Selecting the Best Tricep Exercises
As an athlete, it is important to develop a strong upper body. One of the most critical components of developing a strong upper body is ensuring that your triceps are properly trained. Not only do your triceps play a significant role in the extension of the elbow during a press (bench press) or push (med ball chest pass) movement, the triceps are largely responsible for your ability to use your arms to apply force or control during competition.
The triceps brachii muscle consists of three heads; long, medial, and lateral. The muscle traces the rear upper arm, connecting at the scapula and the humerus, with the triceps tendon connecting the muscle to the olecranon process. To ensure all heads of the triceps and the triceps tendons are properly trained and developed, it is essential to have a basic understanding of tricep exercise selection for both main and accessory exercises.
The Conjugate Method provides a programming template that makes it easy for an athlete to train the triceps to improve upper body absolute strength and muscle mass. For many years, Louie emphasized the importance of tricep development for all athletes. If you have ever visited Westside, you know that much of our training on upper body days directly or passively target the triceps.
Proper triceps training comes down to two things: exercise selection and programming. As long as you select worthwhile exercises and program these movements with optimal levels of volume and intensity, you can expect to add strength and size to your triceps.
Here is how we go about selecting and programming triceps exercises at Westside Barbell:
One of the best ways to develop strength in the triceps is to add tricep-focused exercises to your upper body main exercise selections. When selecting a tricep-focused exercise as a main exercise, we will always choose a multi-joint exercise considering the many training benefits provided compared to a single-joint exercise.
Multi-joint movements are preferred due to the impact these exercises have on other upper-body muscle groups. Instead of solely focusing on the triceps, we can focus on the triceps while providing adequate training for the shoulders, pecs, upper back, biceps, and forearms.
The intent of max effort upper training days is to improve the absolute strength of the upper body while also developing strength and skill in variations of the bench and overhead press. We opt for multi-joint movements only when selecting a tricep-focused main exercise.
Here are a few of our go-to triceps-focused main exercises, along with programming recommendations:
- Bench Press (with band or chain)
- Incline Press
- JM Press
- Close Grip Bench Press (with band or chain)
- 2 or 3 Board Bench Press
- Floor Press (with band or chain)
- Pin Press (flat, incline, or standing)
When programming these exercises for a max effort upper training day, we typically work up to a top set of 1-3 reps. Additionally, you can choose to use the bench press or close grip bench press as a dynamic effort main exercise. You will still follow the recommended dynamic effort upper set and rep schemes.
Remember that you can also use any of the above exercises as a primary accessory exercise. In that case, we recommend either working up to a top set of 5-8 reps or performing multiple sets of 5-8 reps. Heavy tricep-focused primary accessory exercises are some of the best tricep exercises considering your ability to manipulate volume and intensity to deliver the results you seek.
At Westside, the bulk of our tricep training is featured in our accessory work. Some of the best tricep exercises you can perform are single-joint exercises that allow you to focus on specific portions of the triceps, such as long-head tricep exercises or medial-head tricep exercises. Additionally, we can perform many accessory tricep exercises with dumbbells, which are tremendously beneficial.
Tricep accessory exercises will also feature considerable training volume, which is necessary to improve both size and strength. Here are a few of the common tricep exercises we perform during our upper body accessory training:
- Rolling DB Tricep Extensions
- Cable Pressdowns (various attachments)
- DB Bench Press (flat or incline)
- Standing DB Overhead Press
- Williams Extensions (flat or incline)
- Overhead DB Tricep Extensions
- Standing Chest/Tricep Press Machine
- Weighted Push-Ups
- Weighted Dips
When programming these exercises we will typically perform 3-5 sets of 8-15 reps per set depending on the movement. For instance, we may increase the intensity of DB bench press or rolling DB tricep extensions while performing higher levels of volume with exercises like cable extensions or weighted dips.
Keep in mind that you can also include any of the tricep-focused main exercises as accessory exercises. It is just a matter of programming the exercises according to proper accessory exercise volume and intensity levels.
We will also feature ultra-high-volume exercises using very light weights or band tension to focus on tendon development. These exercises are always tricep extension exercises and should be performed for 3-5 sets of 75-100 repetitions per set.
Targeting specific muscle groups requires the athlete to execute the movements with the correct intent. Failing to do so can lessen the effectiveness of the training or potentially lead to injury. As mentioned above, when choosing a tricep-focused main exercise, you will always select a multi-joint movement. With these exercises, it is expected that you will use other muscle groups to accomplish the lift while placing as much emphasis on the triceps as possible.
Single-joint accessory exercises call for more specific levels of execution. When using a single-joint exercise to target the triceps directly, it is vital to take the muscle through the entire range of motion while creating as much mechanical tension as possible. This will allow the athlete to develop larger triceps. These exercises deliver muscle growth, while the main exercise or primary accessory exercises deliver strength.
So, when performing the above-listed exercises, be sure to know the intent of the movement. If the objective is to move the most significant amount of weight using a multi-joint exercise to improve absolute strength, feel free to use other muscle groups to help accomplish the goal. However, if hypertrophy is the intention, focus more specifically on the triceps while limiting the use of other upper-body muscle groups.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How often should the triceps be trained?
A: We recommend training the triceps every upper body training day. The emphasis on the triceps can vary depending on the day, but we always perform tricep movements each upper body workout.
Q: Do I need specialized bars or equipment to perform the above mentioned exercises?
A: All of the exercises listed above should be able to be performed using very basic gym equipment. The only issue may be access to bands or chains. If you need bands, we have you covered.
Q: What exercises work the long head of the tricep?
A: We recommend close grip bench, JM press, or rolling dumbbell tricep extensions.
Q: What exercises work the lateral head of the tricep?
A: We recommend cable pressdowns, dips, or close grip push-ups.
Q: What exercises work the medial head of the tricep?
A: We recommend Williams extensions, overhead cable extensions, or overhead dumbbell extensions.
Q: What exercises work all 3 heads?
A: All tricep exercises will work the long, lateral, and medial heads to some degree. However, specific exercises will emphasize the use of each of the individual heads of the triceps brachii.
Q: How frequently should a tricep-focused main exercise be performed?
A: We usually choose one tricep-focused main exercise per month for max effort and alternate between close and competition grip each wave for dynamic effort.
Q: How many tricep exercises should be performed during upper body accessory training?
A: We like to go with 2-3 tricep-focused accessory exercises each upper body training day.
Q: How many weeks can you perform the same tricep accessory exercises?
A: We recommend rotating all accessory exercises frequently, with three weeks being the max time we recommend before changing exercises.
Q: Are primary accessory exercises necessary?
A: No. However, if you need to improve your strength or skill in a specific exercise, one of the best ways to go about it is to feature the movement as a primary accessory exercise.
Q: Why is the tendon-focused training volume so high?
A: While the volume is high, the intensity is severely regulated to keep the exercise tolerable. You should be using only enough tension to target the tendons.
The Westside Way is the Way
Westside Barbell has been at the forefront of bench press strength development for many years. Not only have our lifters pressed 800, 900, and even 1000lbs in gear, but we have also had many lifters press 500 and 600lbs raw. A large part of this success has come from how we train our triceps.
If you want to develop strong triceps, it is vital to focus not only on hypertrophy, but you must load the triceps as well. Too often, athletes believe that increasing the size of the muscle is simultaneously improving the muscle's strength. While some tricep strength is gained as muscle mass increases, it must be understood that training intensity is what leads to remarkable gains in strength.
By using exercise variations during our main and accessory exercises, we can ensure muscle groups most responsible for success in sports can be loaded appropriately and trained at adequate volume levels. This provides our lifters with an even balance of strength and size development. We don't just look strong, we are strong.
Following the recommendations mentioned above will give you the tools necessary to take your bench press, overhead press, and upper body strength to the next level. Check out the WSBB blog for more information regarding upper body strength training and all other aspects of Conjugate Method training.
Simmons, L. (2007). Westside Barbell Book of Methods. Westside Barbell.
Verkhoshansky, Y., & Siff, M. C. (2009). Supertraining. Verkhoshansky.
Zatsiorsky, V. M., & Kraemer, W. J. (2006). Science and Practice of Strength Training. Human Kinetics.