Bench Pressing Isn’t Enough for Maximal Triceps Growth

Who doesn’t want big arms?

Large and well-developed arm muscles aren’t only helpful in lifting heavy ass weight – it is also an eye-catching trophy of your hard work in the gym.

If you are trying to make your arms bigger, you’d be wise to pay close attention to your triceps. The triceps muscle constitutes about 57% of your upper arm muscle mass – the biceps brachii and brachialis (located just under biceps brachii and oftentimes viewed as the same one) share the rest.1

But how do you train the triceps efficiently?

Complicating the answer to that question, is the triceps anatomy.

Triceps: The Three-Headed Muscle

The triceps has (as it’s name implies) three different muscle heads: the lateral, medial and long head.

The lateral and medial head originates from your upper arm, but the long head originates from your shoulder blade. All three heads then fuse together in a tendon that inserts in your elbow bone. Thus the lateral and medial head only crosses over one joint (the elbow joint) while the long head crosses over two (the elbow and the shoulder joint).

Triceps three heads
The medial head is smaller than the long and lateral ones, and is for the most part hidden beneath them. Image source: www.musclesused.com

This difference in anatomy has lead to the hypothesis that different heads of the tricep needs different exercises to be trained optimally.

A newly published study finally sheds some well-needed light over this matter, and how different exercises affect your tricep growth. What’s more, it shows us that one of the most popular upper-body exercises in the gym isn’t enough for good tricep development.

10 Weeks of Bench Press, Tricep Extension, or Both

In this study, the researchers recruited 50 men in the age of 18–35 years, who hadn’t lifted weights regularly for at least the last six months.2

The participants strength (1RM) in both bench press and lying barbell tricep extensions were assessed, and the cross-sectional area of their pecs as well as triceps was measured with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). What’s more, the reasearchers used the MRI to measure the individual sizes of the triceps’ three different muscle heads: the lateral, medial and long heads.

After the preliminary testing, the researchers divided the participants into four groups. The difference between the groups lay in what exercises they were to train.

The four different groups trained:

  1. Bench press
  2. Tricep extensions
  3. Bench press + Tricep extensions
  4. Tricep extensions + Bench press
Bench press exercise
Bench press.
Lying barbell tricep extension.

The participants trained twice per week for ten weeks, with between 3–5 sets (varying over the weeks) per exercise, lifting about 80% of their 1RM until failure.

Results: Different Exercises Trained Different Parts of The Triceps

After ten weeks, they went through another round of testing.

On a whole, they found that the triceps growth in the groups that had included tricep extensions was almost twice that of the bench press-only group.

Whole tricep muscle growth

That isn’t too surprising – earlier studies have also hinted that only bench pressing leads to sub-optimal tricep growth.

But don’t write off the bench press for tricep training before you’ve looked at the muscle growth of the individual tricep heads.

The groups including bench press in their training saw good growth in the lateral head of the triceps (that is the one you can feel on the outside of your arm), but the group only doing tricep extensions barely saw any growth at all.

Muscle growth in triceps lateral head

On the contrary, the groups training tricep extensions saw good growth in the long head of the triceps, while the bench press-only group barely saw any.

Muscle growth in triceps long head

As for the medial head, the groups training tricep extensions saw about twice the growth compared to the bench press-only group, but the bench press-only group at least saw some growth.

Muscle growth in triceps medial head

The pectoralis major muscle was also assessed again. As expected, the group doing only tricep extensions didn’t see any pec growth. But more interesting is that the group that did tricep extensions before they bench pressed, had worse pec growth compared to the group that only bench pressed, or trained bench press before they did tricep extensions.

Muscle growth in pecs

Finally, the strength gains. There was nothing really shocking here, and the groups got better at what they practiced. One thing that catches my eye is that only bench pressing seems to do more for the tricep extension 1RM than only doing tricep extensions does for the bench press 1RM.

Change in bench press 1RM
Change in tricep extension 1RM

One can note that adding in extra tricep extensions didn’t give greater strength gains in the bench press compared to only bench pressing, at least not in 10 weeks. Over the course of additional months or even years, I would personally suspect that extra tricep work can be of use. At the very least, since bench pressing isn’t too taxing on the elbows, most people can add in some easy tricep work in the end of their workouts without taking to much of a risk of over-training.

Take-Aways

This was an interesting study, that gave us several interesting insights:

  • Bench press train the lateral head of the tricep effectively, but not the medial or long head.
  • Lying barbell tricep extensions trains the long and medial head of the tricep effectively, but not the lateral head.
  • Both exercises together complement each other, leading to good growth in the whole tricep.
  • Training triceps before benching hampers your pec growth, but benching before training triceps doesn’t seem to hurt the tricep growth as much. Lead with the compound lifts!
  • No beneficial effect on bench press 1RM was seen from adding tricep training to bench pressing.

References

  1. Strength & Conditioning Journal: October 2017 – Volume 39 – Issue 5 – p 33-35. Large and Small Muscles in Resistance Training: Is It Time for a Better Definition?
  2. J Strength Cond Res. 2020 May;34(5):1254-1263. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003550. Varying the Order of Combinations of Single- And Multi-Joint Exercises Differentially Affects Resistance Training Adaptations.

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