Back-arms. The horseshoe. The three-headed monster.
While the biceps may come to mind when the average Joe thinks of arm muscles, any true iron head knows that the triceps is the king of the arms.
The three intertwined muscles of the triceps compose roughly two-thirds of the upper arm, so as the saying goes, big tris equals big guns. Every type of pressing movement, from bench press to military press to dips, is dependent on the triceps to lock the weight out at the top.
Related: 5 Most Effective Triceps Exercises
Despite its obvious role in both size and strength, many weightlifters lack a clear understanding of how to train the triceps for both and still remain injury free. Today I am going to share with you my three favorite tricep exercises to build power and increase your strength on the bench press.
Just knowing these exercises is not enough…anyone can google “tricep exercises” to learn different variations - I’m also going to lay out a strategy for incorporating them into your workouts to maximize their benefits.
First, let's learn about the muscle itself. The main function of the triceps is to extend the elbow joint and thereby straighten the lower arm. It works as an antagonist to the biceps - while one is contracting concentrically, the other is lengthening eccentrically.
There are three heads of the triceps - the long head which originates under the scapula and is often referred to as the “inner tricep”, the lateral head which essentially comprises the “outer” part of the arm, and the medial head which is covered by the other two except at the very bottom where it is seen above the elbow on the inside of the arm.
Most tricep exercises involve either single joint (think machine push downs, dumbbell kick backs, etc.) or compound movements (dips, close grip bench, etc.) that extend the elbow.
What I have found over the years is that the best way to sculpt the triceps into that desired horseshoe shape is by doing high volume supersets of single joint extension movements. On the flip side, the clear path to big, powerful arms and a big bench seems to be like any other muscle - low reps with heavy weight on big compound movements.
What is the best way to juggle these two training philosophies and get the best of both worlds without compromising the delicate ligaments, tendons and bursae of the elbow?
The key is to incorporate both styles of training, utilizing the following compound movements, but rotating them weekly so that only one is used as the primary power movement and the others are used for accessory work along with single joint movements in high volume supersets. Here are the three power variations:
1. Weighted Dips
Use a squat belt to hang plates, a dumbbell, or kettlebells from your waist. Unlike bodyweight dips, I have found it is more effective and safer to use a slightly limited range of motion to protect your shoulders and elbows. Only go down to 90 degrees and when extending at the top, stop just short of completely locking out your elbows.
You want your body to be just as high as if your elbows were locked out but keep the pressure on the triceps itself without transferring your weight onto the elbow joint. Don’t use this as an excuse to do 1/2 reps and say “well Coach Myers said not to go all the way up or down”, I’m talking a matter of a few centimeters at the top. Trust me, your elbows will thank you. Also, keep your elbows close to your sides and don’t let them flair out as you press back up.
2. Floor Press
This is a bench press variation that is done while lying on the floor. Since your elbows will hit the ground at the half way point, you will only do the top half of the press which is where the triceps are required to lock out the weight. It is important to let the bar follow the same pathway as if you were doing a full press - do not flair out your elbows and bring the weight straight down, as that will strain the rotator cuff.
Once you get comfortable with the form, the goal is to work with a weight heavier than what you can do on a standard bench press. The idea is that by over loading the top half of the movement, you will eliminate the dreaded sticking point where most benchers fail on a heavy max.
Powerlifters use this method by benching with boards on their chest, but since most gyms are not like mine (Old School Gym is West Side Barbell Certified and has all necessary implements for powerlifting), the floor press is a great option that can be done anywhere with a power rack.
3. Dumbbell Skull Crushers
I'm sure you are thinking “but I thought this list was for compound power movements? Isn’t the skull crusher a single joint isolation movement?” The answer is yes, but only when the movement is done in the classic “E-Z curl bar to the forehead” style.
I prefer to use dumbbells, held in a neutral (palms facing in) grip, to keep the strain off of the elbow joint. Also, by working with heavy weight and allowing a greater range of motion (allow your arms to drift back and then fold towards your rips as you press up), the skull crusher becomes a compound movement by incorporating your lats, delts and serratus.
Although I typically perform these on a bench to allow a good tricep stretch at the bottom, another variation shown to me by CT Fletcher involves doing them while lying on the floor. The floor will limit the range of motion with the dumbbells, but this variation will allow you to lock out some seriously heavy weight.
The Triceps Trifecta Workout
Now that you are familiar with these three movements, here is a schedule to follow that implements them along with high volume supersets. Whether you train the triceps once or twice per week, alternate and cycle thru these workouts so that each power movement is the focus exercise every third tricep session.
I typically train triceps immediately after my chest workout so they are nice and warm. If you prefer to train yours on a different day then make sure your elbows are warmed up by doing adequate stretching and push ups to get the blood flowing.
|1. Weighted Dips
|1x10, 1x10, 2x5, 1x3, AMRAP (bodyweight)*
|2a. Floor Press (dumbbells)
|2b. Dumbbell Skullcrusher
|2c. Tricep Press Down
*The first set of 10 is bodyweight. The goal is then to move up in weight each set
|1. Floor Press
|2x5, 2x3, 2x1
|2a. Dumbbell Skull Crushers
|2b. Kick Backs
At the end of the fourth round of the triset, add a set of 50 Bench Dips
|1. Dumbbell Skull Crusher
|10,5, 5, 5, 3, 3
|2a. Floor Press
|2b. Tricep Rope Press Downs
|3a. Weighted Dips
|3b. Overhead Dumbbell Tricep Extension
|3c. Kick Backs
**On the last round of the triset, use bodyweight only for max reps
Now you have the tools to get big powerful triceps and finally break through that plateau on the bench press. So what are you waiting for? Get to the gym and get after it!