This week we are continuing our feature where we provide our view on which are the top 5 exercises for different body parts.
What are the criteria for selecting the ‘best‘ 5 exercises? They are those that build muscle, or tone, and do so in a balanced, aesthetically pleasing way. They should work well for most people and provide maximum stimulation. As a collection they need to provide an all over stimulus that will develop a well-proportioned pleasing shape.
Not all the exercises in this series are going to work for everyone, but I have tried to choose exercises that most people should be able to perform whilst also offering variety.
This week we give our view on the top 5 best tricep exercises.
The triceps are the muscles at the back of the arm. As you’ll see from the link, the lateral and medial heads originate on the upper arm and the long head crosses the shoulder, originating from the scapula. They all insert into the ulna of the forearm. In terms of training there’s only really one movement, which is extension of the elbow joint. So why would we dedicate a whole ‘top 5’ to them? Perhaps training your triceps will help remove or tone up your ‘bingo wings’? Sadly not. Training the triceps with this aim will be a fruitless endeavor. A reduction in overall body fat levels is the surest way to reveal tone in the upper arm. No, the reason they deserve their own top 5 is because, contrary to a lot of people’s intuition, they’re responsible for most of the mass of the upper arm, so they’re more important than the biceps if you want to have big arms.
If you’re only extending the elbow joint, how can there be enough variety to come up with 5 sufficiently different exercises? Well, because there are three heads and there are both isolation exercises and good heavy compound exercises that target the triceps. Some exercises will emphasise the long head, others the lateral head. Some are great as heavy basics for myofibrillar hypertrophy whilst others are great for pumping up the triceps and emphasising sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. So, with these considerations a good deal of variety is possible. In our best tricep exercises that follow, I’ve tried to include only one exercise for a particular goal.
So, with the intro done, on to our 5 best tricep exercises…
The first of our best tricep exercises is my choice for ‘heavy compound basic’. There are plenty of other good choices such as close grip bench presses or push ups, and bench dips, but there’s something a little more primal and motivational about moving your whole body up and down between parallel bars. It helps you to give maximum effort.
The other good thing about dips compared to the other compound lifts is that it’s easy to both add weight and make the exercise easier. Use a dipping belt to add weight, or a resistance band to make it easier. Alternatively, to make it easier, you should be able to find an assisted dipping station in most commercial gyms.
Get good depth on your dips without overstretching the shoulder. Hang more vertically to emphasise the triceps and lean forward to put more through the chest. You can go heavy and hard on these for good basic myofibrillar hypertrophy. They will hit all three heads nicely so they’re a good choice if you can only do one exercise.
The second of our best tricep exercises is skullcrushers. These are my choice for long head targeting. To target the long head you need to have the arm raised overhead to put the long head into a stretched position. There are many exercises that do this, but the skullcrusher is a tried and tested favourite, and has some advantages over other choices. Although this is a single joint movement, I’d still put it down as a heavy basic. It’s a good old school heavy iron exercise.
When you do the skullcrusher, keep the upper arm at a slight angle so the elbow is over your face rather than over your chest. This way you’ll keep your triceps engaged throughout the set, increase time under tension and fatigue more quickly and thoroughly. Note that the upper arm isn’t fully stretched overhead in this exercise. This is generally more comfortable and less risky than allowing the upper arm to move right back behind the head, as it might do with overhead dumbbell extensions, for example.
Another handy feature of this exercise is that it’s easy to superset with close grip presses. As soon as you fail on the skullcrusher, move the bar to your lower chest, tuck your elbows in and start close grip presses. This works better on the last set when your triceps are sufficiently fatigued to find the weight challenging for the presses.
3. Triceps push down
The third of our best tricep exercises is a great exercise and a firm favourite of most trainees. This time the lateral head is the emphasis. The pushdown is great when it comes to variety. You can use a straight bar, a wide V bar, a narrow V bar, a rope to pull apart and you can use a straight bar underhand, which will target the medial head. Each handle hits the triceps in a slightly different way so you can keep it fresh from workout to workout. You can stand away from the cable to create an angle and emphasise the fully contracted squeeze, or you can stand directly underneath. You can go heavy or you can go for higher volume and get a great pump. Or you can do drop sets. It’s a great exercise for variety!
You’ll see a lot of people using too much weight on this exercise or poor form. They either don’t allow the hands to travel high enough, thereby robbing themselves of full stimulation through a full range of motion, or they hunch over it and press it down like in a close grip pressing movement, or they let their elbows travel up with the bar and use their lats in a sort of pulldown-pushdown hybrid movement. For best triceps isolation and stimulation, keep your shoulder blades stable, posture upright and elbows tight and fixed by your sides. You might not be able to shift as much weight like this, but you’ll do a better job of building the triceps.
4. Cable kickbacks
The penultimate of our best tricep exercises is cable kickbacks. I appreciate this is not a great builder of size but it is fantastic for giving you a full and intense contraction. The long head is at its shortest and most contracted position in the fully extended position behind the plane of the torso. It’s equivalent to squeezing the biceps at the most flexed position – it’s great for a burn and, dare I say even a cramping sensation.
You can use this in a number of ways. You can use it at the start to wake your triceps up, you can use it at the end as a finisher to really leave your triceps aching, or, if you’re new to weight training, it’s great to help you develop a mind muscle connection and learn how to activate the triceps.
There’s another reason why I like this exercise. It perfectly reproduces the position and intense contraction of the triceps when I’m on stage performing the side triceps pose. The reason I prefer the cable version of the kickback to the dumbbell version is because you get constant tension through the range of motion, it’s easier to get the arm behind the plane of the body like in the side triceps pose, and I can even reproduce the position of my torso on stage by positioning the bench vertically and away from the cable station, creating the angle I need for a great contraction.
5. Prone rope extensions
The final of our best tricep exercises is another with a long head emphasis. Why have I included two exercises that target the long head? Well, it’s because I only came up with four categories and had to double up on one! But actually, I included it because it’s ‘kinda funky’ and has some unique qualities that make it a great choice.
First, you can choose how far back you allow your upper arm to travel because the rope passes either side of your head unlike with the dumbbell version which requires you lower the dumbbell directly behind your head. Second, you can vary the angle of pull. Lie further away and keep the angle low to emphasise the stretched position, or set the angle high and lie closer to emphasise the fully contracted squeeze. Third, because it’s a cable exercise, you can do drop sets relatively easily. I sometimes go heavy on this and use this as my heavy long head exercise, and sometimes I’ll use it as a finisher and go for more volume.
One downside of this exercise is that it’s not obvious how to set the weight down safely at the end of the set. It simply requires a body roll followed by an assisted sit up and squat. There’s a knack to it!
So, there you have it, my top 5 best tricep exercises. When designing your workout for triceps, make sure to regularly include exercises that emphasise the long head and the lateral head, and include a heavy compound basic exercise. Be careful not to over train them as they get a lot of stimulation when training other parts of the body, particularly with pressing movements on chest and shoulder day. So, what are you waiting for? Go and put some variety in your triceps training and watch them grow!