Why Developing The Triceps Is The Key For Big Arms
For so many gym goers, developing the size of their arms is often high on the list of priorities and goals. Quite rightly, they understand the importance of isolating both muscle groups of the arms through concentrated bicep and triceps movements. However, more often than not, the emphasis tends to be on building the biceps as, after all, it is the biceps that is the most apparent and “seen” muscle.
As a result, many people end up developing their biceps to a great extent but fail to do the same with the triceps. Many fail to recognize that the triceps is in fact the larger and stronger muscle group of the two and therefore has a greater capacity for growth. Yet, it is not uncommon to see the biceps receiving a great deal of attention while the triceps are neglected. By doing this, the potential to grow bigger arms is not fully taken advantage of.
Exercise Selection For Triceps Growth
There is no doubt that when it comes to exercises in general there are some which are superior for building mass than others. If we are to maximize muscle growth, it is important to distinguish between exercises that should be considered a priority and non-essential.
As mentioned, it is essential that the triceps are isolated in order to encourage growth. As a result, several the following exercises are isolation exercises, which are simply movements that require effort from one muscle group across one joint. However, there are also compound exercises listed which are exercises that place a demand on several muscle groups over a number of joints. For comprehensive triceps development, a combination of compound and isolation exercises should be performed (1).
The Best Triceps Exercises
The following exercises will have been selected based on several scientific studies. Many “EMG” studies have been completed investigating the amount of electrical activity produced during a wide range of triceps exercises. The greater the amount of activity, the more effective the triceps exercise is. In addition to the research, other factors such as exercise difficulty, progressions, regressions, adaptability and uniqueness have been considered.
This list is not supposed to be comprehensive or exclusive as there are several other useful exercises, not on the list, that can be incorporated into a muscle mass program and will assist in the muscle building process. The purpose of the list is to simply highlight a number of first-rate triceps-specific exercises.
Okay, let’s first start off with 6 compound exercises for building triceps strength and size…
Close-Grip Bench Press
By analyzing the movements required for the bench press, it will become evident that the triceps experience a great deal of stress as they powerfully contract to fully extend the arm to drive the barbell upward. Although the bench press is predominantly seen as a pectoral (chest) developing exercise, it is possible to increase the load placed on the triceps by slightly altering the technique.
By simply placing the hands closer together and narrowing the grip, the dynamic of the exercise changes. When dropping the bar to the chest, the narrower grip should keep the elbows tighter to the body which will shift the demand from the pectorals to the triceps. An EMG study investigating benching variations indicated that this change in technique did indeed increase the activation of the triceps (2).
It is recommended to place the hands approximately 8-10 inches apart on the bar – however, this is just a guide and the width required may vary from person to person. Do be aware that by going too narrow, the strain placed on the wrist does increase. If the wrists feel under a high degree of strain when benching, think about widening the grip.
The board press is an excellent triceps developer since it limits the range of motion during the bench press by removing the bottom phase of the movement. To do this, a block is placed on the chest which restricts the distance that the bar can travel. The purpose of the board press is to focus on the lock-out portion of the exercise.
Analysis indicates that, during both close-grip and standard bench press, two-thirds of the movement involves elbow extension. As highlighted previously, it is the triceps that are responsible for driving this extension and therefore this makes the board press an effective triceps developer.
A final benefit of the board press is that due to the restricted range of motion, it is possible to load the bar with more weight in comparison to a standard bench press. By doing this, we can place an even greater degree of stress through the triceps to drive optimal changes in size and strength.
Weighted Bar Dip
The next compound exercise to be considered for triceps building is the weighted bar dip. In the dip, first suspend the body in the air by grasping the bars with both hands and hold the body upright. The goal is to maintain an upright position as the body drops down towards the floor by hinging at the elbows. Once the elbows reach approximately 90°, the triceps, amongst other muscles, powerfully contract to drive the body back up to the starting position.
As with the close-grip bench press, keep the elbows tight to the ribcage to place a maximal load on the triceps rather than the chest. Furthermore, avoid leaning forward as this will shift the focus more to the pectorals. With dips, weight can be added using a waist belt which will increase the load that the triceps are exposed to, thus enhancing muscular growth.
Weighted Bench Dip
The movements required for the bench and bar dip are identical with the only difference being the body position. With the bar dip, the body should be suspended in mid-air, whereas with the bench dip the body is grounded – typically with feet placed on an adjacent bench. This will enhance the stability of the movement, in comparison to the bar dip, and therefore this may be a slightly easier variation to perform.
As with the bar dip, it is possible to add resistance to the exercise by placing a weight on the legs and completing the given number of reps. As a consequence, the increased load and stress experienced by the triceps may lead to an enhanced muscular hypertrophy.
Triceps Dip Machine
The final dipping variation is the triceps dip machine which enhances stability even further. This potentially will allow for even more weight to be pushed than with either of the previous variations. The machine is also ideal for utilizing advanced training techniques such as forced reps, drop-sets and supersets.
Close Grip Push-Up
For a superb bodyweight triceps exercise look no further than the close grip push up. It has been found to be as, if not more, effective than the dip for triceps engagement (3).While a traditional push-up places the hands outside the line of the shoulders, the close grip push up will bring the hands in line with the shoulders. To increase the difficulty of this exercise, it is possible to place the feet on an adjacent bench or add a weight on the back.
The movement requirements of this exercise are very similar to that of the close grip bench press which means that the triceps will take the majority of the load. As with the close grip bench, look to keep the elbows tucked into the sides as the body drops to the floor to maximize triceps activation.
Now, on to 6 superb triceps isolation exercises to build definition and mass…
Overhead Dumbbell Extensions
There are 3 individual “heads” of the triceps which all contribute towards producing and stabilizing movement (4). When selecting triceps isolation exercises, it is important that movements that target each individual head of the triceps are selected in order to develop the triceps in a “rounded” manner.
Overhead extensions specifically target the long head of the triceps. Start with a dumbbell directly overhead and hinge at the elbows to drop the dumbbell directly behind the head before returning to the starting position. The use of the dumbbell will make the exercise more challenging to stabilize thus increasing the overall demand placed on the muscle group.
Often the issue with the overhead position is that it can become difficult to move solely through the elbow and prevent the elbows from flaring out. In order to minimize this, it is recommended to take a seated position and primarily concentrate on just hinging the elbow joint.
Overhead Cable Extensions
The overhead extension can also be performed with a cable and attachment (whether that be a bar, rope or handle). The benefit of using the cable is, firstly, getting into the right position to execute the exercise is very simple. Simply adopt a split stance to enhance stability, grasp the attachment with both hands behind the head and tip the trunk forward before extending the arms.
Once again, it’s essential to limit elbow flair and hinge only at the elbow. A good guide for this is to keep the elbow joint in line with the shoulder joint throughout the entirety of the exercise.
Dumbbell Single-Arm Kickbacks
Along with the dumbbell extensions, dumbbell kickbacks are a brilliant free weight triceps exercises that specifically target the long and lateral heads. It is best to perform the dumbbell kickback by focusing on one arm at a time, while using a bench to enhance stability and facilitate form.
To set-up properly, place one knee and one arm on the bench so that the body is parallel with the floor. Bring the elbow up to the ribs and “screw” it into the ribcage. From there, roll the dumbbell up to the shoulder before powerfully “kicking back” by extending the elbow until the arm reaches full extension.
Single Arm Cable Kickback
The cable kickback is an alternative to the aforementioned dumbbell kickback and can be used to enhance triceps activation. There is no need to use an attachment for this one as it is possible to simply grasp the rubber ball on the end of the cable.
In order to facilitate stability and form even further, consider placing an incline bench in front of the weight stack and place the chest on it. From that position, remember to look to lock the elbow in position while performing the movement so that the triceps are forced to perform the entire movement – not the shoulders.
The skullcrusher is undoubtedly one of, if not the most, effective triceps isolation exercise going. EMG research indicates that the skullcrusher has a massive amount of triceps activation associated with it. Because the exercise places the upper arm perpendicular with the body, a high demand is placed on both the lateral and long heads of the triceps (3).
To perform the skullcrusher, lie back on the bench and push the weight directly up so that it is directly above the shoulders. From there, lock the shoulders and focus on hinging the elbows to drop the weight towards the face before driving back up to the starting position.
One of the great things with this exercise is its versatility. A range of equipment can be used to perform it including barbells, dumbbells and cables. Each piece of equipment will slightly change the dynamic of the skullcrusher.
Cable Push Down
Last but not least is the cable push down which has been found to activate the lateral head of triceps more than the majority of other triceps exercises (3). This is probably one of the simplest triceps exercises in existence, however, more often than not, it’s performed incorrectly.
Ensure that the elbows are pinned in tight to the ribcage and that movement around the shoulder is minimized before driving the bar down to the hips. During the push down phase, do not let the elbows drift away from the ribcage and really focus on squeezing the triceps at the point of peak contraction.
If the goal is to build the guns, it’s time to step away from the comforts of the bicep curl and start paying more attention to triceps development. For those who are serious about developing arm size, select a number of the above exercises and perform them 2-3 x per week as once per week is simply not enough for optimizing muscle growth (5). Combine this will proper rest, recovery and nutrition and the arms will be bursting from the sleeves in no time.
Header image courtesy of Envato Elements
1- Asian J Sports Med. 2015 Jun; 6(2): e24057. Published online 2015 Jun 22. PMCID: PMC4592763. PMID: 26446291
2- Saeterbakken, Atle Hole; Mo, Dag-André; Scott, Suzanne; Andersen, Vidar (June 22, 2017). “The Effects of Bench Press Variations in Competitive Athletes on Muscle Activity and Performance”. Journal of Human Kinetics. 57: 61–71. doi:10.1515/hukin-2017-0047. ISSN 1640-5544. PMC PMCPMC5504579. PMID 28713459.
3- Boehler, Brittany (May 4, 2011). Electromyographic analysis of the triceps brachii muscle during a variety of triceps exercises
4- J Clin Med Res. 2018 Apr; 10(4): 290–293. Published online 2018 Feb 18. PMCID: PMC5827912. PMID: 29511416
5- J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Jul;29(7):1821-9. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000970.