By Stephen E. Alway, Ph.D., FACSM
It seems that time has a way of turning firm arms into soft arms. The posterior arms and especially the triceps area seem prone to losing their tone. To make things even worse, fat just loves to accumulate on the back of the arms, and this tendency can make an otherwise average conditioned upper arm appear to be further out of shape than it really is. This problem is only accentuated with age and aerobic exercise is not enough to control this area.1 The good news is that it is never too late to commit to working towards a firmer posterior arm.
The triceps brachii muscles live on the backs of the upper arms and they are strongly activated with pushing activities that cause the elbow joint to straighten. Most of us activate pulling muscles and not pushing muscles in a typical day, so the triceps do not get a lot of direct work. This makes it doubly important to activate the triceps when you get to the gym. Bodyweight ring triceps extensions will provide intense direct stimulation and result in a new level of firmness and shape to the back of your arms. However, it has the added benefit of toning your upper body and core.2
Bodyweight Triceps Extension on Rings
This exercise will be a lot like doing a push-up4 from your knees. It will activate your triceps muscles as the arms are extended, but the chest, shoulders and back are also strongly recruited by this exercise.
1. Attach two rings to a sturdy overhead structure, like a chin bar or a cable crossover machine. The ring bodies should be about the level of your hip joints when you are kneeling on the floor.
2. Take one handle in each hand, using a pronated grip (palms facing the floor).
3. Kneel down on a mat. Lift your lower legs so that you can pivot from your knees.
4. Lower your torso and face towards the floor by allowing the elbows to flex (bend). Do this in a slow and controlled manner. Try to keep a straight line through your torso as you bring your upper body and lower yourself down towards your hands. Try to bring your axilla (arm pits) adjacent to your hands.
5. Extend your elbows (straighten your arms) as you press upward until the elbow joint is almost straight. Do not lock out the elbow at the top but immediately go into the next repetition by leaning forward and flexing the elbow joint.
It is really easy to develop poor form with this exercise, so pay particular attention that you keep your arms tight to your sides (do not let them flare out to the sides). The exercise should also be done smoothly and under control. You should be careful to use your triceps muscles to straighten your elbow and avoid jerking your bodyweight to try getting upwards. It is unnecessary to fully straighten or “lock” out your elbow joint in each repetition. This is because if you lock your elbow joints out forcibly and rapidly each time you extend your elbows against the resistance of your bodyweight, you have the potential to irritate the bursa in your elbow joints. Rather, it is preferable to stop the extension phase of the lift just short of fully locking out your elbow joint because this will ensure that you have placed constant tension on the triceps muscle throughout the entire set and it will minimize any risk of bursa injury in your elbow. The muscle will be under constant tension and will not be allowed to rest until the end of the set, and this makes the exercise harder and somewhat fatiguing, but it will be well worth the benefits.
For variety, you can do the exercise standing, but you will have to be very strict in your exercise form. This exercise can be a bit tough to accomplish, but it is excellent for tightening, toning and firming your arms. In addition, your entire upper torso will become firmer as the fibers in the accessory muscles are activated,5 and this will result in more shapely arms. Rings might look good on your fingers, but ring extensions will look great on your arms.
Illustrations by William P. Hamilton, CMI
- Knechtle B, Knechtle P, Barandun U et al: Anthropometric and training variables related to half-marathon running performance in recreational female runners. Phys Sportsmed 2011;39:158-166.
- Serrau V, Driss T, Vandewalle H et al: Muscle activation of the elbow flexor and extensor muscles during self-resistance exercises: comparison of unilateral maximal co-contraction and bilateral self-resistance. J Strength Cond Res. 2011; 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31823bc0a2 [doi]
- Moore, K.L. and A.F. Dalley. Clinical Orientated Anatomy. 1999, 4th Edition. Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins, Baltimore, Philadelphia. 685-720, 722-733, 1999.
- Youdas JW, Budach BD, Ellerbusch JV et al: Comparison of muscle-activation patterns during the conventional push-up and perfect. pushup exercises. J Strength Cond Res 2010;24:3352-3362.
- MacKenzie SJ, Rannelli LA, Yurchevich JJ: Neuromuscular adaptations following antagonist resisted training. J Strength Cond Res 2010;24:156-164.