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The biceps brachii (usually referred to as "the bicep") was given that name because it has two heads. Most people know that it lies on the upper arm between the shoulder and the elbow. Both heads originate on the scapula and together they attach to the upper forearm. Even though the biceps cross both the shoulder and elbow, its primary function is at the elbow where it flexes and/or turns the forearm.
The biceps can be strengthened using weight and resistance training. It is a very visible muscle — people (and cartoon characters like Popeye the Sailor Man) will bend their elbow and "show off" their biceps, especially if there is considerable bulk developed.
Older adults, however, are not exercising their biceps to gain bulk or to compete in the next Olympics.
The biceps are particularly important to older adults if they fall, as their arms usually are used for support, and the stronger those muscles are, the better.
Strong biceps will also help you to do daily chores: carrying groceries, scrubbing a pot, cleaning the shower.
Exercises for the Biceps
Three common exercises for the biceps, using free weights (how heavy is your choice, but older adults often use 1, 2, or 5 pounds), are:
Hammer Curl: Place weights in hand with arms fully extended and palms turned in. Lift weights by bending the elbow and bringing the lower arm forward. Go all the way to the "top" (almost touching the upper arm). Return to the starting position. Do movements slowly, and breathe throughout. 8-12 repetitions.
Bicep Curl: Place weights in hand with arms fully extended and palms turned forward. Lift weights by bending the elbow and bringing the lower arm forward. Go all the way to the "top" (almost touching the upper arm). Return to the starting position. Do movements slowly, and breathe throughout. 8-12 repetitions.
Zottman Curl: Begin with weights in the same position as for a Bicep Curl. Lift weights by bending the elbow and bringing the lower arm forward and up. Go close to the upper arm, but do not touch. At the "top", turn the weights so that your palm faces down. Then slowly lower the arm to the starting position. Before beginning the next repetition, turn the palms forward again, then lift. 8-12 repetitions.
Generally speaking, using free weights (appropriate for you) and 8-12 repetitions is the best for older adults.
The opposing muscle of the biceps are the triceps. The triceps brachii muscle (which is Latin for "three-headed arm muscle") is the large muscle on the back of the upper limb. When you straighten your arm, you are using your triceps.
The three heads are:
The long head (in red) originates in the scapula. It extends to two muscles: teres minor and teres major.
The medial head (in green) originates from three areas, including the humerus. It is mostly covered by the other two heads.
The lateral head (in yellow) originates from the humerus.
Exercises for the Triceps
The triceps are too often neglected, even though they are an obvious opposing muscle to the biceps, and even though we exercise the biceps more often.
Two of the most common triceps exercises are:
- Tricep or Overhead Extension: Hold on to the end of the dumbbell with both hands. Begin with your arms straight and your feet hip-width apart. Keep your upper arms still while bending your elbows to lower the weight slowly behind your head. Then straighten your arms and return to the starting position. Attempt 8-12 repetitions, but do not over-exert. Begin with fewer repetitions and, as time passes and the muscle gets stronger, you'll be able to have more repetitions. 2
- Tricep Kickback: Place one foot forward or stand with feet hip-width apart. Hold the weights in your hands, palm facing inward. Bend the elbows and place the weights at waist-level. Bend forward slightly at the hips and then straighten the arm to the back and return to the waist (you can do both arms at the same time, or one arm at a time). Repeat as many times as you are able, usually 8-12 repetitions.
NOTE: One reason older adults don't do tricep exercises as often as they perhaps should is because they are more difficult than some other exercises. If you have shoulder problems — which are very common — the Tricep Overhead Extension is probably not for you. However, the Tricep Kickback might be all right, so it's a good alternative. It's up to you to choose what works for you.
If you are interested in reading about other muscles, here's a list:
- The Abdominals
- The Adductors and Abductors: Muscles in the Thigh
- The Deltoids: The Shape of the Shoulder
- The Erector Spinae: The Spine Muscles
- The Forearm, Elbow, and Wrist
- The Glutes
- The Hamstrings: Back of the Thigh
- The Hip Flexors
- Latissimus Dorsi: The Lats
- The Lower Leg: The Calf and the Shin
- Muscle Cramps and Other Injuries
- Muscles of the Head
- The Muscular System: How it Works
- Opposing Muscles
- Pectoralis Major and Minor: The Pecs
- The Quadriceps: The Front of the Thigh
- Taking Care of your Feet
- The Trapezius and the Rhomboids
I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.