A well-rounded upper-body workout routine involves more than just biceps curls and wide-arm push-ups. You should also be strengthening the backs of your arms, aka your triceps.
"When it comes to strengthening the arms, most people tend to think biceps, biceps, biceps — because it's what we easily see in the mirror," says K. Aleisha Fetters, CSCS, online strength coach and author of Fitness Hacks for Over 50. "But your triceps are actually a larger muscle group, so if you're interested in visual growth, you get a very good return on your efforts with triceps work."
There are practical reasons to target the muscles at the back of your arms, too. Not only are they in charge of straightening your elbows, they also balance out your upper-body muscles to help prevent elbow and shoulder pain. Plus, without strong triceps, you'll struggle with push-ups and pull-ups, Fetters says.
Not sure where to start? You only need a pair of dumbbells (even a single dumbbell will do in a pinch!) and the three exercises below to tighten and tone your triceps.
"Always use a weight that allows you to perform at least 6 reps with solid form and with zero discomfort in your elbow," Fetters says. Ideally, though, she recommends aiming for 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 reps for building functional strength.
"Also, slowing the eccentric, or muscle-lengthening, portion of the exercises will help increase muscle-building," she says.
1. Dumbbell Kickback
- With a dumbbell in each hand, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hinge your hips back, maintaining a straight spine. Your upper body should be at a 45-degree angle to the floor.
- Bring your arms to your sides, pretending your elbows are glued to your body. This is the starting position.
- Extend your arms straight back with control and squeeze your triceps at the top.
- Bend your elbows and slowly lower your arms back to the starting position.
To add some variety, you can also focus on one arm at a time, either doing all your reps on one side before switching or alternating arms with each rep.
2. Dumbbell Lying Triceps Extension
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor a few inches away from your butt. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, arms extended straight up with elbows over your shoulders and palms facing each other.
- Bend your elbows to lower the dumbbells to either side of your head, envisioning your arms hooking over an invisible bar attached to your elbows.
- Straighten your elbows to press the weights back up to the starting position.
This exercise (also called a skull crusher) can also be performed as a single-arm exercise. Or, try it while lying back on a Swiss ball for a more challenging (core-crushing) variation.
3. Standing Overhead Dumbbell Triceps Extension
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart holding a dumbbell in each hand or a single, heavier dumbbell in both hands over your head with a firm grip. This is the starting position.
- Bend your elbows to lower the dumbbell(s) behind your head, envisioning your arms bending over an invisible bar connecting your elbows.
- Straighten your elbows to press the weight(s) back up to the starting position.
Don't rely on momentum or let your elbows flare out, Fetters says. If you find yourself swinging the weight around, try this exercise from a seated position, which helps you focus solely on the triceps.
"Even with a lighter weight, you will get more out of the exercise by using the most efficient form compared to using a heavier weight with shakier form," Fetters says.