November 23, 2021 10 min read

The arms are one of the first things noticed by lifters and non-lifters alike. Big and strong-looking guns are one of the best ways to signal to everyone around you that you take your physique seriously.

And when it comes to the arms, it’s usually the biceps that get the most attention. They are, after all, at the front of the arms!

But here's the deal...

If you want big arms, the bicep is the smaller of the two major muscle groups that make up your upper arm.

Because the triceps actually makes up the majority of your arm’s muscle mass.

While the biceps are the classic arm muscle that everyone knows, a set of big arms requires big triceps. And since it’s the bigger muscle, you’re going to be able to get a lot more size out of it.

The French press is one of the best ways to target the triceps, so if you’re looking for bigger arms, this triceps extension is a must-have in your workout toolbox.

bodybuilder flexing his triceps muscle in the gym

Benefits of the French Press

The French press belongs in a family of tricep extension exercises, and the term is often used interchangeably with both skullcrushers (which we’ll take a closer look at down below) and triceps extensions. Like most triceps extensions, the French press isolates the triceps. However, there are some added benefits that make this movement a good lift to implement in anyone’s workout routine.

C’est La Vie (and the Triceps Muscle)

As we discussed above, if big arms are your goal, the triceps deserves a lot of your attention. And one of the best ways to give the tricep this attention is through the French press. The triceps are actually composed of three different “heads” of muscle, with the largest and most important being the long head.

The French press does a fantastic job of hammering this long head of the tricep, allowing for larger triceps overall.

However, the movement needs to be done with good form and correctly tweaked to engage this part even more. The French press is also usually performed with an EZ curl bar, which not only minimizes joint stress but also exploits the force angle. This will allow for a constant amount of tension on the triceps throughout the lift.

Stabilizing Power

Although skullcrushers and French presses are often used interchangeably, the defining feature of the French press is that it’s done either sitting up or standing up. This challenges your body in some slightly different ways. For one, an upright French press requires a lot more power from your stabilizing muscles to maintain balance.

If you’re sitting or lying down on a flat bench, it’s going to be easier to keep the weight moving in the correct path without having to engage your abdominals and upper body stabilizers.

Although the French press is meant to isolate your triceps, these other muscle groups are also engaged to different degrees:

  • Rectus abdominis
  • Obliques
  • Pectorals
  • Delts
  • Rotator cuff
  • Rhomboids
  • Traps

The French press is a good example of how impossible it is to truly isolate a single muscle group. Although the triceps are going to be the muscles most gassed out with this press, they’re far from the only muscles that get the load moving.

Cross Over Strength

Since the triceps are needed many different movements, it makes sense that your performance in other lifts and exercises is going to improve. Things like the close-grip bench press, pull-ups and push-ups, and deadlifts should all become easier by giving your triceps some extra attention.

Undeveloped triceps can be the failure point for a lot of these lifts, so if you allow them to get up to speed, you’ll be able to garner more full-body gains from your other lifts that require compound movements.

Better for Wrists and Elbows

Because of the neutral position of the wrists (and the EZ bar), there’s no rotation of the wrists that happens with the French press. This means less stress placed on this joint, meaning better longevity and fewer chances of aches, pains, or injuries occurring in the long run.

This is especially useful for those who find that the narrow-grip bench press or weighted dips place too much stress on the wrists and make the movement uncomfortable.

Your elbows will also thank you in the long run, since strengthening the triceps is the key to improving your overhead pressing performance. By getting better at this movement, you can better avoid overuse injuries that happen both in day-to-day life and in the gym.

The Muscles Worked and their Function

Like we mentioned above, the triceps are the primary movers in the French press.

Their primary responsibility is in elbow extension, which is the movement that’s required in pretty much all pressing movements. This includes things like the push-up, bench press, any overhead press or stability needs, and dips.

Other stabilizer muscles also work to help move the load and keep you in the proper position, but most of these are found in the shoulder region.

Your scapular stabilizers will work together with your deltoids in order to prevent your shoulder from moving. This allows for more elbow flexion, which gives you the range of motion needed to properly engage the triceps. Not only does this lead to bigger and stronger triceps, but you’ll also see improvements in your shoulder stability.

How to French Press

 

Now that we know what muscles are meant to be engaged in the French press, it’s time to get pressing. Before we begin, it’s important to get warmed with some stretches. The French press can be difficult on your shoulder and elbow joints, and it’s best to get warmed up in this area. Doing some light cardio is also good to get the blood pumping and your muscles ready for some work.

To perform the French press, it’s recommended to use an EZ curl bar for comfort, but a regular barbell will work as well. You can also perform this exercise either as a seated French press or standing but standing will recruit more stabilizing muscles in the abdominal area.

Sitting down will allow you to better focus on the triceps.

  1. Load up an EZ curl bar with an appropriate amount of weight plates. If this is your first time performing this exercise, do a few repetitions of a light or unloaded bar in order to get the movement pattern down correctly. Place the bar on the floor in front of you.
  2. Bending at the knees, grab the bar with an overhand grip, with your palms facing down and back. Your hands should be hip-width to shoulder-width apart. Standing back up while grasping the bar, stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart. You want to maintain a very slight bend in your knees, rather than locking them out.
  3. Bring the bar up over your head, allowing your elbows to bend slightly. This bend will place more tension on your triceps so don’t forget to implement it. You also want to have your elbows pointing at one another as much as possible, rather than flaring out. With your palms facing towards the ceiling, this will be your starting position.
  4. Tuck your chin down throughout the entire movement and ensure that your core is engaged to keep you stable. Keep your pelvis tucked, and try your best to only allow your arms to move during the movement.  
  5. Keeping your upper arms as stable as possible (with elbows pointing at the ceiling), continue by slowly lowering the bar behind your head. Allow the load to pull your elbows behind you as far as you can comfortably go.
  6. Pause at the bottom of the movement before slowly reversing the direction, “dragging” the bar back over your head. Once you’ve reached the starting position, repeat for your programmed reps and sets. Remember to not lock out your elbows once you get to the top of the position again.

Programming the French Press into Your Workout Routine

The French press is an isolation lift that primarily targets the triceps, which means that it responds particularly well to a certain training protocol.With compound movements that require synergy between several different muscle groups and body parts, you can often program the lift to either target strength training or hypertrophy.

With strength training, the aim is to use heavier weights with a lower overall volume (i.e., fewer sets and resp).

For bodybuilding needs, the opposite is true. You want to ramp up the volume while lowering the intensity (the load). Smaller exercises that isolate a single muscle are better suited for the latter method since you’re not going to be building up too much strength in a single muscle group. That’s why the French press responds best to sets with 10 to 15 reps.

Anywhere from 4 to 6 sets is a good ballpark range to aim for.

This doesn’t mean you can’t use the French press in a strength training system, but the results you get aren’t going to significantly affect your overall strength. What the French press is good for is a warm-up exercise for larger exercises, such as the close-grip bench press.The French press is a good movement to incorporate into any workout routine, but the key is to have a set of clear-cut goals that you can progressively work towards. With goals, you can make the French press work for you.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Although the French press is a relatively simple movement to perform, there are several tips and tricks to keep in mind in order to maximize the benefits you garner from it. Here are some of the most important, but a personal trainer will always be best suited to put you on the path to perfect French presses.

All in the Elbows

It’s very important to keep your elbows in the proper position throughout the entire movement. They should always remain pointed at the ceiling, and it’s also very important to not allow them to flare out to the sides. Your elbows should also remain slightly bent at all times to allow for more tension to be placed on the triceps.

Flaring the elbows will risk injuries to our shoulders since tension will be removed from the triceps. Consciously trying to bring our elbows together is a good method of ensuring that your elbows accidentally don’t drift away from each other.And again, the elbows should also remain pointed upward.

A common mistake is when people allow their shoulders to rock backward when the weight comes down behind their heads. This movement allows the elbow to move back also which effectively takes away emphasis from the triceps. This is because too much backward movement activates the lats when you try to bring the weight back up, taking the focus away from the triceps.

Arching the Back

While this doesn’t tend to be an issue during standing French presses, arching of the lower back is sometimes an issue for lifters who are sitting down.You want to have your back remain flat against the bench at all times since arching will compromise your body’s ability to remain stable. Rather than arching, try putting more effort into firmly planting your feet into the ground while also making sure you’re engaging your abdominals enough.

Keep Your Body Still

This follows from the previous two tips, but it’s very important to keep your body as still as possible throughout the entire lift.The more your body moves, the less emphasis you’re going to be placing on the triceps (and this is, after all, meant to be a triceps exercise).

By only allowing your forearms to move, you’ll be able to get the most out of the French press. Lastly, either bring your chin down or stare straight ahead. Keeping your head in a constant position is just as vital. You want to avoid looking upward since this will make the exercise significantly more difficult.

Variations of the French Press

The French press belongs to the triceps extension family of movements, and since they all rely on the same basic movement pattern, there are several small variations you can make to hit the triceps at different angles—and therefore, hit different muscle fibers in the tris.

For example, you can perform the French press on an incline bench or decline bench. With an incline, you’ll be placing a greater emphasis on the long head of the tricep. On the other hand (or rather, arm), the decline bench will target the triceps’ lateral head. Cable versions can also be used, which will add a constant level of tension into your lifts, helping you improve in weak spots.

Skullcrushers

Skullcrushers are another form of triceps extension, but they’re performed lying down on a flat bench. However, they’re also often used interchangeably with “French press”—and the plot thickens when you consider the mention of “standing skullcrushers” and “lying French presses.”Whichever one you opt for, the mechanics of the movement will be the same. However, there will be some small variations in which muscle fibers get recruited more.

Dumbbell Triceps Extension

Using dumbbells instead of a barbell or EZ curl bar is another great option.

By making the exercise unilateral, you’ll be able to strengthen whichever side is weaker thereby addressing any asymmetries in your physique and strength.Dumbbells will also place less stress on the wrists, allowing you to go through a greater range of motion. The trade-off is that you won’t be able to use as much weight as you could with a bar.

Alternatives to the French Press

 

The most common French press (and skullcrusher) alternatives are the close grip bench press and dips.Both of these exercises rely on much more complex movements between muscles than triceps extensions, and so you’ll get a host of different benefits from them. However, they’re not as good at isolating the triceps, and they’re more technically challenging to perform (especially with bad wrist or shoulder mobility).

More Muscle Mass with the French Press

By now it should be clear that a set of sleeve-busting arms requires strong and big triceps. And one of the best ways to get these triceps is by implementing the French press into your training program. However, working hard in the gym is only going to get you so far.

If you want to cultivate more muscle mass anywhere on your body, you’re going to need to eat, and clean and unprocessed foods are the way to go. Only when these bases are covered will you experience significant and consistent gains.

And if you’re looking for something to take you to that next level, a supplement stack targeting muscle growth is always a solid way to go. With the right workouts, good food, and a little science, you’ll be having to buy new shirts in no time—and the French press will add a certain je ne sais quoi to your upper body.