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IF YOU COULD ONLY DO ONE TRICEPS EXERCISE…

If I had to choose the absolute best triceps exercise for muscle mass, which would it be?

This isn’t going to be any easy choice.

I actually like all three exercises that I’m pitting against each other.  However, not only will I give you my winner, I’ll show you the exact science behind my choice!

More than likely, each of these three contenders is part of your current triceps training. And while some of them have more limitations than others, they’re all good triceps exercises!

But for me there is a single best and I’ll show you which one it is.

Let the “IRON FACE OFF” begin!

There will be a winner…

And at the end of it all…the biggest winners will be you and the size of your tri’s!

triceps muscles anatomy including long head, lateral head and medial head

TRICEPS PUSHDOWNS

Let’s start off with a classic triceps exercise that makes its way into most peoples’ arm workouts: the Triceps Pushdown.

There are several things I really like about this exercise, but it’s got a couple of drawbacks.

TRICEPS PUSHDOWN

I’m demonstrating with a rope, but the same benefits and drawbacks apply here whether you’re using a straight bar or a rope.

What I do like about this exercise is that you progressively overload it a quite a bit with the weight stack on the cable machine. It’s also easier on your elbows than some of the other triceps exercises, thanks to the use of the cable machine.

The main issue I’ve got with this exercise is that it is restrictive in terms of the portions of the strength curve it’s able to work.

If you look at me doing this exercise, the line of resistance is through the cable.

If it’s perpendicular to my forearm – like it is in the beginning of the rep – then we’re going to have maximum tension on the triceps at that point.

In a triceps pushdown, while the cable is perpendicular to the forearm we have maximum tension on the triceps.

But when it gets down to parallel to the forearm, we’re taking some of the tension away. Unfortunately, that’s happening with this exercise at the point that it matters the most, down in peak contraction!

In a triceps pushdown, while the cable is parallel to the forearm as it is in peak contraction during this exercise, some of the tension is gone.

I showed you in my Perfect Triceps Workout how my rocking triceps pushdowns offer a solution that problem. They actually allow us to get tension both in the beginning and at the end point of the movement.

A rocking triceps pushdown helps ensure that there is tension in the beginning and end portions of the pushdown.

But there’s another issue with triceps pushdowns that we just can’t get past. At no point in the range of motion does the pushdown place your arm up over your head to put the long head of the triceps on stretch.

The long head of the triceps makes up almost two thirds of the size of the triceps muscle. Of the three triceps heads, it’s going to be where you need to focus your efforts to get the most size.

The long head of the triceps makes up almost two thirds of the size of the triceps muscle. Of the three triceps heads, it’s going to be where you need to focus your efforts to get the most size.

Put simply, if you’re never putting the long head on stretch, the size of your triceps is going to suffer!

So while the triceps pushdown is a great exercise, it’s just not my single best choice.

TRICEPS PUSHDOWNS

PROS:

  • Can be progressively overloaded
  • Relatively easy on the elbow joints

CONS:

  • When done in a static position, lacks tension at peak contraction of the movement
  • Neglects to put the long head of the triceps on stretch

CLOSE GRIP BENCH PRESS

The Close Grip Bench Press is another classic triceps exercise that does offer some versatility that the triceps pushdown does not.

The triceps pushdown is limited to a cable machine. You might be able to use a band setup at home, but it’s definitely not ideal.

However, the close grip bench press can be done with dumbbells or with the barbell.

DUMBBELL CLOSE GRIP BENCH PRESS

This means you’ve got a greater choice of where you can do the exercise.

BARBELL CLOSE GRIP BENCH PRESS

This exercise also allows us to progressively overload the triceps the like pushdown does. However, that leads immediately to the question of “What are we loading?”

Are we really loading the triceps here?

The triceps aren’t the only muscle group being loaded in the close grip bench press.

We do have a narrower grip to help favor the triceps, but even so, much of the tension is offloaded to the chest and shoulders rather than the triceps. To make matters worse, if your chest and shoulders are already dominant they’re going to want to take over every time you do the exercise.

You can perform a lockout of the elbows in the last quarter of the range of motion on each rep to help make sure your triceps are working.

If you do perform the close grip bench press make sure you bring your elbows into lockout at the top portion of the movement to get some triceps benefits.

However if you don’t do the lockout, your triceps are likely not even coming into play.

Here’s another problem with this exercise.

Just like with the triceps pushdown, the arms never get to an overhead position during the close grip bench press. This limits the amount of stretch that gets applied to the long head of the triceps.

This means your triceps growth is limited too.

Finally, the close grip bench press can be a little bit difficult on your joints because the weight is bearing down straight through the elbow.  For someone that has orthopedic issues in their elbows, this exercise could potentially exacerbate it.

So while I like this exercise, it can’t be my number one choice because of the shortcomings that it has.

CLOSE GRIP BENCH PRESS

PROS:

  • More versatile equipment choices than triceps pushdowns
  • Can be progressively overloaded

CONS:

  • Much of the overload is hitting the chest and shoulders rather than the triceps
  • Without elbow lockout, there is almost no triceps benefit
  • Neglects to put the long head of the triceps on stretch
  • Can be difficult on the elbow joints

THE WINNER: DUMBBELL TRICEPS EXTENSION

If you’ve watched my YouTube channel for any length of time, you probably know that I’m a fan of the Dumbbell or Barbell Triceps Extension.

It’s got all of the key benefits we’re looking for when it comes to triceps training!

TRICEPS EXTENSION

Since we can use either dumbbells or barbells for this exercise, versatility is built in.

We can also load the triceps extension to create progressive overload directly to the triceps which will help them grow.

If we use an EZ curl bar on this exercise, not only are we kind to the wrists but we can also go easy on the elbows if we make one important tweak.

To keep that tension on the triceps in peak contracted position, angle your arms back about 20 or 30 degrees in the end portion of the exercise.

You have to try to keep your elbows angled back from vertical. This places tension on the working muscle (the triceps) right where we want it, and doesn’t exert a compressive force on the elbow joint.

Using an EZ curl bar and keeping your elbows back in the triceps extension will make sure the exercise is gentle on the wrist and elbow joints.

To make sure that you keep that tension on the triceps in peak contracted position, angle your arms back about 20 or 30 degrees in the end portion of the exercise.

To keep tension on the triceps in peak contracted position make sure you angle your arms back 20-30 degrees at the end of the exercise.

What else does the triceps extension do for us that the other two contenders were lacking?

It gives us that all-important stretch in the long head of the triceps in the bottom position of the each rep. Each time I get to the bottom I can increase the stretch by reaching back a little bit more to get that extra stretch reflex activation in the long head, which can lead to a more powerful triceps contraction.

You can take the stretch position back a tiny bit further with each rep of the triceps extension.

As you can see, this exercise has got it all with pretty much no shortcomings.  So if I had to choose just one triceps exercise as the single best for mass, the triceps extension would be it!

TRICEPS EXTENSION

PROS:

  • Versatile equipment choices
  • Can be progressively overloaded
  • Easy on wrists and elbow joints when done with an EZ curl bar
  • Keeping elbows angled back allows for tension to occur in peak contraction
  • Ability to put the long head of the triceps on stretch which other exercises lack

CONS:

  • None

While the triceps extension would be my ‘best’ triceps exercise for mass if I only could choose one, it’s important to remember that it’s never all about one exercise. As a matter of fact, exercises themselves never make the training program effective. It’s HOW you do them that makes them effective and we always want to pay attention to the details, no matter what it is we’re training.

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THE HIGHLIGHT REEL:
THE BEST TRICEPS EXERCISE FOR MASS

  1. I’ve put three triceps exercises to the test to see how they stack up against my criteria for the ‘best’ triceps exercise for mass: triceps pushdowns, close grip bench press and triceps extensions.
  2. The triceps pushdown can be progressively overloaded and is safe for the elbow joints, but it can only be done with cables or a band, lacks tension at peak contraction of the movement and doesn’t put the long head of the triceps on stretch which limits triceps gains.
  3. The close grip bench press allows for more versatile equipment selection and can be overloaded, but the overload is typically focused mostly on the chest and shoulders. It doesn’t put the triceps on stretch and it can be tough on the elbow joints.
  4. The winner of this contest is the triceps extension when performed with the tips I’ve provided. It allows for versatile equipment choices, can be progressively overloaded, is easy on wrist and elbow joints when done with the EZ curl bar, allows for tension to occur in peak contraction, and puts the long head of the triceps on stretch.

If you’re looking for a complete science based training program that features only the exercises that work and teaches you the details that make them work even better, check out our ATHLEAN-X programs. I’ll make sure you do every exercise as effectively as possible for the next 90 days and just watch as you pack on gains faster than ever before!

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