best tricep workout
Take a look at the four main exercises that most people do in their triceps workouts: dips, close grip bench presses, pushdowns and lying dumbbell overhead triceps extension or skullcrushers.
Each of these classic movements have a major problem in common!
That is, they are each adept at hitting the triceps in a specific part of their range of motion, but none of them hits them completely.
Most people believe that even if they do all of these exercises they’re getting a complete triceps workout. But the truth is, they’re some key elements to maximizing triceps gains.
We’re going to bring science back into our training as we always do and incorporate some specialized techniques and exercises that emphasize specific functions of the upper arm to make sure you get your triceps to respond.
Before we do, let’s start with some triceps brachii anatomy!
THE 3 HEADS OF THE TRICEPS
We know that there are 3 heads to the triceps brachii. That’s why they’re called TRI-CEPS!
Let’s take a quick look at where each of the tricep heads is located, using our trusty Muscle Markers.
What are the 3 heads of the triceps?
- Lateral Head
- Medial Head
- Long Head
The lateral and medial heads only influence elbow extension, and they don’t cross the shoulder joint.
The long head is very important when it comes to triceps training because it does cross the shoulder joint, coming off of the scapula. This means that if we can change up the position of the scapula in the triceps exercises we choose, we can change the tension on the long head of the triceps.
how to train the triceps
Let’s get granular and look at the specific ways in which your arm workouts need to challenge your triceps in order to be considered complete.
The best triceps exercise will focus on hitting all three heads of the triceps, as well as stretching of the long head using overhead exercises, utilizing progressive overload, and making sure overlapping strength curves are taken into account. Any definitive guide to most effective triceps exercise should also focus on muscle gain and building strong arms.
STRETCHING OF LONG HEAD
To fully work the triceps muscle in your workout you want to be sure that you are including overhead tricep exercises that increase muscle activity in the long head.
That means putting the triceps on stretch by choosing exercises that position the arm over your head by bending your elbow.
The Triceps Push Away is a good example of an overhead pressing exercise that achieves this.
But it’s not enough to just hit the triceps with exercises that place your arm over your head. You must also take into consideration that you want to fully shorten the muscle by placing the arm back into extension behind your body as well.
We need to include exercises that engage the triceps into a full contraction or a fully shortened position by pulling the arm back in full extension such as the Triceps Pushdown.
In our Perfect Triceps Workout we don’t want to lose sight of the fact that progressive overload still matters.
When trying to build muscle, you will not want to forego the popular mass building triceps exercises such as the Close Grip Bench Press, but you’ll want to add to them with drop sets and partials. I’ll show you how to do that in this workout so you can build stronger, bigger arms.
OVERLAPPING STRENGTH CURVES
The idea of overlapping strength curves is important in our triceps exercise guide.
We talked about this concept in the Perfect Bicep Workout. In that workout we did a Banded Dumbbell Curl which allowed us to increase peak tension on the biceps throughout the entire range of motion of the curl.
Typically in a curl, we max out the strength curve in the middle of the movement, and lose that tension when we get up to the top of the movement. The bands help us to keep the tension going as you stretch further and further into that complete range of motion.
Similarly, we need to ensure that we are working the triceps through its full range of motion.
For example, the only way to have secondary influence on the long head of the triceps is to choose exercises that change the angle of the arm at the shoulder, because the long head attaches at the shoulder. The lateral and medial heads of the triceps originate on the humerus and cross the elbow joint only, limiting their influence to elbow extension only.
Exploring exercises that overlap these strength curves for the triceps will help you to construct a workout that is great at achieving maximal development of the triceps. We can incorporate this concept with an exercise like the Banded Lying Triceps Extension.
THE best TRICEPS WORKOUT: step by step
In structuring the Perfect Triceps Workout, I wanted to be sure we took into account all three heads of the triceps, all three triceps functions and the different parts of the strength curve to ensure that the workout is truly comprehensive.
1.) THE ‘BIG EXERCISE’ – PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD
We’ll kick off the Perfect Triceps Workout with some of the ‘big exercises’ for upper body, because I prefer to address the heavier compound exercises first when we have the most energy and we’re able to hit them hard.
We’ll start with a variation of the Close Grip Bench Press called the Close Grip Pin Press.
Start by lying on a bench with the bar positioned across the pins, hands shoulderwidth apart on the bar with palms facing away from you. Keeping your elbows tucked in close to the body, slowly lower the weight until the pins stop you, and then come back up returning to the start position.
CLOSE GRIP PIN PRESS
Why are we pressing off the pins instead of doing a full range of motion press? If you’re trying to overload the triceps, you have to realize that the majority of the work being done is from the midpoint on toward the lockout portion of the press.
If we train all the way down off our chest as we would in close grip bench presses, although it’s a good exercise, we’re working more on the delts to get them off our chest instead of it being an effective tricep movement.
Instead of chest pressing, what we’re trying to do with this Pin Press version is isolate more of the function of the triceps, which will allow us to load this exercise up even heavier to match the strength the triceps have here.
EXERCISE NOTES: Perform 3 sets at your 10, 6 and 4RM, resting between sets.
2.) OVERLOAD AND INTENSITY
Now we’ll move onto the next big exercise, the Weighted Tricep Dip.
We’re going to work it with a special tri-set technique that allows us to get to failure and even push beyond muscle failure.
I definitely recommend doing this type of Weighted Dips instead of a seated machine dip because it allows for far greater intensity and overload with heavier weights and builds bigger triceps over time.
You can use my special dog leash technique to affix the plate around your waist for this exercise. Start by pushing your body upward, extending your arms and then lower your body back down to the starting position with arms with elbow bent at 90degree angles.
To begin our drop set, we’ll set up with a weight around our waist or even a dumbbell held between the legs. You’ll work that to failure and then let go of the weight and get back up to perform bodyweight dips, which is also one of the best bodyweight exercises for building triceps if you’re not yet strong enough to do this exercise weighted.
But we don’t stop there. We can keep going far beyond failure with an Assisted Dip, attaching a band around the knees and continuing to rep out.
In order to maximally engage the triceps, there are two things you’ll want to do in each of these three forms of the dip.
The first is that you’ll want to keep your trunk up as tall as possible so all of the focus is on the triceps.
The second is to make sure that you don’t allow the forearms to dominate this movement. As you come up to the top, try to do a small hand release by pushing down through the palms of your hands to let the triceps do all the extending.
Try not to grip too much because it creates too much activation in the forearms and doesn’t allow you to go into full extension.
EXERCISE NOTES: Perform the Weighted Dip to failure, and immediately proceed to the Bodyweight Dip. Perform it to failure as well, and immediately proceed to the Assisted Dip. There is no rest between drops.
3.) SUPERSET FOR LONG HEAD STRETCH AND MAXIMUM CONTRACTION
This superset was designed to focus on the long head, taking it through both of the extremes of maximum stretch and maximum contraction.
We’ll perform an overhead Cable Triceps Pushaway (also known as overhead triceps extensions) for the stretch component. Since the overhead extensions create a stretched position of the long head, I try to accentuate that by allowing the arms to drift a little bit higher on every rep to make sure I’m getting a good stretch on the long head.
CABLE TRICEPS PUSHAWAY
As soon as I’m done with that cable extension set, I immediately transition right into the Drag Pushdown, also done on a cable machine.
The difference between this and a typical rope triceps pushdown is the placement of my hands. Instead of being away from your body they’re right up against your chest, literally trying to ride your ribcage all the way down as you extend your elbow.
This gets the elbows back into extension, which is key if you want to put that triceps long head into a fully shortened position.
EXERCISE NOTES: Perform the Triceps Push Away for a rep range of 10-12RM and proceed immediately to the Drag Pushdown using the same weight. Perform 3 sets with no rest during the combo but taking rest between sets.
4.) ADDRESSING THE STRENGTH CURVES
We’ll want to be sure we’re addressing the strength curves I talked about earlier.
One triceps exercise that is ideal for this is the Rocking Triceps Pushdown.
ROCKING TRICEPS PUSHDOWN
The idea behind this cable pushdown exercise is that since force changes during an exercise, we want to try to maximize the tension at each point of the range of motion by changing the line of resistance.
For example, in a regular Triceps Pushdown while I am pulling the cable straight down to my forearm, the line of resistance is perpendicular to the forearm and force is maximized.
However, when I get down to the bottom of the movement, the line of resistance on the cable is going to be parallel to the forearm. When that occurs all the tension is gone.
We can fix that with a Rocking Triceps Pushdown by changing the orientation of the body to increase tension at the bottom of the movement as well.
To do this, you’ll lean in at the beginning of the exercise, and with your leg dropped back, you’ll rock backward toward the end so that the line of resistance is more perpendicular to the forearm at the bottom of the motion.
Keep in mind that we’re not leaning back in momentum to pull the cable or the stack down. We’re just allowing the body’s position to change to hit all of those strength curves.
EXERCISE NOTES: Perform 2 sets of 12RM to failure, resting between sets.
5.) INCREASING TENSION THROUGH THE RANGE OF MOTION
Let’s take a look at a banded exercise to help us address our strength curves and increase tension through the triceps’ entire range of motion.
We’re going to do a Banded Lying Triceps Extension, which allows us to achieve this thanks to the tension the resistance band provides.
These are similar to skull crushers in which you’re using a band to work the entire strength curve.
BANDED LYING TRICEPS EXTENSION
If we were only using dumbbells overhead in this exercise, as we get to the top we start to lose resistance. In fact, if you were to allow your dumbbells to get straight up over your body, you’ve taken away much of the tension on the triceps, making this exercise less effective.
So instead we’ll want to keep them angled back a little bit.
EXERCISE NOTES: Perform 2 sets of 15RM to failure, resting between sets.
So, here is the entire Perfect Triceps Workout step by step, all sets, all reps for you to follow.
PERFECT TRICEPS WORKOUT
- CLOSE GRIP PIN PRESS – 3 SETS TO 10, 6, 4 REPS TO FAILURE
- WEIGHTED DIP TRI-SET – 3 SETS TO FAILURE EACH DROP
WEIGHTED > BODYWEIGHT > BAND ASSISTED (NO REST B/W DROPS)
3A. ROPE PUSHAWAYS 3 x 10-12RM TO FAILURE (PERFORM AS DROP SET WITH 3B)
3B. DRAG PUSHDOWNS – 3 SETS TO FAILURE (USE SAME WEIGHT AS 3A)
- ROCKING TRICEPS PUSHDOWNS – 2 x 12RM TO FAILURE
- BANDED LYING TRICEPS EXTENSIONS – 2 x 15RM TO FAILURE
This Perfect Triceps Workout not only hits the triceps through its full range of motion, but also hits every area of the triceps muscle as well. Starting heavier and dropping down allows for the less intense exercise to be more taxing since it was just preceded by a more difficult compound lift.
- The four main exercises that most people do in their triceps workouts: dips, close grip bench presses, pushdowns and lying dumbbell extensions or skullcrushers all have something in common. Each is great for hitting the triceps in a specific part of their range of motion, but none of them hits them completely.
- The Perfect Triceps Workout hits all 3 heads of the triceps, and places special emphasis on ensuring maximal stretch and complete contraction of the long head.
- It also takes into account the strength curves of different triceps exercises and ensures the triceps is hit through its entire range of motion.
This workout is a great example of how to apply science to your triceps workouts. If you want to train like an athlete and put science back in every workout you do, check out our ATHLEAN-X Training Programs and get started right away on building a ripped, muscular, athletic body.