When trying to fill out our shirt sleeves, we too often focus on the biceps.
This makes sense, to some extent. They are, after all, the muscles that first come to mind when someone flexes or tries to show off their training.
Being a “mirror muscle” at the front of the body, they’re easy to easy and can be impressive on their own. However, there’s a lot more when it comes to a pair of sleeve-busting guns.
It's the triceps on the back of your arms that actually provide the bulk of the size in your arms. All too often they’re ignored for the flashier biceps at the front, but if you’re looking for strong and good-looking arms, the triceps can’t be ignored.
The triceps brachii, or “tris” for short, actually consists of three different “heads” of muscle that come together just below your elbow. They consist of the lateral head, long head, and medial head.
Although each has its own specific task, the triceps as a whole are responsible for straightening the arm.
While dumbbells, kettlebells, resistance bands, EZ bars, and cables are often used for triceps exercises, there’s nothing quite like the classic barbell. Since the barbell requires both sides of your body to work together, you’ll be able to overload your muscles with significantly more weight. And what does a bigger overload mean?
Now that we know the basics of the triceps and how the barbell can help us develop them, it’s time to take a closer look at some of the best exercises one can do to gas out the tris. All of these can be performed with a barbell, but some offer dumbbell or machine variations that work equally as well (or better, depending on your goals).
We’ve included three honorable mentions at the end that also provide a terrific triceps workout without needing a barbell. Some of the barbell variations are very specialized or only offer small variations over other barbell triceps exercises. A good triceps workout routine should include some dumbbell, cable, or bodyweight work as well.
The overhead triceps extension is usually performed with dumbbells, but barbells allow you to use a heavier weight. The standing version is often also called the French press. This exercise hits all three heads of the tricep (but especially the long head which adds mass to your upper arm) and will challenge your muscles with more tension over a longer range of motion.
This movement also improves your ability to lock out loads over your head. Along with the barbell, you can do this exercise with dumbbells, kettlebells, bands, or cable machines.
Also called the lying triceps extension, this exercise is the same one as above except performed lying down on a flat bench. Although the difference is small, it does provide some mechanical differences that’ll hit your triceps in different ways.
Unlike with the overhead triceps extension, the skull crusher will bring your arms in front of your head. Some argue that this places an even greater emphasis on the long head of the tricep because your arms are in front of you. However, the overhead triceps extension will hit the long head even more. The lying triceps extension serves to better emphasize the lateral head.
The barbell overhead press is a compound exercise that hits much more than just your triceps. But rest assured, your triceps are going to feel plenty of engagement if you perform this movement correctly. In fact, the overhead press is one of the best exercises for the overall improvement of upper body strength, including the shoulders, upper chest, and triceps. You’ll also be developing your coordination and ability to balance a heavy load overhead.
We’re going to take a look at the conventional bench press as well, but the close-grip bench press deserves its own place on this list. By bringing your arms slightly closer together than in a conventional bench, a lot of the emphasis gets shifted away from the pecs and onto the triceps. This makes it one of the most useful and effective triceps exercises since the bar can be loaded so heavy.
The barbell bench press is one of the most popular lifts out there, and by far one of the best for developing your upper body. Along with your triceps, you should expect a lot of development in your shoulders, chest, arms, and forearms. However, the bench press will somewhat engage every major muscle group in the body if properly performed. The reason you might consider the regular bench press over the close-grip for triceps is that the regular bench will give you more stability, allowing for more weight to be used.
The floor press is essentially a bench press done on the floor. For added benefits, you can also use a close-grip with this one to better hammer the triceps. The biggest difference this makes is that you get less help from the lower body in pressing the weight upward, and there’s also a smaller range of motion.
This smaller ROM makes it better for those with shoulder issues or injuries, and it also places a greater focus on the triceps. Starting from a dead stop on the floor, your triceps are going to be kicked into overdrive to get the bar moving.
The JM press isn’t a very popular movement, and if you’ve seen it, you might not even recognize it as different from the classic bench press at first glance. The JM press is a blend between the close-grip bench press and the skull crusher. Taking these two terrific tricep builders and blending them into one allows for a lift that can be loaded heavier than a skull crusher, and has the same benefits as the close grip bench press.
Adding a simple piece of equipment into the bench press is also another great way to emphasize one muscle group over another. A simple block or board of wood is this piece of equipment. By placing a block of wood on their chest, lifters are able to restrict the range of motion used in the bench press, since the bar can only lower so far. Much like the floor press restricting the range of motion, the height of the bars can be changed to specifically target certain muscle groups.
In our case, it’s going to be the triceps. If you want to smoke your triceps even further, using the close-grip method is a good way to go. Since the range of movement is severely restricted, you can perform this with more weight. However, it’s best to have a spotter for this exercise. If you want to include it, just place 2 to 4 boards on your chest and perform a bench press like you normally would.
The triceps kickback is a relatively well-known dumbbell triceps lift, but using a barbell is rarely seen. The barbell variation is more old-school, and the range of motion is severely restricted because you’re meant to hold a barbell behind you instead of a couple of dumbbells.
There are also two versions of the barbell kickback. The standing variation involves much more elbow movement, which develops the long head o the tricep. The bent-over variation involves both shoulder and elbow extension, providing a more well-rounded triceps movement.
Here is how you perform the bent-over version of the barbell kickback:
Another triceps extension to round off our list of the best barbell workouts, the barbell triceps extension is exactly what it sounds like. A great way to isolate the triceps, this extension variation adds a slight incline to the upright position in the conventional lift. By adding this incline to the lift, the range of motion is effectively increased. This greater range of motion allows for a better stretch during the bottom of the lift.
While the barbell is a useful piece of gym equipment for high-intensity lifts, the triceps can also be successfully developed with other pieces of equipment—or no equipment at all. Here are three of some of the best tricep workouts that don’t necessitate a barbell.
In a pinch and without a gym at your disposal, simple push-ups can help to develop your triceps. The trick is to perform them with the close grip bench press in mind. By bringing your hands close together in a diamond shape, where your fingers are touching, a lot of the emphasis is taken away from the chest and placed on the triceps instead. As always with push-ups, remember to complete reps with a full range of motion and with a completely straightened back.
One of the best tricep isolation exercises, triceps pushdowns are often performed using the cable machine. This movement is especially good at targeting the long head of the tricep, which will give you the biggest bang for your buck in terms of arm muscle mass.
The cables also add constant tension into the exercise, making each part of the movement equally difficult instead of having major “sticking points.” You’ll better develop muscle fibers that might not be hit with other, non-cable lifts.
Another bodyweight movement, to perform dips all you need is a set of parallel bars. They’re also fantastic for developing your core, back, and chest muscles, making them a versatile and useful exercise to include in your training program.
The triceps make up around 60% of the muscle mass in your arms, and so if you’re looking for a pair of sleeve-busting pythons, you’re going to need to give the triceps the love and attention they deserve. Doing heavy barbell lifts is necessary for having powerful arms that are as strong as they are functional and good-looking.
Add in enough high-quality protein, and you’ll be upsizing your shirts in no time.