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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
February 18, 2022
The triceps make up two-thirds of the upper arm, but often do not receive two-thirds of the love when it comes to direct arm work - that usually goes to the biceps and all the curling variations. But this is an argument for a different day. The truth is, the triceps do get plenty of love during big pressing exercises, but it still pays to isolate the triceps for better size, definition, and improvement in pressing technique and lockout strength. One really great exercise to pump up those triceps, and is often avoided by beginners, is the French Press, which is going to be the focus of this post.
Here we will go into:
The French Press is simply an overhand-grip, overhead triceps extension done from a seated position (although it can also be done from a standing, incline or even lying position).
It is an isolation exercise for the triceps. In particular, it emphasizes the long head of the triceps, as the starting position stretches the long head, giving it a greater range of contraction and stretching tension.
The French Press exercise involves sitting down while holding an EZ bar (or barbell or dumbbells) behind your head with your elbows pointed up overhead, and then extending your arms up at the elbows.
Because your elbows are up and arms overhead, the French press puts a great stretch on the triceps before the contraction. This creates a big range of motion for the long head and constant tension on your triceps as a whole, which is great for muscle hypertrophy.
The most common equipment for the French Press is an EZ bar, but dumbbells, a cable machine, or barbell can be used, and we will show you examples of each a little further below.
To start, we will explain how to do the seated french press, as this is typically what is considered a French Press.
How To Do a Seated French Press:
The seated French press is great as the seated position provides stability and it's harder to cheat by using body English.
As mentioned, the French press, which is simply an overhead tricep extension that brings your hands down behind your head on the eccentric phase, can be done standing, seated, at an incline, or lying. You can also use various equipment such as an EZ bar, barbell, dumbbells, or cable machine, and you can try different grips such as a neutral or underhand.
Below we will run through some common variations, which may seem redundant, but each have their own special benefit.
1. Standing French Press:
The standing French press actually causes even more of a stretch in the long head of the triceps as it involves more shoulder flexion. With that, it is good if you really want to emphasize the long head to the fullest degree. To do it, simply bend down to grab the EZ bar with a narrow overhand grip and stand up. From here, press it up overhead into the starting position. Allow your elbows to bend so the bar comes down behind your head while your elbows remain fixed, then extend at the elbows back into the starting position up overhead.
Again, this exercise can be done with various equipment.
2. Incline Cable French Press:
The incline cable French press is interesting because the cable machine provides flat resistance, unlike free weight which has a strength curve. With the cable machine, the resistance will be the same throughout the entire range. As for the incline position, it essentially is a middle ground for the long head emphasis between lying and standing/seated. To do this, you'll set up an incline bench facing the opposite way of the cable pulley. You can use a straight bar or rope attachment. Sit back into the incline seat with good posture and reach your arms behind you to grip the attachment with an overhand grip. The starting position with the cable machine will be the low part of the French press (hands just behind your head), rather than the overhead position. The rest of the mechanics are the same. Be sure to keep your elbows fixed, up and not flared as you extend and flex your elbow each rep.
3. Lying French Press:
This variations gives you the opportunity to use more weight due to the increased stability of lying on the bench.
The lying French press is very similar to the skull crusher, but the difference is in your arm posture and where the weight travels. With a skull crusher, you bring it to your forehead and your elbows will be perpendicular with the floor, whereas with a lying french press, your elbows can be back more (creating that overhead extension) and the weight comes down behind your head. The French press aims to maximize range of motion while keeping your shoulder in a more flexed position.
4. Dumbbell French Press:
Dumbbells provide a unique variable in terms of grip. You can use an overhand or neutral grip when doing the French press, which you can't do with a barbell or EZ bar. The neutral grip is generally easier on the elbows. What's more, because you’re lifting each dumbbell unilaterally this is a great option to strengthen imbalances between sides. This variation is performed either standing, seated or lying down. It’s a matter of personal preference and what you want to emphasize.
You can also perform the dumbbell French press one side at a time. This can ensure you are not just focusing in on your dominant side.
As great as the French press is for building triceps, here are a few things to look out for when performing this exercise:
The triceps are made up of three muscles the lateral head, the long head, and the medial head. All three of these muscles are attached to your elbow and its main function is to extend your elbow.
Long Head: The long head originates on the infraglenoid tubercle of the scapula and inserts on the posterior surface of the olecranon process. This muscle crosses two joints the shoulder and the elbow, so the long head is involved with shoulder adduction and extension movements This means any move that takes the arms overhead places a bit more emphasis on the long head of the triceps like the French press.
Related: Best Long Head Triceps Exercises
Lateral Head: The lateral head originates above the radial groove of the humerus and inserts on the posterior surface of the olecranon process Most triceps exercises, particularly ones that need your arm to stay in a strong position target the lateral head. Most neutral or pronated grips emphasize the triceps lateral head.
Related: Best Lateral Head Triceps Exercises
Medial Head: The medial head originates below the top of the humerus and inserts roughly at same the point of the elbow as the lateral head. A lot of exercises and positions that target the lateral head emphasize the medial head too.
Related: Best Medial Head Triceps Exercises
The triceps are involved in most pressing exercises but particularly the last third of most pressing movements. For example, the chest works hard to press the barbell off your chest but once your arms break 90 degrees your triceps extend your forearms and elbows till lockout.
The triceps make up around two-thirds of your upper arm mass. Although you may hear lifters say a triceps exercise targets a specific head, the truth is most extension exercises will recruit your triceps entirely. By changing your grip and arm angle you can simply emphasize one head over another, but, again, all three heads are still working to extend your elbow.
Stronger triceps will help you lock out build lockout strength which is important for pressing heavier loads with the bench press and shoulder press variations. Plus, if your triceps are holding you back then it pays to give them a little extra attention. Because doing so will only help your pushing strength numbers. As the triceps make up nearly 60% of the upper arm itself, it's important to spend a little more time on them compared to the biceps.
On top of all that, some killer triceps is very impressive. It's the true sign of a serious lifter.
Besides vanity reasons, here are four more important benefits of training the triceps with isolation exercises such as the French press:
It's good to mix up your tricep training and perform other exercises to hit the muscle from different angles and emphasize different tricep heads. Here are 3 more of our favorite triceps exercises...
1. Cable/Band Overhead Triceps Extension:
There are many variations of this exercise to choose from, but the cable/band ones give you constant tension as opposed to using barbells or dumbbells. The biggest trade-off is weight. In the dumbbell/barbell variations, you’ll use more weight but there is a bigger strain on the joints. Therefore, the cable/band overhead triceps variations are more user-friendly.
Related: Best Cable Arm Exercises
2. Close-Grip Barbell Bench Press:
The hand placement with the close grip bench press shifts the load more to your triceps and less to the chest. What's more, with the close grip barbell bench press, you can really maximize the load. This is great for building strength in your triceps. It's the most powerful (compound) tricep exercise you can do...well, that and weighted parallel dips (which is next).
3. Parallel Bar Dips:
Dips are often referred to as squats for the upper body. They really do a great job of hammering all three heads of the triceps, as well as the chest and anterior deltoid. This is not only one of the best triceps exercises, it's one of the best exercises in general.
Related: Dips Exercise Guide
The triceps are big in comparison to your biceps, but your triceps are still small muscles. Plus, the triceps get plenty of work on your bench press, overhead press, and push days in general. Pairing your push day with one triceps exercise like the French press works well.
You can also save the French press for the end of your workout, since it's an accessory exercise, and do 3-4 sets of 8-15 reps.
Change up the variation of French press each week too.
Overall, for hypertrophy and strengthen purposes sticking around 10 to 16 sets per week for your triceps. The French press can make up a few sets of that total number (remember, big compound lifts like bench press are included in that total too).
Related: The Ultimate Chest & Triceps Workout
Here is an example of pairing exercises with pulling exercises (if you do full body training or something like an upper lower split)...
1A. Bench press/shoulder press variation 5-8 reps
1B. Band pull apart 15-20 reps
- 3-4 sets resting little between exercises and 2 minutes between supersets
2A. French press 8-15 reps
2B. TRX rows 15-20 reps
- 3 sets resting little between exercises and 1-2 minutes between supersets.
If you’re an advanced lifter with bodybuilding or strength goals, you may benefit from a little more volume. Training the triceps on your push day and then later in the week a less intense arm day for 15-18 total sets of triceps works well. But keep an eye on your strength pushing numbers because if they go down it may indicate you’re doing too much.
More Triceps Exercises:
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