Big time arm muscles means big time triceps. You might spend most of your gym time pumping through endless sets of dumbbell curls—which are effective for building bulging biceps, to be fair—but if you don’t shift focus to the biggest muscle on your arms, the triceps, you’ll miss out on major strength and size gains. A big flex is cool, and you’ll look okay in the mirror. A set of 3D arms that are strong enough to handle your toughest pressing workouts is even better, since you’ll look truly impressive from all angles. For both aesthetics and function, training your triceps is absolutely essential.
The issue that some guys have with staying on point with their triceps training is common in more settings than just the gym: out of sight, out of mind. This has to do with the anatomy of your arm muscles, particularly the biceps and triceps, the two major muscles. Your biceps are in an anterior position. In plain speak, that means the muscle is located on the front of your arm. Meanwhile, the triceps in a posterior position on your arm. That means the muscle is on the rear.
Since you aren’t able to immediately clock the triceps when you catch sight of your reflection (or more likely, you can’t watch the triceps pump up as easily while you perform exercises like pressdowns or skullcrushers as you can when you’re doing curls), lots of gym bros will prioritize the biceps. While you can’t see them immediately in the mirror, the triceps can make up to two-thirds of the muscle mass in your upper arm, making them much bigger than the biceps.
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What You Need to Know About Your Triceps
Think of your triceps as the three-headed monster that will make your arms pop. The muscle takes its name from those three heads—the long head, the medial head, and the lateral head—and is essential for elbow extension. That means just about any time you’re straightening your arms, whether you’re pressing or doing extensions, your triceps are going to be involved. All three heads connect to your elbow and humerus (your upper arm bone), while long head alone connects to your shoulder blade, which makes the muscle involved in overhead pressing movements.
How to Train Your Triceps
There are plenty of ways to train your tris, too, although finding just the right muscle contraction isn’t always easy. Remember that locking out your elbow and straightening your elbow are two different things; focus on keeping tension on your triceps and actively flexing them when you’re in the straight-arm position.
Any movement that has you straightening your arm at the elbow will train your triceps, but there are plenty of ways to vary up that arm-straightening motion. Changing the angle of your arm relative to your torso can place different levels of stretch on the triceps muscle, and adding pauses, both at the top of reps and halfway through reps, can emphasize different phases of the contraction.
Not sure what you need to do to train your triceps? Consider these 20 moves.
Pressdowns are one of the most popular triceps exercises, for good reason. The move is all about isolating the muscle as it performs its main function (elbow extension), and using a cable machine or resistance bands allows you to load up to challenge yourself.
DO THIS: For the most common version of the exercise, stand in front of the cable machine/resistance band setup holding the rope attachment or handle at your upper chest. Keep your core engaged and your shoulder blades tight, then push down to extend your arms, moving only at the elbows.
To reinforce your form and eliminate any chance at cheating, add a bench into the equation. Lie with your back on a bench set to a 45-degree incline, abs and glutes tight. Your shoulder blades should be off the bench. Grasp either a handle or rope in your hands. Keep your elbows tight to your torso. Bending only at the elbows, straighten the rope or handle. Pause and squeeze your triceps.
Few bodyweight moves are as effective as the close-grip pushup. First off, this is a move you can take anywhere, a bonus triceps pump whenever you can drop and do a quick set. Secondly, you’re also loading with your bodyweight—and sure, other muscles are assisting you in pressing up, but you’re still getting plenty of triceps activation under load. And remember: diamonds are not your friend.
DO THIS: Set up in pushup position, with your hands just slightly narrower than shoulder-width (don’t fall into the trap of thinking your hands must touch each other), hands directly below your shoulders, core tight and glutes squeezed. Lower yourself down to the floor, bending your elbows at a 45-degree angle. Make sure your elbows don’t flare out to the sides; keep them locked in place. Pause, maintaining the squeeze in your core and glutes, then push back up to the original position by straightening your arms.
This bodyweight movement will look familiar to just about anyone who has tried their hand at training—after all, it appears to be as basic as finding a bench or platform and pumping yourself up and down. But if you’re looking to train your triceps effectively while also protecting your shoulders, there’s more that you need to know.
DO THIS: Firstly, don’t even approach the bench if you have any shoulder pain or mobility issues. If your shoulders are in good shape, follow this form exactly: Sit on the bench and place your hands down with your knuckles facing outwards, to force as much external rotation as possible. Extend your legs straight out and squeeze your glutes, so you’re supporting your bodyweight on your hands. Squeeze your shoulder blades together, then push your torso up high. Lower yourself down to a depth that’s comfortable for you, then squeeze your triceps to extend your arms and lift yourself up.
The bench press is a great exercise to work your chest and core. But a change in grip can help expand your arms.“Placing your hands closer together makes it so your triceps have to work harder,” says Craig Ballantyne, Owner of Turbulence Training. “That can lead to new growth and more strength.” (It’s also one of the 3 Secrets to a Bigger Bench Press.)
DO THIS: Grasp a barbell with an overhand grip that’s shoulder-width apart, and hold it above your sternum with arms completely straight. Lower the bar straight down, pause, and then press the bar back up to the starting position.
The skull crusher is a go-to tricep move because it gives you a chance to isolate the muscle. The lying position allows you to kill any momentum you use to cheat in other moves.
DO THIS: Put your feet flat on the floor, squeezing your glutes and keeping your core active on the bench. After you lift the bar above your chest, drive your shoulders aggressively into the bench and maintain a little bit of tension in your mid-back to prep for the exercise.
The next steps are all about isolation. Once you begin to lower the bar to your head for reps, make sure you’re only moving at the elbow joint. Keep your shoulders and upper arms stable.
Rocker Bodyweight Skull Crusher
You don’t need any weights for this skull crusher variation, which takes you off the bench and uses the ground to isolate your triceps. This particular version has one specific advantage to the standard bodyweight skull crusher: the rocking motion allows you to get a better stretch than just extending your arms would.
DO THIS: Start in plank position, elbows directly below your shoulders, core and glutes tight. Shift your entire torso forward, bringing shoulders in front of elbows and lowering your torso to the ground as far as you can while keeping your forearms on the ground.
Keeping your elbows and core tight, straighten your arms, pressing your torso upwards. Then, return to the plank position.
The JM press is a hybrid movement combining two of the best triceps builders in the game, the skull crusher and the close-grip bench press. You’ll put yourself in a great position to kickstart growth using whichever implement you want, but dumbbells are a great place to start.
DO THIS: Get in a solid position on the bench. Raise the weight straight above your chest, as you would for a press—then shift your arm angle to about 92 degrees. Lower the weight so that your elbows are at your ribs, and the top heads of the weights are at your shoulders. Make sure to take your time to make sure that you stay in the proper movement path for every single rep.
While you might not be targeting the tris as directly as with the close-grip variation above, the standard bench press absolutely uses the triceps to help your chest move the weight from point A to B.
Using dumbbells allows for you to have a larger range of motion, since the weights aren’t fixed on a barbell.
DO THIS: Lie on a bench, holding a pair of dumbbells at chest level with your elbows at a 45-degree angle relative to torso. Don’t arch your back, especially if you want to emphasize triceps recruitment.
Squeeze your pecs to press the weight directly above your torso. Control the weight as you lower it back to an inch above your chest, then press up again.
This gem from MH fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., challenges you to use your triceps in unique fashion: They won’t get as much stretch as some moves but they stay under constant tension from gravity and the resistance you’re using for as long as you’re doing reps.
Do This: Lie on a bench, holding dumbbells directly over your shoulders, abs tight. Bend your elbows so your forearms are parallel to the ground. Keeping your forearms parallel to the ground and your elbows in, slowly extend your arms overhead, never letting your forearms lose that parallel-with-the-ground position. Pause when your arms are as straight as you can get them (this may be different for different people), then slowly bring your arms back to the starting point, still keeping your forearms parallel to the ground.
Tall Kneeling Triceps Pressdowns
One of the most basic ways to train your triceps is the pressdown, which has you keeping your elbows in line with your torso and driving your hands down while holding a band or cable. Level that move up by kneeling on the ground, engaging your abs and glutes.
Do This: Kneel on the ground, thighs in line with your torso, glutes and abs tight, shoulder blades back, grasping two ends of a resistance band. Keeping your core tight and not leaning forward, straighten your right elbow, flexing your triceps, then straighten your left elbow. Keep your left elbow straight as you do 2 reps with your right arm; reverse the movement. Maintain this pattern until you’ve done 10-12 total reps per arm.
What if you could train your abs and triceps at once? You get to do that on the half-bench skull crusher, thanks to the fact that half your torso is off the bench (and thus must stay contracted to keep you level and in control).
Do This: Lie on a bench holding a dumbbell in your right hand directly above your shoulder. Shimmy over to the right side so your right glute, shoulder blade, and half your spine, and half your head are off the bench. Tighten your core. Bend at the elbow, lowering the dumbbell toward your forehead; press back up.
Plank Hold Triceps FInisher
Here’s another one that lets you smoke your abs while simultaneously giving you a vicious triceps pump.
Do This: Latch a light resistance band to a structure in front of you. Set up on plank position in front of it, core tight, and grasp the band with your right hand. You’ll need to maintain a left-hand-only plank, and you’ll want your hips and shoulders square, so squeeze your abs and glutes hard. Without shifting your hips, straighten your right arm, pulling the band back. Return to the start.
The triceps kickback is one of the most basic exercises for triceps development, when done correctly, forcing you to straight your arm so it’s parallel with the ground.
Do This: Stand holding a dumbbell in your right arm, then hinge forward, holding something with your left arm for support. Raise your elbow so your upper arm is parallel to the ground. Keeping your upper arm parallel to the ground and without tilting your hips or shoulders, straighten your right arm, squeezing your triceps.
Kneeling Triceps Kickback Finisher
Other than overhead triceps extensions, this move might be the most comparable exercise for your triceps to a biceps curl. The kickback is simple, all you need is a set of dumbbells, and it gets the blood pumping to the muscles.
DO THIS: Kneel on the ground holding the dumbbells in each hand, then hinge at the hips to bend over. Raise your arms with your elbows bent at a 90-degree angle so that they’re parallel to the ground. Straighten both arms out and reach back with the weights, squeezing your triceps to hold them in position.
Brace your core to help keep your arms in place. Lower your left arm down to the starting position while keeping your right arm straight, then lower your right arm after a beat. Repeat to raise both arms again, but lower your right arm first. Perform 5 reps alternating arms, then 5 straight kickback reps with both arms simultaneously without the pauses.
Double Skull Crusher to JM Press
Use dumbbells to put a spin on the skull crusher exercise, then add another strong move with the JM press to double your triceps work. Isolation is again the point here—the main key is to be sure you’re using the right angle to maximize your gains.
DO THIS: Lay flat on the bench, holding the dumbbells with your palms parallel to each other. Press both weights straight up, keeping a small space between them (this shouldn’t be a close-grip DB bench). Shift your arms so that the weights are at a 91-degree angle in relation to your torso, then hinge at the elbow to lower the dumbbells down to face-level for 2 skull crusher reps.
After the 2 skull crusher reps, lower the heads of the dumbbells down to your shoulders, then press back up to the 91-degree skull crusher position for the JM press. Complete 2 reps. That’s 1 cluster. Finish 3 to 4 clusters for 1 set.
Suspension training allows you to work against your own body weight, which can be a novel way to use resistance for upper body exercises. If you’re stuck in a small space without room for weights, a set of straps is all you need to get your triceps burning.
DO THIS: Grip the handles with each hand, holding your palms facing out. Extend your arms straight out and lean slightly forward into your toes, so the lines are taut.
Hinge at the elbows and bend your arms, leaning forward until your head is between your hands. Squeeze your core and glutes to maintain good posture — don’t bend your knees. Squeeze your triceps and press forward, pushing yourself back up into the starting position as your straighten your arms.
Eccentric Skullcrusher to Double Press
Your triceps pull double-duty in this bench and dumbbells exercise. First, you’ll work to challenge your elbow extension with the eccentric focus, then you’ll need to press up.
DO THIS: Lie back on the bench holding a pair of dumbbells. Raise the weights for a skullcrusher, then take 3 seconds to emphasize the eccentric movement as you lower down to the bottom position.
Instead of extending your elbows to move the weight back up into the top position, move the weights to your chest and straight into a pair of explosive close-grip press reps.
Bench Triceps Triple Dropset
Hit the bench but ditch the weights for this four-part dropset.
When you perform the first movement, the bodyweight skullcrusher, the arm angle is key. Make sure that you can tell the difference between that and the close-grip pushup.
DO THIS: Place your hands on the bench, making sure that your arms are at a 90-degree angle relative to torso. Perform 6 paused bodyweight bench skullcrushers. After that, perform 6 standard reps. Next, move your feet closer and perform 6 paused close-grip pushup reps. Finally, burn out with close-grip pushup reps til failure.
Dumbbell Lying Triceps Extensions
This exercise nails your triceps, and doing high reps of it results in a serious rush of blood to the muscle and gives you a great pump, says David Jack, MH Fitness Advisor.
A review in the Strength and Conditioning Journal found that “the pump”—cellular swelling that occurs from blood pooling to the muscle—can actually speed muscle repair and growth after your workout.
DO THIS: Grab a pair of dumbbells and lie faceup on the ground. Hold the dumbbells over your head with straight arms, your palms facing each other.
Without moving your upper arms, bend your elbows to lower the dumbbells until your forearms are beyond parallel to the floor. Pause, then lift the weights back to the starting position by straightening your arms.
Lowering the bar to the top of the foam roller cuts your range of motion in half. Pressing from the midpoint of the lift emphasizes the “lockout,” or the ending push of the bench press.
“The lockout is all triceps, and you can use a big weight on the bar” says Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S., co-owner of Cressey Performance in Hudson, MA. It also allows you to train hard for the bench press, with minimal strain on your shoulders.
DO THIS: Lie down on a bench and place a foam roller length-wise on your chest. Secure it with a resistance band, if need be. Grab the barbell overhead and hold it directly above your chest. Lower the bar to touch the foam roller, and then press it back up.
Rolling EZ-Bar Triceps Extensions
This method of the triceps extension gives your triceps short pauses between each rep. “This allows you to rest more so you can bang out more reps and really pump up the muscle,” says Gentilcore.
DO THIS: Lie with your back flat on the ground, a loaded EZ-bar laying on the floor above your head. Grasp the bar, roll it towards your head until your upper arms are vertical. Now press the weight so that your arms are straight and vertical.
Reverse the move, placing the weight back on the floor and “rolling” the bar back. Repeat. Do as many reps as you can.
This variation of a classic bench press favors the lockout portion of the lift, which recruits your triceps to an extreme degree, says Gentilcore.
And since the load is distributed differently with a kettlebell than a barbell, your stabilizing muscles have to work harder to keep the weight positioned correctly.
DO THIS: Grab a kettlebell with each hand and lie with your back on the ground. Hold the kettlebells overhead, the bell hanging on the outside of your wrists.
Bend your arm to lower the kettlebells. Touch your elbows to the ground, pause, then press them back up.
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