Triceps extensions are one of the best exercises for the triceps. However, the lying triceps stretch has different variations. Which is the most effective if you want thicker arms?
Triceps extensions are an isolation exercise pur sang. Your triceps are really all alone. That’s quite unique, even for an isolation exercise. The muscles in your chest, shoulders and back may stabilize things, but they do not actively help.
VARIATIONS IN TRAINING MATERIAL
You can use different materials for triceps extensions: a barbell (with or without EZ-bar), dumbbells or a cable station. In addition, you can do them standing, sitting or lying, on a flat or (reclining) inclined (decline/incline) bench. In this article we focus on the lying triceps extensions, performed on a bench with an EZ-bar. But many of the instructions and advice we give also relate to the implementation with dumbbells or cables.
VARIATIONS IN EXECUTION
There are also several variants with regard to the implementation of the lying triceps extension, whereby the difference is always in the range of motion (ROM). The ROM you apply determines to what extent the elbow joints are involved in the exercise, how constant the tension on the triceps is and especially which parts of the triceps you stimulate the most: the lateral, medial head and/or long head of the triceps.
Our standard version is where you hold the arms slightly back in starting position, which allows you to achieve a greater stretch in the long triceps head. This head is responsible for most of the mass.
In addition, with an oblique position of your upper arms, you maintain constant tension on your triceps. In a vertical position, the weight at the lockout is carried by the elbow joint and the triceps are therefore temporarily sidelined. The oblique position is therefore also less stressful for the elbows, for many a problem with this exercise. The oblique variant does put a little more pressure on your shoulders, which can possibly be experienced as uncomfortable.
1. If you perform the exercise in a power rack, you can lift the (EZ) bar out of the rack. If you only have a weight bench, you can place the bar on your stomach and bring it into the required position from there.
2. Use a narrow (slightly narrower than shoulder-width) and overhand grip (palms away from you). If using an EZ-bar, grip the bar as narrow as possible on the knurling, but not on the middle smooth part.
3. Lie back on a (inclined) weight bench. Grab the bar and bring it into a position holding it with arms extended above you, roughly above your forehead, without locking your elbows. This is your starting position.
4. Your upper arms are angled back in the starting position, 30 to 45 degrees from the floor.
5. Now bend your elbows and bring the bar back in an arc, below the back of your head, so that your arms are in a straight position. Your upper arms/elbows naturally move slightly backwards.
6. Now straighten your arms again and bring the bar back in the same path to the starting position.
7. Repeat for desired number of repetitions.
VARIANT: HALF REPS
Another way to increase the effectiveness of standard lying triceps extensions is to do partial reps. That means in the descending (eccentric) phase, you don’t go beyond the point where your elbows are at about a 90-degree angle to your upper arms. And that you don’t fully extend your arms upwards, but end the movement at about a 45-degree angle. So you cut off a piece of the ROM on both sides. See the video below, which demonstrates a full and partial ROM (at 00:16), respectively.
The reason for doing this? According to research, you could achieve almost twice as much muscle growth in the triceps this way as with lying triceps extensions with a full ROM. This is because you keep constant tension on the triceps with half repetitions. In addition, this version is less stressful for the elbow joints. A full ROM is therefore not necessarily always the most effective.
VARIANT: SKULL CRUSHERS
Another and actually much more famous variant of the lying triceps extensions are skull crushers or nose breakers, where you move the weight towards the bridge of your nose / forehead instead of bringing it behind your head. This variant is sometimes promoted because it allows stricter implementation, although its effectiveness is often questioned.
Skull crushers are certainly not very friendly to your elbows, which remain in the same position constantly during the performance.
Skull crushers are also often used as a synonym for ‘normal’ lying triceps extensions, which is therefore not correct.
If you still want to do skull crushers, pay attention to the following:
- Keep the elbows in place. They tend to move out a bit during exercise — make sure they keep pointing forward;
- Perform the exercise slowly and in a controlled manner;
- Don’t lock your elbows (so keep a very slight ‘kink’ in your arms) so that you maintain the tension on your triceps.
Do skullcrushers give you elbow pain? Then perform the exercise with less weight, or try an incline or decline. Also, if you have sensitive elbows, it is best to choose the dumbbell version over the one with an EZ-bar and certainly over the one with a straight bar.
Heavy presses like the bench press and overhead press are the foundation for strong, massive triceps. Triceps-specific compound exercises such as triceps dips and the close-grip bench press go a step further.
However, for full development of the triceps, you should also do isolation exercises such as triceps extensions. And in doing so, you should do at least one exercise that stretches your triceps overhead. These exercises are essential for developing the long triceps head.
We do at least 8 to 15 repetitions for the lying triceps extension for a good pump. A (too) heavy performance in isolation exercises quickly turns into a sloppy performance, and that is something you want to prevent, especially with isolation exercises.
Average bodybuilders need 10-15 direct sets per week (triceps-specific compound exercises and isolation exercises) for optimal muscle growth in the triceps, not counting the indirect work with chest and shoulder presses. Do a maximum of 5-10 sets per workout, including indirect sets. For example, three sets of bench presses can be counted as one set of triceps.