoulder flexion (i.e., arms and elbows lifted high over your head) if you want to fully activate the long head of the triceps. The lateral head of the triceps brachii creates the outside (lateral) boundary of triceps. Its fibers run from a small section of bone on the posterior part of the humerus (upper arm bone) starting about one-third of the way down the humerus bone from the shoulder. The medial head of the triceps brachii is deeper and between the other two heads of the triceps. It attaches to two-thirds of the upper and posterior part of the humerus bone. This is a thick muscle further up the arm toward the shoulder and it provides enormous depth to the top part of the horseshoe-shaped muscle that becomes apparent when the elbow joint is straightened.
Seated EZ French Presses
The arm position of the French press makes this a great exercise for the long (inner) head of the triceps. The shoulder joint is flexed with the arm and forearm directly above the shoulder. This stretches the long head of the triceps because it’s attached on the scapula of the shoulder joint. Since in this exercise the long head contracts in a stretched position, it’s more fully activated than either the lateral or medial heads of the triceps and this places the emphasis of the exercise on the long head of the triceps.
1. Although the exercise can be done standing, it’s preferable to sit on a bench that supports your lower back. This reduces the probability of experiencing back injury during the extension phase, or losing your balance during the exercise. The seated version also allows you to direct more of your concentration to the long head of the triceps rather than working on maintaining body stability. If possible, position the chair in front of a mirror so you can see the triceps muscles working and you can monitor your exercise form.
2. The EZ bar is a good selection for this exercise because it places the hands at an angle that stresses the wrists less and provides a more direct line for contraction than a straight bar. However, you may choose to do the exercise with a straight bar.
3. Sit comfortably on a bench that has a short vertical back and press your lower back firmly into the back support. Grasp the EZ bar with your palms facing away from your torso. Lift the bar from the floor and over your head as if you were going to do a barbell shoulder press (but of course, the grip will be narrower than you would choose for a barbell press). The EZ bar will also move your hands from a direct prone to a slightly less prone (slightly toward supination) position.
4. Keep your upper arms (humerus bones) perpendicular to the floor as you bend (flex) the elbow and control the descent of the weight so the bar travels in a trajectory behind your head and neck. Your elbows should point forward and upward; do not let them swing out to the side or drop downward as you are lowering the weight. Otherwise, the tension on the long head of the triceps brachii will be reduced.
5. Continue to lower the weight until it or your hands either barely make contact with the trapezius muscle of the upper back, or you simply cannot lower the weight further without moving your elbows. Do not use your trapezius or neck as a trampoline to get the weight moving again because this could result in serious neck injury and pain. Because you are working close to your head and with the weight over your head, at least part of the time, you need to be very careful, especially as fatigue sets in. It’s a great idea to get a spotter to stand behind you and help keep the weight moving if you get stuck.
6. Finally, extend your forearms (straightening your elbows) toward the starting position, but stop just short of being straight.
7. After several weeks you might want to add a few forced reps to the final two or three sets. Your spotter can help you get two to three repetitions after you fail on the way up. However, if you cannot control the weight during the descent toward your upper back, it’s time to stop and/or switch to a lower resistance, even if you are using a spotter. Make sure you have a competent training partner who will prevent the bar from hitting your neck or head as he helps the bar upward.
Locking your elbows out after each repetition will complete two undesirable events. First, this will reduce the stress to the triceps because it allows the resistance to travel through the bones. The second dilemma is that fully straightening your elbows will “ram” the head of the ulna bone (olecranon process) into its fossa on the humerus and this forcibly compresses the bursa protecting this joint. That is not likely to cause you any problems for a while, but continued lockouts, especially if they are done explosively, will likely result in sore elbows and bursitis (swelling of the elbow bursa).
You can get a good stretch of the long head of the triceps muscle if you slowly lower the weight behind your head as far as possible. While the medial head will not be affected very much by elbow (and therefore shoulder) position, the effectiveness of the activation of the lateral head will be improved if your elbows are kept closer to your head. (It will also be a harder exercise than if your elbows move away from the side of your head). Do not let your elbows come forward (e.g., so that your elbow is in front of your nose) or you will reduce the stretch on the long head and transfer much of the work to the medial head of the triceps.
It’s important to use sufficient resistance in the exercise, and you should be able to work up to some pretty hefty loads, but do so safely. Keep your exercise form perfect; otherwise you may find the bar crumbling down on your head and neck. On the other hand, if you have a full stretch and proper arm position and a heavy enough weight, you will feel the fibers stretch and strain on each rep as if they are about to explode. But as you know, the improvement in muscle mass will really come about as you rest, and that will be the result of adding new protein to each fiber that had been forced to endure each grueling contraction. The heavy weights will ensure that the long head contributes substantially to the lift and it will improve its effectiveness.
In contrast, light weights tend to recruit the medial and lateral heads to a greater degree than the long head. Therefore, if you have been training your triceps with only medium or light weights, the chances are that your long head will be under-developed. Heavy EZ French presses are a great way to overcome this deficit. Nevertheless, warm up your elbows with a couple of light sets before hitting the heavy stuff. The EZ French press is simple enough to perform, but it’s definitely not easy. Persistence in EZ French presses will cause your inner long head of the triceps to reveal new growth, moving you ever closer to owning hard and thick triceps.
Brechue WF and Abe T. The role of FFM accumulation and skeletal muscle architecture in powerlifting performance. Eur J Appl Physiol, 86: 327-336, 2002.
Eiserloh H, Drez D, Jr. and Guanche CA. The long head of the triceps: a detailed analysis of its capsular origin. J Shoulder Elbow Surg, 9: 332-335, 2000.
Gearhart RF Jr, Goss F L, Lagally KM, Jakicic JM, Gallagher J, Gallagher KI and Robertson RJ. Ratings of perceived exertion in active muscle during high-intensity and low-intensity resistance exercise. J Strength Cond Res, 16, 87-91, 2000.
Terzis G, Georgiadis G, Vassiliadou E and Manta P. Relationship between shot put performance and triceps brachii fiber type composition and power production. Eur J Appl Physiol, 2003.
Zhang LQ and Nuber GW. Moment distribution among human elbow extensor muscles during isometric and submaximal extension. J Biomech, 33: 145-154, 2000.