Ever notice the writing on the side view mirror of your car?
It says, “objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” What you see reflected in those mirrors appears smaller and farther away because of the convex shape of the mirrors.
Kind of like icebergs. The majority of an iceberg is underwater, where you can’t see it, making them dangerous maritime obstacles.
You know what else is like icebergs and objects in your side mirror? Your arms.
The secret to building shirt-splitting arms isn’t endless bicep curls, though you might think so because of their convex shape. Nope, the secret to bigger arms is creating tremendous Thor-like triceps.
Seriously, what do you notice about Chris Hemsworth’s arms? It’s not his biceps but his Titanic triceps that pop out.
Most people can go to the gym and get a decent tricep pump doing kickbacks, skullcrushers, or pushdowns. But there are numerous mistakes you could be making with your triceps exercises. Mistakes that are holding you back from building more Hemsworth-esque shirt cannons.
The Function of Your Triceps
Your triceps primary job is to extend (straighten) your arm from the elbow joint. It works as an antagonist (assistant) to your biceps and brachialis muscles. It also works to hold your elbow joint and forearm steady when doing subtle movements like writing, typing, stitching,
masturbating, or drawing.
But one of it’s lesser-known functions is as a shoulder stabilizer.
The long head of the tricep attaches to your shoulder blade. And it’s involved in retroversion and adduction of your arm. Meaning, it acts as an anchor point for your arm bone and your scapula (shoulder blades). Because the long head of your tricep attaches to your shoulder blade, it also operates in a small way to pull your arm behind your body.
And this means your triceps engage in more than pressing exercises like the bench press, push-ups, or pushdowns. There’s some activation of the long head in pulling motions like rows as well.
But before we get to that, we need to talk about the largest issue thousands face every day with their triceps.
The #1 Tricep Issue on Earth
The Beatles said they were more famous than Jesus. Boy, did that piss a few people off. The #1 tricep issue in the world may not be as famous as Jesus, but it’s pretty infamous. You likely know it as tennis and/or golfers’ elbows.
Both of these are insidious maladies causing pain and inflammation at the elbow.
- Tennis elbow causes inflammation on the outside of the elbow joint
- Golfers elbow causes inflammation on the inside of the joint.
Golfers and tennis players aren’t the only people who can suffer from this affliction. In fact, it’s a common issue seen in plumbers, painters, carpenters, butchers, and yes, even those with desk jobs.
Why does this affect your tricep? It doesn’t per se, but it does affect the elbow, which is one of the joints your tricep crosses. So when you do a skullcrusher, tricep pushdown, or even a push-up, you can aggravate that tennis/golfer elbow issue.
It doesn’t mean you have weak triceps. But it can limit your output in that muscle. Most importantly, it doesn’t mean you should give up working out or stop training your triceps. What it means is you need to make your forearm stronger and more resilient.
One of the best ways to do this is to do the wrist drill I stole from Eugene Teo that you see below. PS, you’ll get a wicked engagement of your tricep as well with this.
You can use a broomstick or curtain rod at home or a PVC pipe or dowel rod at the gym. Adding this drill to your daily routine for a few weeks can help lessen your tennis/golfer elbow issues. Once that’s lessened, then you’ll be able to push your triceps even harder at the gym.
5 Tricep Training Mistakes You’re Making & How to Fix Them
Elbow issues aside, there are a ton of mistakes you may be making in training your triceps. These small mistakes prevent you from making more progress with your physique and strength. That’s why I’ve written articles on:
(Calves, glutes, hamstrings, and quads will all be coming soon. So make sure you subscribe to my emails newsletter, “Level Up,” so you can read those when they’re out.)
But this article is all about that three-headed snake you know as the triceps. So let’s stop all the jibber-jabber and get to the meat of this here article.
Tricep Problem: You’re not warming up enough
Time is precious. And you don’t have time to live in the gym for three hours a day. In fact, no one should be spending that much time in the gym unless they work there.
But one thing that can help you lift longer with fewer issues (read: aches/pains) is to spend a few minutes getting your muscles warmed up. That doesn’t mean walking on the treadmill, brah.
At the start of any workout, you want to spend a couple of minutes getting blood flowing into the muscles you plan to use for the day. Your elbows will appreciate this extra blood flow. And that extra blood will help you push and press with a lot less elbow stress.
Tricep Warm-Up Solution A: Use Isometrics
Isometrics are one of my favorite ways to get extra blood flowing. Of course, isometrics can be used at the end of a set as well to shock your muscles to the max. But in the context here, we want them as a warm-up.
Pushdowns are my go to for these. Grab a rope or a straight bar, and while keeping weight super light, do 10 slow-motion reps to get the blood pumping into your triceps. On your final rep, hold the bottom position for as long as you can. Aim for 1 minute or more.
Do this two times before your arm day or tricep work starts, and you’ll have beaucoup of blood bubbling into your arms and elbow.
Tricep Solution B: Warm-Up Biceps First
Your biceps are the antagonist to your tricep. Warming up antagonist muscles before your primary exercise is a good idea for long term joint health and sustainability.
You don’t need to hammer out a half dozen sets of bicep curls before you hit triceps either. You can choose a super light weight and knock out some standard curls, hammer curls, reverse curls, or use isometrics to get your biceps primed.
Tricep Problem: Using Other Muscles in Pushdowns
Everyone does tricep pushdowns. But a lot of people do them wrong for years and don’t get the most out of this exercise.
One thing you may be doing during tricep extensions is engaging in excessive shoulder flexion.
The higher up your elbows move, the more lats you’ll engage as you push down. And if your goal is to isolate your triceps, you don’t want your lats getting any stimulation here.
Another problem that steals gains from your triceps, and puts a hell of a lot of stress on your elbow joint, is your wrist position at the bottom of a pushdown.
If you’re flexing your wrist at the bottom of a pushdown, you’re putting more tension into your forearms and placing them at a mechanical disadvantage. This also places a ton of strain on your elbow joint.
Tricep Solution: Keep Your Elbows Tight to Your Body & Don’t Flex Your Wrists
This is an easy fix. If you’re using a rope attachment or a straight bar for pushdowns, make sure to keep your elbows tight to your body. Don’t let your shoulders move upward as the weight returns to the starting position. At the bottom of your pushdown, make sure your elbow and wrists are stacked.
These fixes will put more tension into your triceps and keep your joints happier long term.
Box of What Sounds like Contradiction:
- Sometimes with these things, there are small tweaks that can make engagement more intense, but sounds like I’m telling you to do things I said not to do. Slight ulnar deviation at the bottom of a rope pushdown is one of those things. This slight deviation can give you a bigger contraction out of your tricep, and this is the only time you don’t want to keep your elbow and wrist stacked. But it’s a subtle movement which I go over in video later in this article.
Tricep Problem: You Stack Your Wrist & Elbow on Skullcrushers
Okay, wait a gall dang minute Robbie. You said that in tricep pushdowns, I need to “stack my elbows and wrists. But you’re telling me not to do that on skullcrushers? Why wouldn’t that carry over to skullcrushers?”
Because of physics, duh. Your arm’s position relative to the pull of gravity will dictate the tension placed on your muscles. And one exercise where many people muck up that tension is with skullcrushers.
Tricep Solution: Extend Your Arms & Bring the Dumbbells Back to Eye Level
Remember when I said your tricep also functions as a shoulder stabilizer? The long head attaches to your shoulders blade and aids in adduction of the arm. Raising your arm flexes your shoulder and stretches the long head of the tricep.
This is why skullcrushers are a great movement that can target more of the long head of your tricep.
But to maximize that tension, you don’t want your arms directly above you. What you want is to elevate (flex) your shoulders so that you get a greater stretch on the long head of your tricep.
One of the best ways to accomplish this is by doing skullcrushers on a decline. The decline angle makes it easier to get into shoulder flexion. It also helps you get a better stretch on the long head of the tricep.
The other key here is to not bring your wrists in line with your elbows. Not stacking your joints here increases tension on the long head of your tricep. Your range of motion will feel smaller, but you’ll recruit and target more of the long head by doing this.
Tricep Problem: You Don’t Use Enough Reps
Your triceps get a ton of work from the heavy bench pressing or overhead pressing you do every week. But people add on heavy isolation work after their pressing movements. And this is where (I think) most people make massive mistakes with tricep training.
There’s a time and a place for heavy tricep work. Perhaps during a specific strength building or powerlifting phase of training. But for a majority of people who hit the gym 3-4 times a week, and who do it for aesthetic purposes, you’ll see more benefit in arm growth by doing high rep tricep work.
Training is different for every person. And I try to not speak in generalities. But if I’m honest, high rep tricep work will benefit 99% of people more than heavy, lower rep tricep work.
And when I say high reps, I don’t mean only 10-12. I’m talking 15, 20, 25, even 30 reps (or more). The pump from these high rep sets are insane, and your arms will burn hotter than the twin suns of Tatooine during a heatwave.
Muscle responds to tension, and increasing that tension will help you build more glorious muscle. But you don’t need an extra ten or twenty pounds to stimulate your triceps.
Increasing tension on your tricep (or any muscle really) can be achieved by increasing time under tension. Increasing TUT can be accomplished by doing more reps, playing with isometric holds in the stretched/contracted position, or by doing my favorite: slow eccentrics.
Tricep Solution: You Don’t Use Tempo to Your Advantage
“Control, control, you must learn control.” – Yoda
That tiny long-eared cousin of Kermit knew what was up. Lack of control is, hands down, the biggest mistake I see from people at the gym. Yes, moving heavy weight feels great for your ego.
But here’s the thing: stability must come before strength. And the best way to gain more stability is to control the eccentric portion of a lift.
You’re strongest in the eccentric portion of the lift. So spending more time there is a benefit. Plus, slow eccentrics help you build a better mind-muscle connection.
But controlled eccentrics aren’t only beneficial from a muscle building perspective. They’re important because controlled eccentrics help you have healthier and happier joints.
So why don’t more people use slow eccentrics? Because it requires you to use a lot less weight. And that means you have to stop ego lifting.
Tricep Solution: Slow the Eff Down
When it comes to feeling your triceps, give heavy pushing or skullcrushing a break. Focus on using slow eccentrics and controlling the weight as you flex your elbows.
Drop the weight you’ve been using by 30-50% and use a 3-5 second eccentric. Imagine you’re filming a slow-motion action scene where the tricep pushdown is the star.
This will be a game-changer for you. And you’ll get a wicked tricep pump. Plus, you’ll notice your joints feel better after you leave the gym and even into the next day.
Tricep Problem: You Aren’t Hitting the Full Range of Motion for Your Triceps
If you want to shock muscle(s) into growth, you have to take that muscle through its entire range of motion. Taking a muscle through its full contractile abilities creates more damage and thus more growth.
When it comes to triceps, specifically tricep pushdowns, you’re likely shorting your range of motion.
Most advice on tricep pushdowns goes like this: “stand up straight; lock elbows at your side; retract your shoulder blades; then push down.”
And that works if you’re trying to get more tension into your medial and lateral heads. And sure, partial reps have their time and place, but they should be used sparingly and for a good reason.
- Pulling your arm past your body will fully shorten the long head of your tricep. But don’t worry about trying to isolate or emphasize the medial and lateral heads by themselves. Both of these heads of the tricep work in tandem but not really in isolation. However, there are a few exercises that de-emphasize the long head and place more tension on the lateral/medial heads, and I’ll cover those in a moment.
So if you want shirt-splitting arm cannons, your bread and butter with tricep training should be taking that tri-headed snake through its full range of motion.
Here’s how to do that with rope pushdowns, and this is where I go over that wrist tweak I mentioned earlier.
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The Best Tricep Exercises for Size and Strength
I know I told you that you should spend some time training high reps for your triceps. And I cover some of the best exercises below for that. But as I said before, there is a time and place for heavy tricep work.
When is that? That depends on the context of your current goals. But if you’re not overloading volume on chest and shoulders or have the time for a specific arm day later in the week, a little heavy tricep work is okay.
One of my favorite exercises for this is the floor press. Dumbbell or barbell or in the smith machine, doesn’t matter. The floor press is great because it reduces your range of motion, so you get less pec engagement and more tension on your triceps.
You can also do these as pin presses in a squat rack.
Dips are one of the best tricep building exercises out there. But for those with shoulder issues or who lack sufficient shoulder stability, dips can fuck you up and cause problems. Especially if you have piss poor shoulder stabilization due to weak external rotators and tight internal rotators. (Desk jockeys, I’m talking to you.)
That doesn’t mean you can never dip. But if you don’t have access to an assisted dip machine, focus on building a stronger upper back and better shoulder stability first. Once you have more shoulder stability, then give dips a shot.
Football (Swiss) Bar Close Grip Bench Presses
If you workout at a Planet Fitness, you’re not going to have access to this barbell. So if that’s you, then replace this exercise with neutral grip dumbbell floor presses that I demoed above.
However, if your gym has one of these bad boys, this is the best way to train a close grip bench for your triceps.
This barbell places your joints in a more advantageous position without killing your shoulders. The Swiss Bar — also known as the Football Bar — puts your hands in a neutral position vs the perpendicular position of a standard barbell.
One of the most common reasons people get injured bench pressing is because they allow their elbows to “flare out” to the side. This places tremendous pressure on your shoulder joint and the surrounding musculature.
The Swiss Bar fixes this and allows you to keep the tension on your pecs or triceps. And because you can keep the grip neutral, you get a better weight distribution through your triceps.
Dips, floor press/pin press, and close grip bench presses are great for building more strength in your triceps. Dumbbells are a great option too.
But for high rep work that leads to a wickedly delicious pump and happy joints, nothing beats cables.
The Best Tricep Exercises for Massive Pumps
Cables are where most people do their tricep isolation work. And it’s on cables that high rep tricep work is king.
Tricep pushdowns and kickbacks are great. You might even do some overhead rope extensions in your workout. But there’s a variation of the overhead extension, created by the great Vince Gironda, that’s one of my favorites.
You kneel in front of a bench and use the bench like a preacher curl for your triceps. This extra support for your elbows also provides a wicked stretch at the top of the movement for the long head of your tricep.
There are two tricep exercises that have become my bread and butter over the last two years and they’re a gazillion times better than pushdowns.
One of these is great for engaging more of your medial and lateral heads, the two tricep muscles that attach to your arm bone and then your elbow.
And the other may be one of the best long head isolators I’ve come across. Plus, it lets me feel like I’m a Leonardo pulling out my katanas to go fight The Foot Clan.
What’s great about the cross body tricep extension is it allows you to line up the pull of the cable with your tricep. This puts more tension directly in the muscle and is easier on your elbow joint. It also allows you to put pressure into your bicep with your non-working hand for added stability.
Katana extensions are my new favorite tricep exercise. Alright, they’re not really new. They’ve been used for decades, but were probably called something lame like “overhead cable tricep extensions.” So yet again I’m stealing this name from Eugene Teo and calling them “katana extensions.”
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These bad boys are a great exercise for overemphasizing the long head of your tricep. Combine katana extensions with crossbody extensions and you’re gonna leave the gym feeling like a boss.
Two Workouts for Those Not Lazy Enough to Stop Reading Halfway Through
Congratulations! You just read 3,000+ words on training your triceps. And for that I’m giving you a prize. And what have you won? So since you likely came here by using Google, the best I can do is give you two tricep-focused workouts you can do the next time you’re in the gym.
And I’m gonna give you a full upper body day and an arm day that you can do. Both of these will use the strategies I’ve mentioned throughout the article.
Wrist Drill – 3 sets of 6 reps per side;
Plate Y-Raise – 3 sets of 6 reps, hold the top for 1-2 seconds; no rest
Low-Incline Bench Press – 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps; rest 90 seconds
Standing Single Arm Dumbbell Overhead Press – 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps per side; rest 60-90 seconds
Dumbbell Incline Flys – 3 sets of 10 reps
Dumbbell Rear Delt Row – 3 sets of 12 reps; rest 60 seconds
High Rep Tricep Finishers:
Decline Tricep Skullcrushers – 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps; rest 60-90 seconds
Tricep Rope Pushdowns – 2-3 sets of 15-20 reps; rest 60-90 seconds
Wrist Drill – 3 sets of 6 reps per side; no rest
Dumbbell Curl Isometrics: 2 sets of 10 reps per side; go straight to tricep pushdowns
Tricep Pushdown Isometric: 2 sets of 10 reps, hold the bottom position for 1 minute; go right back into the bicep curls
Football Bar Close Grip Bench Press: 4 sets of 8 reps; rest 60 seconds (if you don’t have a football bar floor presses work as a substitute)
Preacher Curl Single Arm Curls: 4 sets of 8 reps per side; rest 60 seconds
Crossbody Tricep Extension – 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps per side; rest 30 seconds
Katana Extensions – 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps; rest 60 seconds
Dumbbell Spider Curls: 3-4 sets of 10 reps; rest 30 seconds
Dumbbell Hammer Curls: 3-4 sets of 10 reps; rest 60 seconds
Kneeling Gironda Extension – do 5 reps then hold the stretched position for as long as possible
Dumbbell Incline Curls – do 5 reps then hold the bottom (stretched) position for as long as possible
Alright, enough with these words telling you how to feel your triceps. Now it’s time for you to take these tips and get out there and build some Thor-like shirt cannons.