By Clark Bartram
You can do more exercises for triceps than any other muscle, but most guys don’t do enough. When people think of arms, biceps get all the glory, when in fact, the triceps make up a full two-thirds of the area of the upper arm.
Triceps are so named because they consist of three separate heads, which are kind of configured in the shape of a horseshoe. (This should really become apparent when the muscle is flexed. If not, it’s time for some cardio). The “long” and “lateral” heads drop down lower on the arm than the shorter “medial” head, which is flanked by the other two heads and is positioned slightly closer to the shoulder.
For the right combination of mass, symmetry and definition, it’s important to work all three heads of the triceps. The lateral head is emphasized when you do triceps exercises with a palms-down grip, such as press-downs and skull-crushers. The long head is worked most effectively when your elbows are over your head, as well as with exercises that employ a reverse grip, like you use for biceps curls. To work the shorter middle head, which has the most leverage and initiates the extension of the elbow, it’s important to get a good stretch at the beginning of any triceps exercise.
All three heads of the triceps contribute in pushing movements, so improving your triceps strength will help increase your overhead and bench-pressing strength.
So use your heads – all three of them – whenever you train triceps. Choose three or four exercises for each session and perform four sets of eight to 12 repetitions.
Overhead Triceps Extensions With Rope (Long Head)
This happens to be an all-time favorite of mine. Adjust the cable so the rope is slightly overhead and stand with your back facing the machine. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and grasp the rope with both hands. While slightly bending at the waist and knees, extend your arms. Be sure to keep your upper arms stationary and focus on contracting the triceps at full extension. Choose a fairly heavy weight that allows you to perform no less than eight repetitions and no more than 12 repetitions. This rep range is typically associated with hypertrophy, or muscle growth, and I suggest you use it for all the triceps exercises shown here.
Skull-Crushers (Medial and Lateral Heads)
These can be performed in a variety of ways with a variety of devices. Choose a straight or cambered (EZ-Curl) bar and use a flat or decline bench. No matter how you do this exercise, strict form and attention to detail is vital – you don’t want to actually crush your skull in the process! Lie flat on your back with your feet planted firmly on the floor. Straighten your arms so that the bar is over your chest. Slowly bend your arms at the elbows until the bar is slightly touching your forehead and return. (It may be a good idea to have a spotter for these). Tempo is important here: “Go slow and grow,” is what I always say. If you’re not in control of the exercise, simply back off the weight a little.
Narrow Bench Presses With EZ-Curl Bar (Medial and Lateral Heads)
You can superset this with skull-crushers, or you can do it fresh and use more weight. The choice is up to you. When your arms are in the fully extended position above your chest, lower the weight until it lightly touches your sternum or slightly higher up on your chest. In this exercise, your upper arms will actually move, but make sure your elbows remain close to your body throughout the entire movement.
Seated One-Arm Dumbbell Extensions (Long Head)
We’ll employ unilateral training on this exercise by working one side of your body at a time. This will throw your body off balance, or shock it, by giving your nerves and muscles a different training stimulus that can result in new gains. I like to suggest starting – and finishing – with your weaker side. This will give you an extra set to help offset the strength imbalance most of us have between right and left body parts. You could also use a slightly heavier weight on your weaker side. Use a weight that will allow you to perform between eight and 12 reps. Hold the dumbbell in your hand with your arm fully extended above your head, then lower the weight behind your head with your upper arm locked in position. Try to keep your upper body straight by watching your form in the mirror, which you can also use to admire your ripped triceps! Another good tip is to draw your belly button into your spine. This will activate your transverse abdominis, causing a girdle effect that will protect your back and strengthen your abs at the same time.
Dips Between Benches (All Three Heads)
This is a fantastic exercise for all-around triceps development, but proceed with caution because it places a lot of stress on the anterior head of your deltoids. Use discretion when deciding how low to go and how much weight to use with this movement. You’ll be using two flat benches to perform this exercise, spaced several feet apart. Place your feet on one bench and your hands on the other. Use your bodyweight, or place a plate on your lap for added resistance, and slowly lower your butt toward the floor. Some of you will be able to touch the floor, while others will have a shorter range of motion due to limited flexibility in the shoulder capsule. Either way, keep your elbows tight to your body and facing the wall directly behind you. Don’t let your elbows wander out. As soon as your form begins to go bad, stop the exercise.
Narrow V-Bar Press-Downs (All Three Heads)
For this particular exercise, use a V-bar attached to a cable above your head. Stand facing the machine – if there’s a pad to rest your back against, use it. Keep a slight bend in your knees and try to avoid leaning forward over the handle. It’s best, in my opinion, to do any standing exercise with perfect posture. As with most triceps exercises, your forearms and hands should be the only parts of your arms that move. Keep your upper arms in the same position throughout the movement, with your elbows locked in at your sides. Press down to an almost fully extended position and squeeze your triceps hard. Then bend at the elbow, allowing your arms to travel just above parallel to the floor – doing this will keep constant tension on the triceps for the entire set.
Press-Downs With Rope (All Three Heads with Emphasis on Medial)
This press-down movement gives you a different angle of attack by allowing you to flare out the rope away from the side of your body when your arms are extended. The farther you can flare the rope, the more you’ll stimulate the fibers deep within the triceps. You’ll definitely feel a great burn when you do these correctly! Your body position will be exactly the same on this exercise as it was for narrow V-bar press-downs, but you may want to choose a lighter weight to really maximize the contraction you get by flaring out the rope in the extended position.
One-Hand Reverse Press-Downs (Long Head)
Personally, I use this as my final exercise to finish up and get that last bit of blood flow to my already swollen triceps. You’ll probably use a much lighter weight, but form is much more important than the amount of weight you can move. Your body position will be the same as with the other press-down movements, but you’ll use a single handle training one triceps at a time. On occasion, you can also hit both triceps at the same time by doing this exercise with a straight bar.