Q: I need some advice on close-grip bench presses and triceps dips. I’ve been trying to get them to work for me for seven years, and I have yet to get a real benefit. I feel the movement in my chest, and when I try to flex my tri’s at the top, I feel it in my elbow, not the muscle—which would explain my 46.5-inch chest and 16-inch arms. Even when I stay vertical on the dips and tuck or flare my elbows on the close-grip bench presses, the situation is the same. Is there anything in the way of lifting tips that you could offer? This problem has really held back my development. I’m having to rely on the cable station and free-weight skull crushers for stimulation.
A: The close-grip bench press and dip are basic, core exercises for the triceps. Not feeling the contraction and the pump as much in them as you do in exercises like barbell and dumbbell extensions, kickbacks or pushdowns is not uncommon. The latter are more isolated—where the triceps are working by themselves—as opposed to the basic exercises, which involve the deltoids in the movement.
Just because you can’t feel the movement as much doesn’t mean that the exercises aren’t working for you. It is important, however, that you do them correctly to get the maximum benefit.
When doing close-grip bench presses, correct hand spacing is crucial. If you position your hands too closely on the bar, you’ll feel the strain in your wrists. If your hands are spaced too far apart, you’ll feel it in your shoulders more than your triceps. The correct hand spacing is slightly less than shoulder width.
Another important point is the position of your elbows. Don’t point them out on this exercise. Keep them in tight and point them toward your legs. If you try to flare your elbows, you’ll feel it more in your wrists, just as you will on too-wide-grip chins.
When you lower the bar to your chest, bring it to the lower section. Push the bar back up in a straight line, not back toward your shoulders. That will keep the tension on the triceps.
Don’t lock your elbows at the top of the movement; push the bar three quarters of the way up before lowering it back to your chest. The close-grip bench press is a mass-building exercise, so focus on working the medial head of the triceps by going all the way down and three quarters of the way up.
If you’re still not feeling the movement in your triceps, you might want to reduce the weight until you can. Another alternative is to do the exercise on the Smith machine, which eliminates the need to balance the bar so you can push the weight up without worrying about form as much.
After one or two warmup sets for 10 to 12 reps, increase the resistance, and do two or three sets for only six to eight reps to build more mass into the medial head of the triceps. Again, it’s a mass-building exercise, which means you might not feel the pump and burn in the muscle much as you would with isolation exercises like extensions or pushdowns.
Similar to the close-grip bench presses, dips work the triceps’ medial head. I like to do dips at the end of my triceps workout, when the muscles are fully pumped, because I feel the movement more in my triceps and less in my deltoids or elbows. Dips can be stressful on the elbow joints if you’re not properly warmed up—another reason to do them at the end of the routine.
As you mentioned in your question, the best form for working the triceps on dips is to keep your upper body vertical and push your elbows back. Because the muscles work the hardest at the lockout position, I don’t focus on the bottom of the exercise as much as the top.
I keep my head up with my shoulders back and slowly bend my arms, making sure to push my elbows back as I lower my upper body. I go a little below the point where my upper arms are parallel to the floor before forcefully pushing my body back to full lockout.
If you’re strong on dips and can do 10 to 12 reps easily, feel free to add some resistance by using a dipping belt. As with the close-grip bench presses, doing dips with a weight that limits you to six to eight reps is the best range for building mass in the medial head.
Editor’s note: John Hansen has won the Mr. Natural Olympia and is a two-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Check out his Web site at www.NaturalOlympia.com, or send questions or comments to him at [email protected] or at P.O. Box 3003, Darien, IL 60561. Look for John’s DVD, “Natural Bodybuilding Seminar and Competitions,” along with his book, Natural Bodybuilding, and his training DVD, “Real Muscle,” at his Web site or at Home Gym Warehouse, www.Home-Gym.com. Listen to John’s new radio show, “Natural Bodybuilding Radio,” at www.NaturalBodybuildingRadio.com. IM