Many people consider the biceps the what-all of arm training. When someone asks you to flex your arms nobody will give them a triceps shot. This is only natural, the biceps are the shape and meat of the arms and they bulge more. But when it comes to size it's time to drop the façade and get down to business with the triceps, because these babies are 2/3 of the arm-size. That means sixty-six percent of a 20-inch gun is in the rear of the arm, but still triceps rarely get the credit they deserved.
Only a hand full of bodybuilders developed them to a point where they were noted for their incredible triceps, but all of them (Vince and Ernie Taylor, Mike Mentzer, Jusup Wilkosz to name a few) exuded a physique that was refined, sophisticated and powerful. The hinge of that appearance was the triceps. Triceps help in all lifts that require pushing, making them important to chest and shoulder-training as well. Someone with huge triceps simply has more strength in the key lifts there too, bench press, military press, shoulder press and so on. So large triceps show to the world that they don't want to mess with you. And they can be put on display a lot easier than the chest or shoulders.
Triceps form the missing part in the link, they make a flat arm look like a bazooka, tie in to the shoulders to add to the size of the rear delt and widen the physique when viewed from the back making an awesome impression combined with wide, thick lats. So even though these muscles may not be as high-profile as the chest or biceps, you can see that it is more than worth the investment of time an effort to develop them. Both for the recreational as well as the competitive bodybuilder.
It's no coincidence that there is a lack of bodybuilders with impressive triceps. The bulk of the mass in this area is towards the top of the arm, and can only be trained by bending the arm further than natural while holding a large amount of weight. This feels very unnatural and is all but easy, which is why most don't give the all-out effort needed to add the muscle in this area. You can solve over half the puzzle in creating triceps that complement your body by simply going deeper and further and still staying strict on exercises like
These will play an important role simply because things like cable press-downs and close-grip benches don't allow you to hit this area to its fullest. So take some time and make sure the triceps really feel the stretch when you train them, perhaps pause in the moment of the deepest stretch before attempting another rep will give a new meaning to the words working out.
The triceps consist of three main muscles, an outer, middle and inner head. Much like the shoulders and similarly shaped in a horseshoe, only longer and the legs of the horseshoe are pointing down. Imagine it as three muscles lying next to each other, but the two on the outside are about twice as long and positioned slightly lower than the middle one. This creates a horseshoe cut out where there is no muscle, or little of it.
The shorter muscle has the most leverage of course and provides the initial lift from stretch point out towards the point of contraction. Because that muscle, the middle one, together with the top of the other two, is situated at the top of the arm that is where the bulk of the mass will be. So that explains what is explained in the paragraph above, to stimulate most of it, you need to go deep. The lower portions located on the inside and outside will be hit in two different fashions.
You can target most of the inner head by using a palms down grip doing press-downs, skull crushers and French presses. To get more of the outside of the muscle, you'll focus on a reverse grip, as you would use in curls. You can do this on the same exercises making them reverse press-downs, reverse skull crushers and reverse French presses respectively bit also with hammer grip exercises like kickbacks and rope pushdowns which also target a bit of the middle head, mostly the bottom of it.
Naturally there are other exercises but you get the gist of it. In fact no other muscle-group has as much of a selection of exercises as the triceps do. So boredom is not a factor here. What is, is using some of the more compound oriented exercises to stimulate growth and a good selection of isolative exercises to hit each of the heads separately. How we do that, we'll discuss later in this article.
Training The Back Of The Arm
The idea to start off with is to stimulate enough of the muscle to shock it into growth, get the pump going and the ball rolling. Use exercises that recruit a lot of fiber like
standing barbell French presses
close-grip bench presses
to do this. Standing barbell French presses are done by holding a barbell, loaded, overhead with hands about shoulder width apart and hands upwards. Elbows should remain pointed at the ceiling and upper arms perpendicular to the floor. The keys to this exercises are, as you lower the forearm, to go as deep as you possibly can before coming back up, and above all to keep your elbows as close together as you can. Both when lowering as well as coming back up try to squeeze the elbows in so they don't flare.
If you prefer skull crushers (lying barbell triceps extensions) you need to lay down on a flat bench or if you use a lot of weight a bench with a low incline. Leave upper arms just a bit past perpendicular over the shoulders. To start arms are straight with the barbell loaded in your hands, shoulder width apart. Now as with the French presses, lower the forearms keeping elbows closes, until the barbell reaches the forehead or the top of the head (hence the name) and then push back up.
The reason upper arms aren't completely perpendicular is because if you lock out this way (a matter of preference) you will take the advantage off of the muscle and carry the weight on the bones of the arms. Close-grip bench presses are perhaps the best of all as compound exercises go, they don't have the isolative character and involve a bot of chest and shoulders as well. Hold the barbell as you would for a bench press only closer grip, about shoulder width apart. Lower the bar to your nipples, keeping elbows near the body and push back up. Don't bother with scapular retraction because you will be trying to use the tri's to make the lift.
One of the best ways I have found to stimulate overall triceps growth is to so a pre-exhaust superset of skull crushers on a low incline bench and the close-grip bench press. Use a weight that allows you to get 8-10 reps on the skull crusher and rep out, then pull in the barbell and bring it over your chest and start repping out whatever you can on close-grips. One way, if you do only close-grips, to increase the intensity, is to use a low decline bench and use an EZ bar. This will make it easier on the wrists and allow you to go higher. But since the tri's will be pre-exhausted in the superset this is not a concern there.
All these exercises are great for hitting mostly the inner head, so let's carry on with some other ways of stimulating the inner head. Usually for most people you will do these last since the outer and middle heads are often weaker than the inner heads. The triceps press-down is a great exercise for accentuating inner head mass, especially if you use a straight bar. It may be less natural, but it does get more of the inner head.
To do this exercises attach a bar to an over head pulley and push the bar down, with hands shoulder width apart, until forearms are in a 90 degree angle to the upper arms. Elbows are locked by your side. This is the reverse of a barbell curl. This is your starting position.
Now keeping elbows by the side push down and lock out, then come back to the 90 degree angle you started at. Don't go more than an inch above it, that will take the pressure off. Because you can't go further than that, this exercise is not very fit for stimulating the middle head.
The middle head is the hardest to stimulate and your best bet is to accentuate the stretching motion on the other exercises, but here are some exercises that will target the middle head to some extent. The triceps kickback is performed by bending over and putting your elbow up behind you so your upper arms comes parallel to the floor or even slightly higher. With a dumbbell in the hand, extend the lower arm which is perpendicular until it becomes an extension of the upper arm, hold that point for a count, then lower again to perpendicular, no further, that causes swinging.
Some choose to do this one arm at a time, others prefer to do both arms at the same time. The latter is a bit harder, forces you to use less weight and concentrate better, so I recommend that for intermediate and advanced trainers, but alternating is the best choice for beginners. This is also for the outer head to a point.
One that gets the middle and inner head would be the
dumbbell French press
. Use one heavy dumbbell and grab it with palms up underneath the top end of the weight and extend arms overhead. Attempting to keep elbows as close as possible and arms straight up towards the ceiling bend at the elbow and go as low as you can before coming back up again. The
is more outer and middle again.
You can attach a rope to a high pulley and grab an end with each hand, so you have a hammer grip. Now with hands together lower until arms are in 90 degree angle again as with regular press-downs. Lower the weight until you reach the legs then let the hands come apart and pull them to the side. Since your elbows stay by your side the whole time that means the arm is fully stretched now. Hold this point for a count, then come back up to just above 90 degrees and repeat again.
So I'm assuming you picked 2-3 exercises by now to hit the inner and middle head, so let's give you some options for the outer head now. Easily defined but hard to add mass to it takes a bit of focus to train the outer arm.
are one way and are performed in the same fashion as press-downs but you would be holding the bar in a curl-grip, shoulder width apart, making it more of a pulling than a pressing motion. Other than that it is the same.
The same goes for the reverse Barbell French Press, it's the same except the grip is reversed. Apart from this you can do the
reverse one-arm pushdown
. This is my favorite for isolating the outer head. Like the reverse press-down, except you use only a single handle instead of a bar.
I even go a step further and bend over as in an Arnold-style concentration curl and bring the upper arm pointing down at the floor, perpendicular, and the forearm just within 90 degrees holding the handle. Keeping the upper arm steady I pull the handle down until the arm is fully stretched. Hold the contraction and at this point you should feel the pump in the outer head, so you know it is working. Then go back to just over 90 degrees and repeat the motion for the desired number of reps.
A nice exercise to finish a workout with is straight up dips. This is the same as doing dips for chest only now you try to keep your body as straight as possible as you bend through your arms. Some like to do these weighted before their workout to get the hormones flowing, but I usually advise you keep them for the end of a workout so you don't have to use extra weight. In fact you'll be glad if you can get 8 reps a pop on them after a serious triceps workout.
And another one is dips between benches. Take two benches or two other things to support yourself and put them parallel to each other. Rest your ankles on one of them, and bring your hands together behind your ass and put them on the other one. Now dip through your arms. The positioning and the elevation of the feet provides a tilting-back, tight feeling you can't get with straight up dips.
On this one your either going to have to go aerobic and do endless reps to keep your pump going or put some plates on your legs to weight you down. Get a partner to do this. You can do it yourself but its not very safe and take it from me its not easy either. But this is a really great exercise if you need to get some triceps action in between. For people with very weak triceps, I suggest you do some of these in staggered sets in your other workouts, alternated with straight up dips, and I guarantee within the shortest amount of time you'll have added an inch to your tri's.
Well that gives you a very wide variety of training options and that is hardly all, so below I'm going to give you some other you some others you may wish to try though they don't really rank amongst my favorites. Most are variations to exercises presented above.
The skull crusher is one of the variations of the lying triceps extension. Some others are the dumbbell lying extension with one or two dumbbells and the cross-body dumbbell extension. To do the first, take one or two dumbbells in a hammer grip, that is the variation, and keep upper arms towards the ceiling a you bend at the elbows as with a skull crusher. Do one arm at a time, alternate them, do both at the same time, they all work and they all provide a little variation to your workout.
Not my favorite exercises but you may wish to give them a whirl. To do the second, grab one dumbbell in the hand you wish to work. Use a hammer grip and keep elbow toward the ceiling. Bend the arm, not backwards, but towards the opposite shoulder. Hence the name cross-body.
Overhead dumbbell extensions are often done by beginners, usually in bad form and with a weight that is much too light to be effective. Extend one arm, holding a dumbbell straight overhead with the arm stretched. Bend the forearm behind the head toward the opposite shoulder as deep as you can get. This is not easy, but again a great way of hitting or trouble-shooting the upper part of the triceps and worth a shot. If you can't do it correctly, don't do it all. Which is why I didn't include it in the main series of exercises.
Try doing all standing exercises with an overhead movement like French presses, dumbbell French presses and overhead dumbbell extensions while seated against a straight bench or in a chair, even against a barbell bench station. This keeps the back straight and avoids swinging so you can focus on keeping the elbows close and going as deep as you possibly can.
Like press-downs and their hammer grip (rope) and reverse variations, there is also the overhead cable extension and its variations to hit the different heads. To these attach a bar to an overhead pulley, face away from the pulley, one foot in front of the other for leverage, elbows pointing forward so the upper arms are parallel to the ground. Forearms are in a 90 degree relation to them with the bar in your hands above your head. Now push the bar forward keeping elbows close to each other as possible until your forearms are in the extension of the upper arms. Attach a rope to hit the middle head and move hands apart at the end of the movement. Grab the bar with a curl-grip to hit the outer head, use less weight since this will put all the stress on your thumb joint.
If dips aren't your thing, there is another exercise that moves the body through space instead of the weight: fixed-bar triceps extensions. A fixed bar about the height of the upper legs. Put your hands against and your feet together a reasonable distance away from it. Now bend through your arms and put your head under the bar and push back up, keeping elbows close together as possible. Not quite as intense, but it's definitely a fun variation and something you can do anywhere if you have a fixed bar at that height.
The Weakest Link
Triceps weaknesses stand out because they are visible 75 percent of the time and all the time while you put your arms on display. As I stated very clearly and obviously, you best invest some time in trying to maximize the work on the upper triceps by emphasizing very deep stretches on all the exercises that allow this. A weak upper tri takes away the bulk of the mass and considerably lessens the size of the overall muscle.
Not to mention there is no tie-in to the other head, no separation near the rear delt and the horseshoe shape fades at the top. Not the kind of luck you need. If you have a week inner tricep you can cover it up to a point, but in triceps poses, twisting shots and especially overhead poses you will put them on display and this could cost you points. So pay attention to your inners.
Avoid weakness in the outer tri's at all cost. Lack of size is very common and is easily forgiven, lack of definition is not. If any muscle should be clearly visible it is the outer triceps. Not only because it is the most visible part of the rear arm, but also because it separates the triceps from the biceps giving you that complete look everybody wants. So keep doing those reverses if you don't want to make a fool of yourself.
Progression Of Training
The best suggestion is to start with a compounding movement that hits most of the inner and upper triceps, like a French press of a skull crusher, and combine it with an isolative exercise for the outer triceps for the outer head and do three or four sets of each, adding two sets of a trouble-shooting exercise if needed. Once in an intermediate stage you need at least one exercise for each head and as soon as you can handle it an overall exercise plus one exercise for each head, so you'd be up to at least 8-12 sets probably more, so make sure your nutritional demands are met for each stage before you keep piling on the sets.
Keep the variation alive, you have plenty of choice of exercises so keep switching them up, and above all keep hitting the upper triceps. You may choose to drop the overall exercise in a late intermediate of advanced stage, but as long as you need mass, include them in the workout.
With good triceps on your side your arms will bloom and grow out of proportion. You will leave everyone in your gym in the dust because you have the real size solution for arms, and you may soon become one of the rare bodybuilders who have excellent triceps.