Triceps are the ultimate hybrid muscle. Not only are they responsible for arms that look both strong ad sexy, they also contribute mightily to some big lifts like the bench press and shoulder press. The triceps are equal “show and go” muscles.
Anatomy of the Triceps
The main role of the triceps brachii is to extend the arm at the elbow. Just as the prefix of the name implies, the triceps are made up of three distinct parts: the long head, the lateral head, and the medial head. All three contribute to overall strength and a powerful aesthetic.
The lateral head is the one that juts outward from the body and, when highly developed, creates the most impressive silhouette. The long head is located on the bottom side of the humerus, close to the body. Together, the long head and the lateral head form the coveted “triceps horseshoe,” the inverted U-shape that can be seen on bodybuilders and athletes who have well-developed arms and low levels of body fat. The medial head is mostly covered by the long head and lateral head, but contributes overall mass to the upper arm.
It’s possible to isolate the three different heads with certain variations of triceps exercises, but the best triceps workout for mass will hit all three heads equally. Whether you do your triceps workout with dumbbells at home or your triceps workout at the gym with every imaginable piece of equipment, it’s relatively easy to stimulate the entire muscle.
Your Triceps Workout
The triceps are a relatively small muscle and recover quickly. The best triceps workouts combine compound movements and isolation exercises with an emphasis on training frequency more than volume. Since strong triceps are crucial for pressing movements — locking out the elbows at the end of a bench press or shoulder press — weak triceps can hinder overall muscular growth.
For that reason, it’s a good idea to add a small dose of relatively heavy low-rep compound exercises to a steady diet of isolation movements using moderate weight and high reps, which are most effective for muscular growth.
5 Top Triceps Training Tips
1. Pick the right triceps exercise
There are dozens of different triceps exercises, but not all of them are right for everybody. While there are a few basic rules to follow when you are designing a triceps workout routine for mass and strength, one idea supersedes all others.
“What do you feel the most? If you do an exercise and it burns and your muscle gets really pumped, then that’s the one you stick with,” says Chris Zaino, DC, IFBB professional bodybuilder, and former Mr. America. “This goes for every exercise. If you do an exercise and you feel nothing but your joints, and you don’t feel the muscle working, then throw it away.”
2. Start with a heavy compound exercise
After eliminating any exercise that causes pain or doesn’t fully activate the muscle, the best triceps workout begins with a heavy compound exercise that uses both the elbow joints and the shoulders, says strength coach Jay Ashman, NASM PES, owner of Kansas City Barbell in Kansas City, MO, and co-founder of Elite Athlete Development.
Close-grip bench presses or floor presses are good choices.
3. Follow with two to three isolation triceps moves
From there, chose two to three isolation exercises (meaning only your elbows will be moving). The trick is to choose a selection of exercises that vary the angle of the humerus to the torso.
Ashman recommends including one exercise in which the elbows are against your body, such as a pushdown. Another exercise should have the upper arms perpendicular to the torso, the way they are in a close-grip bench press or machine press, which emphasizes the lateral head and medial head of the triceps.
4. Make sure to activate the long head of the triceps
Finally, add an exercise in which the humerus is at an angle that is greater than 90 degrees from the body, such as an overhead triceps extension. This position is best for activating the long head of the triceps.
5. Go to the gym?
It is not necessary to go to a gym for a great triceps workout, but it does help. You can get bigger arms by doing a triceps workout at home with just your bodyweight, or a triceps workout with dumbbells only. However, a cable machine is an excellent tool for a triceps workout and will allow you plenty of variety in your exercise selection.
Common Questions About Triceps Workouts
How often should you train your triceps?
Deciding on what day to perform your triceps workout is determined by how well you know yourself, rather than sports science. For instance, a chest and triceps workout is a natural pairing, but your triceps are engaged whenever you bench press or overhead press. If your chest day is 21 sets of different types of bench presses, then your triceps get enough stimulation for that day.
On the flip side, some people like to do a biceps and triceps workout, since they do not exhaust each other. This will all come down to personal preference and your ability to adequately recover from the workout.
Ashman suggests training the triceps two to three times a week. The latest scientific literature bears that out. A study published in the journal of Sports Medicine showed that training a muscle two or more times a week results in superior gains in size and strength when compared to training it once a week. (It was inconclusive if three times was better than twice, however.)
What are the training keys for triceps isolation exercises?
Triceps workout are typically dominated by isolation exercises, in which only a single joint is moving (the elbow is this case.) For efficacy and safety, there a few important things to remember when it comes to isolation exercises.
“In any kind of isolation move you want to focus on the stretch to contraction,” says Ashman. “For each rep, let the muscle stretch as much as you can. Then, when you lock it out, you want to flex as hard as you can.”
For instance, during an overhead triceps extension, let the weight pull your hands down as far as possible. Make sure you can feel the stretch in the back of your arms. When you press the weight up and lock out the elbows, flex your triceps for a full two-count. Each rep should be slow and deliberate. Focus on the muscle, rather than getting through the movement.
Keep the weight moderate and the reps high, not only for safety — low reps and heavy loads during isolation exercises is a recipe for injury — but also because it’s the best strategy to induce muscle growth.
A study published in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine showed that trained subjects who used a more moderate weight for higher reps enjoyed greater gains in muscle size. Save the test of strength for the bench press or squat.
Triceps Workout 1
This is a classic triceps workout, designed by pro bodybuilder and chiropractor Dr. Chris Zaino. It is a perfect introduction to triceps training for the beginner lifter, but has also helped Zaino himself craft a world-class set of triceps.
Triceps Exercise, Sets and Reps
1. Decline Skullcrusher — 3 sets to failure
2. Close-Grip Bench Press* — 3 sets of 8–12 reps
3. Triceps Pushdown** — 3 sets of 10–12 reps***
4. Dips — 3 sets to failure, with 3 negative reps
*Use the same EZ-bar for both exercises
**Use whatever attachment feels the best
***Finish with three reps of a slow negative and then three partial reps
Triceps Workout 2
This session is slightly more advanced and calls for a greater degree of mind-muscle connection. With a reliance on rep count over load and no bodyweight exercises, this is a good triceps workout for women.
Triceps Exercise, Sets and Reps
1. Floor Press — 3 sets of 5–8 reps
2. Overhead EZ-bar extension — 3 sets of 10–12 reps
3. Reverse-Grip Pushdown — 3 sets of 10–12 reps
4. Banded Pushdown* — 100 reps
*As many as necessary to hit 100 reps
Triceps Workout 3
Best for the intermediate to advanced lifter, this workout utilizes exercises that demand concentration, body control and core stability. It also includes a significant amount of training volume, making this a good triceps workout for men interested in adding more size to their arms.
Triceps Exercise, Sets and Reps
1. Close-Grip Bench Press — 3 sets of 4–6 reps
2. Rack Triceps Press — 3 sets of 10–12 reps
3. Tate Press — 3 sets of 10–12 reps
4. Bench Dip — 3 sets of 15–20 reps
5. Pushdown — 3 sets of 20 reps
Triceps Exercise Descriptions
This is a highly effective triceps exercise without weights. Place your heels flat on the floor with your legs extended and your palms on the edge of a flat bench. (For a greater challenge, elevate your feet onto some form of riser such as another bench or a plyo box.) With your hips off the bench, extend your arms and support your weight by your heels and palms. Slowly bend your elbows, allowing your hips to descend below the level of the bench. Make sure your elbows stay close to your body. Reverse direction by extending your arms and returning to the start position. Squeeze your triceps hard at the top of each rep.
Rack Triceps Press
In a Smith machine or power rack, set a bar at about hip height. Get into an incline push-up position with your hands on the bar in an overhand grip. Keeping your body rigid as if in a plank, bend at your elbows and lower your forehead towards the bar. Once your head comes level or slightly below the bar, reverse the direction and press back up to the top position. The lower the bar on the rack, the more difficult this exercise becomes. A good set is to “run the rack”: Start with the bar in a relatively low position (knee-height) and raise it one position for each consecutive set.
Dumbbell Floor Press
Lie face-up on the floor with a dumbbell on either side of you and your legs extended. Grasp a dumbbell in each hand, with your upper arms pressing into the floor and your elbows close to your sides. (The angle between your upper arms and your torso should be no greater than 45 degrees.) Take a deep breath, tighten the muscles in your abs and glutes and press the weight up. Slowly bring the dumbbells back down until your upper arms make full contact with the ground and come to a complete stop. Do not let your elbows slam into the ground. After a beat in which the dumbbells have been completely still, tighten your core, drive the backs of your heels into the ground and press the weight back up to full lockout.
Overhead EZ-Bar Extension
Hold an EZ-bar with an overhand grip and your hands inside your shoulders. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and a slight bend in your knees. Press the bar over your head to begin. Form this position, bend at the elbows and bring the weight behind your head until you feel a deep stretch in your triceps. Then slowly press it back up. Keep your upper arms stationary and your elbows pointing forward and close to your head for every rep.
Neutral Grip Press
This is essentially a triceps bench press. Lie face-up on a bench with a dumbbell in each hand. Hold the weights with a neutral grip, palms facing each other, and your arms extended. Strongly push the weights against each other so they are in contact for the entire duration of each set. Slowly bring the dumbbells down until they barely touch your sternum. Press them back up until your elbows are locked out. Forcefully contract your triceps when the elbows are fully extended. Keep pressure on the point the weights touch for the entire rep. This exercise is best done with hexagon dumbbells that have a flat surface. Dumbbells with perfectly round weights can be unwieldy and difficult to maintain that inward pressure.
The classic triceps pushdown is staple of any triceps workout, with dozens of variations available in most gyms. The type of handle, the width of your hands, or performing unilateral versus bilateral exercises are just a few ways to change up this exercise. No matter which variation you choose to do for your triceps workout, keep your elbows pinned to your sides throughout each repetition. If your elbows move forward, the stimulus comes off the triceps and onto the chest, core, and front delts. Stand in front of a high pulley with your feet shoulder-width apart, chest up, and head in neutral alignment with your spine. Grasp the bar with an overhand grip. Use a hammer-grip if using the rope attachment. Bring the weight down and hold a hard contraction at the bottom of the rep for a two-count and then bring the weight back to the top with control.
Select a bar attachment and place it on a high pulley. An EZ-curl bar tends to be more comfortable than a straight bar for this exercise. You may also use a D-handle and perform this exercise with one hand at a time. Stand in the same position as on overhand pushdown. Grasp the bar with an underhand (palms-up) grip. Use a lighter weight that you use for traditional pushdowns. Perform each rep slowly and deliberately. The change in grip puts more emphasis on the medial head of the triceps and it feels differently when activated. It might take a few reps to establish a strong mind-muscle connection.
Close Grip Bench Press
Lie on a bench and grip the bar with your hands just inside your shoulders. Do not place your hands right next to each other. The hands should be several inches apart. Lift the bar, tuck your elbows in close to your sides, and slowly lower the weight to your chest. Activate your triceps and press the bar up until it is fully locked out. Squeeze your triceps hard at the top.
This two-arm triceps extension is a slight variation on the classic skullcrusher. This version shifts much of the stress from the elbows onto the lats. Sit on a decline bench with rollers that secure your legs in place. Holding an EZ-bar with a close grip, lower yourself down so your back and head are resting on the pads. Extend the bar directly above you with your arms locked out. Slowly, bend at the elbows and lower the weight just past your forehead. Pause for a moment and press the weight back to the starting position. Forcefully contract the triceps at the top. The upper arms should be motionless throughout the movement.
Lie face-up on a flat bench and hold a pair of dumbbells with your arms extended and your palms forward, like the beginning of a bench press. Keep your elbows pointed outward and the weight slightly outside your shoulders. Slowly bend at the elbows and arc the end of the dumbbell toward your chest. Allow the weight to touch your chest but do not let it rest. Return along the same semi-circular path. Keep the upper arms stationary the whole time. At the top of the motion, lock out your arms and hold the contraction for a beat until you bring the weight back down. Use relatively light dumbbells with his exercise and move the weight very slowly and deliberately.
Find a set of parallel dip bars that allows you to place your hands shoulder-width apart or slightly wider. A narrow grip will place more focus on the triceps rather than the pecs. With your arms extended and your feet off the floor, bend your arms and lower your body until your elbows are bent 90 degrees. Extend your elbows and press yourself back up. Keep your triceps pinned back, your elbows pointing behind you and your body straight and perpendicular to the floor. If you are new to this exercise, try hopping dips. Jump to the top of the rep and then slowly lower yourself back to the ground. Dr. Zaino recommends these at the end of a set when your muscles are nearly exhausted.
Banded Rope Pushdown
Thread a large exercise band over a pull-up bar or the top of a power rack. Grasp the band in each hand with a palms-in grip. Start with your elbows bent and pinned to your sides and your hands near your sternum. Some tension should already be on the band. Extend your elbows, stretching the band. Flex your triceps hard when your arms are locked out, and then slowly return. Come back just far enough that the tension does not completely dissipate. Another option is to perform these quickly, for sets of 50 reps or more.
The triceps are small but important muscles when it comes to creating a strong and beautiful body. But triceps workouts put a lot of strain on your elbows, which already receive plenty of wear and tear during your other weekly workouts. If you do experience elbow pain, stop doing all dedicated triceps and biceps exercises until the pain subsides.
The muscles in your arms will still get stimulation when you exercise the bigger body parts such as your chest and back. While you recover, perform a few sets of very light high-rep pushdowns, to flush the area with nourishing blood and speed up recovery.