The biceps get too much credit. Don’t get us wrong; training your biceps is a must for bigger and stronger arms. But your triceps — you know, that three-headed horseshoe-shaped muscle that sits on the back of your arm — deserve more attention. You’ll be stronger for it, too.
Your triceps make up two-thirds of your upper arm mass and cover the entirety of the back of your arm. That’s a chunk of prime real estate. It’s not all show and no go, either. Whenever you’re bench-pressing, performing an overhead press, or doing dips, it’s your triceps helping move that weight.
When powerlifters can’t lockout a heavy bench press, they shift their attention to the triceps. We outline a dozen of the best triceps exercises and provide knowledge on how to train the muscle to help you improve your bench press strength and build a meatier pair of arms.
Best Triceps Exercises
- Close-Grip Barbell Bench Press
- Parallel Bar Dip
- Triceps Pushdown
- Skull Crusher
- Bodyweight Skull Crusher
- Floor Press
- Decline Bench Cable Extension
- JM Press
- Overhead Triceps Extension
- Standing Landmine Press
- Diamond Push-Up
- Unilateral Dumbbell Floor Press
This bench press variation has you lift a bar with your hands set shoulder-width apart. This hand placement shifts the load more to your triceps. You won’t be able to lift as much weight with the close-grip bench press, but you’ll strengthen your triceps. The arms-in form you need to target your triceps will take the onus off of your shoulder joint. More muscle mass on the back of your arms will directly carry over to the lockout, or top portion, of your standard bench press.
Benefits of the Close-Grip Barbell Bench Press
- The move is more comfortable for your shoulders.
- It directly targets your triceps for more growth and strength.
- You’ll develop more pressing power at the top of the exercise.
How to Do the Close-Grip Barbell Bench Press
Set yourself up similar to a flat bench press, with your hands set inside shoulder-width and your elbows tucked into the body. Pull the bar out of the rack and stabilize it over your chest. Pull the elbows inwards as the bar descends to the chest. Once you have touched the chest, press through the palms, feel the triceps engage, and lift the weight back up.
Performing regular dips on a set of parallel bars instead of angled bars or rings will recruit your triceps more as arms will be tucked in, not flared out. Your shoulders should feel better, too, since they’re in a more neutral position throughout the exercise. You’ll also be more stable as the bars are closer together than angled dipping bars or rings. Lastly, we like dips since they can be done effectively with just your bodyweight.
Benefits of the Parallel Bar Dip
- You can load your triceps with just your bodyweight.
- Having your arms closer together will better activate your triceps.
How to Do the Parallel Bar Dip
Grab the parallel bars with your torso upright (with a slight lean forward) as you are suspended. Have your elbows almost fully extended to support this position. With the chest up and shoulder blades squeezed together, bend at the elbows as you lower yourself downward until the elbows reach 90 degrees. Press yourself upwards until you fully extend the elbows and repeat.
You can really isolate your triceps with the pushdown. To perform the pushdown, you either grab a resistance band or cable pulley, step back, so the band or cable is taut, and then push it downward by flexing your triceps. Since just your triceps are moving the weight, you can better hone in on them. This is a popular bodybuilding movement as the isolation lets the lifter really feel the muscle contract, which leads to great pumps and more activation.
Benefits of the Triceps Pushdown
- You’ll be able to isolate the triceps completely.
- The ability to feel the muscle contract and get a nice pump.
How to Do the Triceps Pushdown
Set the cables or band at a high anchor point. With your body facing the band, place your feet together and elbows to your sides (by your ribs). The chest should be up, and the back flat, with the hips angled slightly forward. Grab the handles or band and fully extend the elbows to push the handles or band down, making sure to keep the elbows slightly in front of the shoulders.
This triceps exercise variation has you lower a barbell (or dumbbells or cable pulley or kettlebells) to your forehead to stretch the triceps muscle. You’ll be able to isolate the triceps with the skull crusher, but in a position that also allows you to move heavier weight than you could with a pushdown. As a result, this is a great move to strengthen the triceps.
Benefits of the Skull Crusher
- This is a versatile triceps exercise as you can use a barbell, kettlebells, or dumbbells, to name a few tools.
- You’re stronger in this position compared to most other triceps exercises, and so you’ll gain triceps strength.
How to Do the Skull Crusher
Start by lying back down on a bench, with the hands supporting a weight (a barbell, dumbbells, or various cable attachments) at the top of the bench pressing position. The back and hips should be set up identical to a bench press. Pull the elbows back slightly so that they are pointing behind you (rather than directly vertical) as you bend the elbow joint, lowering the bar handle or loads towards your head. The bar should nearly make contact with the forehead. When done correctly, you should feel the stretch on the triceps and partially on the lats. Push the bar back up.
This move is technically a skull crusher, but it hits differently. Your body has to stabilize itself big time as you lower your body, using your triceps primarily, towards a stationary barbell. This lack of balance makes the move very hard but grants your more core strength if you’re able to do it. This is not a move suitable for beginners, so work your way up to it.
Benefits of the Bodyweight Skull Crusher
- This advanced skull crusher variation adds an extra degree of difficulty.
- Your body will have to stabilize itself, bolstering your core strength.
How to Do the Bodyweight Skull Crusher
Start with your hands on a barbell that is set at hip height. With an overhand grip at shoulder width, allow the elbows to bend as you let your torso fall forward towards the bar, feeling the stretch on the triceps. The elbows should remain pulled close to the sides of the head. To increase difficulty, step the feet backward and open the hip. To decrease difficulty, step the feet forwards and allow for more hip flexion. This will increase or decrease the amount of your body weight being supported by your upper body. Once your head is under the bar, and your elbows are fully flexed, extend your elbows, pushing your body back into the original position.
This is a popular bench press variation among powerlifters who need to strengthen the top portion of the lift. By pressing a barbell from the floor, you’re limiting your arms’ range of motion. This means you can typically press more weight, which equates to a stronger bench press and stronger triceps.
Benefits of the Floor Press
- The decreased range of motion allows you to lift more weight.
- You can overload your triceps for more strength and a heavier bench press.
How to Do the Floor Press
Lay down in front of a power rack and extend your arms. Take note of where they end and adjust the hooks so that the barbell sits where your hands reach. Get back under the now-loaded barbell and plant your feet firmly on the floor. Grab the bar with your typical bench press grip. Lift the bar out of the rack, and lower the barbell to your sternum. Keep your elbows tucked in at 45 degrees. Press back up.
This isn’t the most practical triceps exercise — since you need to use a bench and a cable machine — but it really isolates the triceps. The cable pulley, compared to a barbell or dumbbell, creates more tension on the muscle. Also, by angling your body at a decline, you’re increasing the exercise’s range of motion. Your arms have to travel further to complete the exercise, and this will create a greater stretch on the muscle.
Benefits of the Decline Bench Cable Extension
- The cable creates more tension on the muscle.
- The decline angle will increase the stretch of the triceps muscle.
How to Do the Decline Bench Cable Extension
Set a decline workout bench about a foot in front of a cable pulley machine. Set the cable pulley to low and attach a straight or ez-bar handle. Lay back on the bench and grab the handle with both hands. (It may be easier to have someone hand you the bar.) Now, perform a standard skull crusher.
When legendary lifter JM Blakey trained at Westside Barbell and was crushing bench press records, his training partners noticed he was doing this unusual lift as part of his accessory routine. The JM press is part close-grip bench press, part skull crusher. Since the chest comes into play, you can load up more weight than in a standard triceps isolation movement. The elbow position makes the JM press a real triceps killer.
Benefits of the JM Press
- The JM Press improves lockout strength on the bench and overhead press.
- The shorter range of motion allows you to load more weight.
How to Do the JM Press
Set up exactly as you would for a close-grip bench press, but make sure the bar is fixated above your upper chest. Lower the barbell downwards while slowly flaring the elbows out to a 45-degree angle. As you lower, allow the bar to drift back towards your face. At the bottom of the repetition, your forearms should be somewhat parallel to the floor. Once your elbows are pointed forwards (instead of downwards), revere the motion and press back up.
Triceps extensions are performed with a variety of tools and in a variety of postures. When performing overhead extensions with a resistance band, the extra stretch on the band provides ample tension from the get-go and only gets harder as you extend the elbows. This movement is great for both hypertrophy and lockout strength.
Benefits of the Overhead Triceps Extension
- Increased tension throughout a larger range of motion.
- Helps improve overhead lockout strength which is important for overhead pressing.
How to Do the Overhead Triceps Extension
With the band underneath the middle of both feet, step forward with one foot and bring the handles of the band up behind your ears. Standing tall and keeping your elbows tucked in, extend the elbows until lockout, and pause for a second. Slowly lower down to the starting position and then repeat.
If you can’t train your triceps pain-free, the standing landmine press can come in clutch. The nature of the implement used increases scapular stability and control. The grip and upper arm position will also likely allow you to train around elbow or shoulder discomfort and still get a good session in.
Benefits of the Standing Landmine Press
- The neutral grip and the arc of the press train the triceps while helping to limit shoulder or elbow discomfort.
- Increased scapular stability and control because of the pressing angle and loading of the barbell.
How to Do the Standing Landmine Press
Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold the end of the barbell just in front of your shoulder. Brace your core and lats and grip the barbell tight. Then, press to lockout by extending the elbow and reaching forward at the end of the movement. Slowly lower back down and repeat.
Like the close-grip bench press, the hand placement of the diamond push-up shifts more of the emphasis on the triceps. Due to the narrower base of support, you’ll get increased core stability while training the chest, shoulders, and triceps. Because of this, you may not be able to do as many reps as in your usual push-up, but your triceps will love it.
Benefits of the Diamond Push-Up
- It focuses more on the triceps while still training your shoulders and chest.
- The narrower base of support improves your core strength.
How to Do the Diamond Push-Up
Making a perfect diamond with your hands is not necessary, but the idea is to keep your hands close to focus on the triceps. Adjust your hand position to see what works for you. Perform a push-up with control while keeping your core and glutes tight to keep your spine neutral. Keep your elbows tucked alongside your ribcage, without flaring, during the entire movement.
Using dumbbells instead of the barbell allows you to change your pressing angle, which is great if you have shoulder issues when pressing with the barbell. The barbell locks your wrists and shoulders into one position, which some lifters may find limiting.
The reduced range of motion, combined with pressing one side at a time, will iron out imbalances while focusing on the triceps. Plus, the dumbbells are harder to stabilize, which slows the lift down and thus provides more time under tension.
Benefits of the Unilateral Dumbbell Floor Press
- Strengthens imbalances between sides.
- The reduced range of motion and the neutral grip are easy on the wrists and shoulders.
- Helps improve lockout strength for bench and overhead pressing.
How to Do the Unilateral Dumbbell Floor Press
Roll to one side and grab a dumbbell with both hands. Press it up to extension, and then place your free hand on the floor out to the side. Bend your knees or leave your legs flat on the floor. Slowly lower the weight until your upper arm grazes the ground, and then press back up to lockout.
About the Triceps
The triceps are made up of three muscles (hence the name, tri-ceps): The lateral head, the long head, and the medial head. All three of these muscles attach to your elbow and are responsible for extending your arm.
The triceps are involved in the back half of most pressing exercises. Think about how you bench press. Your pecs work hard at first to get the barbell off of your chest, but once your arms break 90 degrees, your triceps flex to extend your forearms and fully extend your arms. The same is true for an overhead press.
If you want to press heavyweight, then strong triceps are a necessity — not an option. And as you get stronger, it’ll become even more important to focus on specific parts of your lifts (like the down, middle or top position), as well as the other muscles involved. For this reason, powerlifters and strongmen typically prioritize their triceps to help them lock out a big bench press or a heavy log press.
Your triceps take up about two-thirds of your upper arm mass. Typically, you hear people say you need to target each head with specific exercises for complete growth. While exercise is variation is a good thing, your triceps’ primary function is to extend the arm so that most extension exercises will recruit your triceps. That said, the long head of your triceps originates from your scapula and helps to extend your entire arm behind you.
Compared to triceps exercises that lock your arms in at your sides — like pushdowns and the close-grip bench press — moves that work your triceps while your arms are extended, like skull crushers, will help build a complete long head.
How to Train Your Triceps
Your triceps are big compared to your biceps, but it’s still a small muscle. Stick with around 10 to 14 sets per week for your triceps. You can pair your triceps with your biceps, or you can tack your triceps training onto your bench press or push day. Because the triceps work in conjunction with other pushing exercises, we suggest pairing them with other pressing moves.
Pick three to four movements off of this list, and complete three sets each. If you’re a more advanced strength athlete, then you may benefit from even more volume. You can train your triceps on your push day and then complete a less intense arms day later in the week for 16 to 18 total sets of work.
More Triceps Training Tips
Here are some more articles that can help you add size and strength to your triceps and improve your pressing strength.
- 8 Great Triceps Exercises You Probably Aren’t Doing
- 14 Triceps Exercises to Improve Your Bench Press
Featured image: Bojan Milinkov/Shutterstock