July 3, 2014
It’s no secret that many women would love to firm up and add more definition to their upper body, specifically their upper arms. The triceps muscle takes up the most space in the upper arm and, as such, is often an area of focus for women who want toned, shapely arms. Although both women and men share the same anatomy, women, more so than men, tend to preferentially store body fat in the upper arms. In addition, men typically have more muscle mass compared to women. These factors potentially account for the frustration experienced by some women who have been unsatisfied with the appearance of their arms after engaging in a workout program. Frustration aside, there are a variety of exercises that target the triceps muscle and can provide a sufficient stimulus to effectively tone and shape the arms. The following upper-body workout focuses on the triceps, making it an excellent option for improving the appearance of the arms. Incorporate it twice a week, along with a comprehensive fitness plan and balanced diet, and you will notice improved shape, tone and strength in the upper arms. Perform each of these moves for two to three sets at a resistance that becomes challenging between eight and 12 repetitions.
The triceps is a three-part muscle responsible for straightening the elbow and, to a lesser extent, bringing the arm behind the body into shoulder extension. To work it effectively, movements that require a combination of these actions are necessary.
1. Narrow Push-up
Position yourself on your hands and knees, placing the hands directly beneath the shoulders and keeping the elbows tucked in close to the ribs. While keeping the abdominals engaged and the spine and neck in alignment, lower your chest toward the floor. Although it is an acceptable goal, it is not necessary touch the chest to the floor. The point to which to lower your chest depends on your shoulder and wrist range of motion. Only go as low as you can without pain or discomfort in the shoulders and/or wrists. To progress the challenge, try performing this exercise on the hands and toes once you have mastered the hands-and-knees version.
Consider this: An ACE-sponsored study found that the “triangle push-up” elicited the most muscle involvement out of eight different triceps exercises the researchers tested. The triangle push-up is an advanced variation of the narrow push-up, wherein the hands are placed together such that the thumbs and index fingers form a triangle shape on the floor. Consider trying this technique once you’ve mastered the first two variations above.
2. Bench Dip
Sit on a weight bench or a sturdy chair and place your hands on either side of the hips so that the palms are resting on the bench and your fingers are hanging over the edge. Keep your feet together and your knees bent while you carefully move your buttocks off the bench—at this point, you will be supporting most of your body weight with your arms. Lower the hips toward the floor by bending the elbows until your upper arms are parallel to the floor. Push back up using your arms rather than your legs, and repeat. To progress the challenge, perform the dip with the legs fully extended with no bend in the knees.
Consider this: The dip exercise requires a high level of shoulder stabilization and range of motion to perform correctly. To prevent the shoulder from rounding forward during the descent, keep the shoulder blades set slightly back and down in a stable position while performing the dip. Also, depending on your mobility, you might excessively arch the back into hyperextension or round the back into forward flexion in order to allow the shoulders to get into extension for the dip. These spine deviations should be avoided as they could promote injury. Continually work to keep the ribs in line with hips and the spine in a neutral position.
3. Lying Overhead Extension
Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet on the floor, arms extended upward and a dumbbell in each hand. Carefully lower the weights toward your ears by bending the elbows and keeping the shoulders stationary. Return the weight to the starting position, and repeat. To progress the challenge, increase the weight. Also, experiment with only bending one arm while the other arm remains straight in the starting position. Alternating in this manner requires extra work from the abdominal core muscles to stabilize the asymmetrical movement of the upper body, and for the triceps of the straight arm as it holds the elbow in extension.
Consider this: The medial and lateral portions of the triceps attach to the long arm bone (i.e., humerus), whereas the third portion (the long head) originates on the shoulder blade (i.e., scapula). In shoulder extension, such as when you’re performing a narrow push-up or dip, the long head is in a shortened position and cannot contribute as much as the other heads in force production. Therefore, if you want to target all aspects of the triceps muscle, adding overhead triceps exercises such as the lying overhead extension, which place the long head in a more mechanically advantageous position, will be most effective.
Sabrena Merrill, M.S., is an exercise physiologist and ACE Education Content Development Expert. A 20-year veteran of the fitness industry, she is a Level 1 CrossFit Trainer as well as an ACE-certified Personal Trainer, Health Coach and Group Fitness Instructor. Sabrena holds a bachelor’s degree in physical education (sport science) as well as a master’s degree in physical education/biomechanics from the University of Kansas. A former full-time faculty member in the Kinesiology and Physical Education Department at California State University, Long Beach, Sabrena has a passion for educating others about current fitness topics as evidenced through her work developing curriculum for continuing education programs, writing for fitness-related publications, creating educational videos and speaking to fitness professionals at conferences and workshops nationwide.