Want Big Arms? Focus On Triceps

If you want big arms it's time to give your triceps some love. In this feature bodybuilder Brad Borland presents 3 tricep workouts for each stage of training.

Brad Borland is a strength & conditioning specialist, cancer survivor and the founder of WorkoutLab.

I would predict your answer to the title of this article is a resounding yes. Not just yes but YES! Let me guess how your quest for bigger arms has played out in the past: Heavy barbell curls, dumbbell curls, concentration curls and some version of a super-cool looking cable biceps flex curl thingy. Am I pretty accurate?

Forget biceps for a minute or two and look at the real culprit: triceps. Compared to biceps, triceps get less attention and love since you can’t really see them in the mirror when you take your tenth selfie of the day. Out of sight and out of mind.

It is no surprise that those three muscles that make up the back of your arm are the real indicators of the majority of your arm size. Look at some of the best arms of bodybuilding and you will see giant, sweeping, meaty triceps supporting peaked biceps. Well-developed triceps should dwarf your biceps. It makes sense – triceps have three heads compared to biceps with only two.

Let’s have a “do-over” and cut back on your biceps training a bit and focus on building some big triceps for a while. But I will warn you; this won’t be the run-of-the-mill routine with the usual suspects – nosebreakers, pressdowns and the all too popular one-arm reverse-grip cable extensions. It will force you out of your comfort zone and into new prospects of growth. Are you up for it?

Throw out the same-ole, same-ole

So, you’ve decided you want bigger triceps. It should be simple, right? Just perform more sets, lift heavier and apply the required intensity. Oh, wait, you tried that already? Didn’t work? You might decide to add in a plentiful amount of cable work isolating your triceps with high reps and squeezing them to grow larger. Still not working?

I hope you are familiar with the definition of insanity: doing the same things over and over expecting different results. Take a moment and look at your training with an unbiased eye. Does it look somewhat like your training from a month, year or several years ago?

If you haven’t seen a result in a while, I believe it’s time for you to wipe the slate clean. Forgive yourself for not making gains and look forward to a new approach to training and specifically triceps.

Triceps extensions

Keeping with the simple is better mantra, focusing on fewer (not more) angles and exercises will help you hone in on where you are deficient.

A new perspective

A routine full of lying extension, cable pressdowns and other isolation work is pretty standard fair but since you keep hitting roadblocks a new perspective is in order.

Your old way of thinking may look something like this:

  • Training triceps once per week
  • Trained on an arm day with biceps
  • Four or more angles worked
  • Numerous isolation moves
  • High intensity full of heavy weight

Let’s shift your thinking and make a new list:

  • Training triceps two and sometimes three times per week: Let’s do some simple math for a minute. If you are training triceps once per week you potentially have 52 chances to grow per year. With training triceps twice per week now you have 104 opportunities per year to pack on mass to your upper arms. Which would you choose?
  • Trained with other upper body parts: It is a fact that the simpler the training program the better your body will react to that program. With that being said, intricate, complicated routines will do little for gains and a lot to fuel frustration. Full-body or upper/lower splits are better for adding good-ole fashion raw muscle. Furthermore, when numerous muscles are trained in a single session you will benefit from a better hormonal response, namely testosterone and growth hormone.
  • More focus on fewer moves: Keeping with the simple is better mantra, focusing on fewer (not more) angles and exercises will help you hone in on where you are deficient and what you need to improve on. The goal is to get good at a few things not mediocre at many.
  • Include several multi-joint exercises and bodyweight moves: With fewer moves on order now the goal will be to eliminate most of the isolation stuff and call on the big boys. Close-grip bench presses, parallel bar dips and close-handed push-ups are just a few moves that should be on your list of heavy-hitters. Big, multi-joint movements allow you to lift heavier weights and protect your elbows.
  • Train with higher reps and challenge your endurance: You may have done low reps to death by now so let’s shift gears and crank up your numbers. It’s time to challenge yourself in new ways. Instead of shooting for the tried and true 8 to 12 reps range, try aiming for a total amount of reps for a chosen exercise. For example: For parallel bar dips shoot for a 50 rep total. No matter how many sets it takes you make sure you reach the 50 rep goal.

The advantage of bodyweight

Having doubts about bodyweight stuff? Don’t want to abandon your old routines you feel comfortable with? Take a good look at male gymnasts. Before you click away from reading this bear with me for a moment. Male gymnast’s have some of the most impressive triceps in any sport (including bodybuilding). Here’s the kicker: they don’t lift weights and they surely don’t perform your old triceps routine. They perform countless reps on the pummel horse, rings and uneven bars. Not only do their reps reach the hundreds, they also perform these torturous practice sessions every single day. How is that for frequency?

Another sneaky little advantage of both multi-joint weighted moves and bodyweight training is that they have a huge potential to prevent injury to your elbows that may or may not be a bit tender from all of the isolation work over the years.

Skullcrushers

You may have done low reps to death by now so let’s shift gears and crank up your numbers. It’s time to challenge yourself in new ways.

Your triceps arsenal

Let’s finally get down to business and put together a plan of action with the points listed above in mind. Below are a few exercise and techniques to include in your brand-new triceps growth routine.

Parallel bar dips: Nothing will pack on the mass like parallel bar dips. Whether performed with high reps with bodyweight or with a weighted belt, dips are the ultimate triceps mass builder. Be sure to keep an upright position with your feet directly underneath you and your elbows by your side. Lower until your elbows are at least at a 90 degree angle and press up squeezing your triceps hard.

Close-handed push-ups: Some may see the push-up as an exercise more for muscular endurance than a real muscle builder. A few minor tweaks can make all the difference and turn you into a real believer. With a close hand position (some call these diamond push-ups) and your feet on a bench you now have one intense exercise. Lower down slowly toward the ground until your chest almost touches your hands. Push up and flex your triceps while pausing for a moment to really feel the contraction.

Close-grip bench presses: This exercise may already be a part of your current routine but let’s put a slight twist on it to make it a bit more effective. Normally performed on a flat bench close grip bench presses done on a decline bench will put your triceps in a stronger position so they can take the brunt of the weight while giving your shoulders a much-needed break. Just be sure to follow correct form and technique – elbows by your sides, hands spaced about shoulder-width apart and a full range of motion.

TRX triceps presses: A TRX trainer not only allows you to add some effective moves but also breathes a little life into the stale stuff you might be used to. TRX triceps presses will put a smack-down on your triceps like you’ve never felt before. Grab the handles and lower your body face down toward the floor with your feet firmly on the ground. With your arms over your head and your body forming a straight line, bend at your elbows slightly behind your head for a wicked stretch. Press back out and extend your arms for a contraction. Be sure to keep your abs tight and your body straight throughout the movement.

Triceps ladders: Similar in form to TRX triceps presses, ladders put an intense spin on a simple bodyweight exercise. Set a Smith machine at approximately knee level and take an overhand, shoulder-width grip on the bar while stepping back a few feet from the bar. As if you were performing a nosebreaker, lower your body in a straight line to the bar toward your forehead. Press back up and complete reps to muscular failure. Once that set is complete, raise the bar one level and repeat the sequence. Keep raising the bar one level at a time until you reach around chest level. Each time you raise the bar you are making the exercise easier so you will be able to continue hammering those triceps!

Your new triceps programs

Below are three separate triceps programs to try on for size (pun intended). Be sure to thoroughly warm-up your elbow and shoulder joints with several sets of traditional push-ups and/or dips. Also, be very aware of rest periods and pace of supersets. Each routine won’t take very long but will definitely pack on some new muscle in little time.

Beginner Program
Triceps
Exercise Warm Up Sets Work Sets Rest
Close-grip decline bench press 2 x 10 4 x 6-12 45
Parallel bar dip   4-5 x as many as possible 30
Intermediate Program
Triceps
Exercise Warm Up Sets Work Sets Rest
Superset: TRX triceps press and close-handed push-up 1 x 10 4 x as many as possible 45 after each superset
Close-grip decline bench press   4-5 x 8-12 45
Advanced Program
Triceps
Exercise Warm Up Sets Work Sets Rest
TRX triceps press 1 x 10 4 x as many as possible 45
Superset: Parallel bar dip and feet-elevated close-handed push-up   Shoot for a total of 50 reps for each exercise 60 after each superset
Optional: Smith machine triceps ladder   1 complete ladder