By Andrew Levings LLB, PGDip – former under 23 BWLA British Unequipped Powerlifting Champion and James Adler BA Hons – Freelance Strength & Conditioning Coach and Competitive Rower
The triceps – or in scientific/anatomical terms the triceps brachii muscle (often known simply as ‘tris’) – are one of the key muscle groups in any physical activity, ranging from bodybuilding, to martial arts, to rugby. One of the earliest to recognize the importance of triceps in a formal manner was Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell famei), who emphasized that the whole of the posterior (or rear side of the body) was more important in lifting heavy weights rather than the typical emphasis on the front of the body.
A practical example of this would be how a bodybuilder typically performs the bench press as opposed to how a powerlifter would perform the bench press. A powerlifter would typically have a tight arch in the lower back, raise the bar to the sternum level and tuck his or her arms in, making the movement more triceps dominant, whilst also shortening the range of movement (ROM).
As a result of this, a powerlifter would typically have very dense and strong triceps but a comparatively small or undersized chest, by bodybuilding standards at least. I have found this to be true empirically through my own experience – I have a small chest but very thick and dense triceps on all three heads. In short, what I am trying to emphasize, is that no matter how you approach your training, and no matter what your aims, the triceps are a hugely valuable asset and should be targeted and addressed appropriately (dependant on your level of development, ceteris parabisii).
How to address the triceps appropriately?
This question is a rather tricky one, as it totally depends on your level of development and specific aims or goals. Louie Simmons in his book The Westside Barbell Book of Methods (iii) defines exercises into three key categories: “1. General; 2. Specific; 3.Sports-Specific” (Page 173). I evaluate this into three different sets of people, whose needs must be addressed differently:
- Those new to training or serious weight-training or those who have taken time off
- Advanced trainers, with some decent level of experience and knowledge
- Those who are preparing for sports competition (any sport) and already have good knowledge of both training and how they react to different training exercises/protocols
In simple terms, one would never advise (nor would many of the MuscleTalk members) a complete novice to train like a champion bodybuilder or powerlifter. By the exact same token, it would be unwise (in my opinion) to train an advanced athlete like a beginner, although I do think that basic, hard (‘traditional’) weight training should still form the basis of any routine.
In essence, what is being proposed is small variances and/or protocols which can be adapted to meet the needs of varying individuals, or simply ‘a variation on a theme’. I found this quote about triceps training that pretty much sums up my theory, and which will be expounded upon later:
“Back around the same time Kurt Cobain sang about mulattos, albinos, and mosquitoes, I worked as a full-time “fitness assessor” for a major health club chain. Given I was young, bored, and burning out faster than Kurt’s short-lived career, I eventually started to give all the raw beginners similar programs. The triceps workouts in particular were always the same: triceps pressdowns, 3 sets of 10-12 reps. And bizarrely enough, it seemed to work — for about three weeks, which is about as long as my tenure in that job lasted before I moved onto other things.” iv
How to apply these basic ideas into a routine?
Again, this is totally dependent on what you are trying to achieve, so I will lay out basic guidelines for beginners and intermediates. To come back to the quote mentioned above, my whole theory revolves around rotation of exercises, rep-ranges and training methods; paraphrased, the author comments that tricep pressdowns always worked for three weeks. Why is this? And how can it be solved?
a) Applied triceps training for beginners
In my opinion, no matter how old you are, or how young you are, provided that you have reached a certain level of maturity and do not have any ailments or disabilities; you should always be doing some sort of heavy pressing, both from a lying/prone position – a horizontal plane (i.e. bench press, dumbbell benches, Hammer Strengthv) and from a sitting/standing position (i.e. a vertical plane), such as dips, overhead presses of all kinds, etc.
As a beginner or complete novice with no access to the gym and/or limited resources (student, living in rural area, etc), you would be surprised how far you can get with basic bodyweight exercises such as dips, press-ups, etc: basically if you get inventive then you will find a way. For instance, when I started training at 14/15 (over a decade ago now), I could not afford the gym (even though it was £50 for 3 months, it was a 45 min bus journey away). So I improvised. I did many press-ups, but learnt to love the overhead press, which developed my triceps and whole upper trunk/girdle. I still recall having competitions against my mates in the rugby team to see who could clean and press the heaviest rock I had bought from a local builders’ merchant and/or the beer keg that was donated to me. Ironically enough, this style of training seems to have come back into fashion again. My original inspiration for this training was Brooks Kubikvi.
If you have access to a gym, my suggested workout for triceps would be (assuming you had already trained chest and shoulders in a traditional push/pull/lower split or chest/shoulder/tricep split):
- Close grip bench press: 5×5 (ramping, working up to heaviest 5 reps)
- Dips: Pick your max amount of dips and times in by 1.5 and do these in one set, rest pause as necessary
- Any form of triceps extension: Pressdowns, skull-crushers, dumbbell extensions, etc. 3×10-12 (straight weight or same weight for all three sets)
You could run this programme for a fairly long time, making slight adjustments to the exercises/set/rep schemes to keep things progressing nicely). Don’t forget that there is nothing wrong in ENJOYING your training, so if you particularly like an exercise, don’t be afraid to ‘invest’ your energy into it. I love dips, and so do them religiously, as I believe they are both a great triceps builder and incredibly versatile (i.e. high reps for endurance, reps as low as 3-5 for strength, reps in 6-12 for bodybuilding, etc).
b) Applied triceps training for intermediates
Assuming you have been down the gym for a while, you may want a more specific routine, but I don’t know much about competitive bodybuilding so I will assume that you are just a regular person who wants to take their triceps training to the next level.
Alternatively, you may want to bench 140kg (a good intermediate goal in my opinion) or want to simply fill out your favourite t-shirt better through thicker/more defined/denser triceps (we all do it, both guys and girls!)
Returning to The Westside Book of Methods, I find the following passage particularly insightful:
“Everyone thinks that a close grip bench press will raise your contest bench press. At Westside, we believe this is very true. In fact, we believe it to be true so much that we find new ways to increase the close grip bench… You’ll find the extensions… are some of our favourite exercises”
In essence, what Louie Simmons is highlighting is that close grip bench press is a formidable asset in developing the triceps, but that extensions of all kinds will also have a very good effect on the triceps themselves.
Suggested ideas for intermediate trainees (I won’t give a routine as by now you will have your own system/school of thought, so these are just a few ideas to add to your ‘arsenal’ so to speak:
- Close grip bench press: paused at the chest for 1-2 seconds. N.B. Close grip should be shoulder width; anything else is super-close grip and places phenomenal strain on the wrist. Sets/reps can be anything, but I really like going heavy so maybe 3-6 reps for as many sets as you prefer. Personally, I like something like 3×3 or 5×5. For variation, use of bands or chains can be highly effective due to the effect of accommodating resistance vii (see reference for application for bodybuilding).
- JM Press: Can be done with a barbell, incline, decline, on floor, Smith machine, etc. This one is hard to describe but very effective. I think it played a huge role in me adding 20kg to my bench in a relatively short time frame. The best way to get an idea of how this is performed is by searching on YouTube; it was named after a legendary powerlifter called JM Blakley. In essence, it is like a cross between a close grip bench press and a lying tricep extension or skull crusher. I like slightly higher reps on this: 12-15.
- Lying tricep extensions/skull-crushers (with a twist): I really love these, and there are so many effective variations that you just don’t see much of anymore. A few of my favourite examples are using an EZ bar with an adjustable bench on a incline, bringing the bar to the back of the head and then extending as normal. Another great variation is what is known as a “rolling dumbbell tricep extension” which is like a regular dumbbell extension with a twist; again hard to describe but there are plenty of examples on YouTube. I find the more advanced you get, the more you need to change your training stimuli. I have personally found rotating or varying key exercises over a 2-4 week period an effective protocol, but everyone is difference.
An important caveat: the need for balanced training
This may seem as a fairly obvious statement to make, but in my opinion you should be training your whole body; i.e. do not train triceps and neglect biceps. Don’t forget to train all aspects of a body and use movements in place of mere ‘exercises’ instead. An example of this would be, don’t be a chest/shoulders/bicep trainer without placing emphasis on the reverse muscles, i.e. back/traps/triceps, (and legs but that’s a different article maybe!).
c) Conclusion: Advanced triceps training
When it comes to training the triceps for a sport specific goal or even for aesthetics, the triceps muscle is an area of the body which must be addressed with precision. It is a fairly small muscle but is used every time the elbow extends and it also provides dynamic stability in many movements. Advanced tricep training has people performing a lot of isolation work on the triceps themselves. However, even someone who practices a sport that does not require the triceps to be specifically the prime mover must still do isolation work; for example an equestrian rider uses their triceps as a stabilizer when holding the reigns.
This is where an approach designed by holistic health practitioner Paul Chek can be put into context:
“If you are going to isolate, you must then integrate”
That is key to training any muscle at an advanced level. When applying it to the triceps, the isolation is a non-sports specific approach; it is literally repetitive extensions of the elbow at different tempos, under different loads and at different reps and sets. These four factors are the consideration of the person training their triceps to choose the relevant tempo, correct load, right reps and sets. They must be related to the outcome they desire. However, once the muscle is worked over a period of time and the desired size, strength or look of the triceps has been achieved, it is then that the integration of the triceps muscle into the rest of the body which builds functionality for sports specific movements, or non-sports specific movements such as an individual training for aesthetics. Either approach requires the triceps to be either a synergist or a prime mover. It is the isolation of the triceps that addresses the weakness of the muscle and it is the integration into large movements (e.g. bench press) that allows the trained triceps now to become functional.
I would like to finish off by stating that triceps training has a specific technique. The extension must be perfect; time must be spent practicing this (train the movement not the muscle) and to always combine this with a thorough warm up and warm down every time you train. This will set you in good stead to avoid injuries and therefore avoid more muscle weakness in the future.
Enjoy triceps training!
Note: I do not feel that I qualify to comment on advanced training for triceps, outside my own sphere of a strength training background, as I have never competed in bodybuilding or really ever trained for a certain ‘look’ so I will only comment on what I know.
- Latin for, ‘all other factors being equal’
- Which can be purchased from the Westside link above, either as a physical book or e-book
- Please see an article named ‘Unconventional Workouts’ on the blog fatshapetofitshape.blogspot.co.uk by Nick Tumminello
- Note that although Hammer Strength kit, particularly their chest machines, are often seated, the industry generally rates them very highly and mainly athletes and bodybuilders love them!
- See www.brookskubik.com, I had a fairly early version of “Dinosaur Training”.
- See www.t-nation.com/free_online_article/most_recent/bands_and_chains_for_bodybuilding (by John Meadows)