If you want big arms, work the triceps, not the biceps. The triceps are bigger than the biceps and are composed of three heads, thus their name. They are located on the back of the upper arm and even when slightly developed, appear as a horse-shoe form.
The triceps are quite powerful muscles and are recruited in any pushing movement involving the arms. They serve to extend the lower arm from the upper arm, the reverse motion of the biceps. Thus the triceps are involved during the bench press and shoulder pressing exercises. It is easy for a beginner to overwork the triceps. If however, you wish to give your triceps special attention, perhaps to increase your lift in the bench press or any other pressing exercise involving the arms, then the French press is an excellent all-round exercise.
Execution of the French press
Also known as the close-grip bench press, the French press is performed in a similar fashion. Lie down on a bench with a barbell overhead and feet flat on the ground for more stability. Grasp the bar with a narrower-than-shoulder grip and palms facing up. Lift up the bar and position it over you. This is the starting position. Take a deep breath as you lower the bar to your nipples whilst keeping you elbows tucked in to your sides. At the bottom of the motion, reverse smoothly, push up and breathe out. Don’t lock out at the top of the exercise as you want the triceps to be kept under load at all times.
If you are used to doing the bench press, then this exercise will come naturally to you. If you are new to both exercises, you might find it hard to balance the bar with a narrow grip in the beginning, especially when you are pushing yourself to your limits.
The main difference between this exercise and the bench press is that the elbows must be kept close to your sides at all times during the exercise in order to keep the triceps under maximum tension, otherwise the load will shift to the pecs. Equally crucial to the French press is the grip. Too wide and the triceps are not sufficiently recruited; however, you can experiment with a very narrow grip until your hands are touching each other. In this case, it becomes more of a balancing act as the bar can topple sideways easily. I prefer something less extreme and which feels more comfortable.
The French press places more emphasis on the long head of the triceps, this part right along the back of the arms, although all 3 heads are recruited. Due to the nature of the exercise, it is possible to lift very heavy weights, a good way to make progress and build muscle. Just as with the bench press, it is recommended to have a spotter, someone who will help you out in the event that you get stuck under the bar. Perhaps in the case of the close-grip bench press, a spotter is even more important because the lifter needs to balance the bar carefully with a close-grip.
There are not many variations possible with this exercise. You can try to vary the grip width somewhat or even try with the palms facing you. This position feels uncomfortable and less stress is placed on the triceps. I will always recommend a form that feels most comfortable to you. You can also try performing it on a Swiss ball.
To summarise, the close-grip bench press, also known as the French press, is performed in a very similar way to the normal bench press. The only differences are in the narrow grip and in the elbows kept tucked in to the sides all the time, both of which serve to isolate the triceps muscles.