December 05, 2021 10 min read

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.

Triceps brachii muscle labeled.

The Barbell and the Triceps Muscle

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?

More muscles.

The Top Ten Best Tricep Exercises

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.

1. Overhead Triceps Extension

 

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.

  1. Grasp a barbell with an overhand grip, your hands narrower than shoulder-width apart. With your knees slightly bent and your back kept straight, lift the bar right above your head.
  2. Keeping your upper arms perfectly still, bend at the elbow and lower the bar behind your head. Continue downward until your hands are about level with your neck.
  3. Engage the triceps and reverse the movement, returning to the starting position.

2. Skull Crushers

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.

  1. Lying back down on a flat bench, raise a barbell up above your face, elbows locked out. Your hands should be shoulder-width apart and you should have an overhand grip. Your wrists should be directly about your shoulders.
  2. Initiate the movement by slowly bringing down the barbell to your forehead, ensuring that your elbows stay tucked in rather than flared out. As the barbell reaches your forehead, lower your shoulders so the bar comes behind your head.
  3. Hold at the bottom position for a count before engaging your triceps and reversing the movement to come back up to the starting position.

3. Overhead Press

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.

  1. With an overhand grip, grasp a barbell at shoulder-width distance. Unrack the bar and keep the bar stable by stacking your wrists directly over your elbows, with the elbows tucked in to your sides. Maintain a slightly wider than shoulder-width distance with your feet.
  2. Position the bar so that it’s over the midfoot and your head is slightly behind it, engage your core and glutes. Push the bar straight overhead until your elbows lock out.
  3. Reverse the movement to return to the starting position.

4. Close-Grip Bench Press

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.

  1. Lying down on a flat bench with a barbell loaded up above you, grasp the bar with your hands at a shoulder-width distance or slightly narrower—don’t go too narrow, or else you’ll sacrifice a lot of stability.
  2. Bracing your core, squeeze your shoulder blades back for some added stability. Unrack the bar and lower it down to your chest. Your elbows should stay tucked into your torso rather than flaring out.
  3. The bar should lightly touch your chest. This is your cue to explosively drive the bar upward until you’ve reached the starting position again.

5. Bench Press

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.

  1. Lying back down on a flat bench, squeeze your shoulder blades back together. You can imagine trying to hold a pen between them. Make sure that your feet are solidly gripping the floor before arching your back while maintaining contact with the bench with your butt and shoulders.
  2. Like with the close-grip version, brace your core and unrack the bar and bring it down to your chest. Explosively drive it upward until just before your elbows lock out.

6. Floor Press

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.

  1. Adjust the supports on a power rack so that a bar resting on them would sit where your hands reach to. Lie down in the power rack on the floor and reach up to the loaded barbell.
  2. Grasp the bar with the grip width you plan on using. It can either be a conventional grip or a close-grip for some added tricep action.
  3. Unrack the bar and bring it down to your chest before pressing it back up.

7. JM Press

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.

  1. Once again, lie down on a flat bench and grasp the bar around shoulder-width apart. Unrack the bar and fully extend your arms up, ensuring that your elbows are tucked in close to your body.
  2. Slowly begin to lower the bar down, but instead of going down to your chest, you’re going to want to aim for somewhere between the upper chest and your chin. The throat is a good cue to aim for.
  3. Continue down until your biceps touch your upper arm. Then, explosively press the bar straight up. This is going to be different than in a conventional bench press, which drives the bar up in an arc.

8. Board 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. 

9. Triceps Kickback

 

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:

  1. Standing tall, hold a barbell behind you at shoulder-width. Your palms should be facing away from you. Pulling your shoulders back, lean forward until your torso is about parallel to the floor. Your back will round a bit, but try not to round your lower back.
  2. Your starting position will have your elbows bent at around 90-degrees. Initiate the movement by extending your arms and pushing the barbell out behind you. Pause at the top before slowly reversing the movement.

10. Incline Barbell Triceps Extension

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.

  1. With your chosen weights, position a bench at around 25 to 35 degrees. Lay down on the bench with your back flat against it.
  2. Explosively lift the barbell upward until you lock out your elbows. Pause at the top of the movement before slowly bending your elbows and allowing the bar to come down to your shoulders.
  3. Continue down until your forearms are about parallel to the floor. Continue back into the starting position.

Honorable (Non-Barbell) Mentions

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.

1. Diamond Push-Ups

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.

2. Triceps Pushdown

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.

  1. The cable should be set at just above the height of your head, with the rope handle attached.
  2. Grabbing each end of the handle with one of your hands, stand firmly in front of it and bring the rope down by straightening the elbows.
  3. Continue until your elbows are locked and arms are by your side.

3. Dips

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.

  1. Grasp both bars in either hand and tighten your core.
  2. Then, simply straighten your elbows to press yourself up until your elbows are completely locked out. Slowly reverse the movement—the slower you go, the more benefits you’ll reap.

Barbells for Big Tris

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.