Our ‘secret’ to massive, horseshoe-shaped triceps? Heavy compound exercises such as narrow bench press and (heavy) dipping, in combination with high repetitions and a strict execution for the isolation work.
STUBBORN MUSCLE GROUP SPIER
Have you ever heard of Kerberos? This mythological dog had one body and three heads. Your triceps are surprisingly similar to this hellhound. As you probably know, your triceps also have three heads, but you should think of them as one muscle.
You train all three heads at the same time with each triceps exercise. How come some people have disproportionate triceps? That’s simply because different exercises emphasize the headlines in different ways.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF EXERCISES
To ‘attack’ your triceps from all sides, and thus optimally stimulate all heads, you must train the muscle from three different shoulder positions: bent, extended and extra extended. If you look at the position of the arms, that means: your arms above your head (for example, lying triceps extensions), along your body (for example, dips or pushdowns) and behind your upper body (for example, cable kickbacks).
In practice, you see that especially triceps exercises above the head are often forgotten. And that while these are so important for training the long triceps head, the head that provides the most mass. A popular exercise like the pushdown, for example, hits mostly the medial and lateral head. A study shows that you build 1.5 times more muscle mass with overhead extensions than with pushdowns and, surprisingly, for all three heads.
In addition, many limit themselves to purely isolation exercises. For maximum development of the triceps, you should also load the muscle with higher weights in lower repranges. To do this, you need to do compound exercises.
WHAT ARE THE BEST TRICEPS EXERCISES RIGHT NOW?
For the selection of the best exercises, we look at which exercises are best for the different heads of the triceps. This gives you an arsenal of exercises for a complete development of this muscle group. We made a selection based in part on EMG studies (1, 2, 3), in which the activity of the triceps as a whole and of the individual heads was measured via electromyography.
Below are the five exercises, which together form our current triceps training. We have also included recommendations for the number of repetitions. In theory you can achieve maximum muscle growth in all repranges, but for practical reasons it is best to train between 6 and 20 repetitions, whereby we still have a specific target based on the properties of an exercise (particularly compound versus isolating).
|Triceps dips||all heads||6-10|
|Close-grip barbell bench press||lateral and medial head||8-10|
|Triceps extensions (standing or lying)||long head||10-12|
|Triceps pushdowns||lateral head||10-20|
|Triceps kickbacks||long and lateral head||12-20|
1. (WEIGHTED) TRICEPS DIPS
In our opinion, triceps-specific compound exercises form the basis of your triceps program, because you can perform them relatively heavy. Something that is essential for complete triceps development, since according to research the triceps contain relatively many type II muscle fibers (~67%), the type that is best stimulated by heavy weights. And some older studies have shown that bench presses with heavy weights (e.g. 80%1RM) cause more muscle growth in the triceps than bench presses with relatively light weights (e.g. 60%1RM). Not that there is therefore no role for lighter weights, by the way, as we will see later.
We put dips at number one because this one is arguably the most versatile of all: all three heads are put to work hard. Dipping is also by far one of the best exercises to build mass in your triceps, according to EMG studies. However, if you’re only doing one triceps-specific compound exercise, you can safely opt for the number two on this list, the narrow bench press. Only the long head is slightly less active, which you then have to compensate with isolation exercises.
Mind you, there are different types of dips. Depending on your body position, you put the emphasis on your triceps or on your chest. In short, the following applies to triceps dips: narrow handle, torso upright, legs back. In the top position, lock your elbows. For further explanation on the correct implementation, see our article on dipping.
As a beginner, it is best to go for a maximum number of repetitions with your body weight. If you can easily do more than 10-12 reps, it’s best to make the exercise harder. We do 3 sets of 8 to 10 repetitions with an increasing weight.
2. CLOSE-GRIP BARBELL BENCH PRESS
The close-grip bench press is a compound exercise that works the chest and the front of the shoulders in addition to the triceps. The exercise activates the triceps to a lesser extent than isolating exercises for the triceps. However, the latter is compensated by the fact that you can hit your triceps with relatively heavy weights.
In addition, you create great growth incentives when you (almost) fully stretch your triceps. And that’s exactly what happens in the bench press lockout. It is therefore important with the close-grip bench press that you ‘lock’ your elbows at the end of the movement by contracting your triceps. You don’t have to overdo the tightening, but without tightening the lockout, the exercise is a lot less effective for your triceps.
How narrow should you go? A grip slightly narrower than shoulder width is narrow enough. When you go narrower, you limit your range of motion and put unnecessary stress on your elbow joint. A grip that is too narrow also makes it difficult to balance the bar.
A narrow grip also has consequences for the path of movement that the bar must follow. In the close-grip press, you start above the middle of the chest and lower the bar slightly below your chest. So a bit lower than normal. You hold that position for a moment, after which you press the bar again over the same path, so until it is again above the middle of your chest.
You can safely do narrow bench presses in the range of 8 to 10 repetitions. After all, your triceps are not alone.
With a narrow bench press you not only build massive triceps, it also makes you stronger than with the regular bench press. Your triceps are an important auxiliary muscle in these exercises and help your chest muscles with the execution.
3. TRICEPS EXTENSIONS
Triceps stretches can be done in many different ways: standing, sitting or lying, with a barbell, dumbbell(s) or cable station. If you do the exercise sitting or lying down, you can also vary the incline angles.
Lying triceps extensions, with dumbbells or small barbells, are considered by many to be the best isolation exercise for your triceps, including YouTube star coach Jeff Cavaliere. He does attach an important condition to this, namely that you perform the exercise with the upper arms diagonally backwards. As a result, in the lower position you create a full stretch in the long head in the exercise, which is therefore trained much more than when you keep the upper arms vertical. In addition, with an oblique position of your upper arms, you maintain constant tension on your triceps. In a vertical position, the tension in the top of the movement shifts to the elbow joints.
Unlike with so-called skull crushers, you have to move the weight back in an arc and try to bring it as far as possible behind your head (and not to your forehead).
An alternative to lying triceps extensions are incline dumbbell overhead extensions, where you also achieve an optimal stretch in the long head due to the slope of the back.
4. TRICEPS PUSHDOWNS
Pushdowns are arguably the most popular triceps exercise. Not entirely unjustified, because it is one of the most effective exercises for the lateral triceps head. Unfortunately, it is often the only triceps exercise that people do, and that is too little for a full development of the muscle.
You can perform pushdows with both rope and rod; the differences are quite subtle and discuss here.
Triceps pushdows require you to lean forward slightly. And to keep the shoulders and lats as undisturbed as possible, your upper arms should move minimally, though it’s perfectly natural for your elbows to move slightly back and forth during the run.
Aim for a full range of motion (ROM). In the lower position, your forearm is almost perpendicular to the floor. In the top one, your hands come out approximately at the height of your chest.
If you perform pushdows correctly, strictly, your triceps are largely on their own. That’s why it’s best to use a weight that allows you to do anywhere between 10 and 20 reps.
5. INCLINE TRICEPS KICKBACKS
The kickback is sometimes dismissed as a ‘sissy’ exercise. Wrongly. Triceps kickbacks make your arm move in such a way that you train the two functions of the triceps simultaneously: extending the elbow and the arm behind the back. In this way, both the long and the medial head get the full layer, as evidenced by the EMG study by ACE. The condition is that you perform the exercise on an inline bench, with your chest against the sloping backrest. In this position, you can perform the kickbacks much more effectively than leaning with your hand on a flat bench, or leaning forward without a bench. With the latter version, your lower back also has to participate, which may be at the expense of the number of repetitions.
Incline dumbbell triceps kickbacks are therefore a very effective isolation exercise, although you can only use a limited amount of weight (hence perhaps also the not so tough reputation of the exercise). However, you can easily handle the heavier work with the previous exercises. Kickbacks complete your triceps workout.
Crucial in kickbacks is that you keep your upper arm parallel to your body and that your elbow also stays in place.
You can also perform tricep kickbacks with cable. The advantage is that there is also tension on the triceps at the bottom of the movement, which is hardly the case when using dumbbells. With the version with cable, you will therefore have to sacrifice even more weight.
Although you can easily put together a full triceps program with the above exercises, there are of course more effective exercises. What’s called: the two below make your triceps smoke! They are only perhaps less easy to fit into a training program from a practical point of view. Nevertheless, they are well worth a mention in this article.
TRIANGLE PUSH UPS
Performing the push-up with your hands close together makes it a tough triceps exercise. The triangle push-up, in which your index fingers and thumbs touch each other to form a triangle, even triggers the greatest triceps activity of all the exercises studied, according to the EMG study by ACE! It is, however, a bit more difficult with bodyweight exercises to apply progressive overload once you have reached a certain number of repetitions, although you can of course use a band or wear a backpack. But for now you will be sweet with this exercise without extra weight.
PJR Pullovers are a variation on the regular (dumbbell) pullover, a classic compound exercise for the pecs, lats and triceps, which you rarely see performed. Pullovers are very effective for training the long triceps head, because you bring it into a fully extended position. With the PJR version you also do a kind of ‘mini triceps extension’ in the upward movement.
EXECUTION AND TECHNIQUE
For any (isolation) exercise, you should limit the movement to your elbow joint as much as possible. After all, your triceps are responsible for extending your forearm. As soon as your elbows move in or out, forward or back, you know that your shoulders or, in a standing performance, your hips or abs are taking over. This allows you to perform the exercise more heavily or do more repetitions, but that extra work does not benefit your triceps.
To limit participation of the shoulder joint, we do relatively many repetitions and use light weights. This allows us to optimally focus on strict execution. Let’s do the heavy lifting for the compound exercises with narrow bench presses and triceps dips.
Moderate cheating is only allowed if it allows you to do a few extra reps. It is not intended to increase the intensity of the exercise from the start. By ‘moderate’ we mean that another muscle group does a (small) part, but not the majority of the work.
Every now and then we integrate a triceps extension machine into our routine. Your upper arms rest on a pillow, which fixes your elbow, and you press two handles or a bar forward and down. This way you can really isolate your triceps.
However, the majority of our triceps training consists of exercises with a barbell, dumbbells and cables. Cables demand as much control as a barbell or dumbbell and are in fact like free weights rather than machines. In some exercises, cables also provide permanent resistance in all parts of the movement, which is not always the case with dumbbells.
In order to bring your triceps to full bloom, it is better not to have a special triceps day. A combined triceps and biceps training is also rather counterproductive. There is no synergy whatsoever in training triceps and biceps together. In addition, you quickly do too many exercises and sets per muscle group during one training: after about five sets, the growth stimulus for a certain muscle group already starts to stagnate. After the tenth set you probably won’t achieve any muscle growth at all and so you do unnecessary sets, and you only create unnecessary muscle damage. Bro splits are therefore really outdated. At least if you’re a natural.
As an average bodybuilder, you need about 12 direct sets per week to maximize your triceps growth. So this is on top of the indirect work during exercises like chest and shoulder presses. Note that this is a very general guideline. The optimal training volume for you is something you have to figure out for yourself, especially by simply tracking your progress.
For optimal development of all triceps heads, it is best to divide those 12 sets over four to five different triceps exercises, preferably those from our list (or variants thereof).
Make sure you distribute your volume as efficiently as possible, so that you match as much growth stimulus as possible with as little fatigue as possible. As mentioned, you do this best by doing no more than 5-10 sets per muscle group per session (including indirect sets!).
So if your optimal volume for triceps is 12 direct sets per week, split the workout over at least two workouts, with at least 48 hours of time in between. This can be done, for example, in a push/pull or push/pull/legs split, or in a full body program. More advanced bodybuilders can even train their triceps almost daily because their muscles recover faster. Do not do more than 3-5 sets per session (for example 3 direct, 2 indirect).
We already saw that it is best to stimulate your triceps in a fairly broad spectrum of rep ranges: somewhat lower ranges (6-10) for compound exercises and somewhat higher ranges (8-20) for isolating exercises (see the table above).
Frequent training to muscle failure results in a disproportionate amount of training load. This can be at the expense of your recovery, or you may already have to make a significant sacrifice in volume. The latter will probably result in less (fast) muscle growth on balance.
For most sets, therefore, keep one or a few repetitions in the tank (so train with Reps In Reserve, RIR). Most coaches recommend an average relative intensity of 1-3 RIR, including when training the triceps. Of course you can sometimes go all the way with your sets, but only do that with isolation exercises and preferably only in the last sets. And isolation exercises are of course best done after compound.