When sculpting your best. arms. ever., a lot of focus is given to the biceps and shoulders. But there’s another muscle group that’s worthy of your attention and (hint, hint) it contains a trifecta of benefits. This includes stability in the arms and shoulders, better range of motion and toned muscles that really pop in a strapless dress. If you haven’t figured it out yet, we’re talking about the triceps — and one killer way to strengthen this often-neglected muscle is with a French press workout.
Ahead, we turned to the fitness experts to help you uncover everything there is to know about a French press workout.
“A dumbbell French press is an exercise that targets the long head of the triceps in an overhead position,” explains Tim Liu, a Personal Trainer and Online Fitness Coach.
But instead of using a fixed bar (sometimes called an EZ bar), a dumbbell French press calls for dumbbells. There are benefits to using either. “A gulled wing bar allows the lower arms to rotate inward at the elbows,” explains Robert Herbst, a personal trainer and world champion power lifter. He calls this “good mechanics” for the arm, as it’s the natural motion of the joint.
Meanwhile, dumbbells take pressure off the elbow and allow you to get a more even workout, says Herbst. “Each arm gets its own work instead of one arm being dragged along for the ride.”
There is no one way of doing a French press workout. Instead, there are three!
The first (and most common) is seated. To do the exercise, Liu says to grab a dumbbell or bar and sit down on a bench or some other flat surface with the back supported.
“Hold the weight up above your head with both arms, then lower slowly behind your head with your elbows tucked,” he says. The amount of weight and the number of repetitions you start with is up to you, but 10-12 reps for three sets is ideal.
When you take the French press to the ground, there’s another name for this: skull crusher. According to Libby Hill, a certified personal trainer, you start by lying down flat on the bench with your feet on the floor. “Extend your arms so they are perfectly straight in front of your chest, with a dumbbell in each hand, about shoulder-width apart.”
You’ll want to engage your core throughout to protect your back. From there, she says to bend your arms to a 90° angle, so the dumbbells finish next to the side of your head. The last step is to “extend your arms back to their original straight position and repeat.”
To prevent the exercise from becoming an actual skull crusher, Carl Fitzgerald, OTR/L, CPT, and Owner/Founder at Vitality Fitness and Rehab, says to have a firm grip on the weight. Also, to avoid lifting weight that's too heavy.
There are additional safety considerations to keep in mind for both exercises, starting with form. “Keep your elbows at the same position through the entire motion,” says Fitzgerald. “Elbows should be angled slightly outward past your shoulders.”
Herbst adds that you don’t want to lower the weight behind your head and below the bench. “That turns things more into a pullover, so you want to go for the forehead to keep it a triceps exercise.”
Most importantly, though, you never want to lock your elbows while raising the barbell or dumbbells back up above your head, as this can impact the joints. “Remain in control throughout the exercise and keep tension on the triceps,” says Fitzgerald.
As a final tip, make sure to sip on Vital Performance™ RECOVER afterwards! It has 20g collagen, electrolytes and BCAAs to help support healthy muscles and joints.** It also comes in several delicious flavors, such as Clementine, Passionfruit and Watermelon Blueberry.
Welcome to the third variation. If you’re asking yourself, “how do you use a standing French press?" the answer is simple: “The movement is performed the same as if you were seated,” explains Hannah Daugherty, NASM/ACE certified personal trainer and health coach, who serves on the advisory board for Fitter Living.
There is one major difference, though: you’re performing the exercise standing. “You might need to stand with a staggered stance to ensure core stability and strength as you’re pressing to reduce the chance of hyperextending your lower back,” adds Daugherty.
This is a useful variation to use if you don’t have access to a bench, according to Monica Jones, a performance coach. It’s also a great progression to the other versions of the French press.
Workout glossaries can stump even the most dedicated fitness junkies. That’s because so many exercises go by different names, even though the exercise is the same. This is the case with the French press weight lift, which Liu says is just another name for a French press.
In case you’re wondering what French curls are, don’t let the “curl” fool you. Instead of it being a bicep curl exercise, it’s also another name for French presses.