The Best Muscle Building Tricep Exercises

If you want big arms - and who doesn’t - there’s a good chance that you’re putting most of your effort into working your biceps. Yet, it is the triceps muscle group that is the largest of the upper arm. Your triceps comprise about two-thirds of the mass of the fully developed arm.

So, if you want impressive upper arms, especially when they're hanging at your slides - which is what they do 90 percent of the time - you need to get serious about working your triceps.

The triceps is located at the back of the upper arm, opposite the biceps. The biceps and triceps muscles are antagonists to one another, so that when one relaxes the other contracts. Its function is to straighten the arm, so any exercise that straightens the arms against resistance will work the triceps.

There are three heads to the triceps muscle:

  • Medial
  • Lateral
  • Long

The outer, or lateral, head is the area directly below the side of the shoulder. When fully developed, this head gives the arm a thicker, more powerful look. This head originates on the scapula, just below the shoulder socket. The long and the medial head originate on the back of the humerus, or upper arm. All three heads of the triceps insert on the triceps tendon on the olecranon process of the ulna, which is the larger of the two forearm bones.

When fully developed, the triceps provide a horseshoe shape to the back of the upper arm.

Changing your hand position will do nothing to change the emphasis on the triceps. That is simply because the triceps muscle does not know what your hand position is (palms up or palms down) when it straightens your arm.

Here are the things that your triceps will know and that, therefore, affect the exercise …

  • The resistance curve
  • The range of motion
  • The effort needed
  • The amount of fatigue

The best exercises for the triceps will optimize each of these variables.

The best triceps exercise will provide early phase loading where it is harder at the start of the movement while also moving the triceps through their full range of motion. Think now of the cable triceps pushdown, which is the most popular triceps exercise done in gyms.

In the start position of the cable pushdown, the cable, indicating the direction of resistance, is essentially parallel to the forearms. As the forearm is the operating level on the triceps, it is in a neutral position when you start a standard triceps pushdown. As a result, there is no load on the triceps in the start position.

However, the triceps is strongest in the first third of the movement. This is when it should be most active with the cable. So, does that make the cable pushdown an inferior triceps exercise?

Yes and no. You can modify the exercise that dramatically increases its effectiveness by simply turning around so that you are facing away from the machine. This changes the direction of the cable resistance (it is now behind your head) so that it is more perpendicular to the forearm at the beginning of the exercise and less perpendicular at the end of the range of motion.

The reverse triceps pushdown works best with a cable machine that has dual pulleys that can be horizontally adjusted. If you do not have access to such a machine, you can perform the push down one arm at a time.

Here is how to perform this exercise …

  1. Position the pulleys on a dual pulley cable machine at their highest vertical position and then adjust horizontally so that they are in line with your shoulders.
  2. Stand about a foot in front of the machine facing away from it.
  3. Reach up to grab the cable handles and bring them down to the start position with your elbows in at your sides, and hands at mid-chest level. Your upper arms should be slightly angled rather than squarely in at your ribs.
  4. Press down and out slightly to fully extend the arms, strongly contracting the triceps in the bottom position.
  5. Reverse and repeat.

A plan you should try:

The decline dumbbell triceps extension is a modification of the lying dumbbell triceps extension. When you use a 40-degree decline bench on this exercise, your upper arm is closer to its natural position alongside the torso. This provides the ideal direction of movement and allows for better early phase loading of the triceps.

Here is how to perform this exercise …

  1. Lie on a 40-degree decline bench with a pair of dumbbells in your hands, resting on your chest.
  2. Bring your arms up to full extension above your upper chest. Keep your elbows in at your sides.
  3. Lower the dumbbells to the sides of your head until the elbows are fully bent. This is the start position of the exercise.
  4. Push up until your arms are fully extended.

The modifications of the two popular triceps exercises outlined above will arm you with the two best movements you can do to build your triceps. Do 4 sets of each exercise with reps pyramiding down from 30 to 10. Train your triceps every 4-5 days to hit the right balance between stimulation and recovery. Couple this workout with a quality biceps routine and you’ll be well on your way to building a pair of arms that stand out in a crowd.

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Steve Theunissen is a freelance writer living in Tauranga, New Zealand. He is a former gym owner and personal trainer and is the author of six hardcopy books and more than a hundred ebooks on the topics of bodybuilding, fitness and fat loss. Steve also writes history books with a focus on the history of warfare. He is married and has two daughters.

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