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October 09, 2020 10 min read

Whether the suns out or not, the guns deserve to be out. Laying some new pipe on our arms is at the forefront of everyone’s mind, but we’re not talking about the ever-popular biceps.

When properly developed, the triceps brachii can make up 2/3 of your arm—a much bigger bang for your buck when it comes to filling out those shirt sleeves. And while the biceps usually get a lot more love, we’re here to remind you to give the proper attention to the real sleeve-fillers. Build muscle in these bad boys, and you’ll be turning heads in no time.

The Importance of Strong Triceps

While the aesthetic is usually more than enough for most people (and easy to talk about), there are several reasons why strengthening your triceps is good for more than just turning heads at the beach. 

For one, your other lifts will see measured improvement. Your triceps are involved in a lot of other compound strength training movements, especially those that involve pressing like the overhead press, snatch, and the bench press. If properly developed, triceps can also boost the development of the pecs and shoulders since these muscles often work in tandem with one another.

The tricep is also important when it comes to general and functional fitness. 

Strengthening the triceps can help in reducing the potential for joint pain and injuries, especially in the elbows. In regard to the elbows, triceps also help to control movement in this area when attempting to do fine motor tasks such as writing. Additionally, triceps are used to stabilize the shoulder when involved in adducting and rotating the arm.

It’s apparent that the triceps are useful in a wide variety of arm-centric actions, but their usage can be further broken down into the three heads that make them up.

A man doing diamond push ups in a gym.

What’s in a Tricep?

Much like the name suggests, there are three main “heads” of the tricep muscle. These are the long head, the lateral head, and the medial head.

While the biology behind the tricep can go pretty deep, the short version is that the long head is used for force generation, the lateral head is for actions that require high-intensity force, and the medial is for the more exact and precise actions. 

The long head of the triceps is most often targeted since it’s the largest and the most aesthetically obvious when developed. Any movement that has your arms overhead will target it, including things such as skullcrushers and overhead tricep extensions.

The lateral head is developed when performing movements that require your arms to be on the side while using an overhand grip. This includes exercises such as bench dips and straight bar pushdowns.

The medial head, similarly to the lateral, is best targeted when the arms are the side. However, an underhand grip will provide an even better focus on this particular part of the tricep. Tricep kickbacks are a terrific choice if you’re looking to develop the medial head. 

But of course, a robust tricep workout routine is going to tackle the mission of tricep development in a well-rounded way. While most movements will engage all three heads to some extent, it might be a good idea to give the long head some extra TLC since it’s the largest part of the tricep.

The Movements for Meaty Triceps

While there are terrific single-joint, isolation exercises that target the tricep (such as the tricep extension), you’ll most likely see the best growth in both strength and size when including a lot of compound movements in your workout program—those exercises that involve several major muscle groups and joints.

Not only does development happen faster when utilizing heavy compound movements, but you’ll also be strengthening your body overall.

Which isn’t to say that you don’t need to give your triceps some one-on-one love. While compound exercises such as the bench press will definitely leave your triceps pumped up, it’s also a good idea to include some tricep-targeting exercises to really get the most out of your arms.

So, without further ado, here are the 10 best triceps exercises.

1. Tricep Dips

Dips have been called the squats of the upper body, and we’d be hard-pressed to give a better introduction than that. 

Dips effectively hit the triceps first and foremost, but they’re also well equipped for activation of your chest, shoulders, and even the back. If the squat comparison didn’t tip you off, dips are one of the best exercises you can do for upper body strength and size—so having them on this list is really a no-brainer.

The thing to keep in mind with dips is that your body’s positioning really matters. While a chest-centric dip might have you dipping in between two parallel bars with a tilt forward, a dip targeting the triceps will have a significantly different technique.

If using the two parallel bars, make sure to keep your body as upright as possible throughout the entire motion. Engaging your core and glutes will help a ton, but you’re going to want to feel a lot of tension in your triceps.

Another good dip that puts primary attention on the triceps is the bench dip. This movement has you supporting yourself with your hands and arms on the edge of a chair or bench and then dipping down until your upper arms are parallel to the floor.

This latter variation of the dip puts a much higher level of tension on the triceps since your body is forced into that optimal, upright position. However, keep in mind that you won’t be supporting your full body weight any longer, since your feet will remain on the floor. 

2. Overhead Triceps Extension

A classic tricep exercise, the tricep extension is a must-have in any tricep-focused training routine. Not only does it effectively engage all three heads of the tricep, but it’ll also challenge your shoulder stability and your core when it comes down to full-body stability. A key part of the technique is to keep your abs engaged throughout the motion in order to keep your back from arching. 

Furthermore, by using dumbbells you get a unilateral workout as well. This can help mediate any left/right imbalances with your muscles.

1. Begin by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed slightly out. Grasp a pair of dumbbells directly overhead and have your palms face one another.

2. Slowly initiate the movement by lowering the dumbbells behind your head, keeping your upper arm in the same initial position.

3. Go down into the full range of motion, feeling your triceps stretch. Pause at the bottom of the movement, and then reverse the exercise back into the starting position.

4. Your arms should fully extend, but stop just before locking out your elbows.

3. Skullcrushers 

With a name like that, you know it’s gotta be effective. Also known as the much more benign lying triceps extension, this exercise has much of the same benefits as the overhead (standing) tricep extension. 

You can perform these with either dumbbells or an EZ bar works well also. The former will be good for your unilateral training, while the latter will allow you to move more weight.

One of the benefits of the lying tricep extension over the standing triceps extension is that they require less shoulder mobility, which is a plus for those that might have issues in this department. Furthermore, they’ll also engage the lateral head to a greater degree than the long head (when compared to the standing extension).

This last point can either be a drawback or benefit, depending on your goals. While size and strength belong in the domain of the long head, you definitely won’t backtrack your progress by giving the lateral head some attention.

1. Begin by lying down on a bench, a dumbbell in each hand (or an EZ bar). Hold them directly above you with your palms facing one another.

2. Keep your upper vertical throughout the motion as you slowly bend your elbows to lower the weight down above your head.

3. Reverse the movement after a pause, after reaching about a 90-degree angle with your elbows. Squeeze your triceps at the top of the movement.

4. Close Grip Bench Press 

The bench press—we love to see it. While primarily a tricep exercise, the close grip bench press (performed on a flat bench) will also engage your chest and shoulders to a high degree.

The benefit of using a bench variation to train triceps is that you’ll be able to move a much higher load than with other more tricep-focused movements, since you’ll have major muscles in your chest and shoulders to assist you. 

Furthermore, this can be a good option for those with limited shoulder mobility, especially when looking at the conventional bench press. This is because there’s less shoulder abduction with hands closer together than in the conventional form. You can use either a barbell or smith machine to perform this movement.

1. Getting into the correct position for a bench press, lie down flat on the bench. For a close grip bench press, your hands should be about shoulder-width apart; they can go slightly narrower than this, but don’t overdo it.

2. Press the bar upwards, and then inhale as you slowly bring it down to your chest. Keep your elbows close to your body.

3. Touch the bar against your chest and reverse the movement back into the starting position.

5. Incline Close Grip Bench Press

A variation of the prior exercise, adding an incline into the mix will further shine a spotlight on the triceps while also including the upper chest in the formula. 

It also provides a happy medium between strictly horizontal and vertical pressing. If you have trouble doing overhead pressing or want a specific incline, it’s as easy as just changing the incline of the bench. 

Furthermore, there’s also the fact that this exercise has a long range of motion—longer than both the overhead press and the bench press. This plays into the importance of time under tension; the longer the range of motion, the longer your muscles are under tension, and the greater gains they see in the long run. 

You can either do this exercise with a barbell, on a smith machine, or even with a pair of dumbbells if you’re looking to add more unilateral movements into your training regime.

1. Begin by lying flat on your back on an incline back, grasping the barbell at about shoulder-width apart. Bring your shoulder blades back to pinch them together, maintaining this throughout the entire exercise.

2. Press up to initiate the lift, locking the elbows at the top.

3. Inhale as you unlock your elbows and allow the bar to slowly come down in a straight line. It should come to the base of your sternum, lightly tapping this area.

4. Reverse the movement and push the bar back up in a straight line, returning to the starting position.

6. Diamond Push-Ups 

If you want triceps as hard as the namesake to this push-up variation, then look no further than this effective bodyweight exercise.

With the wide variety of push-ups out there, this is one of the most effective variations to develop the triceps with. In fact, it’s one of the best bodyweight exercises to include in your arsenal if you’re looking to train your triceps—so don’t sleep on this movement just because it doesn’t include heavy weights.

Furthermore, your balance and shoulder strength will also greatly improve by including these in your training routine—an effective way to work your way up to one-arm push-ups.

1. Begin by getting into a standard push-up position; core engaged, back flat, and hands underneath your shoulders with arms locked out.

2. Continue by bringing your hands together so you can form a triangle (or diamond) with your fingertips.

3. Initiate the movement by lowering yourself down with a full range of motion, and then reversing the motion.

7. Triceps Kickbacks

While this exercise can also be done with a dumbbell, using a cable (or resistance band) adds an element of constant tension while also being more difficult to cheat in terms of form due to the angle of resistance that comes into play.

It’s recommended to use an inclined bench in order to better target the triceps, setting it up in front of the weight stack. Your upper arm should constantly remain parallel to the ground through the kick-back. Also, ensure that your elbow doesn’t drop down since that’ll then engage other muscle groups and joints. Performing this movement properly will effectively gas out both your lateral and long heads of the tricep.

8. Barbell Overhead Press 

The barbell overhead press is more often thought of as a way to build your shoulders, but it’s also a great way to develop the triceps along the way—plus, no one’s going to say no to bigger shoulders anyway.

Along with the triceps and shoulders, doing this movement standing will also require your hamstrings, glutes, and quads to be braced along with your core. A dumbbell overhead press can work as well, but you won’t be able to move as much weight.

1. Grip the barbell with your hands just slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Your palms should be facing up and your thumbs should be hooked around the bar.

2. Engaging your core and glutes, hold the bar on your upper chest and the press directly overhead until your arms are extended.

9. Floor Press

The floor press is pretty much the same as the bench press except done on the floor. In terms of the mechanics of the exercise, your range of motion is significantly reduced since your arms are limited by the floor. 

What this means for your triceps is that you’ll be able to use a bigger load on the barbell, for one. You’ll also be introducing a significantly greater amount of tension on the triceps due to the necessary powerful extension of the elbows.

10. Triceps Pushdown

This isolation exercise for the triceps is a great way to introduce more time under tension for your muscles, with gains promising to follow close behind. 

All three heads of your tricep will benefit from this exercise and your back, core, and shoulders will also be engaged for stability.

1. Face the high-set cable machine and keep your elbows by your sides with your feet together. Maintain a flat back.

2. Grabbing the handles of the cable, your wrists should be around the level of your chin. Initiate the movement by extending the elbows and pushing the cable down until fully extended to lockout. When looking from the side, your elbows should be slightly in front of your shoulders.

A group of people doing push ups in a gym.

Strong Triceps and Muscle Building 

The 10 exercises above will put you well on the path to achieving swoleness like you’ve never known before—both in the arm department and with your body as a whole. 

However, it’s not an exaggeration when it’s said that development comes down to 30% working out and 70% diet.

You absolutely need to support the hard work that goes into your triceps with a diet that puts healthy foods at the forefront of every meal. Strength training, bodybuilding, or just general fitness are all built on a solid foundation of nutrients that your body needs to have in order to properly grow.

Without putting in the proper hard work that goes into the back end of everyone’s fitness journey, gains left on the table are all but guaranteed. So get a good night's rest, get enough high-quality protein, and go get the gun show started.