We frequently end up having to answer questions about which exercises are the top 5 best triceps exercises of all time. Literally, the two most common questions you will hear from male weightlifters are:
- How can I get bigger arms?
- How can I bench press more weight?
Normally I would scoff at such questions, except that the answer is a lesson that most young weightlifters need to learn. Because your triceps comprise two-thirds of your arm, the answer to the first question is: train your triceps.
Because your triceps are often the weakest link in the chain of muscles that facilitates bench press, the answer to the second question is: train your triceps.
This brings me to the point of this whole post: how best to train your triceps.
Anatomy of the Triceps
The triceps brachii has three heads that connect the humerus and scapula to the forearm bone called the ulna. These three heads are known as the Lateral, Medial, and Long heads.
- The lateral head is located on the outward-facing side of the humerus. This head is most responsible for the horseshoe shape of the triceps.
- The medial head is located towards the midline of the body.
- The long head runs along the bottom side of the humerus and is the largest of the three heads.
Again I will mention that your triceps make up about 70% of the total muscle mass of your upper arm, so when building bigger arms, focus more energy on these guys than the infamous biceps.
Functions of the Triceps
The primary function of the triceps is to extend the elbow, which results in straightening the arm.
The secondary function of the triceps is fulfilled only by the long head of the muscle, which is to adduct the arm (or to bring the arm down towards the body). The triceps shares this function with the latissimus dorsi (back muscles).
The Top 5 Best Triceps Exercises
A number of criteria went into selecting the best triceps exercises. I focused on compound exercises over isolation. We also want to be able to go as heavy as possible in order to build the size and strength we are seeking.
Work a couple of these exercises into your weekly training, and you will see a huge improvement in your triceps within 2 months.
Until I finally start filming my own demo videos, you can enjoy the following videos from YouTube.
1. Close Grip Bench Press
A close grip bench is probably the best triceps exercise on the planet. This exercise allows you to go heavy and put maximum stress on the one muscle besides the pecs that can help increase your bench.
You want to set up like a regular bench press, but position your hands no wider than shoulder width. On the descent, you want to keep your elbows in; do not let your elbows drift away from your body like you would with a regular bench press.
At the bottom of the movement, you want the bar to come to the lower portion of your chest; at the top of the movement, the bar should be over your upper chest. Ideally, your forearms should be perpendicular to the floor at all times. Your hands and wrists should be directly over your elbows throughout the movement.
Scott Herman’s video below, used a slightly wider grip than I prefer, but not by much – 1-2 inches per side at most. The rest of his form is great though. He doesn’t quite touch and go like I do, preferring to stop about an inch above the rib cage, but touch and go isn’t for everyone anyways.
2. Weighted Dips
A classic triceps builder. Keep your body as upright as possible to put the stress on your triceps rather than your chest. Use a belt with a chain, or a vest, or hold a dumbbell between your legs/feet to add weight if you can do more than 8 reps at body weight.
Be careful to always respect the flexibility and stability of your shoulders. Be sure not to lower your body so far that your shoulders become compromised, and always use strict form and a bounce-free concentric movement. Elbows should stop just short of lock-out at the top. Never lock out your joints with a heavy load.
3. Rack Lockouts and Board Press
True powerlifting exercises, these two can be used interchangeably but only choose to use one of these exercises in any given workout. For the most part, they train the same muscles.
The goal here is to train the top portion of the bench press, where triceps rain supreme. I prefer rack lockouts because if I do use too much weight I can just rack the bar, and I don’t have to worry about carrying around a bunch of boards nailed together as if I didn’t already carry enough equipment around in my gym bag.
However, most powerlifters that I have ever known prefer the board press to rack lockouts. I believe this is because the board press is identical to a regular bench press, except that the range of motion is much shorter (and there’s a big board on your chest). You can also vary the thickness of the boards from 1 inch to 10 inches or whatever you need for your workout.
4. Lying French Press (aka skull crushers, nose breakers)
This is as close as I’ll get to recommending a triceps extension-type exercise. The reason I like this exercise so much is that you really can work up to a decent weight, and it works your triceps from a different angle than any of the pressing movements.
I suggest using an EZ curl bar and positioning your hands shoulder-width apart. Lower the bar under control down to your nose, your hairline, or behind your head. If you feel any pain in your triceps, opt to lower the bar behind your head.
Scott Herman takes it one step further in the video below and actually hangs his head off the bench. I see how this could cause neck strain in some folks, so you may just want to keep your head on the bench instead, but still drop the weight behind.
5. Close Grip (Diamond) Clapping Push Ups
What? How did this get in here? No seriously, if you can bang out a set of 10 diamond push ups that’s great, but can you clap after each rep? This is an exercise that will really condition your triceps to contract with maximum force. Obviously doing diamond push ups without a clap would be the regression, and that’s perfectly fine for most hobby athletes. Adding weight via vest or sandbag would be a decent progression after body weight but before clapping.
You want to position your hands underneath your chest with index fingers and thumb tips touching. The space between should form a diamond. As soon as you can do 10 of these without the clap, add the clap. In order to clap properly you will need to push yourself up high enough to execute the clap and return your hands to their proper diamond position for the next rep.
If this is too hard you can work up to it by placing plates or books beside your hands, and ‘jump’ up onto them. This is initially a shorter range of motion than a clap.
In the following video, Scott Herman is just doing regular diamond push ups without a clap, that should be enough for most people. We do these in Thai kickboxing classes.
If you use a 3-day full body training split, you can choose 3 of these best triceps exercises, using 1 each day. If you have an ‘arm day’ (which is a totally bogus topic for another day), you can probably choose 2 of these exercises for your triceps routine.
Keep reps under 5 per set, and do no more than 3-5 sets of each exercise including warm-ups.
Dedicate yourself to triceps specialization for a minimum of 2 months and you will reap tremendous rewards.