Bigger arms are the goal for many when they first engage in a weight training program. But it is the triceps muscle, and not the biceps, that are the key to increasing the number on the tape measure when sizing your your arms.
The triceps make up nearly 2/3rds of your arm size and are responsible for elbow extension. So every ‘pushing’ motion requires action by the triceps muscle, as opposed to pulling motions that recruit the biceps.
The triceps are made up of three muscles:
- The long head begins at the back of the scapula close to the glenoid fossa (the socket where the humerous is fitted into, the humerous is the large bone that makes up your upper arm).
- The medial head of your triceps begins at the back of the humerous.
- The lateral head originates on the dorsal surface of the humerous.
They all insert around the area that can be called the back of your elbow (the olecrannon process of the ulna to be more exact). The long head is the largest portion of your triceps while the lateral head is the smallest, and the medial portion is partially covered by the long and lateral heads.
Knowing the locations of the three parts of the triceps muscle is important in terms of selecting the appropriate exercises for training them. For instance, the medial head of the triceps is best activated by movements that work the inside of your triceps or by causing fatigue to the long head previous to the current exercise.
The other important bit of information to know is the muscle fiber makeup of each portion of the triceps. The lateral head contains a large portion of type IIb muscle fibers, which points to it having very low muscular endurance and a good propensity for hypertrophy and higher velocity lifting movements. The long head of the triceps has a more balanced muscle fiber make up and the medial head is predominantly type I muscle fibers showing that it has the least potential for hypertrophy and may respond to slower movements (1).
Before we get into exercise order and the best routines, let’s first go over some of the most effective movements and the proper form for each one.
Advanced Triceps Pushdown - The standard way to perform the triceps pushdown is to keep you back straight, chest up, while bringing the pushdown bar to 90 degrees and pushing it back down. This will mostly work the long head of the triceps. The advanced way of doing this movement for our purposes is to use a straight bar (I usually prefer using the lat pull down machine), lean over slightly and push down with your elbows pointed away from your body slightly.
Keep your body behind the bar so that the bar is out in front of you and your shoulders are directly over the bar. This movement will work mainly the lateral heads of your triceps and should be done towards the end of your routine when the long head has been taxed. You may have seen this movement before if you’ve seen Jay Cutler performing triceps pushdowns.
Inverted Tricep Pushdown - The inverted tricep pushdown is a favorite of Charles Glass for putting tension on the lateral head of the triceps as well. You will use the seated cable row grip as pictured in this video.
With your palms facing down, and your elbows pointed out, grip the handle with the knuckles on both your hands facing each other. Your hands will be positioned almost as if you are doing a diamond push up. You will use the same form as the traditional triceps pushdown as described in the Advanced Triceps Pushdown paragraph above.
Advanced Skull Crushers and Overhead Extensions - For these movements the eccentric phase will be the focal point. They are both responsible for working the long head of the triceps, and if properly executed; they will work the medial head as well. For these movements you can allow both your elbows to point outward, but only slightly.
Focus on allowing the weight to be lowered gradually and in a controlled fashion (especially since the dumbbell single and EZ curl bar overhead extensions will put pressure on your shoulder) to take advantage of the IGF-1 increasing (insulin like growth factor one has been show to have a direct link with muscle growth and protein synthesis whereas the acute testosterone and growth hormone response to exercise has not) and mysostatin decreasing (myostatin is responsible for limiting muscle growth) effects of the eccentric phase during exercise (2). An advanced version of the skull crushers to further take advantage of the eccentric phase would be to do them on a decline bench. The advantage behind this is that gravity will put tension on your muscle throughout the entire range of motion.
Ultimate Triceps Routine
As with any exercise routine, the workouts you want to get done first are those that are free weight or the heaviest movements. So your inside grip bench or weighted dips will go first. Second will be your workouts that target the medial head of the triceps since the long head has been taxed by your previous heavier movements. You will use slow eccentric movements that not only effectively target the slow twitch medial head of the triceps, but they will also induce the enzyme changes necessary for growth (IGF-1).
While pre-exhaustion is no longer recommended for hypertrophy training, you must view each head of your triceps as a separate entity since they all originate in different origins around the shoulder joint. These movements will include the decline skull crushers movement and the overhead extensions (single arm dumbbell or EZ curl bar with both arms).
Your final movement will be one that utilizes cables and targets the smallest of the 3 triceps, the lateral head. It is important to tax the long and medial heads first because they will take over in extension movements used to target the lateral head if they are not fatigued. The advanced triceps pushdown and inverted triceps pushdown will be most effective at this point in the routine. Let’s take a look at an example of the two sample routines:
Ultimate Triceps Routine 1
- Inside Grip Bench (12, 10, 8, 6)
- Decline Skull Crushers (4 X 10)
- Advanced Triceps Pushdowns (4 X 12)
Ultimate Triceps Routine 2
- Weighted Dips (10, 8, 6, 6)
- Overhead EZ Curl Bar Extensions (4 X 8)
- Inverted Triceps Pushdowns (4 X 12)
To maximize growth in your triceps however, you will have to go through a period where the volume of training is increased followed by an active resting period where the volume is significantly decreased which will allow time for the muscles to recover and grow. The rotation will be discussed later on, but first lets take a look at the active rest/variation routine for your triceps.
Ultimate Triceps Variation Routine
- Flat Bench Medicine Ball throws/Inside grip Smith Machine Ballistic bench (5 X 8)
May require a partner for safety, from a flat bench, take a heavy medicine ball and throw it at high velocity. Ideally a partner will catch it while standing on the spotters’ side of the bench. The more conventional method of performing this exercise is to use the smith machine with a weight that is 60% of your max and to push it with enough velocity that it leaves your hands; however it should be light enough that you can catch it on the way down. Your grip should be just inside shoulder width. These exercises are not meant to promote failure; it is meant to stimulate the nervous system to increase velocity during extension and to train the type IIb muscle fibers in the lateral heads of your triceps.
Use this exercise to assess the balance in strength between your left and right triceps. A slight imbalance is acceptable as it is a natural occurrence, but anything more than a 1-2 rep difference in strength between either of your arms may warrant correction. Throw this exercise into your regular routine until the problem is corrected and focus on your weaker side during the rest of the exercises.
During your training rotation keep a log of your arm size (before training), and lifting numbers as you progress. Also be sure to have your biceps training at the same volume and frequency as well. During week 5 you will begin to increase your training volume by performing both exercises in the same week (essentially training triceps twice a week). Perform the routine over a 4 month cycle. It should look like this:
- Ultimate Triceps Routine #1: weeks 1 & 2
- Ultimate Triceps Routine #2: weeks 3 & 4
- Ultimate Triceps Routine #1 & 2: week 5 & 6
- Ultimate Triceps Variation Routine: week 7 & 8
- Weeks 9-16 repeat
Despite the biceps getting all the attention and press it is your triceps muscle that stretches the openings on your shirt and gets the tape to move when measuring your arms. This routine is based on the principles of overload, time under tension, and active rest/muscle confusion which are the most reliable principles to follow to provide for growth. It can also be applied to other lagging muscle groups as well. What is also important is the variations applied to the exercises based on muscle fiber makeup and origin, this is important to know about each muscle group you train for the purposes of training safety and targeting the key areas for growth.
Dustin Elliott is the Head Formulator for Betancourt Nutrition.
- Lucas-Osma AM, Collazos-Castro JE. Compartmentalization in the triceps brachii motoneuron nucleus and its relation to muscle architecture. J Comp Neurol. 2009 Sep 20;516(3):226-39
- K. M. Heinemeier, J. L. Olesen, P. Schjerling, F. Haddad, H. Langberg, K. M. Baldwin, and M. Kjaer. Short-term strength training and the expression of myostatin and IGF-I isoforms in rat muscle and tendon: differential effects of specific contraction types. J Appl Physiol 102: 573-581, 2007