Women from all walks of life struggle to avoid the dreaded flabby, jiggly arms—and they often turn to personal trainers and fitness pros for help. “Guys always want to get rid of their bellies, while women always seem to want to tone their triceps,” says John Porcari, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist with the University of Wisconsin and former personal trainer. But as with most clients, their time is constantly being gobbled up by work and family obligations, leaving very little extra time for regular exercise. They want results—and fast! With that in mind, the American Council on Exercise, the nation’s Workout Watchdog, sponsored comprehensive research to determine which exercises are most effective—and efficient—for targeting the triceps.
To determine the efficacy of the eight most common triceps exercises, ACE enlisted a team of exercise scientists from the University of Wisconsin/La Crosse Exercise and Health Program. Led by John Porcari, Ph.D.,and Brittany Boehler, B.S., the research team recruited 15 healthy female subjects, ages 20 to 24, from the local La Crosse community. All of the test subjects had previous weight- training experience to ensure proper exercise technique and to limit the potential for injuries.
Prior to the study, test subjects were required to abstain from weight training with their arms for 48 hours to reduce fatigue. On the initial day of testing, researchers determined each subject’s one-repetition max (1 RM) for each of the following exercises: triceps kickbacks, overhead triceps extensions, bar push-downs, rope push- downs, closed-grip bench press and lying barbell triceps extensions. Dips and triangle push-ups were excluded during this first round since both of those exercises use body weight asresistance instead of weights, making the 1RM test inappropriate.
Once the 1 RM was determined for each subject, the women returned for a second day of testing. Researchers applied two sets of electromyographic (EMG) electrodes on the long and lateral heads of each subject’s triceps brachii (the back of the upper arm) to record real-time muscle activity. To set a baseline for EMG comparison, subjects first performed a pair of maximal voluntary isometric contractions (MVIC) for the triceps muscle. Then they completed one set of seven repetitions of each of the eight different exercises. The exercises were completed in random order with a five-minute rest between each exercise to ensure proper muscle recovery. Subjects lifted 70 percent of their previously determined 1 RM for the bulk of exercises; body weight was used for the dips and triangle push-ups. The EMG data from each exercise was recorded and presented as a percentage of the highest EMG readings obtained during the two MVIC trials.
The Bottom Line
You can quickly and effectively tone and strengthen the triceps using triangle push-ups, triceps kickbacks and dips.
Why are those exercises so much more effective than the others tested? Porcari says it’s because your body weight is used in the push-ups and dips, and because it’s easier to “cheat” (using momentum to more easily complete reps) while doing the other exercises, specifically the bar push-downs and rope push-downs.
“Many women are concerned they don’t have time to get to the gym or they don’t have the necessary exercise equipment at home to get fit,” says Boehler. “But this research essentially eliminates those excuses.”
As far as equipment goes, the über-effective triangle push-ups require zero equipment, while all you need to do dips is a sturdy household chair. The triceps kickbacks are best performed with dumbbells, but any sort of weight would work, such as a jug of water or canned food. “Most people’s triceps are relatively weak, especially if you isolate them,” notes Porcari. “If you’re doing the kickbacks correctly, it doesn’t really take a whole lot of weight to get a good workout.” (Check out the exercise descriptions and video demonstrations, below.)
And the exercises don’t require a lot of time either, Boehler says. “I think the take-home message is that if somebody really wants to work their triceps in a short amount of time, they’ll get the most bang for the buck from these three exercises.”
THIS WAS REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM THE AMERICAN COUNCIL ON EXERCISE. TO READ THE STUDY IN ITS ENTIRETY CLICK HERE.