Strong triceps—the muscles on the back of your upper arms—are important for many everyday activities. You need them to get up from a chair or bed, lift yourself out of the bathtub, push open a door—that is, for any activity that requires a pushing action. If you fall and can’t get up, weak triceps may be to blame.
Strong triceps can also give your arms a nice contour—and some readers have asked us if triceps training can help them get rid of their “batwings” that wiggle when they wave. That’s not the primary solution, but it can help.
Flabby arms are mostly due to fat between the muscle and the skin (there’s also some natural loss of skin elasticity with aging, and genetics plays a role too). The arms are a problem area for many women in particular, since that’s one of the places where they store more fat.
As we’ve said many times, though, you can’t spot reduce. The only way to really tackle arm flab is to increase aerobic activity, which will burn more calories and reduce the fat content of your entire body, including your triceps area. Working out just the triceps will make the underlying muscle firmer and perhaps larger, but it won’t do anything for the fat.
Still, the better developed your triceps are, the less flabby your arms will appear. Keep in mind, if you have flabby arms as a result of substantial weight loss that has left behind excess skin, no amount of exercise will help; only surgery can fix this.
There are many ways to tone your triceps, but some exercises are more efficient, according to a study from the University of Wisconsin. It found that triangle push-ups activate the triceps most, followed by kickbacks and dips. What’s great about push-ups is that you don’t need any equipment. And all you need for dips is a sturdy chair. For kickbacks, you could use hand weights or even soup cans.
You can also tone your triceps using exercise balls, resistance bands, or kettlebells. For example, you can do push-ups with your hands on an exercise ball. Or you can sit or lie on the ball and do overhead triceps extensions with a hand weight or kettle bell. Some gym machines also target the triceps.
Triceps training should be part of an overall strength-training program that you do two or three times a week. Start with one set of 10 repetitions of each exercise and work up to two or three sets, with a minute of rest in between. Focus on the “eccentric” phase of the exercises, which is when you lower yourself or the weight—do that part more slowly.
Push-ups: If your arms are very weak, start with push-ups against the wall. When you are strong enough to progress to the floor, try modified push-ups first—with your knees on the ground. Make sure to contract your core, keep your head aligned, and not let your torso sag or your hips rise. Keeping your hands far apart on the floor is easier than having them closer together. The most advanced push-up is the triangle push-up—keep your hands positioned together so that your thumbs and forefingers form a triangle.
Dips: Sit on a sturdy chair that won’t tip over or slide, with hands on edge of seat beside your hips. Extend your legs forward, feet together, and scoot forward. Use your arms to slowly lower your hips, keeping your abdominals tight, head erect, and back straight, until your upper arms are as close to parallel to the floor as possible. Use your arms (not legs) to push yourself up (don’t sit on chair). Repeat 10 times.
Triceps kickbacks: Holding a weight in one hand, bend forward 45 degrees (or lower to work triceps more). Keep the opposite leg forward for balance. With your elbow close to your side, bend it 90 degrees, then slowly straighten it out behind you, contracting the triceps. Keep your abdominals tight and your head aligned with your spine. Then slowly lower the weight back to bent arm starting position. Repeat 10 times; switch arms. You can also do this leaning on a bench.