For most people who hit the gym, bigger arms is top priority.
That's why you see the same people in there, day after day, doing a bunch of curls, trying to build up their biceps.
But did you know that your triceps actually take up about twice as much muscle mass as your biceps?
Take a look at any bodybuilder, athlete, or fitness model with admirable arms and you'll see that their triceps takes up roughly 2/3rd of the muscle mass of their arms.
If a set of giant guns is what you're after, you need a well-designed triceps workout that covers all the bases.
And that's exactly what I'm going to provide for you in this article!
Before we get into which triceps exercises you should be doing and how to do them, though, let's go over the basic anatomy of your triceps.
The Anatomy Of The Triceps
The triceps, or tricep brachii (if you want to be scientific about it), are comprised of three smaller muscles called "heads".
- Lateral Head
- Long Head
- Medial Head
Here's what they look like:
In terms of aesthetics, the lateral head and long head are the most important.
These muscles provide most of the mass and width of the triceps.
If you want to build some truly incredible triceps that form a nice horse-shoe shape and give your arms a 3d, angular look, though, you need to hit all three heads.
Some exercises are better for targeting certain heads of the triceps, but most of the exercises we'll discuss in this article do a good job of hitting all three.
But, before we get into the best triceps exercises, let's talk about a few important principles that should guide your triceps workouts.
How To Effectively Train Your Triceps
Most people who hit the gym know they should be working out their triceps; They just don't know how to do it effectively.
That probably has to do with the fact that there's no real consensus among experts about the best way to go about training your triceps.
I mean, we all know that squats are essential on leg day and bench press is essential for chest, but what about triceps?
- Some people think you should do high reps, low weight, and chase the pump.
- Some people think you shouldn't train them directly at all.
Well, after a decade of lifting, experimenting, and making progress, I can say with complete confidence that both of those standpoints are wrong.
There are three core principles you need to keep in mind if you want to build massive, angular triceps.
1 | Directly Train Your Triceps At least Once A Week
Some people have naturally strong, developed triceps without having to do much, but most of us have to directly train our triceps if we want to get that bulging horse-shoe look.
You don't have to hit your triceps every day though. In fact, working them out too frequently will usually just result in injury.
On the flip-side, the triceps are a pretty resilient group of muscles, so you do need to make sure your hitting them frequently enough to stimulate muscle growth.
Research regarding optimal training frequency has determined that there really is no one optimal training frequency.
How much strength and muscle you gain depends more on volume and intensity than frequency.
That said, studies show recovery from a heavy weight-lifting session can take anywhere from 48-96 hours and you don't want to train your triceps when they're still recovering from your last triceps workout.
So, it makes sense to workout your triceps about once every 5-7 days, depending on your schedule.
Remember, anything that involves pushing requires some effort from the triceps, so your triceps get worked when you do heavy chest or heavy shoulder workouts, not just on triceps day.
You can hit triceps more than once a week, but it may start to interfere with your other workouts.
2 | Do Exercises That Target All Three Heads Of The Triceps
A key component of any well-designed triceps workout is that it includes exercises that target all three heads of the triceps.
As I said earlier, the long head and lateral head of the triceps are the more important for building general mass, but you can't forget about the medial head.
When you first start out, it can be difficult to tell which exercise is hitting which head. Over time, though, as you develop your triceps, you'll begin to feel (and see) the difference.
Lateral Head is targeted by - exercises where your arms are by your sides with your palms facing down (close-grip bench, pushdowns, dips, etc.)
Medial Head is targeted by - exercises where your arms are by your sides with your palms facing up (under-hand grip pushdowns)
Long Head is targeted by - overhead exercises (skull-crushers, overhead extensions, etc.)
Of course, there is plenty of overlap which is why some exercises--particularly compound movements--are better for building bigger, stronger triceps.
Stick with a well-rounded bunch of exercises that target all the heads of the triceps and you'll be fine.
3 | Emphasize Heavy Compound Exercises
If you want to build muscle, you need to focus on getting stronger. If you get stronger, your muscles will grow.
The key to getting stronger is progressive overload.
Progressive overload simply means adding weight to the bar over time.
It is the fundamental underlying principle of strength training and if you want to build awesome triceps, you need to understand it and workout accordingly.
At high intensities (80-90% of 1RM), optimal volume is anywhere from 40-80 reps per muscle group per week, depending on how advanced of a lifter you are.
If you have no idea what your 1 Rep Max is for a particular workout, don't sweat it. You don't actually need to max out to find out.
When training at 85% of your 1RM, you'll be able to do about 4-6 reps.
Another way to look at is:
85% of your 1RM is whatever weight you can get 4-6 reps for.
The majority of the exercises we're going to discuss, and ultimately use to develop the ultimate triceps workout routine, should be performed at that intensity, in that rep range.
It works like this...
You find whatever weight you do for 4 reps. You work with that weight until you can get 6 reps. Then you add more weight so you can only get 4 reps again. Repeat until triceps are jacked.
That's progressive overload. That's how you get bigger and stronger.
That goes for every muscle group, of course, not just your triceps.
But I think where most people go wrong with their arm workouts in particular is they chase "the pump" and forget all about progressive overload.
Now that we've covered how you should structure your triceps workouts for maximum gains, let's talk specific exercises.
The Absolute Best Triceps Exercises
Doing too many exercises is another fatal flaw with the average person's triceps workout.
They think that doing a ton of different exercises from all kinds of different angles will give them that more angular, defined shape.
While I certainly agree that some variation is a good idea, too much variation will hold you back.
The truth is you don't need 12 different triceps exercises to build powerful, bulging triceps. You just need to stick with a handful of well-rounded exercises that cumulatively hit all three heads and which safely allow for progressive overload.
Feel free to experiment with different angles on different exercises, but never get so caught up in varying your exercises that you forget about progressive overload.
You should be able to track your progress on each exercise. If you're doing so many exercises that you can't remember which ones you did, that's going to be tough.
You only need a handful of exercises to make serious gains.
Here are the absolute best triceps exercises for strength, size, AND angularity.
Close Grip Bench Press
Sometimes referred to as the "tricep press", the close-grip bench press is easily the most important triceps exercise you can do for building strength and size.
Here's what it looks like:
As you can see, the close-grip bench press is simply a variation of a normal bench press where your hands are closer together.
By gripping the bar closer together and keeping your elbows tucked in more, a lot of the tension is taken off the chest and placed squarely on the triceps.
This is, hands down, the best single triceps exercise for building strength and size.
Dips are the forgotten triceps exercise that most people never think to do, but it's actually one of the best.
Here's what proper dips look like:
If you've never done dips before, you may struggle with your body weight alone, and that's perfectly okay.
Once you're capable of doing several body weight dips, you can start to add additional weight by using a belt, weight vest, or holding a dumbbell between your legs.
The key here is to achieve the full range of motion on each rep. Most people do half-rep dips to get a pump, but if you're really trying to build up your triceps, those won't do.
Skull-crushers are an especially effective exercise for carving out the long head of the triceps.
Here's how you do them:
A key facet of a properly executed skull-crusher is that you keep your elbows in as much as possible.
Many people tend to let their elbows stick out but this places unnecessary strain on the elbow joint.
You should really only feel it in your triceps. If you feel pressure in your elbow joint, that's a red flag that you're doing the exercise wrong.
If that's the case, drop the weight until you can perform the movement correctly, then start over from there.
Overhead Dumbbell Extensions
Like skull-crushers, Overhead extensions are great for targeting the long head of the triceps.
Here's how to do them the right way:
It's a pretty self explanatory exercise, but you may run into elbow problems.
Personally, I don't do overhead extensions that much because I sustained an elbow injury a while back and this movement tends to make it flair up when I go heavy.
But, if you can do them (with heavy weight), you should.
Tricep pushdowns are by far the most common triceps exercises you see people doing in the gym.
As it turns out, it's actually a great exercise.
There are a few variations of the tricep push-down that are actually worth doing as well.
Push-downs are where I really like to have fun switching it up.
You can build great triceps without doing a ton of variation, but experimenting with different angles and grips is worth it with this one.
Try the V-Bar, try reverse-grip, and DEFINITELY try it with the rope attachment.
Creating The Ultimate Triceps Workout
Now that we've talked about the absolute best triceps exercises, it's time to take a handful of them and create a workout routine that covers all the criteria we've laid out so far.
Just to reiterate, if you want bigger, more angular triceps, your triceps workout should:
- Emphasize heavy, compound lifting with free weights
- Incorporate exercises that hit all three heads of the triceps
- Focus on getting stronger (progressive overload)
Most of the exercises should be performed at about 85% of your 1RM. At that level of intensity, you'll be able to get about 4-6 reps.
- If you can do more than 6 reps, the weight is too light.
- If you can't do at least 4 reps, the weight is too heavy.
It's okay to warm up with a lighter weight--in fact, I strongly recommend doing so to avoid injury--but that doesn't count as a set.
For each exercises, you should be performing 3 HEAVY sets. That means, once you're warmed up, you stick with the same weight for each set.
There are no complicated patterns here. Just a simple, effective triceps workout.
If you do either of these workouts, at least 5-7 days a week, for a month or two, your triceps WILL respond. I promise.
The Bottom Line On Triceps Workout
Building big, strong triceps isn't easy, but it can be done.
All you need to do is:
- Train your triceps directly at least once a week
- Do exercises that hit all three heads of the triceps
- Lift heavy (around 85% of your 1RM for most exercises)
And, most importantly, focus on getting stronger.
Do these things consistently, week after week, and you WILL develop some monster, horse-shoe-shaped triceps that turn heads in the gym.
Want More Workouts? Check These Out...
Matt Theis is the Co-Founder and CEO of Momentum Nutrition. Among other things, he is chiefly responsible for product formulation and has spent years researching, testing, and developing supplements.