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 covers 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 your 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 seven 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
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. The benefits of the close-grip bench press being more muscle mass on the back of your arms and stronger triceps, which 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 (but not 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 a various cable attachment) 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.
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 lockout 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