If you have ever missed a bench, the number one limiting factor that I’ve found is tricep strength.
I know others will argue about lat strength, shoulder strength and so on, but tricep strength – or the lack thereof – has always stood out to me as the biggest limiting factor, especially when it comes to my own success in the bench press.
Whether a lifter is raw or geared, locking out the bench press can be one of the biggest downfalls, which is where tricep strength comes into play.
Strong triceps equals a strong lockout and that means a strong bench press and new PRs.
The triceps are responsible for extension and need to be trained very hard to push up a new bench record.
I have trained with many lifters who benched 800 and 900 pounds and they have all told me the same thing: the triceps are the muscle that drives the bench press.
It’s been a weak link in my training previously, and something I’ve worked hard to change.
As my bench has moved from more than 500 pounds to my current goal of 600 pounds, training the triceps has become a major priority for myself.
I’ve used a variety of exercises and rep ranges, and found a number of them that have been helpful.
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Training the Triceps
In the first of a four-part series, here are four dumbbell exercises that we use frequently to build tricep strength and lockout. This first part is only dumbbell-oriented, while the next parts in my tricep series will focus on four barbell tricep movements, four band tricep movements and four bodyweight tricep exercises.
All of them are centered on improving your tricep strength in the bench press. With these four dumbbell movements, I have found that performing them has a direct correlation with my bench press.
When I’m utilizing and improving with each of them at some point during my competition prep, I can directly see it correlating into stronger bench press numbers. With that in mind, these four movements have become imperative in my training.
When it comes to these dumbbell movements, drive the elbows up high and perform the movement quickly. This will put more stress on the tricep and get them used to firing quickly. Practicing and eventually mastering that explosiveness will have a direct carryover to your bench press, so keep that in mind when performing these movements.
1. Elbows Out Extension
These maybe look a little different than your typical tricep extension, but this has been one of the most effective movements I’ve used to increase my tricep strength. When my bench press has made a big jump, I can quickly look back at my training log and see these were a big part of my training.
You can do these in the 10-15 rep range, but don’t be afraid to go as heavy as you can, even working in the 6-rep range on occasion.
Start on an incline bench with dumbbells up and bend at the elbows until the dumbbells touch your chest and fire them up. Focus on only using your triceps to drive the weight up, against focusing on moving the dumbbells as fast as possible.
These can really add mass to your triceps, a major key to pressing through a heavy weight at the top.
2. Tate Press
These were made famous by Dave Tate, a powerlifting standout and a great coach who has a knack for some pretty cool variations. This is one of my favorites when it comes to tricep training, in part because of the load it puts on the muscle and the explosiveness it teaches on the press portion of the lift.
Start with dumbbells upright on your chest and keep them together as you move up doing an extension. This will keep tension on triceps and pecs the entire time.
3. Bayles Extension
This is a variation of a dumbbell tricep extension I learned from Joe Bayles, a longtime standout lifter at Westside Barbell.
Joe has a PR bench of 700 pounds and has been instrumental teacher to me in all lifts, especially from a technical standpoint. This was a movement he relied on to build his triceps and another great variation to help with lockout strength.
To perform, start with the dumbbells up and begin to lower them down like you’re doing an incline dumbbell press. At about halfway down, roll the dumbbells toward the center of your chest, giving it a slight variation from the previous two extensions mentions.
From there, do an extension as fast as you can off the chest, trying to ensure that you’re only focusing on the tricep doing the work. Again, it’s just a minor variation, but having some variety can be extremely beneficial when it comes to hitting PRs.
This movement has been a hidden gem for me and once you’re able to master the movement of it – descending in an incline dumbbell press manner to start – you’ll get a great pump and, more importantly, stronger triceps. Start with 4 sets of 10, using lighter weight until you get the movement perfected.
4. Dumbbell Rollback
This is the final exercise, and remains one of my favorites and a staple during my meet prep. Don’t be afraid to go as heavy as you can here and also alter the reps so you’re including high reps as well.
Another great variation is doing eight sets of 8 reps with only 30 seconds of rest between sets. Your triceps will be on fire after that. You can even wrap a mini-band around your back and do these, putting an even bigger emphasis on lockout strength.
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This can be performed either lying on the ground or on an incline or flat bench. Start with the dumbbells up and bend at the elbow until they are flat next to your head. Relax for a split second and then drive them up quickly. Again, being as explosive as possible is the key here.
For an added twist, after you reach failure or your reps, do 10-15 presses (palms facing each other) to finish.
Get fast and strong at these four dumbbell movements and watch your bench press grow in the process!
Great article by someone that is an exceptional writer in the sport. Hopefully we'll see more articles from Nick!