Let’s get something out of the way up front. If you want to build bigger, stronger, better looking triceps, the various compound pushing exercises in your workout routine will play the largest role in making that happen.
Why? Because the triceps muscle is involved during any exercise where your elbows extend.
This includes all of the usual “extension” type isolation exercises this article will talk plenty about, as well as all chest and shoulder compound pressing movements. This means all forms of flat, incline and decline presses, push-ups and dips, and any sort of seated or standing overhead press.
The triceps are heavily involved in all of it, and these exercises are what will be responsible for the majority of the triceps strength and size you gain.
With this fact in mind, some wonder if they should bother doing any direct triceps training at all.
Do The Triceps Need More Than Compound Exercises?
In fact, some people will claim that compound movements are all anyone ever needs for building any muscle group and they’re all anyone should ever do.
While I don’t doubt that compounds alone are capable of producing good results, I DO doubt that it’s optimal. I also think these “compounds only” people are kinda dumb. And stubborn. And most likely just repeating silly bullshit some “hardcore” lifter person once told them.
“Compounds only bro! Isolation exercises are a joke! Pushdowns and extensions are a waste of time!”
Not quite, bro.
Almost Everyone Agrees
The truth is, if you want a muscle group to become bigger and stronger, you’d be an idiot to purposely avoid directly training that muscle group. There’s not a single smart and successful natural bodybuilder, fitness model or person who trains to simply look awesome that would disagree with this.
Guess what else? There’s probably not a single smart/successful person who trains primarily for strength that would disagree with this, either.
Just look at powerlifters. They do plenty of direct triceps isolation work (they refer to it as “assistance” work). Why? Because it helps. Not just with muscle growth, but with improving strength and performance on the compound lifts that are supposedly “all anyone needs.”
So not only would every bodybuilder disagree with this nonsense, so would virtually every powerlifter and strength athlete as well. Any questions? Didn’t think so.
Does that you mean you should start adding a ton of pushdowns, skull crushers and kickbacks into your workouts? No, that kind of stereotypical bodybuilder nonsense would be just as dumb if not more so.
It just means that a combination of putting most of your focus on big compound movements PLUS a smaller secondary focus on isolation movements will produce the best possible results in terms of triceps strength and size.
Additional details here: How To Get Bigger Arms
With that point (hopefully) clear, it’s time to get down to details and specifics.
Meet The Three Heads
The triceps brachii muscle has “tri” in its name because there are 3 different parts (or in this case, heads) to it. They are:
- The Lateral Head
The lateral head is sometimes referred to as the “outer head” because it’s located furthest from the sides of your body. It’s the part of your triceps that is most visible when looking at yourself from the front or the side.
- The Long Head
The long head is sometimes referred to as the “inner head” because it’s located closest to the sides of your body when standing with your arms at your sides. It’s kinda further around on the back of your arm than the other heads are. It’s also the largest visible portion of your triceps. When you do a typical biceps pose, that part of your arm hanging below your biceps is primarily the long head of your triceps.
- The Medial Head
The medial head tends to be the least noticed or cared about part of the triceps as a result of the fact that it mostly lies hidden underneath the other heads and is the least visible of the three.
Can You Isolate The Different Heads?
Nope. Just like every other muscle group that has different “parts” to it (like the upper and lower chest), you can never truly train one “part” in complete isolation of the others. Meaning, every triceps exercise you ever do will always be hitting all three heads to some degree.
What you can do however is place more emphasis on one specific head by adjusting what’s being done. This could mean using different types of exercises with your hands positioned in different ways using different types of grips or handles with your body positioned at different angles.
Yeah, kinda complicated. But the easiest way to un-complicate things is to break all triceps isolation exercises up into two very simple types of movements…
- Movements done with your elbows at the sides of your body.
- Movements done with your elbows above your body.
Now let me explain what this means for you and your workouts.
Category 1: “Elbows-At-Your-Sides” Exercises
In this first group, we have some of the most commonly seen triceps isolation movements. Examples include:
- Cable Pushdowns with a straight bar (overhand or underhand). [example]
- Cable Pushdowns with a v-bar. [example]
- Cable Pushdowns with a rope. [example]
- Single Arm Cable Pushdowns (overhand or underhand grip). [example]
- Single Arm Cable Pushdowns with a rope (neutral grip).
- Dumbbell Kickbacks [example]
- Cable Kickbacks
The exercises on this list have 3 things in common.
First, they are all preformed with your elbows at the sides of your body. Second, they allow you to get a better contraction and really just squeeze the muscle harder than you can with other types of triceps exercises. And third, this combination puts more emphasis on the lateral head.
All 3 heads are still being hit of course, sometimes more or less depending on the exact type of grip/handle being used. In general however, the lateral head is just more likely to have more emphasis placed on it than it will with the stuff in Category 2 below.
One other thing that these types of movements have in common is that they’re typically safer on your elbows, especially when compared to the movements you’ll see in the group below (that second group tends to contain the typical elbow killers).
Although… bad form, excessive volume, going too heavy, etc. can turn something that is usually less of an injury-causer into something that’s the complete opposite. Just something to keep in mind.
And as far as this list goes, the straight bar pushdown is usually the most stressful on the elbows/wrists (just like straight bar curls are), while the rope pushdown is probably the most comfortable, elbow/wrist friendly variation of them all.
Category 2: “Elbows-Above-Your-Body” Exercises
Now for the second group…
- Skull Crushers/Lying Extensions with a barbell or EZ curl bar. [example] [another]
- Skull Crushers/Lying Extensions with dumbbells (neutral grip). [example]
- Skull Crushers/Lying Extensions with various cable handles/grips. [example]
- Skull Crushers on a decline bench (with any of the above equipment). [example]
- Overhead Extensions with a barbell or EZ curl bar (seated or standing). [example]
- Overhead Extensions with one dumbbell held in both hands (seated or standing). [example]
- Overhead Extensions with one dumbbell single arm (seated or standing). [example]
- Overhead Extensions with various cable handles/grips (seated, standing, single arm). [example]
- Overhead Extensions with a rope in the vertical plane (seated or standing). [example] [another]
- Overhead Extensions with a rope in the horizontal plane. [example]
- Body Weight Triceps Extensions with TRX (or something similar). [example]
The exercises on this list have 3 things in common.
First, they are all preformed with your elbows above your body. Second, they all put you in a position that brings in a significant stretch component in your triceps that you can’t really get with other types of triceps exercises. And third, this combination puts more emphasis on the long head.
Once again, all 3 heads are still being hit. The long head is just getting the primary emphasis.
The movements in this group are known for two other things as well. The first is soreness. Any exercise that has a stretch component to it (Romanian deadlifts, for example) will be WAY more likely to make you sore as hell the next day, and these movements all put you in that kind of stretched position (you’ll actually feel the long head as being the exact area that gets sore).
I can tell you that the stuff in this group consistently makes me sore no matter how long I’ve been doing it. The stuff in Category 1? Practically never… if ever at all.
Not that soreness is an indicator of effectiveness or anything like that. It’s definitely not (more here: Is Soreness Important?). It’s just something worth mentioning anyway.
The second thing these Category 2 movements are known for is elbow pain. Even with all else being equal (good form, sane volume, etc.), the stuff in this group just naturally puts more stress on the elbow joint and the tendons attaching at the lateral epicondyle (which is that bony bump on the outer part of your elbow) than the stuff in Category 1, thus making these a more common cause of elbow injuries.
Preventing Elbow Injuries
Is there anything you can do about this? Indeed there is. Here are the 6 best general recommendations that come to mind:
- Never use a straight bar for any of this stuff (I wouldn’t even use it for pushdowns). An EZ curl bar will be a better choice, while dumbbells and the rope attachment will be the best/safest choices of all for your elbows (and your wrists). By far.
- Specifically with skull crushers, let your elbows drift backwards slightly and lower more towards the top of your head (or right over the top of it) rather than to your nose or forehead. Full details here: How To Do Skull Crushers Without Hurting Your Elbows
- Stick with higher rep ranges for this stuff, ideally 8-15 or 10-15. More about this later.
- Alternate between a few different triceps exercises on a semi-regular basis. No, not for “muscle confusion.” But to prevent overuse injuries. So let’s say some of these movements are (or can be) problematic for your elbows, but only if you’ve been doing them for too long. If you rotate between a few different movements – changing every 4-8 weeks perhaps – you might never have any problems at all.
- If an exercise feels uncomfortable or causes pain, avoid it completely in favor of one that doesn’t. Simple as that.
- And if you have preexisting elbow issues that are consistently aggravated by all of these Category 2 movements, guess what? Stick only with Category 1 movements.
Additional details here: 17 Ways To Prevent Elbow Injuries Caused By Weight Lifting
My Personal Favorites
In terms of which I feel I get the most benefits from, which allow my elbows to stay as healthy and pain-free as possible, and which are just the ones I like doing the most, these are my favorites from each group:
- Category 1: Pushdowns with a rope, some kind of ‘bent’ bar (like a v-bar) or single arm with a rope. (Note: When using the rope attachment, the key is to make sure you’re pronating your wrists hard at the bottom of each rep so your palms turn downwards.)
- Category 2: Skull crushers with dumbbells or an EZ curl bar, and overhead extensions using a rope vertically or horizontally.
These are the only triceps exercises I’ve done for a while now, and they’re the only ones I ever really plan to do from this point on. For me, in terms of strength, size and elbow health… they’re “the best.”
Are they equally the best for you? Maybe yes, maybe no. Experiment and find out.
Which Type Of Exercise Is Better: Category 1 or Category 2?
In my opinion, the answer is both.
For the best results, I’d recommend selecting exercises from each category rather than always (or mostly) doing only one type instead of the other.
No, I don’t think this is something that will make a hugely significant difference in your overall results. But even though the difference will likely be small in the grand scheme of things, I still think it’s beneficial enough to mention and adjust your training for.
Implementing These Exercises Into Your Workouts
Alright, so you should do both types of triceps exercises. Awesome. Now what?
How many should you do? Should they all be done in the same workout? How many times a week should you do them? How many sets and reps? Where in each workout should they be put? How long should you rest between sets?
Hmmm, let’s see…
- In terms of frequency, I think most lifters past the beginner stage should be training everything about twice per week. This includes your triceps.
- I also think that, after all of the various compound chest/shoulder pressing being done and all of the indirect volume that comes from it, most people will only really need or benefit from about 4-6 total sets (per week) of direct triceps work (so maybe 2-3 sets per workout, with two workouts per week). Beginners should be doing less (or better yet, probably none) and more advanced trainees may benefit from a bit more.
- I also think this work should be thrown in at the end of a workout after all of the more important stuff has been done.
- As far as rep ranges go, I think most isolation work in general is best suited for being used as higher rep “pump and fatigue” work as opposed to lower rep “progressive tension” work. Leave that to the compound exercises. I also think higher rep ranges will be ideal for keeping your elbows healthy, too. Specifically, I’d recommend the 8-15 rep range for this stuff. I personally stay more in the 10-15 rep range myself.
- Since the rep ranges are a bit higher and the goal of these exercises is more fatigue than progression, the rest periods should therefore be a bit shorter. Anywhere between 45 seconds and 90 seconds is probably where you want to be most of the time.
As for the “should they all be done in the same workout” and “how many exercises should you pick” questions, these are a bit more complicated because it depends on the overall design of your routine. Let me give you a couple of examples.
Let’s say your using some form of upper/lower program. In this case, I’d pick one exercise from each category and do one of them in the first upper body workout, and then do the other one in the second upper body workout. The Muscle Building Workout Routine is designed exactly like this.
Now let’s say you’re using the rotating 5 day push/pull/legs split like my Bodybuilding 2.0 routine uses. In this case you might only have 1 push workout (as opposed to 2 different upper body workouts like the previous example) which means you have two options.
The first option is to split the prescribed volume up among both types of exercises (e.g. if there’s 4 total sets of triceps, do 2 sets of a Category 2 movement followed by 2 sets of a Category 1 movement). The second option is to just do a Category 1 exercise for a 4-8 week cycle, and then alternate to a Category 2 exercise for the next 4-8 week cycle.
And of course if you’re using some type of program that calls for 2 triceps isolation exercises in a single workout, then you’d obviously include one of each type. Duh.
And finally, if you’re using a program that has a specific “triceps day” or “arm day” or something similar, then… no offense… but it sounds like you’re training like a dumbass and you should probably reevaluate your approach.
What About Progression?
As with virtually all exercises, progressive overload is still definitely a goal here. You want to make sure you’re getting stronger on these movements over time.
The thing is, these are not really exercises where you’re going to get all that strong. I mean, stuff like pushdowns, skull crushers and overhead extensions don’t usually involve hundreds of pounds of weight.
Why is this?
Partly because the triceps is a small muscle group. Partly because you’ll (ideally) be in higher rep ranges with slightly less rest between sets. Partly because this stuff will be at the end of your workouts when your triceps are already fatigued from pressing movements. Partly because you’re focusing more on “feeling” and fatiguing the muscle than just moving heavy weight from point A to point B by any means necessary.
And, most of all, because they’re all single-joint isolation movements, and you’re just not going to progress nearly as well or consistently with them as you would with compounds. Which is why you’ll bench press a whole lot more than you pushdown.
That’s a big part of why compounds should get the majority of your effort and attention in the first place. They’re MUCH better suited for progression.
And to quote myself from a few paragraphs ago… “I think most isolation work in general is best suited for being used as higher rep “pump and fatigue” work as opposed to lower rep “progressive tension” work.”
Meaning, while you DO want to progress, that’s more goal #2 with type of stuff. Goal #1 is to fatigue the muscle, get a pump, squeeze, feel, stretch, contract and all of that fun stuff.
Not only will your triceps respond well to this when combined with the heavier lower rep work they’ll already be getting plenty of during your chest/shoulder pressing movements, but your elbows will stay healthier because of it.
With compounds, by the way, the order of those goals should be reversed.
My personal preference for all of the Category 1 and 2 movements is to start with a weight that allows me to get about 10 good reps, and then work on progressing in reps until all sets are in the 12-15 rep range with at least one of those sets hitting 15.
Once that point is reached, I increase the weight by the smallest possible increment and usually end up back in the 10-12 rep range. I then bring this new heavier weight back up to 12-15 reps, and then increase the weight and do it all over again.
I explain this approach and much more right here: How To Progress Better At Isolation Exercises
But What About… Category 3
At this point you might have noticed a few things missing from this article. We’ve only talked about triceps isolation exercises. What about compounds? Not chest/shoulder compounds where the triceps are more of a secondary target, but actual compound exercises for the triceps.
- Dips [example]
- Close Grip Bench Presses [example]
- Close Grip Push-Ups [example]
- Floor Presses [example]
- Board Presses [example]
- Rack Lockouts [example]
These types of compound movements complicate things quite a bit because they add a significant amount of volume to the chest and shoulders (along with stress to the shoulder girdle) unlike the isolation movements we’ve been talking about which mostly don’t.
So, it’s much tougher to give general recommendations for these kinds of exercises without knowing more about the specific workouts you’re trying to add them to.
Can it be as simple as just inserting one of these compound movements into the spot that normally calls for a triceps isolation movement? Sure, sometimes. But many other times doing so will cause problems and/or require other adjustments.
And not only is this dependent on the overall design of your program, but it also depends on individual goals, volume tolerance, recovery capabilities and injury history.
Let’s Use Me As An Example
For me personally, I mostly avoid these kinds of exercises. One reason for this is my own injury history. A movement likes dips bothers the hell out of my shoulders. And it’s not just me. Dips are probably the most well known shoulder killer around for a surprisingly high number of people. I’d even call us the majority… that’s how problematic I’ve observed dips to be.
And while stuff like board presses and rack lockouts can certainly be beneficial for muscle growth, they’re more strength oriented movements, and my goals are more “looks” focused than pure strength alone.
Plus, while every Category 3 exercise listed can potentially be great, they’re all adding more of that same compound/progressive tension stimulus (which you’re already getting plenty of from chest/shoulder compounds) instead of that isolation/fatigue stimulus (which most find to be beneficial, especially for growth).
And whenever I’ve played around with working something like the close grip bench press into any of the programs from The Best Workout Routines, I always find this extra bit of compound pressing kinda burns me out.
After whatever heavy flat, incline and/or overhead pressing I’ve already done in the workout, using an isolation movement for the direct triceps work just feels right for me. More pressing just feels like overkill.
Just like it would if, after training back, I decided to hit biceps by doing close grip chin-ups. Overkill. At least for me.
But What About You?
Does that mean everyone will be the same way? No, not everyone.
Although I can tell you that many people definitely will be. I’ve seen it quite a bit actually. Most people on most programs appear to do best sticking with isolation movements for their direct triceps work, which is precisely why most of my programs are designed that way.
It’s what I’ve found to work best, and it’s what I recommend.
And that’s exactly what I tell everyone who asks me about replacing a triceps isolation movement in a program of mine with dips or close grip bench presses.
But I also tell them they’re welcome to try it if they really want to. So if you really want to, feel free. I’d just recommend keeping an eye on how everything goes and feels. If it all still seems to be going well, awesome. If not, be smart and switch it back.
Another Option For Dips
Another option I’ve suggested to people interested in adding dips into a program of mine is to do it by making it a chest exercise rather than a triceps exercise.
So using The Muscle Building Workout Routine as the example program, replace flat dumbbell presses in Upper Body B with dips. Assuming they don’t bother your shoulders, that’s probably the best way to do it.
A Note (or Two) About Close Grip Bench Presses
While much less of a shoulder killer than dips usually are, the flat close grip bench press has been known to bother people’s shoulders, too. Mine included. So if you want to try adding it in and find it pisses off your shoulders to any degree, I’d highly recommend doing it on a decline bench instead.
It’s typically a lot more shoulder-friendly.
And speaking of pissing off a body part, the way most people do close grip bench presses often destroys their wrists. Why? Because everyone grips WAY too close. And they often incorrectly flare out their elbows, which makes that too-close grip even worse.
What you should be doing instead is gripping with a shoulder width grip and tucking your elbows into your sides.
Yes, I said shoulder width grip. Stand in front of a mirror and lift your arms straight out in front of you so that they’re the same width as your shoulders. Quite a bit wider than you thought, isn’t it? But that’s as close as your “close grip” should be.
The End… And An Important Reminder
Everything you just read is all well and good and I stand by every recommendation I made and highly recommend putting all of this advice into action for the best possible results.
Having said that, I’d be lying if I told you all of the above was super important. It’s not. This article is a perfect example of focusing on minor details. Because that’s honestly what this stuff is. Minor details.
I mean, we’re talking about direct triceps work here, specifically isolation work. Assuming you go by my recommendations, this is stuff that will account for a grand total of maybe 4-6 sets PER WEEK. For a small muscle group. Trained with isolation exercises.
Again, minor details.
In the end, the specifics of your triceps training isn’t going to make or break your success.
Although, come to think of it… it’s possible it can. For example, the advice I’ve given here is aimed at preventing the elbow injuries that commonly come about as a result of direct triceps training. And yes, injuries can certainly break your success.
The advice given here is also aimed at using an amount of volume, frequency and intensity that is needed, beneficial and optimal. Greatly exceeding those amounts can certainly break your success as well.
But all of that aside, the overall design of your program (overall training frequency, split, volume, intensity, exercise selection, etc.), getting stronger at chest and shoulder pressing movements (progressive overload), eating a diet that supports your goals… that’s the stuff that will play the largest role in your triceps size and strength gains.
Which is why getting that stuff right is what’s most important. Those are your major details. Don’t lose sight of that.
BUT… once that stuff has been taken care of, I’d definitely recommend directly training your triceps. And, I’d definitely recommend doing it as outlined in this article.
No, it won’t make or break your success, but it will definitely help produce the best results possible.
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