No doubt, more arm size is a universal desire. Considering that the triceps make up about two-thirds of your arm size, it makes sense that training your triceps is just as important as training your biceps. In the following, we're going to take a look at isolation-exercises that you can use to train your triceps.
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Rather than focus on only one exercise, however, we're going broaden our scope a little bit and consider a group of exercises falling into the category of triceps extensions.
In this first of two parts, we'll take a look at variations of triceps extensions that you can perform using either barbells or straight-bars attached to pulley machines. In Part 2, we'll focus on dumbbell exercises and one-arm exercises performed on pulley machines.
Training Triceps While Lying Down
A triceps extension is a push-type, isolation exercise which works your triceps, but also trains your shoulders, chest, lats, and forearms, depending on how you perform the exercise.
The following table lists information about triceps extensions and the muscles that you use when performing triceps extensions in the form of lying triceps press, as shown in Figures 1-2.
Basic Exercise Data For Lying Triceps Press:
||Barbell + Weight
||Deltoid (anterior, posterior)
Pectoralis Major (clavicular, sternal)
Learn More About The Anatomy Of Muscles Here.
Variation: Lying Triceps Press (Skull Crushers)
You can perform lying triceps press by loading up a barbell or EZ-Curl bar with the desired amount of weight and then sitting on a flat bench. Lie back on the bench and extend your arms so that the barbell is positioned over your eyes, as shown in Figure 2.
Positioning the bar over your eyes keeps your triceps under some tension while your arms are in the extended position. Now, keep your upper arms fixed in the extended position shown in Figure 2 while you bend your elbows and allow the weight to descend under control toward your forehead.
Left (Figure 1):
Right (Figure 2):
It's worth mentioning that lying triceps presses are called "skull crushers" because the bar can crush your skull if you're not careful when you lower the weight. Once the bar nearly touches your forehead, as shown in Figure 1, push the bar upwards to the extended position shown in Figure 2. Be sure to maximally contract your triceps at the top of the movement.
Variation: Lying Close-Grip Barbell Triceps Extension Behind The Head
Another way to perform triceps extensions with a barbell is shown in Figures 3-4. This version of triceps extensions is referred to as "lying close-grip barbell triceps extensions behind the head," but we'll refer to them as "lying behind the head extensions" for short.
You can perform lying behind the head extensions by loading up a barbell or an EZ-Curl bar and sitting on a flat bench with the barbell in your lap.
Left (Figure 3):
Right (Figure 4):
Grasp the bar with a close, overhand grip and about 8 inches of separation between your hands. Lie back on the bench with the top of your head at the edge of the bench, raise the bar over your head, and then lower it toward the floor, as shown in Figure 3. In this position, your upper arms should be close to your head and your lower arms should be perpendicular to the floor.
While holding your upper arms fixed in the position shown in Figure 3, use your triceps to push the barbell upward until your arms are extended as shown in Figure 4. Go for a maximal contraction of your triceps at the top, locking out your elbows, and then lower the bar under control until it reaches the position shown in Figure 3.
Concentrate on keeping your upper arms stationary throughout the exercise; make your triceps do all the work.
Variation: Cable Lying Triceps Extensions
We've looked at a couple of ways to work your triceps by using a barbell, but you can also use a cable and weight stack to perform cable lying triceps extensions, as shown in Figures 5-6. To do this, attach a short bar to a low-pulley and select the desired weight.
Lie on a bench with the top of your head at the edge of the bench, grasp the bar with a narrow, overhand grip, and extend your arms over your forehead, as shown in Figure 5.
Left (Figure 5):
While keeping your upper arms fixed as shown in Figure 5, bend your elbows to lower the bar until it's positioned over your forehead, as shown in Figure 6. Now, use your triceps to push the bar upwards until your arms are extended again, as shown in Figure 5. Focus on your triceps and keep your upper arms fixed throughout the exercise; this keeps the tension on your triceps!
Right (Figure 6):
Training Triceps While Standing Or Sitting
Now that we've looked at some techniques for training your triceps while lying down, let's take a look at some ways to train your triceps while standing or sitting.
It's worth mentioning at this point that training your triceps while standing requires you to stabilize your torso during the exercise, and thus offers the additional benefit of developing improved trunk stability.
Variation: Standing Overhead Barbell Triceps Extension
One way to train your triceps while standing is by performing standing overhead barbell triceps extensions, as shown in Figures 7-8. To perform standing overhead barbell triceps extensions, load a barbell or EZ-Curl bar with a desired amount of weight and then grasp the bar with a close (i.e., hands about 6-8 inches apart), overhand grip. Raise the bar overhead with your arms fully extended as shown in Figure 8.
Left (Figure 7):
Right (Figure 8):
While keeping your upper arms stationary and close to your head, lower the bar behind your head until your forearms touch your biceps, as shown in Figure 7. Focus on working your triceps as you push the bar upward until your arms are extended as shown in Figure 8. Go for a maximal contraction at the top as you lock out your elbows.
Variation: Incline Barbell Triceps Extensions
A close relative of standing overhead triceps extensions is the inclined barbell triceps extension. With inclined barbell triceps extensions, you still lift a barbell over your head, but you sit on an inclined bench during the exercise, as shown in Figures 9-10.
Left (Figure 9):
Right (Figure 10):
You can perform inclined barbell triceps extensions by grasping an EZ-Curl bar or a barbell with your hands a little closer together than shoulder width, and then sitting on an inclined bench. Be sure that the top of your head is at the top of the bench to allow clearance for the bar.
Extend your arms fully so that the bar is raised above your head, as shown in Figure 10. While keeping your upper arms fixed in position close to your head, bend your elbows and allow the bar to descend behind your head, as shown in Figure 9. Then, use your triceps to raise the bar back up again until your arms are in the fully extended position shown in Figure 10.
Variation: Triceps Pushdowns
A very popular exercise for training your triceps is the triceps pushdown, using a high-pulley, as shown in Figures 11-12. Unlike the exercises discussed above, triceps pushdowns require you to push downward in front of your body instead of pressing upward behind your head; this change calls different stabilizer muscles into action.
The following table lists general information about the muscles you use when performing triceps pushdowns.
Muscles Worked During Triceps Pushdowns:
Stabilizers Latissimus Dorsi
You can perform triceps pushdowns by attaching a short, straight-bar to a high pulley. Assume a shoulder-width stance and bend your knees a little bit. Grasp the straight-bar with an overhand grip and about 10 inches of separation between your hands.
Pull down the straight-bar until your upper arms are close to your sides and your forearms are roughly parallel with the floor, as shown in Figure 11.
Left (Figure 11):
Right (Figure 12):
While keeping your upper arms fixed at your sides, and steadying your whole body, use your triceps to push the straight-bar down as far as you can toward your legs, as shown in Figure 12.
Lock your arms at the bottom and maximally contract your triceps. While still keeping your upper arms stationary, allow your elbows to bend and let the bar ascend until your forearms are again roughly parallel with the floor, as shown in Figure 11. When you perform triceps pushdowns, be sure to keep your torso upright and stationary throughout the exercise.
Variation: Triceps Pushdowns with a Rope Attachment
Another way to perform triceps pushdowns is with a rope attachment instead of the straight-bar. The rope attachment allows you to use a semi-supinated grip (i.e., palms facing each other). Aside from the semi-supinated grip, performing pushdowns with the rope attachment is identical to performing pushdowns with the straight-bar.
You begin by assuming a shoulder-width stance and bending your knees a little bit. Grasp the ends of the rope attachment and pull it down until your upper arms are close to your sides and your forearms are roughly parallel with the floor, as shown in Figure 13.
Left (Figure 13):
Right (Figure 14):
With your upper arms fixed at your sides and your whole body steadied, push the ends of the rope attachment down toward your legs. As your hands approach your legs, pull the ends of the rope apart, as shown in Figure 14. Pulling the rope apart gives your triceps a maximal contraction at the bottom of the exercise.
While still keeping your upper arms fixed at your sides, bend your elbows and allow the bar to ascend until your forearms are roughly parallel with the floor, as shown in Figure 13. As with straight-bar pushdowns, when you perform triceps pushdowns with the rope attachment be sure to keep your torso upright and stationary throughout the exercise.
Variation: Kneeling Cable Triceps Extension
All of the previously discussed variations of triceps extensions involved lying down, standing or sitting while you train your triceps. You can also perform kneeling cable triceps extensions where you kneel and support your upper body on a bench, as shown below in Figures 15-16.
Kneeling and supporting yourself on the bench limits the number of muscles that are recruited for stabilization, and thus provides a way to train your triceps while limiting the impact on other muscles.
You can perform kneeling cable triceps extensions by attaching a straight-bar to a high-pulley and placing a bench sideways in front of the high-pulley machine. Grasp the straight-bar with an overhand grip and about 6 inches of separation between your hands.
Hold the straight-bar above your head and kneel facing away from the machine. Support your head and elbows on the bench, and allow the bar to move behind your head until your forearms touch your biceps as shown in Figure 15.
Left (Figure 15):
Right (Figure 16):
While keeping your arms close to your head, and focusing on your triceps, push the bar forward until your arms are fully extended, as shown in Figure 16. When your arms reach the extended position, go for a maximal contraction of your triceps before allowing the bar to move back to the initial position shown in Figure 15.
Remember to keep your head and elbows stationary on the bench throughout the exercise--make your triceps do all the work!
Incorporating Triceps Extensions Into Your Training
Now that you know how to perform various forms of triceps extensions using barbells and pulley machines, let's take a brief look at some ways to incorporate triceps extensions into your training.
Since all forms of triceps extensions are pushing exercises that work your triceps, it's a good idea to combine triceps extensions with pulling exercises that train your biceps. For example, one choice is to combine skull crushers with barbell curls. Another example is to combine triceps extensions with a rope attachment with inclined hammer curls.
Following is one example of a full-body routine which pairs skull crushers with barbell curls.
Notice that the skull crushers are performed before the barbell curls - this is done because the triceps are bigger than the biceps. Now let's take a look at an abbreviated routine that affords more time for greater training volume.
As you can see, pushdowns with a rope attachment are paired with inclined hammer curls. Both exercises require a semi-supinated grip; the pushdowns work the triceps and the hammer curls work the biceps.
If you want to perform full-body workouts, but also want to use more than one type of exercise for your arms, you might consider alternating exercises. With this approach, you switch between two different exercises that are performed every other workout day. For example, you might choose the following alternatives for a full-body workout.
Inc. Bench Press
Pushdowns With Rope Attachment
Inclined Hammer Curls
In this routine, exercises A are performed on one workout day, exercises B are performed on the next workout day, exercises A are performed on the following workout day, and so on. As you can see, skull crushers are alternated with pushdowns with a rope attachment, and barbell curls are alternated with inclined hammer curls.
Another popular approach is to split up your training so that you can train different body parts on different workout days. Splitting up your training enables you to concentrate your training on specific muscle groups with more exercises and/or more training volume. Split training also gives your muscles more recovery time than would be otherwise possible.
Following is an example of 4-way split in which different body parts are trained on four different workout days each week.
Inc. Bench Press
Pushdowns W/ Rope
Dumbbell Preacher Curls
With this 4-way split, your chest and triceps are trained on their own training day. Doing this allows you to use more exercises for your triceps and affords enough training time for you to concentrate on your triceps with more training volume. Splitting up your training also gives your chest and triceps an entire week to recover before you train them again.
Look for part 2 of this article next Monday, March 7, 2005.
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