Tag Archives: dumbbells

Triceps–Forgotten Arm Muscles

Many LOVE working biceps, as this article instructs, but what about that other side of your arms, the somewhat forgotten triceps? Just as you really need to work your back roughly as much as your chest to avoid dangerous imbalances (along with aiding in symmetry), so too do you need to ensure proper balance between the front and back of the arm.

Sure, the bicep is the thing people generally see coming to them, but you want to look good walking away also! Most importantly, as cited, it helps prevent the imbalances that often lead to injury. We’re wired to be holistically healthy, definitely including a well-rounded body.

this poor guy from childhood ads had no biceps OR triceps!

this poor guy from childhood ads had no biceps OR triceps!

Many of us need some kind of triceps work

If you’re inclined toward doing a lot of close-grip pressing exercises (narrow grip push-ups for eg) and also do a lot of overhead pressing with a shoulder-width (or closer) grip, then you may be getting enough triceps work already.

Many, however, don’t do all of this, and as such could use some direct work on the backside of the humerus (upper arm). Women especially seem inclined toward wanting to “tone their arms,” usually meaning those triceps.

Tone, or muscle?

On that note, diet comes into play in a significant way, but for sure you can aid that process by the exercise you do. I don’t believe in spot fat-burning as legit science, but there’s no debate that working your triceps will enhance the muscle in that area, giving you a firmer, stronger look, and without becoming a full-scale bodybuilder in the process!

At the same time, for those who want to build appreciable muscle, significant volume combined with moderately heavy weight can be a boon to that. The intensity can give you some muscle in the back of your arms that nicely complements the bicep obsession.

What to do specifically for triceps? Oh, there are many exercises available as part of a home workout—no shortage, and that includes solely using your body weight, or even just some of it. There is nothing like visual to describe some of your options, which you’ll note in several ensuing pics, along with clear verbal descriptions.triceps-anatomyThe obligatory—but brief!—science

The triceps are a series of muscles which run along the back side of the humerus, or upper arm. These muscles are termed “elbow extensors,” because the elbow is the hinge that allows your wrist to move away from your shoulder, extending (or straightening) the arm.

Triceps are involved in various pushing exercises, for instance, when you press something away from your chest area, or when you’re trying to hold someone from barreling through a door, or simply when you’re trying to get up off the floor. They’re also heavily utilized in sports, whenever you’re throwing something, for instance.

As noted, you obviously utilize the triceps muscles a good bit whether you’re aware of them or not. But to ensure you create balance both aesthetically and functionally, some direct triceps work may be in order.

You can make it as easy or difficult as you want, including utilizing different versions of the same exercise. For instance, there’s the triceps extension. You can do this one of a number of ways, according to availability or preference.

You can do these (described immediately below) on the floor

You can do these (described immediately below) on the floor

Different Strokes, Same Triceps

Lying Triceps Extensions—For example, if you have a set of dumbbells, you can lie on your back, using one arm at a time or both. Hold the dumbbell(s) with arm(s) straight up in the air (as in Fig C above), perpendicular with your body (technically, you can start like Fig A shows, but in my opinion it’s clearer to explain the other way). Maintain the position of your upper arm and elbow as much as possible, while allowing (under control) the forearm to come back toward you as the weight in your hand starts to make an arc toward your head, though just to the side of it. No bonking! (Fig A)

Begin contracting those triceps muscles to generate the energy for moving the weight back up to the starting position (Fig B shows middle of the movement). You should feel it in the back of your arms if you’re doing it right.

Bodyweight Triceps Extensions—Or, you can do these without any weights at all. If you want to use full bodyweight, find a higher surface than what I’ve shown in the pics below, so that you’ll be on your feet, leaning over while standing. If you don’t have a good, higher surface (as was the case in said below photos), you can do these from the kneeling position. This makes the movement easier, but you can make up for that by building up to doing these one arm at a time.  You may also choose to do this kneeling version simply because you’re not quite ready to do the standing one.

Start with your feet (or knees, if not standing) in a position back far enough from the surface you’re holding onto so that you’ll get a good lean into the movement, making sure you’re working those triceps. If your body is too close to your hands to start off, there’s little effort needed in moving you away from the surface your hands are clinging to.

starting point for bodyweight tricep extension

starting point for bodyweight triceps extension

Contract your triceps in order to start pushing yourself away from the surface, eventually extending out completely, where arms are straightened.

midway point

midway point

finish

finish

The key here, as noted, is the freedom from even needing weights with you. Anywhere you happen to be where there’s some kind of stable edge to grab onto can become a home exercise (or one you can do if you’re staying in a motel, for that matter).

 

Triceps pressdown with bands—You hear about triceps pressdowns on a cable machine at the gym; why not create the same basic movement at home with simple workout bands? Use the “anchor” (that is made to safely attach in the crack of the door—not all brands are as safe) to firm the position of the bands, allowing them to dangle down to hand position (in this case, had to do them from a kneeling position, which is fine)

P1000346

elbows at side, wrists straight

Start with your hands grabbing the ends of the band, palms face down, wrists locked (don’t allow them to bend back, as you can incur injury). Elbows should be essentially to your side, and they—along with your upper arm—should remain stable through the movement to ensure you utilize your triceps muscles.

Once in that position, press downward, allowing your elbow to act like a stationary hinge while your forearms move in a downward arc toward the ground. You’ll notice that since the bands are stretching, the resistance increases. But that’s actually perfect for this exercise, because you tend to gain leverage (a form of strength) as you start locking out at the bottom.

finishing point

finishing point for bands triceps pressdown

Triceps Kickback—Another triceps focused movement you can do with dumbbells is known as the triceps kickback. But, as well, you can even use a jug and fill it with water (for a true home exercise!) if you don’t have any dumbbells laying around. Instead of requiring a bunch of different weights in order to increase the resistance, you can simply pour in a little extra water.

You’ll first want to find a stationary surface to set your body up on (as shown in pic below). The foot of your working arm will be on the floor, while the off-arm knee and hand will be on the object, creating a tripod of stability while the arm of your hand holding the weight (or jug) remains free.

Form Critical

You want to ensure your back position is sound, so stick your tail out just a bit to allow for a slight curve (opposite of rounding!) in your back. As well, keep your torso relatively parallel with the ground.

Now, move your humerus (upper arm) back to where it’s parallel with the ground. This will ensure you get the most out of the exercise for your triceps. (if you only move your arm back to less than parallel, you won’t work the triceps nearly as much). Attempt to keep your wrist relatively locked, stable, while allowing your forearm to remain perpendicular to the ground. This will create an ‘L’ between your upper and lower arm as you hold the weight in your hand, ready to begin the lift.

starting point--torso and upper arm parallel with ground

starting point for triceps kickback–torso and upper arm parallel with ground

Start engaging your triceps muscles to lift the weight further behind you, making sure your upper arm and elbow remain as fixed as possible. For one thing, if you swing your upper arm further behind you, you’re using your shoulder to help lift the weight, taking a lot of the effort away from your triceps muscles. You’re also jeopardizing your shoulder health as well, since some folks are tight in that area to begin with.

Once that upper arm and elbow start moving around, halt the set at that point. You may either have simply reached your good repetition limit (let’s say you did this movement at least eight times before your form breaks down) or you may need to lessen the weight used. It’s far better to go with a lighter weight and do the exercise properly than hoist a heavier weight up with sloppy form.

arm extended back, upper arm remains parallel with ground

arm extended back, upper arm remains parallel with ground

There are even more options available for tricep activation, but these will provide you a number of choices for hitting the back of those arms as part of your home exercises.

Bert

Moving Toward Shoulder Sanity–Dumbbell Shoulder Press

One of our most abused areas are our shoulders. We can give them—the front part, especially—too much work, considering the obsession with things like bench press and other pushing exercises that constantly hit the anterior (front) portion of the deltoids (muscles of the shoulders). (though I, as your at home personal trainer, won’t be instructing you to do barbell bench presses as part of your home exercises, you can still abuse the shoulders in other chest pressing movements)

Even back exercises, like rows, can contribute to unstable shoulders and poor posture, such as excessive rounding (as you lower the weight too far). This not only will cause you less attractive appearance and muscle imbalances, but also opens the door to injury.

Further, our society’s tendency to sit for long hours at a computer, texting, etc adds tremendously to this forward lurching and shoulder rounding. As you can tell, the need for proper deltoid balance is tremendous today. Shortly, I will post on exercises specifically designed for this.

this shoulder rounding is more common than ever as a result of excessive non-physical activity and abuse

shoulder rounding is more common than ever as a result of excessive sedentary activity and abuse

The dumbbell shoulder press is an exercise that can either help your shoulders, or exacerbate the problem further. The more you point your elbows forward, the more you’ll work the front portion of your shoulder; the more you keep them pointed to the sides, the more you’ll hit the lateral (side) portion. You want to target this side area as one way to provide your deltoids some sound balance.

Preliminary Phase:

Test your ability to keep your elbows out to the side (called the frontal plane—think of the way your arms and legs travel in jumping jacks) of your body without any weights initially. Pretend you’re in the set position to lift weights (or any object) overhead. Your upper arms (humerus) should be roughly parallel with the ground (again, elbows out), palms facing forward. Now raise your arms as if you’re lifting said object overhead.

As you’re raising and then finishing lifting the arms as high as you comfortably can, are your elbows still mainly pointed to the side (frontal plane), or have they moved markedly forward to some degree?

My own elbows, at this juncture, tend to move a bit forward, not totally in the frontal plane anymore without extra warm up and careful stretching. To that end, I’m working on flexibility (another subject and article for the near future!). The more sideways from your body that you can safely maintain your elbows, the more you’ll be able to develop the side of your shoulders and, as a result, the less emphasis you’ll place on the front area, which as noted gets plenty of work automatically from other activities.

the lateral/medial part of the shoulder often needs extra attention

the lateral/medial part of the shoulder often needs extra attention

When you have these flexibility issues, it not only limits the level of overall deltoid development due to limited range of motion, but it also forces you to bend your torso back more than normal to keep the weight from moving too far forward. This can cause lower back discomfort.

Let’s assume you’re able to keep your elbows mainly out to the side as you raise your arms. You’re then ready to start your presses as part of your home workout.

Seating Considerations:

First, determine what you want to use for seating (we’ll assume seated presses for now, rather than standing). If you have a bench with a back support (or can raise the back of your bench up to at or near perpendicular), then great. You won’t be using your stabilizer (core) muscles like you would if you had no back support, but for some it’s safer to have it, and you can also focus more on hitting the deltoids hard.

If you don’t have a bench or chair with a solid back support and need something for your back, you may want to try sitting on the floor (legs crossed Indian-style) and against a wall. For lower back comfort and support, place a cushion of some kind between you and the wall. (*if needing to do presses from the floor, you may be  safer doing them one arm at a time, allowing for using your non-working arm to help hoist the weight into position)

Another option is to sit on an exercise ball or simply to find any firm seating (even if it doesn’t have a back support) that you can use to do your seated shoulder presses. Without a back support, you will need to really focus on engaging your core muscles, keeping them tight in order to ensure back safety.

client using exercise ball in this instance, with spotting behind him for safety

client using exercise ball in this instance, with spotting behind him for safety

Now that you have your platform for performing your shoulder presses, the question is how much weight do you want to use? A lot of folks use too much weight, which leads to either sloppy form to get the dumbbell up (and can aggravate shoulders and other areas). Others may decrease the distance their arms travel, ie shortening their range of motion. This also hurts your shoulder development. It’s far better to use a lighter weight, concentrate continually, and execute the movement fully and feel the deltoid muscles through the whole set.

Getting set for the movement:

There are multiple ways to get the weights you’ve now chosen into the set position (weights held up near neck level, perhaps touching shoulders lightly, prior to pushing them up toward the ceiling). If the weight you’re using is fairly light (it should be, especially if you’re not highly experienced and already using excellent form), then you can probably just hoist the weights from the floor into starting position as you sit back.

If you are on an exercise ball, though, you will need to ensure it’s “stable,” or you can fall off of it. So if using this to sit on for presses, it’s best to already have the weights in hand as you sit on the ball.

If said weights are on the heavier side, you can bring them to your knees first and then raise the knees up while also pulling upward with your arms simultaneously to hoist the weights into the starting position.

As to your starting position: many advocate starting with your upper arms parallel to the ground. I disagree, as this will give you a good tricep workout with some shoulder involvement, but you’ll be cheating yourself of some gains for those deltoids. Instead, start with your upper arm lowered to where the dumbbells are touching, but not resting on, your shoulders. This extra movement will give you significant additional deltoid growth.

though standing in this version, this is about as far down as you want to go with the weight

whether seated or standing for the shoulder press, this is about as far down as you want to go with the weight

Ensure your feet are firmly planted on the ground, both helping to provide you stability and also some extra power for lifting.

One last thing about the starting position: keep your shoulders back and down. This will help ensure you’re keeping your elbows out to the side, which again will help maximize lateral (side) shoulder development.

Executing the Lift:

Now, press the weights up, attempting to maintain a smooth trajectory upward. You may see that your arms start coming together naturally as you press the weights toward the ceiling. That’s totally acceptable, provided you avoid clanking the dumbbells together at the top, as you’ll lose tension on the shoulders if you do.

Press the weight up only as high as your arms naturally travel. If you feel (or see, if you have a mirror) yourself shrugging your trap muscles (those back muscles leading to the neck) and allowing your whole shoulder girdle to raise, then you’re going too far up. Just go until your arms no longer naturally can move up further.

Avoid locking out entirely, as you lose some of the tension in your shoulders as well as possibly aggravate your elbows, especially if you “pop” them up into the finished position. It’s better for you to stop just shy of that point to avoid those problems.

dumbbells can drift toward each other as long as avoid clanking them together

dumbbells can drift toward each other as long as avoid clanking them together

As you come back down, maintain control of the weights, actually resisting gravity with your shoulders. This should greatly enhance what you get out of the exercise. Sure, you’ll do less repetitions and/or weight, but what’s important is maximizing the stimulation your shoulders get. By also maintaining good form and a controlled pace, you’ll be protecting them as well.

To summarize:

*Determine your flexibility for doing the shoulder press and whether you need to focus more first on careful stretching before taking up the weights.

*Find an ideal place to perform your dumbbell shoulder presses

*Hoist the weights into position for pressing

*Press the weights overhead without going into a shrug

*Lower the weights back to your starting position under control by keeping your shoulders engaged fully

*After your set, place the weights back on the floor

As always, for home workouts we emphasize dumbbells over the barbell, partly for convenience of space, but also because, as legendary bodybuilder Dave Draper (“Blonde Bomber”) aptly states, “Dumbbells are much safer than restricted bar pressing ’cause they may be altered in motion to accommodate rotation cuff’s particular mechanical requirements. This is done by “feel” and focus to avoid abuse and to work around an injured or weaker area.”

Definitely! To sum what he says, focus first on safety and secondly on proper feel, always being aware of what you’re doing to help ensure your healthiest and maximal deltoid development.