“Biceps for show, triceps for go.”
Your triceps are one of the largest muscle groups in your upper body. Their main function is to extend your elbow, which means that they are involved in a ton of different activities, including all kinds of pushing and pressing.
But that doesn’t mean your triceps don’t carry a visual impact. Two and a half times larger than your biceps, and 33% larger than your biceps and brachialis combined, your triceps muscles make up the bulk of your arms muscle mass.1
In this article, you will learn how to train your triceps effectively. From triceps muscle anatomy, to the best exercises for increasing your triceps muscle mass and strength. And then we’ll put it all together into one effective triceps workout.
Triceps Muscle Anatomy
As you can tell by its name, the triceps is a three-headed muscle. The three heads have different origins, but they all join together in one tendon that inserts on your elbow, on the top of your ulna.
The three parts of the triceps are:
- The long head. Originates from your shoulder blade. This is the head that sits closest to your side and rubs against your lats. This head makes up about 50% of the triceps muscle volume and is the only head that crosses two joints: the shoulder and the elbow.
- The lateral head. Originates from your humerus (the bone in your upper arm). This is the head that, among other things, creates the “lump” on the outside of your arm, at least when the muscle is well developed. This head makes up about 38% of the triceps muscle volume.
- The medial head. Also originates from your humerus but lies closest to the bone, beneath the two other heads. This is the smallest head, and makes up only about 12% of the triceps muscle volume.
The long head of the triceps differs from the other two, in that it is the only head that crosses over two joints: the shoulder and the elbow. This means that the long head is at a short muscle length when your upper arm is close to your side, and at a long muscle length when your upper arm is elevated over your head.
Different heads of the triceps are activated in different exercises, depending on the position of your upper arm and how the load is applied. By combining the right tricep exercises, you can make sure that you’re targeting all parts of your triceps.
Tricep Exercises: The Best Exercises for Building Your Triceps
In this section, we’ll take a look at four tricep exercises with slightly different benefits and training effects, that complement each other in terms of which of the different triceps heads they target.
By putting them all together, as we’ll do in the next section, you can create a great triceps workout.
1. Close-Grip Bench Press
The close-grip bench press is a classic when it comes to compound lifts for your triceps. This pressing exercise will not only develop the strength and power in your upper body, but it will also target a part of your triceps that the other tricep exercises might not.
A recent study from Brazil had participants train bench press or barbell lying triceps extension for 10 weeks. The researchers found that the lateral head of the triceps had only grown in the participants that had trained bench press: 7.2% increase in muscle thickness of the lateral triceps head, compared to just a 0.6% increase for the group that had trained lying triceps extensions.2
2. Barbell Lying Triceps Extension
The barbell lying triceps extension works the triceps differently compared to the close-grip bench press. In this exercise, you raise your upper arm towards your head, which will make the long head of the triceps (which originates from the shoulder blade) work at a slightly longer muscle length.
This exercise might have failed to elicit growth in the lateral head in the Brazilian study mentioned earlier, but when it came to the other two heads (the medial and the long head), it blew the bench press out of the water. The group training lying triceps extensions increased the thickness of their long and medial triceps heads with 17.5 and 14.0%, respectively. In comparison, the bench press only led to increases of 2.1 and 7.3%.
Thus, the close-grip bench press and the barbell lying triceps extension complements each other, targeting different heads of the triceps.
3. Overhead Cable Triceps Extension
The overhead cable triceps extension is an isolation exercise for the triceps that, like the barbell lying triceps extension, trains the long head of the triceps at a long muscle length.
One recent study compared this exercise to tricep pushdown and found that while they both lead to similar total growth in the long head of the triceps (~16 %), the muscle growth was distributed differently.3
- Overhead cable triceps extensions led to growth primarily in the distal part of the long head (the part closest to the elbow).
- Tricep pushdown led to a more evenly distributed growth, in the whole length of the long head.
4. Tricep Pushdown
Finally, the tricep pushdown. This is the favourite tricep exercise of many lifters, simply because it feels so good on the elbows.
Compared to the overhead extensions, the long head of the triceps is at a short muscle length in this exercise. And, as previously mentioned, the tricep pushdown seems to elicit a more evenly distributed growth of the long head than the overhead extensions.
By including both in your triceps workout, you increase the chances of large muscle growth.
Triceps Workout for Muscle Growth and Strength
So what does an effective triceps workout look like?
Building on the exercises above, let’s construct an example workout, drawing on several principles:
- The exercises target all three triceps heads, at slightly different muscle lengths or positions, which means a majority of their different muscle fibers will be targeted.
- The load and rep range covers a wide spectrum, ranging from medium reps with moderate weights, all the way up to high reps with light weights.
This workout is aimed at both strength and muscle growth, and you will be able to get good results of both with it.
Let’s have a look at the workout, and then go through why it looks like it does.
StrengthLog’s Triceps Workout
- Close-Grip Bench Press: 3 sets x 6 reps
- Barbell Lying Triceps Extension: 3 sets x 8
- Overhead Cable Triceps Extension: 3 sets x 14 reps
- Tricep Pushdown: 3 sets x 22 reps
This triceps workout is available for free in the StrengthLog workout app.
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This triceps workout begins with three working sets of close-grip bench press. These heavy sets will serve as the strength-foundation of your triceps training, and your primary aim for these sets will be progressive overload. That is a fancy way of saying: ”try to lift more weight for the same number of reps.”
If you hit three sets of six reps, you increase the weight for the next workout and stick with that until you can once again make 3 x 6.
You will not be able to increase the weight each week, but keep at it, and try to increase by a rep here and there (for example getting 6, 5, 5 instead of 6, 5, 4 last time) until you get all 3 x 6. Use our workout log to keep track of your performance.
After the close-grip benching, you’ll move on to barbell lying triceps extensions. This exercise will hit your triceps differently, targeting your medial and long triceps heads, compared to the pressing that mainly targeted your lateral heads.
Finally, you’ll finish up with two cable exercises, that will train the long head of your triceps at slightly different muscle lengths. The overhead cable triceps extension trains your long triceps head at a long muscle length and leads to muscle growth primarily in the part closest to your elbow. The tricep pushdown on the other hand trains your long triceps head at a short muscle head and leads to an evenly distributed growth along the whole muscle belly. Besides, this exercise just feels nice to pump out in as a finisher.
How often can you train this same triceps workout?
For a workout with this volume and intensity, something like 2–3 times per week is probably enough. Twice a week will probably be plenty for many, but if you feel that you have recovered quicker and that you can beat your previous weights, you could repeat it almost every other day.
An alternative is to do this workout once a week, but do one or two lighter workouts in between. In the lighter workouts, you can reduce both volume and weights, so that you are refreshed and helping your recovery along the way, rather than adding to the burden. Or, you could do a chest workout in between, which will hit your triceps indirectly and thus function as something of a light triceps workout.
And that’s it! Hopefully, by now you have a good grasp of your triceps muscle anatomy, what some effective tricep exercises are, and how you can combine them into one awesome triceps workout.
Please feel free to download our workout app to train this workout (and many more!) and track your gains. Remember to try and increase the weight you are using in each exercise to ensure your continued muscle growth and strength gains.
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- Strength and Conditioning Journal: October 2017, 39(5). Large and small muscles in resistance training: Is it time for a better definition?
- J Strength Cond Res. 2020 May;34(5):1254-1263. Varying the Order of Combinations of Single- And Multi-Joint Exercises Differentially Affects Resistance Training Adaptations.
- J. Funct. Morphol. Kinesiol. 2018, 3(2), 28. Triceps Brachii Muscle Strength and Architectural Adaptations with Resistance Training Exercises at Short or Long Fascicle Length.