How To Do the French Press Exercise for Bigger, Stronger Triceps

Your triceps are not to be neglected. They are a dominating muscle that makes up over half of your arm mass. There are countless ways to build them up, but only a handful of truly iconic staples. The French press is one such classic that has stood the test of time for ages — here’s how to do it.

How To Do the French Press

The French press is a simple exercise to set up and perform. There are several versions of the main French press technique — like the dumbbell French press, seated French press, or lying French press — all of which use a very similar technique. Here are the key points for a classic standing EZ curl bar French press.

Equipment Needed: Grab a flat bench and an EZ bar with weight plates and collars for this one. You can also use kettlebells, a dumbbell, or a cable machine.

Step 1 — On a weight bench, grab an EZ curl bar in a close-grip position. Depending on your arm length, this might be shoulder-width or closer. Take a double-overhand grip on the bar and raise it above your head.

Step 2 — Brace your core and slowly lower the EZ curl bar behind your head. Keep your palms facing up.

Step 3 — From the bottom position, extend your triceps and straighten your arms back over your head.

Step 4 — Grip the bar tight and brace your core, keeping your lower back in a neutral position. Slowly lower into the next repetition.

Coach’s Tip: As a personal trainer, I encourage my clients to focus on tightening their glutes and core to stabilize the French press and prevent their backs from overarching. Think, a deadlift-style lockout but with a very different muscle group.

Sets and Reps

Like anything else in your workout routine, the French press set and rep scheme is diverse across different goals. Choose between high, low, or medium repetition ranges based on where you’ve placed the French press in your workout program and the end result you’re chasing.

For Strength: Keep the French press early in your workout and complete 2-3 sets of 6-8 repetitions. Rest two minutes between sets.

For Hypertrophy: Place the French press closer to the beginning of your workout (first or second) and complete 2-4 sets of 8-12 repetitions. Rest approximately 90 seconds between sets.

For Endurance: Perform the French press last in your workout and complete 2-4 sets of 12-15 repetitions. Rest approximately 30 seconds between sets.

French Press Variations

The French press has numerous variations that have emerged over the years. Each one still provides a huge amount of triceps stimulation but accommodates different equipment availability, body types, and coordination levels.

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Dumbbell French Press: Complete the standard French press technique using one heavier dumbbell controlled by both hands. 

Cable French Press: For more constant resistance and a slightly increased level of stability, attach an EZ bar handle to a cable stack and perform your French press that way.

Kettlebell French Press: To more fully accommodate different body sizes, mobility levels, and grip needs, use individual kettlebells in each hand to complete your French press.

Coach’s Tip: For clients that are just starting out, in strength training, I’ll introduce the French press using more stable versions like the single dumbbell version before moving towards cable versions.

French Press Alternatives

The French press is a fantastic triceps exercise for arm development, but the triceps themselves benefit from using several angles and pieces of equipment. Here are some alternatives that hit some of the key aspects of the French press while also looping in other unique benefits.

EZ Bar Cable Triceps Pushdown 

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Load a cable stack at the top position and attach an EZ curl bar attachment.

Take a double overhand grip on the bar and step back about one foot.

Perform a slight hip hinge and brace against the weight. Squeeze the bar tight and push the cable down while extending your triceps.

Control the eccentric back to the beginning and repeat for repetitions.

Single-Arm Overhead Cable Triceps Extension

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Load a cable stack station and lower the height to the bottom position. Attach a single rope grip or use just the bare carabiner.

Grip the cable and raise it above your head, locking out your arm and protracting your shoulder. Hold this protraction to stabilize your starting position.

Slowly lower the weight by flexing your elbow. Briefly pause at the bottom before extending your elbow back to the starting position. Complete for repetitions.

Smith Machine JM Press

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Place a bench in the Smith machine and lie down face up with the bar at approximately nose level.

Grip the bar in a close-grip barbell bench press position.

Slowly lower the bar by bending the elbows. Aim for the bar to take a hybrid skull-crusher-bench-press path.

Lower the bar towards your face, pause at the bottom, and drive back up. Repeat for repetitions.

Muscles Worked by the French Press

Credit: Nikolas_jkd / Shutterstock

The French press is different than push-ups, the overhead press, or the dumbbell bench press, all of which use the triceps as secondary movers. In the French press, your triceps are the star — the primary mover. Here are the three distinct muscle bellies — three, aka, triceps — that will be at work.

Medial Head of the Triceps: The medial head of triceps originates from the backside of your upper arm and inserts at the elbow and mainly works to extend the arm.

Lateral Head of the Triceps: The lateral head of triceps originates from the back side of your upper arm as well, inserting at the elbow. It works to extend your arm similar to the medial head.

Long Head of the Triceps: The long head of triceps originates on part of your shoulder and inserts at the elbow. Given its position, it works to extend the arm but also benefits from exercises performed overhead. 

Benefits of the French Press

The French press is a unique triceps exercise, as it is performed in an overhead position. This provides a great deal of benefits from arm size to shoulder stability and offers a diverse array of options for training implements or execution.

Increasing Arm Size

Arm size is one of the greatest selling points of any exercise, and the French press is no different. The triceps make up a huge chunk of real estate on your upper body, arguably providing greater aesthetic impact than your biceps or delts. The French press directly targets the triceps in isolation, providing fantastic stimulus for growth.

Better Lockout Strength

No, French presses by themselves aren’t going to suddenly boost your bench and overhead press numbers. But adding triceps isolation movements to your routine can help reduce weak points in your overhead lockout. If your big presses are stalling toward the top when the triceps really take over, building stronger tris can go a long way toward supporting heavier lifts.

More Workout Variation

Of all the triceps exercises, the French press may offer some of the most diverse variations for your workout. The classic example is a standing EZ curl bar French press. However, there are dumbbell versions, seated or standing, or even alternate implements available to choose (like cable machines).

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Developing your triceps is always the main goal of a French press, but this degree of variability offers your program a huge variety of secondary benefits to pick. Depending on your personal needs and preferences, you’re able to switch things up for muscle growth, strength, or even just enjoyment.

Common French Press Mistakes

The French press is a fairly straightforward exercise to learn, but it isn’t without many common pitfalls that tend to plague new movements added to your program. Be mindful to retain a full range of motion, minimize body English, and ensure you have proper mobility to start.

Using a Tiny Range of Motion

The French press is an exercise designed to exhaust your triceps. When the triceps are working, they are extending your arm from a flexed elbow position. One of the most common errors is starting to short-change the range of motion at the elbow.

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Instead of aiming for the most flexed position possible on every repetition, many athletes — in a rush to dip down into the next rep, no doubt — end the French press around a 90-degree bend at the elbow. All things being equal…don’t do that. Fully flex your tris with a straightened arm on each repetition.

Using Too Much Body English

Deploying momentum in lieu of controlled muscle contractions is a flaw that appears at one point or another for every lifter. In some cases, a bit of body English to push along your reps isn’t anything to worry about — it can even help fuel your gains in some cases. But with some exercises, swinging your body or the weight too much can make the move less effective or even potentially dangerous.

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Allowing undue momentum into your French press takes tension off of the triceps themselves and may even stagger you out of a stable position. Be diligent about your technique and lock into a hard brace.

Not Having Enough Mobility

Proper form for your French press involves holding your arms overhead and essentially performing a triceps extension. Mobility plays a big role in your ability to safely train your triceps muscle overhead, and some lifters may not be able to get there even after a sound warm-up. Depending on your initial state of mobility, using a variation might be the better option.

A lying French press accommodates a lack of overhead mobility by turning the range of motion more into a skull crusher pattern. You still have the option to reach behind your head or stretch into your long head of triceps, but it is much safer and easier to scale — say, with a dumbbell or kettlebells — until your mobility is where it needs to be.

Frequently Asked Questions

The French press is a classic bodybuilding exercise for your triceps. For more information, here are some frequently asked questions.

What does the French press exercise work?

The French press works the triceps muscle, the main area of the back sides of your upper arms. You’ll be training the lateral, medial, and particularly the long head of the triceps.

Is the French press the same as the skull crusher?

Some athletes and coaches do use them interchangeably. But if you ask me, the French press and skull crusher are close neighbors but still unique. A skull crusher is a lying exercise that bends your elbow and lowers a barbell around the height of your nose. A lying version of the French press typically aims to lower the weight above your head or even drift a bit behind it.

Is it better to do the French press standing or seated?

Both the standing and seated versions offer benefits. The seated French press takes some of the full body stability demands away from the French press, whereas the standing version may help with range of motion depending on the length of your torso. If you find the weight clunking into the backrest on a seated French press, try standing.

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