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February 19, 2022
When it comes to triceps training, most gym goers limit themselves to a few sets of cable pressdowns. While pressdowns are popular they aren’t very effective at packing size onto your triceps. That’s why the average lifter lacks size on their arms. Rather than wasting your time doing endless sets of cable pressdowns, you’d be better served taking a look at a powerlifters training. The typical powerlifter has exceptional triceps size. This is due to an ideal combination of heavy pressing and targeted accessory work. Powerlifters often use dumbbells for their supplemental triceps work. If you want thick, strong, horseshoe triceps like a powerlifter, then you have to incorporate dumbbells into your triceps training. They provide a unique freedom of movement that can save your joints and make you gains, both now and in the future.
In this article, I’ll explain why dumbbells are such a great tool and give you 7 of the best dumbbell exercises for developing huge, balanced triceps.
As the name suggest, the triceps have 3 heads. Situated on the back of the arm and making up around 2/3 of upper arm muscle. They really make the upper arm look impressive if well-developed.
To be specific, anatomically speaking...
All three heads of the triceps insert at the Olecranon of the Ulna - a projection on the bony part of the elbow.
The medial head is the deepest lying of the three, with a broad and long origin on the posterior surface of the humerus (upper arm bone). Crossing only at the elbow joint. Its sole function is elbow extension. This head is the primary elbow extensor when there is no resistance through all ranges of motion and is the only head that can contract independently.
Superficial to the medial head, the lateral head originates on a narrow ridge on the posterior surface of the humerus. Like the medial head, the lateral head's only role is in elbow extension. This is the strongest elbow extensor but only comes into play when resistance is present. This gives the triceps its definition and size predominantly from the side.
The long head is the biarticular (acts on two joints) region of the muscle, originating at the infraglenoid tubercle of the scapula, a small bump by the glenoid fossa. This bump is on the underside of the top right corner of the scapula and blends into the labrum, whose job is to deepen the shoulder joint and keep the ball in place. Like the lateral and medial heads, it's heavily involved in elbow extension.
Crossing the shoulder joint means the long head has some additional responsibility. It aides the latissimus dorsi and pectoralis major in adduction - bringing the arm into the body - and the latissimus dorsi in shoulder extension. It also has a key role in shoulder stabilization - stopping the head of the humerus from going walkabouts. This is the part of triceps that really makes your arm stand out from the back.
1. Technique Considerations:
The goal of triceps training is to take the elbow through a full range of motion and make sure the triceps fatigue first. This is especially important with compounds, where the chest can take over. Secondly, due to its role at the shoulder, you want to make sure you’re training triceps at different degrees of shoulder flexion to vary the stimulus to muscle. This doesn’t have to be all in a single exercise or session (more about that in strategic variation).
It is important to train through a full range; but there is some evidence constant tension, mid-range, triceps extensions can fast-track triceps growth. Maintaining the constant-tension causes muscle hypoxia, which the authors of this study attributed the increased growth. I wouldn’t go crazy, training only mid-range, but you can certainly incorporate some partials into your program.
2. Strategic Variation:
Strategic Variation is the idea that using a range of exercises can provide better results than only doing the same movement. These variations can hit muscles at different lengths and resistance profiles, preventing movements from feeling stale. As no exercise is perfect for all heads and functions, this is especially important for muscles with multiple roles and regions. For example, skull crushers put the long head at a disadvantage. This means it’s likely to fatigue first, and the lateral and medial heads still have some more to give. This study demonstrated lying extension combined with bench press caused more growth to all heads than bench press or extensions alone. Triceps movements can also grate on the elbows, so having compounds, isolations, and varied angles can prevent overuse and irritation.
3. Targeting different parts of the triceps:
The lateral and medial heads are the primary elbow extensors, provided the shoulder is in a "natural position." This means extensions and presses - where the shoulder isn't overly extended or flexed, and you aren't fighting to adduct and extend the upper arm - prioritize lateral and medial head growth.
Despite its role in elbow extension, to target the long head you need to cater to its functions around the shoulder. Any exercise where you actively adduct and extend the upper arm will force the long head to contract more, stimulating growth. This can look like a cable kick back, with the elbow tucked and pushed backwards: or a lying extension, contracting isometrically to stop the weight pulling your upper arm into extension. There is no perfect angle for maximizing long-head recruitment. However, one study found little difference between lying dumbbell extensions at 90 degrees and overhead extensions at 180 degrees.
Contrary to popular beliefs, the triceps have no role in forearm supination and pronation. Were the gym-bros wrong when they told you palm-up extensions hit the long head and palms down for the lateral head? Interestingly, no. This queue actually has some merit. Supination generally forces you to tuck your elbows in, adducting the upper arm, targeting the long head.
Direct triceps volume fluctuates depending on training status and goals. At the beginning of your training career, pressing does a lot of the heavy lifting for you. Beginners volume for growth and more advanced trainee volume for maintenance are likely similar, 4-6 sets of direct work per week. Most trainees require 8-12 direct sets per week, with some requiring as high as 16-20. I would look to start with lower volumes building up the tolerance and strength of the structures around the elbow before jumping in at the deep end. If you’re recovering well or need more stimulus, you can add more sets down the line. Remember, you can always add sets later, but you can't take them out retrospectively without running the risk of reducing the training stimulus.
5. Intensity and Rep Ranges:
You should generally aim for 1-3 reps in reserver (RIR). As triceps training tends to be relatively safe, you can take this closer to failure when needed. You might want to look out for some joint pain, but generally, you should be safe from disaster.
Because of the variety of exercises- from compounds to kickbacks - viable reps span from 5-30 reps. Practicality should dictate the range you choose, with 5 reps of kickbacks not making much sense.
Direct triceps work can be done as little as once per week. This is enough to grow a beginner's arms or maintain more advanced trainee’s gains, provided they're doing a fair amount of pressing elsewhere.
However, to optimize growth, training them twice per week makes sense. This should facilitate plenty of variation and good quality sets. If it's hard to get good triceps sessions in over two days, you can add another. Splitting the volume and cutting the length of the sessions down can help maintain high-quality training and minimize junk volume.
Here are 7 of the best dumbbell exercises you can do for tricep mass, definition, and strength...
Narrow grip pressing is a great way to pack on mass. This dumbbell variation mimics close grip bench press, predominantly targeting the lateral and medial heads of triceps, but provides increased freedom of movement ingrained into dumbbell exercises.
The parallel press and tucked elbows help stop the chest from taking over, helping to target the triceps.
As it's a compound movement, don't isolate the triceps too much, but focusing on flexing and extending the elbow can help ensure the triceps are the limiting factors at the end of a set. Although it's a great bang-for-your-buck exercise, compounds can overlap with other training. You don't want a fatigued or sore chest to limit your triceps training.
Related: Best Dumbbell Chest Exercises
This hybrid press-extension variation designed by bench press champion JM Blakely targets the triceps and gives the shoulders a rest. Performing them with dumbbells, as opposed to the traditional barbell, further reduces joint stress and lets you focus on the exercise. By incorporating some shoulder flexion and extension, this hybrid hits all heads and is a great exercise to have in the arsenal.
This exercise is a more advanced movement and can irritate the elbows. Start light and let the joint and connective tissues build resilience before loading heavily. It can also be hard to get to grips with, trying to get the right dumbbell path and a rhythm as it feels like a two-part movement. Once you’ve got it down, this can be a great exercise to add to the arsenal.
While I’m pushing my luck (some would say “cheating”) by classifying these as a dumbbell exercise I’m counting them because I love them. It is of course true you can add load via plates, kettlebells, or a weighted vest instead of dumbbells, but if you want to pack on size to your triceps the dip is an excellent choice and loading it with dumbbells is a good option.
Triceps-dominant dips (torso more upright), are a great way to pack on triceps size while forcing stabilizers and pushing muscles to work hard in support. Without a complicated technique, these allow you to walk in, train your triceps and walk out.
Only go down as far as you can safely without putting undue stress on the shoulder by overextending. As with the other compounds, you want to make sure the triceps is the limiting factor in the exercise to get the most from it. Remember, these are all compound exercises. Trying to make them isolate the triceps is a sure-fire way to limit their effectiveness, take away a key benefit, and find yourself hurt!
Related: Dips Exercise Guide & Tips
Also known as skull crushers, lying triceps extension hit all heads of the triceps. Forcing you to isometrically contract the long head, to prevent the weight from pulling the upper arm into flexion, means this predominantly targets the long head. The flexed shoulder position means the long head is exposed to a loaded stretch, great for muscle growth. This helps to ensure the triceps is taken through a full range of motion during training.
By holding the weights over your chin and not your shoulder you prevent the joints from stacking, forcing the long head to work constantly. Neither more nor less shoulder flexion during the exercise is right or wrong, as long as it's done with control. Hand position is not overly important, pick whatever allows the best pump and prevents discomfort.
Skull crushers can grate on the elbows, even with dumbbells so be wary of any pain and build strength and volume slowly. It's great this target the long head, but make sure other variations you include are more focussed on the lateral and medial head.
Another exercise stolen from powerlifting; the Tate Press aims to increase pressing performance by blowing up the triceps. This exercise hits all heads of the triceps, and the incline bench and flared elbows provide some much-needed variety in your triceps training.
Like many triceps exercises, this can wear on the elbows if done too much or too heavy. Performing these one at a time, lowering the weight to the opposite side of the chest, can help the mind-muscle connection.
This extension variation uses a fully flexed shoulder, targeting the long head by putting it under a considerable stretch under load. Training these one at a time lets you focus on each arm individually, getting the most out of every set and rep.
It can help to use the hand that isn’t working to support the other elbow.
Like skull crushers, these are primarily focused on the long head it's important to combine this with pressing or other extension exercises.
Related: Dumbbell Overhead Triceps Extension Variations
Tricep kickbacks tend to get a lot of hate, with people writing them off as completely useless. Although they aren’t the most efficient exercise through the full range of motion, they allow you to fully contract the triceps. Extending and adducting the upper arm provides a unique stimulus to the long head compared to other dumbbell exercises.
There are some important caveats to this exercise. Firstly, they fail to give the muscle much of a stretch and need to be used with other, more complete, exercises. Cable variations are generally better, providing tension over a greater range of motion. As long as you are aware of its pitfalls, it can be used effectively in a program.
How do you know what exercises to select?
Firstly, remember you don’t need to train every function and range in every session. Providing you’re taking the muscle through a full range in a meson cycle, you’re covering all bases. This can be as simple as having a big press variation and skull crusher (or French press) on one day, and a dip and kickback on another. If you've been training for a while, you can also add in a few isolation movements for not only the triceps, but also the biceps and shoulders, like the ones seen in this list of best dumbbell arm exercises.
How can I incorporate other resistance methods, like cables and barbells?
Cables are a great alternative, providing stability and tension through a bigger range of motion. This can help you fully shorten the triceps without the caveat of a very limited range, as seen in dumbbell kickbacks. Barbells let you use more load and can have greater transfer to pressing performance. Despite these differences, both abide by the same basic rules when it comes to exercise selection and triceps function. If a dumbbell version isn’t doing it for you there is almost always a barbell or cable variation that might.
Related: Best Cable Arm Exercises
When should I train them?
There is no right or wrong answer, as it depends on your goals as outlined earlier. If you want to focus on them, you can put them at the start of a workout when you have more energy. If you’re still aiming to add mass everywhere without the specialization, add it to an upper or push day following any pressing, or with back if you prefer to train them when they're fresher.
Session 1: Push
Session 2: Push
Bench: 3 sets x 6-10 reps
High incline Barbell Press: 3 sets x 6-10 reps
Incline DB: 3 sets x 6-10 reps
Neutral Grip DB press 3 sets x 6-10 reps
Cable fly: 2 sets x 12-15 reps
Lateral Raises: 4 sets x 12-15 reps
Skull Crusher: 2 sets x 10-15 reps
Pec Deck: 4 sets x 12-15 reps
Triceps Kickbacks: 2 sets x 12-15 reps
Tate Press: 2 sets x 12-15 reps
Session 1 uses skull crushers and kickbacks to add to work on the triceps already done during this by heavy pressing. The triceps have been taken through a full range in this this session.
Session 2 uses a neutral grip press to target the triceps as part of a compound, training it earlier in the session so fatigued chest and front delts don’t limit triceps work. Tate Press adds to the triceps work hitting all heads.
This microcycle is relatively low triceps volume and sets could be added to any of the selected exercises to increase volume if needed.
Triceps main function is at the elbow, but because the long head crosses the shoulder joint, we can manipulate exercise to favor different heads. Any exercise that tries requires the triceps to fight for shoulder extension, like skull crushers or kickbacks, will attack the long head while neutral shoulder positions hit the lateral and medial heads more. Dumbbell’s versatility makes them the perfect tool to exploit joint angles, using compounds and isolations to maximize muscle growth. If you want to maximize your gains, and really grow those horseshoe triceps, you must be using dumbbells effectively. Now we’ve given you the blueprint growth, all there is left is to go and do it.
Author: Tom MacCormick (BSc in Sports Science and Coaching, MSc in Strength and Conditioning)
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June 08, 2023
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