Robert Timms performs rope pushdowns. / U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Grace Lee
The best triceps workouts involve the tried and true best-of-the-best exercises as well as some fresh lifts and techniques. Our five routines cover all of the above. Let’s explore how to best train your triceps for rapid arm expansion.
Each arm’s triceps has three heads, which attach to a wide tendon connected to the ulna (forearm bone). The lateral head lies on the outside and attaches at the top to the humerus (upper arm bone). The medial head lies mostly below the other two heads (it’s visible on either side nearest the elbow) and also attaches at the top to the humerus, below the lateral attachment. The long head lies on the inside and attaches at the top to the scapula (shoulder blade).
Because they share similar top and bottom attachments, the lateral and medial heads work similarly. On the other hand, the long head has a somewhat different agenda. While all three heads straighten your arms and keep your arms straight, the long head, because it attaches the forearm to the shoulder, also assists in pulling your arm down and backwards. For this reason, you’ll feel your triceps working while doing straight-arm pulldowns for your lats.
BEST TRICEPS WORKOUT #1: BEST EXERCISES
We focused on the best triceps exercises according to scientific studies in this article: Science Says: Best (and Worst) Triceps Exercises. Let’s summarize. For the lateral and medial heads, four exercises scored best: pushdown, bench dip, regular dip, and lying triceps extension (a.k.a. skullcrusher). Best for the long head was any type of overhead triceps extension—barbell, dumbbell(s), cable, or machine—and a rather unusual exercise: the incline dumbbell kickback (performed facedown on an incline bench set at about 30 degrees).
So, for the best triceps exercise workout, choose at least one best exercise for the lateral and medial heads and at least one best exercise for the long head. Our sample routine includes two for lateral and medial and one for long.
BEST EXERCISES TRICEPS ROUTINE
Rope Pushdown — 4 sets x 10-12 reps
EZ-bar Overhead Triceps Extension — 4 sets x 10-12 reps
Bench or Regular Dip — 4 sets x 10-15 reps
BEST TRICEPS WORKOUT #2: UNILATERAL
To maximally stimulate your triceps you need to fully focus on contractions. This is generally easier to do if you train your arms unilaterally (a.k.a. individually). In our unilateral routine, perform the one-arm rope extensions by holding, with one hand, one or both ends of a rope attached to an overhead cable, and keep your upper arm parallel to the floor as you extend your forearm. In contrast, the one-arm dumbbell extensions are done seated while keeping your upper arm perpendicular to the floor. For variation, try doing one-arm pushdowns with an underhand grip.
UNILATERAL TRICEPS ROUTINE
One-arm Rope Extension — 4 x 10-12 reps
One-arm Dumbbell Extension — 4 x 10-12 reps
One-arm Pushdown — 4 x10-12 reps
BEST TRICEPS WORKOUT #3: PRE-EXHAUST
Triceps are excellent muscles to pre-exhaust (doing an isolation exercise just before a compound exercise) because not only are they easily isolated but they’re also secondary workers in chest and shoulder presses and dips. Therefore, you can tax them first with pushdowns, extensions, or kickbacks, so that when you do the presses or dips your triceps give out before your chest and front deltoids.
PRE-EXHAUST TRICEPS ROUTINE
Pushdown — 4 x 10-12 reps
Lying Triceps Extension — 4 x 8-12 reps
Machine or Bench Dip — 4 x 10-12 reps
TRICEPS WORKOUT #4: POWER PLUS PUMP
This technique is somewhat similar to pre-exhaust in that it combines isolation and compound exercises. In this case, however, most of the focus is on lower reps with free-weight, compound exercises followed by high-rep “chasers” with an isolation, machine exercise. You get the strength and progressive muscle gains of the former, and the nourishing blood engorgement of the latter. Push the “power” exercises to failure and aim for 30 reps of the “pump” exercises.
POWER PLUS PUMP TRICEPS ROUTINE
Lying Triceps Extension — 3 x 6-8 reps
Pushdown — 1 x 30 reps
Close-grip Bench Press — 3 x 6-8 reps
Pushdown — 1 x 30 reps
Regular Dip — 3 x 6-10 reps
Pushdown — 1 x 30 reps
TRICEPS WORKOUT # 5: UNIQUE LIFTS
Too many bodybuilders get in the habit of relying on standard pushdowns and EZ-curl bar or dumbbell extensions workout after workout. Incorporate one or more of our under-used lifts or do our routine of all three to surprise attack your tris.
? CABLE KICKBACK The advantage of doing a bent-over, one-arm kickback with a low cable instead of a dumbbell is the cable’s weight stack provides resistance through a much longer range of motion. A dumbbell kickback should begin with your arm perpendicular to the floor (for there is no resistance before then) and most of the stress is on the contraction. In contrast, start each rep of cable kickbacks with your hand near your shoulder. When your forearm is perpendicular to the floor, you’re only halfway done. Flex your triceps at the contraction when your arm is straight.
? LYING BARBELL KICKBACK Okay, here’s another kickback, since most people skip them. This is essentially a lying triceps extension with a barbell or EZ-curl bar with the crucial difference that your upper arms remain parallel to the floor instead of perpendicular to the floor. Lie on a bench face-up and grasp a bar behind you while keeping your upper arms parallel to the floor and your forearms perpendicular to the floor with hands down. Then straighten your arms so that at contraction you’re in what would be the arms-overhead position if you were standing. You won’t be able to use as much weight as you can in lying triceps extensions, but, as with other kickbacks, there will be great tension on the contraction. Squeeze.
? PULLOVER AND PRESS Finally, let’s go back to a favorite exercise from the Steve Reeves era of 70 years ago. Not every exercise from then has aged well, but this one has. This combination of a barbell pullover and close-grip bench press is an old-school favorite rarely performed today. Lie face-up on a bench and grab a barbell or EZ-curl bar with a close to medium grip. Pull the bar to your chest and press up. This exercise both stretches (pullover) and flexes (press) the triceps, and it works all three heads. The P&P works tris in conjunction with other upper body muscles, specifically back (pullover) and chest (press), so it’s best to do it after a triceps isolation exercise, thus pre-exhausting your tris.
UNIQUE LIFTS TRICEPS ROUTINE
Lying Barbell Kickback — 4 x 10-12 reps
Pullover And Press — 4 x 8-10 reps
Cable Kickback — 4 x 12 reps
BEST TRICEPS WORKOUTS: CONCLUSION
The one clear workout advantage triceps have over biceps is the wider variety of exercises. Biceps are directly trained only via various types of curls, while triceps are worked by a plethora of extensions, pushdowns, kickbacks, presses, and dips. Use this advantage by incorporating new lifts, techniques, and rep schemes into your triceps workouts. Give each of the preceding five best triceps workouts a try.