You’re at the gym. You’ve already done some decent amount of work for your chest and shoulders.
So, what’s left to do? Well, you can either do a few sets of isolation work for your triceps or call it a day.
So you get yourself to the cable station, and, with some last efforts, you do a couple of sets of tricep pushdowns before heading for the locker room.
Well, sorry to disappoint you, but that’s just not going to cut it. Yes, the tricep isn’t that big of a muscle. But if you truly want to build beefy, ‘horseshoe’ tris, you need to put more effort and thought into the process.
Triceps training tips include; using proper technique, doing enough work, progressing over time, and spending enough time on each head of the triceps.
Luckily for you, we’ll go over absolutely everything you need to know about triceps training today. By the end of this guide, you’ll know exactly what you should do to thicken up the backside of your arms.
The Importance of Beefing Up Your Triceps
When it comes to aesthetics and general athleticism, most folks think chest, back, and biceps. To be sure, those are some vital muscle groups. But the triceps are often left in the dark because they are relatively small and don’t appear to be as important overall.
But, the fact is, beefing up your triceps is vital for a couple of big reasons:
First, having strong and developed triceps makes you more athletic and improves your overall pushing power. Every exercise that involves pushing (be it horizontally or vertically) requires a fair bit of tricep strength. For example, you might have excellent chest development, but if your triceps are weak, you’ll find yourself struggling quite a bit on the bench press, especially on the lockout.
Second, in terms of aesthetics and pure arm mass, the tricep takes the cake, as this muscle group makes up about 60 percent of the whole arm – it has one more head than the bicep. And, thanks to the fact that this is a three-headed muscle group, developing it well will drastically shape up your arms and complement your physique.
This is Wesley Vissers doing some weighted dips. That is also him in the featured image on this post.
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Triceps Anatomy 101: Everything You Need to Understand
The tricep is a three-headed muscle (though some research suggests there might be a fourth) located at the back of your upper arms (3). It serves as an antagonist to the bicep, and its primary role is to extend your arm at the elbow (1).
Let’s take a look at each head individually:
The Long Head
This is the innermost head of the muscle group, which originates on the scapula and inserts into the elbow joint. The long head is the only one in the tricep muscle that crosses two joints, and, thus, is involved in more than just elbow extension. Thanks to the long head, your triceps are involved in numerous exercises, like:
- Lat pulldowns and pull-ups;
- Chest flyes;
- Straight arm pulldowns (4);
If you’ve ever done a movement like straight arm pulldowns and then felt soreness in your triceps, this because of the long head.
The other primary role of the long head is to stabilize your shoulder and scapula, which makes it an essential contributor to many compound exercises.
In terms of sheer size, the long head is also the largest of the three and contributes the most to the overall shape of the muscle group. And, because the long head crosses both the elbow and shoulder, overhead movements are great for stretching it. Two great examples include the lying (behind the head) skull crusher and the overhead tricep extension.
The Lateral Head
This is the outermost head of the tricep group, which originates at the top of the humerus bone and inserts into the elbow.
When properly developed, the lateral head provides curvature to the outer-back side of your upper arm, which contributes to the meaty tricep look. It also makes the side of your arms pop with what is commonly known as the ‘horseshoe.’
And because the lateral head doesn’t cross the shoulder joint, you can work it quite effectively with simpler exercises like the tricep pushdown, tricep kickback, and close-grip variations of push-ups and bench press.
Some folks also suggest that wrist pronation (for example, doing tricep pushdowns with palms facing up) is a great way to put more emphasis on your lateral head, but research doesn’t seem to show that.
The Medial Head
This is the middle head of the tricep, and most of it sits underneath the long head. Only a small portion of it is visible at the inner side of your arm above the elbow.
But even though we can’t see it, the head serves essential roles for the overall shape of your tricep as well as its ability to exert force.
First, the more developed the medial head becomes, the more it pushes the long and lateral heads out, which makes the overall tricep more meaty (5).
Second, the medial head serves an essential stabilizing role thanks to its position between the other two heads.
Tricep Anatomy Final Points
All three heads stretch across the elbow joint and converge into a single tendon that inserts onto the olecranon process of the ulna (6, 7). So even though all heads have different points of origin, they work synergistically to extend the elbow thanks to the common insertion point.
In other words, any exercise that has you extend your elbows against a load is going to work all three heads of the tricep. But with that said, certain movements are going to emphasize one head over the other two. This is especially true with shoulder elevation, which appears to help involve the medial and lateral heads more (8).
If you’re interested in seeing a visual representation of the tricep anatomy, check out the video below:
The 7 Best Exercises for Triceps Growth and Strength
The internet is littered with articles and videos, each promoting over a dozen tricep exercises and variations. It’s become a sort of common knowledge that to develop your triceps (or, really, any muscle group), you need an incredibly complicated training program and dozens upon dozens of exercises. Supposedly, that’s the only way to train your muscles effectively and grow them.
But despite what might have been lead to believe, practical tricep training comes down to a handful of exercises.
We’re kicking this list off with a calisthenics movement because why not? The dip is an excellent tricep, shoulders, and chest builder. What’s more, the exercise doesn’t require extra equipment, which can be a real blessing in a crowded gym.
Plus, should bodyweight dips get too comfortable, you can always attach a weight belt on yourself to keep increasing the resistance. As a rule of thumb, a narrower grip with a more upright body will better emphasize your triceps, where a wider grip with a greater forward lean will involve your chest to a higher degree (9).
If the traditional dip is too difficult for you or you find it otherwise uncomfortable, you can always go for the good old bench dip. Thanks to the position of your arms behind your body, the bench dip is an excellent way to target the long head of your tricep.
Here’s a video by Jeff Cavaliere explaining the bench dip and some crucial details surrounding proper technique:
Close-Grip Bench Press
The close-grip bench press is an incredible variation for tricep development.
This exercise allows you to overload your triceps with a lot of weight, especially when compared to isolation exercises like the dumbbell tricep kickback. And since we know that mechanical tension is an essential factor for muscle growth, the close-grip press is an invaluable exercise (10).
According to research, the close-grip bench activates the triceps about 25 percent more when compared to the wide-grip bench press (11).
The only thing worth mentioning here is that too narrow a grip will activate your triceps more, but at the expense of wrist pain. So, for the best results, a shoulder-width grip will do great.
Lying Skull Crushers
The first time I heard of this exercise, I immediately thought, “Well, maybe I should stay away from this one.”
But despite its name, the skull crusher is an invaluable exercise
But, to make the most of it, you shouldn’t do it in the traditional way where you lower the bar to your forehead. Instead, you should have the bar go behind your head by elevating your elbows more. This will put a greater stretch on the triceps and ultimately results in a greater growth response.
Here’s how to do it properly:
Unilateral Cable Rope Tricep Extensions
I bet you didn’t expect that exercise, did you?
Yes, it’s quite a mouthful, but I’ve got my reasons for adding it here.
The traditional tricep pushdown (with both hands) is quite good, but this variation is, in my opinion, superior. As we discussed in the anatomy section, the long head of the tricep originates on the scapula and, thus, acts on the shoulder joint and contributes to arm adduction.
The unilateral tricep extension allows you not only to extend your elbow but also to extend your arm back behind your body and involve the long head of your triceps more. This helps you achieve a complete concentric contraction and shortening of your triceps.
You can check out exactly how the execution looks in the below video, demonstrated by pro natural bodybuilder, Alberto Nunez:
Overhead Tricep Extensions
Try this exercise out:
Bring one of your arms forward with the elbow at shoulder level. Bend that elbow at 90 degrees, place your opposite hand on your tricep and begin raising that arm up and back, to the point where your elbow is at the side of your head.
From that alone, you should feel tension and a stretch on your tricep. What you’ve experienced is the long head of your tricep elongating.
Now, add resistance on top of that already existing stretch through elbow extension, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for excellent tricep activation.
There are many ways to do overhead tricep extensions, and all of them should work equally well for you, so long as you maintain proper technique and lift the weight through a full range of motion.
Here are a couple of variations:
Dumbbell Tricep Kickbacks
When one thinks of functional tricep exercises to do, the dumbbell kickback rarely comes to mind. But, as you’ll see in the video below, this exercise offers full shortening of the tricep (much like the unilateral tricep extension), as well as a nice stretch.
Push-ups are one of the simplest and most elegant exercises you can do. They do a great job of working your chest, shoulders (particularly the anterior head), and, of course, the triceps (12).
All in all, the push up is an excellent exercise for shoulder health and muscular development, provided, of course, you don’t feel any pain or discomfort while doing it.
And on top of all that, should bodyweight push-ups get too comfortable, you can always start adding weight on yourself, as Daniel demonstrates in the video below:
Here’s a video on how to do the close-grip variation for greater tricep activation:
Granted, this is a lesser-known variation, but it works your triceps well.
Stop Leaving Gains on the Table: How to Fix The 5 Biggest Triceps Training Mistakes
A big part of achieving success with something is learning what you should do – that’s granted. But we also can’t discount the importance of knowing what mistakes to avoid, as they can slow us down and even force us to start going backward.
To nobody’s surprise, improper technique is the biggest mistake most folks make. Walk into any gym, and you’re bound to find at least a few lifters who aren’t using proper technique. The most common reason for that, of course, is ego lifting. In other words, we often get so obsessed with the amount of weight we are lifting that we throw our technique out the window.
With that said, here are the two most common blunders with tricep training technique:
- a) Lack of elbow stability.
This is commonly seen on exercises like the tricep pushdown where folks allow their elbows to travel forward as they bend their arms. Then, they use their lats to create some momentum and push the weight down with their elbows. This technique allows you to lift more weight, sure, but it also reduces the involvement of your triceps in the exercise.
How to fix it:
Check your ego at the door and use weights that allow you proper elbow flexion and extension while also keeping your elbows in a stationary plane. Ironically, you’ll work with less weight, but you’ll feel your triceps work much better.
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- b) Short range of motion.
The short range of motion issue usually goes along with the lack of elbow stability, and for the same reason: trying to lift too much weight.
This is particularly noticeable on:
- The close-grip bench where lifters don’t lower the bar enough and don’t fully lock out their elbows at the top.
- The cable tricep pushdown where folks stack too much weight and do half the range of motion, cutting both the top and bottom positions short.
Sure, it might feel more satisfying to rep out heavier weights. But realize that you’ll be doing that at the expense of muscle growth, not to its benefit. Quite a bit of research has shown us that putting the muscle through its full range of motion (and taking full advantage of the concentric and eccentric contractions) leads to more muscle growth, even though lighter weights are used (14, 15, 16).
How to fix it:
Again, the best course of action is to lower the weight and make sure to do each repetition with a full range of motion, provided, of course, you can do so safely and pain-free.
Doing Too Little Work
For the tricep, in particular, Mike Israetel Ph.D. suggests the following:
Most people respond best to between 10 and 14 weekly sets on average.
You can start with 8 to 10 weekly sets, see how you’re recovering, and then slowly increase the number to 12-14. After that, you can take a deload week and start back up from 10 weekly sets.
In terms of training frequency, splitting the total volume across two or three sessions might be best to prevent overfatiguing your triceps from any given session.
Related: “Should You Train to Failure?” <- Click this link to check it out.
Not Progressing Over Time
I’m sure you’re familiar with the progressive overload principle. But, in case you’re not, here’s the gist of it:
To grow your muscles, get stronger, or otherwise increase your athletic capabilities, you need to gradually put your body through greater stressors than it has previously experienced.
In other words, if you keep doing the same thing over and over again, don’t expect much in terms of growth and strength.
For example, if you can close-grip bench press the same amount of weight for the same number of sets and reps as you could a year ago, there’s a good chance that your triceps are more or less the same size as before.
It’s worth noting, however, that lifting more weight isn’t the only way to progressively overload. Here are a few others:
- Lifting the same weight but through a greater range of motion.
- Lifting the same weight, but for more repetitions.
- Lifting the same weight for the same number of reps, but doing more sets.
- Lifting the same weight, but with less rest between sets.
- Lifting the same weight, but with higher speed.
- Doing the same thing, but more often throughout the week.
- Doing the same thing, but while also losing fat.
- Lifting a heavier weight for the same number of repetitions and sets.
So, remember to track your progress over time, and, more importantly, not to fixate on the weight amount alone.
Related: “How to Gain Strength & Size with Reverse Pyramid Training” <- Click this link to check it out.
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Not Giving All Three Heads Enough Attention
An argument many lifters have (particularly those who are more strength-oriented) is to focus on the main lifts (i.e., horizontal and vertical pressing) for optimal tricep development.
“Just bench, and your tris will grow, bro.”
I agree with this line of thinking, but only to a degree, because, let’s face it, pressing alone will positively impact your triceps. But, as we went over in the anatomy section, the tricep isn’t as simple as it may first appear. So using the simplest of strategies won’t work if you want optimal results.
You need to introduce at least two tricep movements for your triceps to ensure adequate work for each of the three heads. As a rule of thumb, you should always do an overhead (or behind the head) movement and one where your elbows are to your sides. That way, you can emphasize all three heads (8).
Exercise 1: Lying skullcrushers or overhead bar tricep extensions
Exercise 2: Dumbbell tricep kickbacks or cable rope tricep extensions
This is, of course, tricep work on top of the pressing volume you’re already doing. And seeing as most folks will benefit best from 10 to 14 weekly sets for the tricep, it wouldn’t hurt adding a third exercise for the sake of variety.
Always Training Triceps Last
It’s common among many training splits to start with heavy compound movements, and finish the workout with a couple of sets for the biceps and triceps.
But here’s the thing:
If you only train your triceps after chest or shoulder work, they will always be pre-exhausted, and you won’t be able to use as much weight for as many repetitions and sets to truly make a difference. In other words, you’ll always do sub-optimal work for them, which will inevitably impact their growth.
Now, if you instead give your triceps their own day (or, at least, put them earlier in a workout), you can train them in a fresher state, and do higher volumes of work, thus creating a more significant growth stimulus.
For example, a typical push-pull-legs split can look like this:
Saturday & Sunday: Off
The modified bro split can look like this:
Monday: Chest (+shoulder movement)
Tuesday: Back (+leg movement)
Thursday: Legs (+back movement)
Friday: Shoulders (+chest movement)
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