Back-of-arm chisel is IN, and thick, sleeve-busting arms are nothing if not eye-catching. But contrary to popular belief, for stronger, thicker, more toned arms, you need to spend less time on your biceps and more time on your triceps. “Your triceps comprise more than two-thirds of your upper-arm, and strong triceps are essential for strong pushing movements” explains Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of Movement Vault.
Basically, he explains, your bench, push-ups, and overhead press can only get as far as your triceps take them. So while tricep exercises may seem like vanity accessory work, they’re necessary for both bigger arms and a stronger bench.
The tricep runs along the humorous, the main bone in the upper arm, and is made up of 3 different parts, or heads: the medial head, the lateral head, and the long head. While all three heads of the tricep are important for strength, the medial head is the smallest head and is mostly covered by the lateral and long head, the lateral head is primarily responsible for the horseshoe shape, and the long head will help you build bigger looking arms.
Try out the following 8 triceps exercises that will strengthen all three heads of the tricep and will translate to barbell movements and push-up variations alike.
How To Do It:
- Start on your hands and knees to make getting into the start position easier.
- Begin the movement by positioning your hands directly under your chest with the fingers spread and the thumbs and forefingers touching, making a triangle shape.
- Depending on strength training experience, straighten the legs into a plank position or keep the knees on the floor for an easier version.
- Make sure your back is flat your abs are engaged as you bend the elbows, lowering until your chin or chest touches the floor. If you can’t go that low, go as low as you can and work to build enough strength to lower all the way down over time.
- At the bottom of the movement, your elbows will naturally flare out to the side.
- Press back to start keeping the torso rigid.
- That is one rep. Repeat for 1-3 sets of 8-16 reps.
Why It Works: Triangle push-ups are one of the most efficient and effective tricep exercises. A team of scientists from the University of Wisconsin recruited 15 women aged 20 to 24 with weight-training experience and asked them not to do arm exercises for 48 hours before initial testing began. For the study, electrodes were attached to the back of the subjects’ arms (i.e. the long head of their tricep) and they were asked to do 7 repetitions of each of the exercises with 5-minute breaks. The study found that triangle push-ups (along with tricep dips and tricep kick backs) resulted in the greatest muscle activity. With only body-weight as resistance, this exercise emphasizes all three heads of the triceps muscle and, which is likely why the study found it to be the exercise with the greatest muscle activity.
Equipment: Lightweight dumbbell and bench
How To Do It:
- Grab a light dumbbell with one hand and place your other hand on a stable surface.
- Lean forward until your torso is almost parallel to the floor and stagger your feet.
- Take the arm that is holding the weight and pull the upper arm up to torso level, keeping it pressed to your side.
- Keeping the elbow in that position, extend your forearm behind you, focusing on contracting the triceps.
- Lower the forearm down to about 90 degrees and repeat for 1-3 sets of 8-16 reps.
- Focus on keeping the upper arm stationary against the body throughout the exercise.
Why It Works: Like the triangle push-up, this movement targets all three heads of the tricep, which is likely why research found it to be the second most effective tricep exercise. For this movement, don’t worry about going heavy with the dumbbell, instead select a weight that you can easily manage as well as squeeze at the top of each rep. If you can’t hold the dumbbell long enough to contract your tricep muscle at the top, you’re not doing it correctly.
Equipment: Bench or box.
How To Do It:
- Sit on a bench or box (or other 2-3 foot ledge) with your hands just outside your hips.
- When you’re ready, straighten your legs out in front of you and lift your butt off the bench or box. For beginnings, keep your knees bent.
- To lift your butt off the bench, lift up onto your hands. Keeping the hips very close to the bench, bend your elbows, lowering down until they’re at about 90 degrees.
- Tighten your abs, and then when you’re ready, while keeping your elbows pointing behind you, and shoulders back, push back.
- Slowly bend your elbows to lower your body toward the floor until your elbows are at about a 90-degree angle. Be sure to keep your back close to the bench.
- Once you reach the bottom of the movement, press down into the bench to straighten your elbows, returning to the starting position.
- That’s one rep. Do 1-3 sets of 8-16 reps.
Why It Works: According to the same study, dips are the third most effective exercise for outer arm chisel. But the great thing about this exercise that the difficulty level can be altered based on the position and angle of your feet. When knees are bent, the exercise is easier than when legs are extended straight out in front. However, regardless of leg position it’s key to keep your hips close to the bench or box to prevent shoulder strain while emphasizes the part of the body this exercise is meant to work: the triceps.
Equipment: Two dumbbells or a bar, one bench.
How To Do It:
- Grab a set of dumbbells, and start by lying on your back with the knees bent.
- With one dumbbell in each hand, raise your arms so they are above your chest, making sure your elbows are straight but not locked.
- Slowly lower both arms toward your head, bending your elbows to 90 degrees as the dumbbells reach your forehead. Aim to lower your dumbbells so they are on either side of your head, elbows bent and pressing in toward your head.
- Lift your arms back to starting position. This is one rep.
- Do two sets of 15 reps.
Why It Works: There are a variety of ways to do skull-crushers. You can use almost any kind of weight (dumbbells, barbell, EZ-bar, or cables), as well as a variety of angled benches. Each variation provides a slightly different feel and degree of work the different heads of the triceps are doing, explains Mark Barroso CPT of Barroso Fit.
The more inclined the bench is, the closer the upper arms are to an overhead position, so more of the work falls on the triceps long head. But doing the movement on a decline bench reduces the long-head involvement, so more of the emphasis falls on the lateral triceps head, explains Wickham. The reason Barroso prefers doing skull-crushers with dumbbells is that each arm has to work independently, and the dumbbells are harder to control than an EX bar, for example, which forces athletes to utilize and activate their core muscles as well.
Lying Tricep Extension
Equipment: Bench, EZ bar or barbell. Use a short bar or empty barbell depending on space.
How To Do It:
- Narrow grip on the bar.
- Lay down on the flat bench so that your head is two inches from the top, feet on the ground
- Lock your arms overhead.
- Keeping your elbows in, lower the barbell past your forehead, and bring the bar in back of your head as low as you can.
- Once you have brought the the bar down as low as you can, powerfully explode the bar towards the ceiling.
- That’s one rep. Do 8-12 reps during accessory work at the end of a workout.
Why It Works: “The lying tricep extension is a different exercise than a skull crusher. The basic difference is that skull crushers are partial rep movements (going only to your forehead) while the lying tricep extension is a full range of motion (going past your forehead and as far as you can,” explains Mark Barroso. This exercise may put too much pressure on the elbow joint of athletes with elbow joint issues, he warns. But those who can safely complete the movement, will see improvements in their push-movement strength, like the push-up and bench press, he says.
Seated or Standing Overhead Dumbbell Extension
Equipment: Lower bench, one dumbbell.
How To Do It:
- Grab one dumbbell by making a diamond with your hands so that one hand is over the other.
- Your feet should be 90 degrees, in a seated position. Keep your full foot on the ground.
- Start with your arms fully extended and your elbows turned in..
- To begin the movement, bring the dumbbells all the way down and then all the way down.
- At the top you when your arms are fully extended turn your triceps out and squeeze.
- That’s one rep. Try doing 8-12 reps.
- Bring it down to one of your shoulders to rest there to bring it down to the ground.
Why It Works: Standing will activate your core a bit more, and you may need to go lighter. So if tricep muscles are your goal (as opposed to full-body strength and stability), do seated overhead dumbbell extensions because you will be able to get a fuller range of motion because you don’t have to worry about losing your balance with the heavy weight, suggests Barroso. “Just make sure that as you are doing this you are keeping your back against the bench and your full foot on the ground,” says Barroso.
Close Grip Bench Press
Equipment: Bench and barbell, or bench press setup
How To Do It:
- Lie back on a flat bench so your forehead is directly under the barbel.
- Using a close grip that is about shoulder width apart, lift the bar from the rack and hold it straight over you with your arms locked.
- Brace your core and plant your feet firmly into the ground.
- Then, once in starting positions come down slowly keeping your elbows close to your torso at all times until you feel the bar on your middle chest.
- After a 1-3 second pause, bring the bar back to the starting position by pushing the bar up using your triceps muscles.
- Lock your arms in the contracted position. That’s one rep.
- Repeat the movement for the prescribed amount of repetitions.
- When the set number of reps are complete, place the bar back in the rack.
Why It Works:
For people with bench press and barbell experience, the close grip bench press is a great way to focus on and emphasize tricep engagement, explains Wickham. However, the key is to keep the elbows as tight to the torso as the bar and coming down and getting pushed up for maximum tricep gains. “Making this movement an eccentric contraction close grip bench press, will strengthen the triceps. An eccentric contraction means that athletes should lower the bar in a count of 5 and then explode upward as fast as they can before repeating” says Wickham.
Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.