A big arm that bulges from the back and has a fat earthworm vein running down the front is just plain cool-looking. I get it! But don't confuse big biceps with big arms. While the biceps adds some flash to your arm, the triceps are responsible for your arm's true mass. In other words, you can have the best biceps around, but without thick, well-developed triceps, your arms will look dinky and weak.
When I was younger, I used to stroll into the gym, throw two plates on the bar, and bust out some skullcrushers without even warming up. Older guys in the gym would cringe and say, "Oh, you're going to pay for that in a few years." I was like, "What? No way. I feel great. I'm going to feel like this forever!" But sure enough, I ended up paying for it.
Over time, I've found a triceps training method that works far better for me. Here's what you need to know to make it work for you.
The Sweet Spot
You can attack any body part many different ways, but they'll all more or less align with two primary schools of thought: One crowd says to do the compound movements hard and heavy at the beginning of your workout, leaving the light isolation stuff for last. The other crowd says to use a mixture of isolation and compound movements, changing up the order of things often, and always using as much resistance as possible while maintaining form. I've personally found that the latter approach allows me more freedom and the best results.
Look, I'm all for moving big weight with the basic compound movements. But when it comes to a body part like triceps, you have to stop and consider what the rest of your training looks like. If you're sticking to the basic compound, free-weight movements for your chest and shoulder training—as you should be—your triceps are already getting a fair amount of stimulus there.
Think about it: In a given week, between chest and shoulder training you could easily hit the flat barbell bench press, incline dumbbell press, dips, push-ups, barbell military presses, and maybe a second variation of shoulder presses. Assuming you're pushing those sets to failure or even past it with a spotter's help, you're going to put a good beating on your triceps whether you intend to or not. So you likely don't need a ton of direct triceps work.
Consequently, your goal should be to stimulate rather than annihilate your triceps. The last thing you want is to not be able to press heavy on chest and shoulder day because you tried to turn your arm day into a leg day.
Here's how I structure a triceps workout to maximize growth.
Superset: Rope Extensions With Cable Push-Downs
I'm all about driving as much blood as possible into a working muscle. Rope extensions supersetted with cable push-downs will allow you to minimize pressure on the triceps tendon and maximize tension in the belly of the muscle, as far away as possible from either the insertion or origin points. I'll set one attachment on one side of the cable cross station, another attachment on the other, and hit them back-to-back.
All too often, when too much weight is being used and/or a muscle is not properly warmed up, the tendons will take unnecessary abuse. Not only does this increase the likelihood of pain and injury, but it is less than ideal for stimulating muscle growth. It goes without saying that you want to work your triceps, not your elbows. Starting with 3-4 supersets of this exercise combo will allow you to do just that.
For both movements, pick a weight that will allow you to feel the tension and fail in the range of 10-16 reps. Start with higher reps, and then either increase the weight or simply allow fatigue to set in, so that you are failing around 10 reps by the third and fourth sets.
For the cable push-downs, start with the bar right under your chest, push it straight down, and really squeeze. Lock out your elbows at the bottom and keep them wide at the top, and you'll start getting a pump almost instantly. For the rope extensions, my best tip is all about the grip: Keep it in the circle made by your thumb and index finger, not deep in the hand like many people do.
Once you have a rock-hard pump in your triceps, it's a great time to move on to dips, an exercise where it might otherwise be difficult to feel your triceps being recruited. But trust me, you're going to feel it now.
Try to use parallel bars that aren't too wide or too narrow. Keep it comfortable, but wide enough that you can bring a little chest assist into the movement once your triceps start to fail. I suggest doing three sets of as many reps as you can.
When I first started training in my basement as a 15-year-old, I didn't have a bunch of fancy machines I could use for arm training. But I did have a bench that allowed me to remove the posts and move them closer together so that I could do dips off the back. Hell, because my equipment was so limited back then, I remember adding dips to shoulder, chest, and triceps training.
My mind-muscle connection became very strong as I made good friends with this movement, and it's a relationship I've maintained over the years. Even once I joined a gym years later, I quickly realized that most of the machines were useless, and I kept doing the basics I knew so well.
Single-Arm Dumbbell Extension
Come to think of it, everything I said about dips also applies to for behind-the-head dumbbell extensions.
Back when I was younger, I only had a barbell and some dumbbells, and I moved those weights every which way possible in an attempt to see what kind of pain I could inflict on various muscle groups. I loved doing good old standing alternating dumbbell curls for biceps, so naturally I needed the sister movement for my triceps, and I found it in this exercise. The deep stretch it creates in the triceps when you do it right, with the arm positioned so that it is totally vertical, made this movement a hit right away.
I rank it up there with skullcrushers as a bread-and-butter movement for triceps. Each is so effective, they don't necessarily need to be done in the same workout. This movement is as simple as it gets, and it works. Three sets of 8-12 reps is just about the perfect dose.
Overhead Rope Extension
I'm a huge fan of skullcrushers, but I opted to replace them with the cable variation in this workout. The deep stretch created by bringing the ropes to the crown of the head allows for a very similar range of motion. The primary advantage here is that dropsets are much easier to perform with a stack, and the constant tension that a cable creates is something I welcome, seeing as my triceps are pretty close to finished at this point.
Two triple dropsets are enough to push my triceps to the point where the pump is almost gone, a sign that lets me know I did enough and then some. This is an important point to pay attention to. Of course, you don't need to be at peak all throughout the workout. But when you get to the point that you're basically beating a dead horse, you may want to consider getting out of the gym.