That’s exactly why JM Blakely, a former elite-level bench press specialist, invented the exercise 20+ years ago. Inserting the Empress into your weekly routine could mean going from a weight that staples you to the bench to one you’re lifting for reps in short order.
You’ll also gain some triceps size in the process, which will go a long way toward making you look like a strong benches. With the skull crusher, the bar is lowered to the forehead, putting a stretch on the triceps to increase activation.
The Empress puts both exercises together in a movement that works the triceps in the range of motion they used to lock out the elbows in the last few inches of a bench press rep, when the weight is going up overhead. In an interview with Dave Tate (powerlifting coach and founder of Elites), JM Blakely said the following, when recalling how he came to invent his namesake exercise: “I’m huge on recovery… I couldn’t do three, or four, or even two triceps exercises after a while, because the load was so much… So how can I get the value of a skull crusher and a close-grip bench and not have to do both of them?
In other words, the Empress was an efficiency hack to get the most out of two great bench press -building exercises for the price of one. “A close-grip bench press normally comes to the lower part of your chest, and a skull crusher ends at the top of the forehead,” says Julia Paderewski Into, CSS, a strength and conditioning coach to powerlifters, athletes, and Crossfires of various ages, and an elite powerlifter herself (julialadewski.com).
When powerlifters do an exercise specifically for the triceps, it’s usually to increase lockout strength for the bench press. The Empress was Blakely’s solution to the problem, as it strengthens the triceps at precisely the point where they would normally be unable to extend the elbows with a heavy load.
“I’d put the Empress into a training program for someone who needs to build pure triceps strength,” says Into. “I would gear it more toward powerlifters and those looking to improve their bench press.” Conventional triceps exercises like cable push downs and kickbacks, she says, are fine for building triceps muscle size, but they won’t develop strength that’s specific to the bench press, mainly because the movement mechanics are too different.
“You can move more weight on JM presses than on a skull crusher,” says Into, “and really push the limit on that lower part of the triceps . “I just can’t justify having a general population person use the Empress when there’s a larger learning curve to actually get something out of it.” As you’ll see below, the Empress is a fairly technical lift that needs to be done precisely to see gains, so attempt it only after you’ve gained some experience with the bench press and its more common assistance lifts.
The Empress is used to target the triceps, but there is some movement at the shoulders, which makes it a compound exercise that works the pecs and Delta a bit as well. The original way the exercise was performed was meant to focus on the triceps—specifically the lower part of the triceps, near the elbow—and you tried to keep any shoulder rotation out of it.” This is the version we’ll describe how to do below.
The lateral head is the portion of the muscle that runs down the outer side of your arm, and mostly accounts for its horseshoe appearance when well-developed. Research confirms that the triceps are involved to a greater extent when doing barbell presses with a narrow grip versus a wide one.
Furthermore, researchers have found that the triceps’ lateral head is highly active during the top portion of a bench press. As Blakely notes in this video, when starting out with the exercise, it’s best to go very light and do a higher number of total reps to learn the movement and practice technique.
Specifically, he recommends 4–6 sets of 10 reps, using “extremely light weight.” Do this once a week for a month or so before moving onto heavier loads. In other words, if you’re doing an arm day, do the Empress as your first triceps exercise, so you’re fresh and can give it your best focus.
The Empress is an unorthodox (some would say awkward) exercise that, if done carelessly, can place excessive strain on the elbows. Into echoes these sentiments, but she doesn’t necessarily consider the Empress to be any more dangerous than other related exercises.
“Sure, if you load too heavy, too fast, the bar could fall on your face, but then again, so can a bench press or a skull crusher. I’d be more concerned about loading slowly and getting used to the stress that’s placed on the triceps tendon, as it can feel a little taxed afterward.
As an exercise that’s specifically intended to boost bench press strength, the Empress ’s most effective application is with a barbell. A Empress done with dumbbells, then, may be a useful exercise for triceps muscle mass, but it wouldn’t have much carryover to benching max weight.
The Empress is a highly unique exercise, so it’s hard to find a comparable move that targets the same movement path and muscles. “To this day, I’ve never done an exercise that directly stretches that lower triceps tendon like JM Presses,” says Into.
Start with the standard close-grip bench press, which will train your triceps to contribute more to the movement, thereby boosting your lockout strength. Take a deep breath, tighten your glutes, and lower the bar to your sternum, tucking your elbows to your sides at 45 degrees on the descent.
Bench presses of any kind can be done with a board (a block of wood with a handle) held against the chest to shorten the range of motion. “Sometimes you need to do an exercise that will allow you to handle weights near your max,” says Into, “which will allow your nervous system to adapt to moving that weight on a regular basis.” She recommends using two to three boards depending on your arm length (longer-armed lifters need more boards to keep the exercise in the triceps’ main range of motion).
“You’re looking for slightly less range of motion so you can load, but you don’t want it so high that you aren’t stressing the triceps.” Lie back on the bench and grasp the bar with a shoulder-width grip (or slightly narrower), and have a partner place two to three wooden boards in the middle of your chest.
Unpack the bar, and slowly lower it to the boards, keeping your elbows tucked so that your upper arms are at a roughly 45-degree angle with your torso. For those following, we have already looked at some awesome tricep exercises using a barbell and dumbbells to help push your strength — and specifically your bench press — to new levels.
They are a nice change of pace and I feel like the awkward shape adds another level of toughness to the exercises. Those two factors make them unique and something I’ve found to be effective in getting my triceps stronger for the bench press.
Being able to flex the tricep through a whole range of motion is what will make you able to lock out your next bench attempt at a meet. It can be a key factor in finishing off a lift, which can make a big difference when it comes to PRS.
If you need a new twist in tricep training, try these kettle bell exercises to burst through your plateaus. Start lying down with kettle bells up and lower to about 1-2 inches off your chest and bring them back over to about your chin and flex them straight up.
This will place extra stress on the tricep around the elbow joint, which is the area we need to make very strong. Like I’ve said previously, if your tricep is strong around that elbow joint your bench press strength with follow.
Again, the elbows shouldn't move a lot, as you want to keep tension on them the entire range of motion. Simply flex the kettle bells off your chest until your arms are locked out and then lower back down under control.
It really teaches you to flex and once you’re able to do that properly on this exercise and really move up, it can make a big difference. Also, to add a small challenge, pause for a split second in the bottom to remove any momentum in the movement.
Simply lay on the ground with kettle bells up and bend at the elbow and bring them down next to the top of your head. This will fatigue the triceps prior to the pressing and make them work overtime.
But they will simply be in a rotation with the other barbell, dumbbell, and band tricep exercises that we perform. Eliminating weak areas is a surefire way to improve your tricep strength and bench press.
These kettle bell movements will be great exercises to add into your arsenal to make sure your bench doesn't stall out. Watch out for part 4 where we will cover band exercises to keep your triceps strong and healthy.
Avoid injury and keep your form in check with in-depth instructional videos. How-to Images View our enormous library of workout photos and see exactly how each exercise should be done before you give it a shot.
Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing except that the triceps tendon is stretched DIRECTLY OVER THE ELBOW. The white line that “connects” the Long, Lateral and Medial heads?
And that probably wouldn’t be an issue except elbows are money as all F, and having soft tissue slide back and forth over them might not be the best/ most comfortable, joint friendly, set up. That’s the main reason why traditional skull crushers CRUSH so many elbows.
The fully stretched triceps with a simultaneously fully flexed elbow, driving the bone into a stretched and loaded tendon probably isn’t the best thing for most people. It's a great triceps builder, especially as a bench press assistance exercise.
Difficult for trainees to perform correctly <—it too often becomes a straight elbow extension, or they go too heavy and it becomes a close grip bench press. With dumbbells (I’m guessing because of the neutral grip) combined with dropping the elbow angle on the decent seems to alleviate pain in the elbows and the movement usually looks a lot better/ smooth/ cleaner.
Dumbbell JM Presses are one of my favorite bench press accessory, triceps, exercises and I’ve had several fairly experienced clients tell me they’ve never felt their triceps fire like they did after these. This is just a BOSS ass pic of Sergio Olivia with his triceps busting out of his shirt.