Triceps are made of three heads. Although the principal functions of the triceps are stabilizing the shoulder joint and elbow extension, each of the three heads plays a different role in these processes. Understanding their particular roles will illustrate why certain exercises target particular heads of the triceps muscle.
If you want huge arms and real, functional strength, your tricep has to be well-developed in all three heads. Some parts of the triceps are visible from different directions, so targeting different areas of the triceps can also get your arms to their max size and strength.
Many lifters and bodybuilders neglect their triceps. Read this guide to find out everything you need to know about how the triceps are built, their function, and how you can build the best possible biceps with targeted exercise.
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Basic Anatomy of the Triceps
The triceps brachii runs the length of the upper arm from the scapula in your shoulder down to the elbow joint. Although it is one muscle, there are three distinct heads of the triceps: the long head, medial head, and lateral head.
The long head of the triceps is on the inside of your arm while the lateral head is on the outside and the medial head is in the center between the other two. Although many lifters target their biceps when they want to get bigger arms, the triceps brachii represents about ⅔ of the total muscle mass of your upper arm.
Building the Triceps Muscle
If you want to have huge arms, you have to give the different heads of the triceps brachii a workout. The lateral head of the triceps is most visible from the side while the long head makes up the majority of the size and mass of the triceps. The medial head is only visible on the back of the arm near the elbow since the other two heads cover it, but it’s vital for stability.
Targeting each of the three heads of the triceps requires a slight difference in exercises. The long head of the triceps exerts more strength when the shoulder joint is at 0° and the medial and lateral heads kick in when the shoulder is opened above a 90-degree angle. The medial head puts more work in than the lateral head at higher angles.
When we speak about the angle of the shoulder, we’re talking about the angle created in your armpit. Raise both hands to the 12 o’clock position above your head and your shoulders are at 180 degrees.
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What Muscles Work With the Triceps?
Nearby muscles and muscle groups that commonly help the triceps include the biceps, pecs, the brachialis in your forearm, the latissimus dorsi in your armpits, and the trapezius muscles on the tops of your shoulders. Working out these muscles in tandem with the triceps will build more functional upper body strength compared to triceps isolation exercises alone.
Luckily, most triceps exercises already involve the activation of these muscles. There are also some great compound exercises that will give all these muscles a tough workout.
Helpful Hint: You can find some killer compound exercises in our Power Shred Fitplan!
Best Triceps Exercises For the Long Head Triceps
The long head of the triceps makes up most of the triceps brachii. Remember, the long head is doing the most work when your shoulder is at 0 degrees. You can build strength and mass in your triceps by targeting the long head with some of the following exercises.
1. Dumbbell Tricep Kickbacks
This move is deceptively simple. You can get even more out of it if you have an incline bench you can lie down on. Studies show that triceps kickbacks are as effective as dips at building triceps strength.
How to Do Tricep Kickbacks:
If you’re trying this move with a bench, get into a one-arm curling position. If you’re using an incline bench, lie on your stomach and keep your arms out to the side.
You can also do this move with nothing but dumbbells. Stand with your feet together and a dumbbell in each hand. Keep your palms facing your body.
Hinge at the hips to lean your torso forward and bend your knees slightly. Bring your arms close to your body and keep them there. Swing your arms back and straighten them out just after they pass your body. Next, bend your elbows until they make a 90-degree angle.
Your forearms should be the only thing moving in this exercise. If you move your shoulders you’ll have bicep and delt activation, which will rob your triceps of their workout.
2. Weighted Dips
You’ll need two parallel bars to do this move. If you don’t have time to get to the gym, you can do bench dips with a chair or couch. To make the move more challenging, add resistance bands or invest in a weighted dip belt.
Weighted dips also help build strength for moves like bench presses and give your shoulders, back, and pecs a workout as well.
How to Do Weighted Dips:
Place a hand on each bar and then straighten your elbows so that your body weight is supported. Lift your feet off the ground. Very slowly lower yourself. The elbows should bend out to the side and your torso will likely move forward a bit.
Once you feel your pecs start to strain, you can lift yourself back to the starting position. Strategic isometric pauses can make weighted dips even more challenging.
Pushdowns require a resistance band or a cable machine. Since they’re so easy to do, bodybuilders commonly use pushdowns to fill intervals in their HIIT workouts or supersets.
How to Do Triceps Pushdowns:
Take either end of the resistance band or the handles of a cable machine in each hand. Make sure to use an overhand grip, which is when your palms are facing the ground. Using an underhand grip turns the move into a pulldown, which will work all three heads of the tricep. The overhand grip targets the long head of the tricep specifically.
Your feet should be close together but not touching. Tuck your elbows at your sides, brace your abs, and push down on the bar or resistance band. Once your arms are fully extended, you can move back to the starting position. An isometric pause at the top of the move will help increase hypertrophy.
Helpful Hint: You can also build your triceps with the exercises in our Kettlebell Power Fitplan!
Best Triceps Exercises For the Medial and Lateral Head Triceps
It’s fairly difficult to isolate either the medial or lateral head of the triceps, but these exercises are great for working both. There’s even some degree of activation of the long head of the triceps involved.
4. Close-Grip Bench Press
Bringing your hands closer together for a bench press causes lower biceps activation and increases the strain on your triceps. It’s best done on a flat bench for maximum triceps targeting. Make sure you have a friend or personal trainer to spot you on this move, especially if you’re using really heavy weights.
How to Do Close-Grip Bench Presses:
The best part of this move is its simplicity. If you know how to bench press already, then all you need to do is make a change to your grip. Lie down underneath the barbell once you have the appropriate amount of weight on. Put your hands on the bar directly above your shoulders.
Lift the bar out of the rack and bring it above your chest, taking care to stack your wrists beforehand to prevent injury. Lower the bar to your chest and then slowly back up again. Keep your elbows tucked in against your body for the best triceps targeting.
5. Diamond Push-Ups
Just like the close-grip bench press, diamond push-ups rely on a very simple variation of a classic exercise to really work out the triceps. They’re particularly good at targeting the lateral head of the triceps.
How to Do Diamond Push-Ups:
Get on the ground in a push-up position with your toes supporting your lower body weight, your arms shoulder-width apart, and your palms on the ground supporting your upper body. With your fingers completely outstretched, touch your index and thumb together to make a diamond.
Make sure your back stays straight throughout this exercise. Bend your elbows until your chest almost touches the ground and then lift back up into the starting position to complete one rep. If you want to make this exercise even more challenging, you can also use a resistance band or hold additional weight on your back.
The fierce name should give you some idea about how effective skullcrushers are. Use an EZ bar to get the most triceps activation out of your skullcrushers.
How to Do Skullcrushers:
Lie down on a flat bench and take a barbell or EZ bar in your hands with your grip about shoulder-width apart. You want to use an overhand grip for this exercise. Tuck your elbows into your sides and lift the bar above your head kind of like you’re doing a bench press.
Lower your hands do that the EZ bar or barbell goes back toward your head. When your elbows are at 90-degree angles you can reverse the movement back to the starting position. Take it slow with this exercise and add an isometric pause and you’ll really start to feel the burn.
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Best Triceps Exercises for All Three Heads
An effective superset or HIIT triceps workout routine will mix targeted triceps exercises with some that target all three heads. You can exhaust the head you’re trying to target with the exercises we already mentioned and then move on to one of the following exercises to reach full triceps exhaustion and increase hypertrophy.
7. Overhead Triceps Extensions
Grab a pair of dumbbells or a similar weight that you can hold in each hand. You can also take one heavy weight in both hands if you prefer.
How to Do Overhead Triceps Extensions:
Put your feet shoulder-width apart and grab the weight of your choice. Put the bar behind your head with your elbows bent at a 90-degree angle. Slowly lift the weight above your head until your arms are completely straight and then lower it back to the starting position.
The eccentric and concentric phases of this exercise put different strain on the triceps. If you want an even better triceps workout, add a resistance band to the weight so that your muscle is under pressure throughout the entire movement.
8. Triceps Pulldowns
Get some great activation of all three heads with the pulldown, which is basically a pushdown with an underhand grip. Alternate both exercises throughout your routine for a well-rounded triceps muscle.
How to Do Triceps Pulldowns:
Head for the cable machine and grab a handle in each hand. Make sure you have an underhand grip with your palms facing up. Open up your elbow by pushing the handles down.
Pause when you’re at the lowest point and your arms are more or less straight. Use an isometric pause to build up the burn and then return to the starting position to complete one rep.
9. Dumbbell Floor Press
Throw this move in with some of the other bodyweight exercises we’ve already mentioned and you’ll have a varied and effective triceps workout routine. You can use kettlebells or free weights if you prefer.
How to Do Dumbell Floor Presses:
Lie down on your back and take a dumbbell in each hand. Use an overhand grip with your palms facing away from you. Hold both weights above you with your arms completely straight.
Lower the weights until your elbows are at a 90-degree angle and touching the ground. Then you can lift them back up. This exercise mimics the classic bench press but it puts more emphasis on the lockout.
How to Build a Killer Triceps Workout
Now that you know the best triceps exercises, you might be wondering how you can put them together to build muscle mass and functional strength in your triceps brachii.
HIIT is one way to organize your triceps workout. Pick three or so of the exercises in thie guide and move through them rapidly with very short break intervals. You can also fill the break intervals with simple bodyweight exercises to keep your body working.
Try this sample routine if you want to build huge triceps:
- Close-Grip Bench Press – 5 – 6 Reps, 4 sets
- Overhead Triceps Extensions – 10 – 15 reps, 3 – 4 sets
- Pushdowns – 10 – 15 reps, 3 – 4 sets
- Diamond Push-Ups – 10 reps, sets until failure
You can change out these exercises with other similar ones mentioned in this guide. Between 6 and 8 sets in a week should be fine for amateurs and hobbyist gym rats. Bodybuilding pros will probably need twice that amount to see significant results.
Safety & Lifting for Bigger Triceps
Arm day is many people’s favorite day at the gym. But too often, shoulders and elbows that haven’t been warmed up, primed, or strengthened beforehand suffer injuries from being overtrained. Make sure you take the time to build strength in your shoulders especially.
When you really get working at the gym, energy levels spike and it’s easy to go too fast. This is doubly true if you aren’t lifting particularly heavy weight. Knowing how much weight you can really handle is imperative to avoiding injury and getting as much muscle growth as possible.
Just as you should do with pretty much any muscle group, make sure you use a reasonable amount of weight. Remember that the gym session isn’t a sprint. If you do underestimate how much weight you can handle, it’s easy to solve the problem by adding in an additional set or two.
If you’re struggling to get through your arm day at the gym, you might be lacking the macronutrients your body needs for energy. In a cutting phase, many lifters jump into no- or low-carb diets and wind up starving their bodies of its main energy source. Carbohydrates are converted into glucose, which is stored in muscles and dispersed when those muscles are under serious strain.
There are tons of health benefits of weight lifting, including improved mood and diabetes prevention. But you have to make sure you’re taking in enough nutrients to power your way through if you really want the best triceps workout possible.
Helpful Hint: The best weightlifting exercises are included in our second Titan Challenge Fitplan!
The triceps are critical for arm mass and functional strength. Basically, any elbow flexion will cause triceps activation. For well-balanced triceps function, you have to exercise all three heads of the triceps muscle.
Ignoring the triceps in favor of more visible muscles like the pecs or biceps will only reduce your total upper body strength. It could also lead to injury. Use the exercises and the sample triceps workout routine in this guide to get the biggest, strongest triceps possible.
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