Proper exercise form for bicep and tricep movements is essential in any upper body training routine. It’s the key difference between making progress and wasting your time in the gym. As a nationally certified fitness instructor, I’ve seen a lot of people over the years unknowingly sabotaging their results in the gym with poor form.
Exercise form is one of the topics I talk about and share videos of on my Instagram account @reesewoodsfit (and merely one of the reasons you should be following me on Instagram * wink, wink, nudge, nudge *). Today, we’re going to take a look at some of the most common mistakes in bicep and tricep training and how to fix them to stimulate more effective muscle growth.
Proper Bicep Exercise Form
There are two big form issues when it comes to arm exercises: A) using too much weight and B) an over-reliance on momentum to perform the movement. The two often go hand-in-hand, which can end up putting you at an increased risk of injury (especially the heavier the weight being used).
Swinging weights in a bicep curl is not only hazardous, but it’s also ineffective. If you are swinging the weights, you are wasting your time because you aren’t properly isolating and engaging the biceps. (Which is kind’a the whole point of performing a bicep curl, right?)
If you can’t completely 4-5 reps of a movement with the correct form, you need to lower the weight and try again. You can also try incorporating alternating single arm reps. Find a challenging weight where you are still fighting for the last couple reps, but doing so with good form.
In the first half of the video below, you’ll see my form is outta control. I’m relying on momentum to move the dumbbells and not truly engaging my biceps. In the second half, I’m standing still, keeping my upper arms and elbows stationary, and exhaling as I contract my biceps. After completing a full contraction and squeezing at the top of the movement, I slowly lower the weight back down and squeeze my triceps at the bottom of the movement.
If you’re working with bicep dumbbell curls, a good way to test whether or not you can support a certain amount of weight is to stand with your back flat against a wall and perform several reps. By removing your ability to add any kind of momentum into the movement, you can get a more accurate idea of if you can support that weight with proper form.
There are a lot of ways you can add variation to bicep curls, but none of that will matter if you have poor form. Slow down. Breathe. Don’t be afraid to make adjustments, like lowering the weight or going to single arm reps.
View this post on Instagram
I see a lot of confusion on form when it comes to arm movements like bicep and tricep exercises. So today, let's break down some of the do's and don't's of the bicep curl! (Be sure to save this video for the next time you're in the gym!) • In the first shot, you can see my form is out of control! I'm swinging the weights and relying on momentum to move the dumbbells. I'm not really engaging my biceps and I'm putting myself at risk for injury. Not only is is risky (especially the heavier the weights), but it also cheats you out of your efforts because it's NOT engaging the muscles properly (which is the whole point of doing that exercise in the first place). • In the second shot, you can see I'm standing still, keeping my upper arms and elbows stationary and exhaling as I contract my biceps. After completing a full contraction and squeezing at the top of the movement, I slowly lower the weight back down and squeeze my triceps at the bottom of the movement. You can perform this with double or single arm curls. • There are a lot of ways you can add variation to bicep curls, but none of that will be helpful if you have poor form. If you can't completely 4-5 reps with the correct form, you need to lower the weight and try again or try alternating single arm reps. Find a weight where you are still fighting for the last couple reps, but doing so with good form. • I'm performing hammer curls in this video, but the same principles apply whether you have neutral, pronated or supinated grip. Slow down. Breathe. Don't be afraid to make adjustments, like lowering the weight or going to single arm reps. Make sure you are in control of the movement, not the other way around.
Proper Tricep Exercise Form
Similar to bicep movements, too much weight and momentum are also cardinal sins for tricep isolating exercises. This principle applies to free weights and also other movements and variations with cables and resistance bands. So let’s take a look at some proper and improper tricep form on a cable machine.
In the first portion of the video, I’m swinging through the motions to move the weight, never fully extending or contracting my arm muscles to stimulate my triceps (putting my back at a higher risk of injury). In the second part of the video, I’ve lowered the weight to a load that I can support, am keeping my elbows stationary through the movement, fully extending my arms and squeezing my triceps at the bottom of the extension.
View this post on Instagram
There is some poor form out there in gyms and social media when it comes to triceps movements. Today we're going to look at the correct form for triceps exercises. Save this video so you can find it to check your form at the gym! • In the first portion of the video, I'm struggling to move a heavier weight and start swinging and trying to rely on momentum to complete the movement. I'm not even actually going through the full range of motion (fully extending the arm and contracting my triceps) for the exercise. • In the second part of the video, I've lowered the weight to a load that I can support, am keeping my elbows stationary through the movement, fully extending my arms and squeezing my triceps at the bottom of the extension. • But wait, isn't it better to push myself to lift heavier weight and grow stronger? Not with poor form. As you can see in the video, I'm not really moving that weight with my triceps. I'm mainly moving it with bodyweight momentum, so little to none of that effort will build or strengthen my triceps. • Trying to power through an exercise on momentum wastes your time because you aren't really isolating the muscle that the exercise is supposed to build (which is the whole point of doing that exercise in the first place). It also increases your risk of injury. If you can't completely 4-5 reps with the correct form, you need to lower the weight and try again. Find a weight where you are still fighting for the last couple reps, but doing so with good form. • While I'm just demonstrating one variation on the cable machine, this same principle applies to any exercise where you are isolating the triceps. Build from a foundation of safe and solid form.
In my experience, two of the biggest reasons people sacrifice form is either to lift a heavier amount of weight or to hurry to the end of their workout faster. The person trying to lift more weight to feel like they’re growing stronger isn’t stimulating proper muscle growth to attain effective strength progression. The person rushing through a workout may feel impatient or uncomfortable in the gym and just wants to get it over with and move on with their day. Both goals are sabotaged by poor form.
Much like a farmer planting crops, you can’t rush through the motions with half-commitment and expect to have much to show for it come harvest time. You don’t have to spend hours in the gym every day to see progress. But you do have to decide to fully commit yourself to give 100% of your best, focused effort in the time you have committed to exercise. Because at the end of the day, you’re only robbing yourself of time, effort and results with poor or hurried form.
Developing your exercise form can feel a little challenging and even humbling at times. It can mean having to slow down and remind yourself to be patient as you spend a little extra time working through your sets. It might mean letting go of your ego and reaching for a lighter, “less impressive” weight. But ultimately, it enables you to move towards real growth and progress.
All writing copyright © 2018 Rachel Elise Weems Woods.