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October 27, 2021 2 Comments
All three tricep heads are important for strength and aesthetics, but the long head is the biggest and has the most growth potential...so one could argue it deserves a little special attention. On that note, we are going to teach you everything you need to know about the long head of the triceps, which includes the 9 best long head tricep exercises (EMG study-approved)...
Your bench press and overhead pressing are going to suck without a powerful set of triceps. In fact, all of your pressing movements will be less than impressive if the “horseshoe” muscle looks more like a “miniature horseshoe” muscle. That’s because the triceps muscle is the primary extensor of the elbow, making it a vital muscle to prioritize if you have any inclination of putting up big numbers. Besides, it’ll fill out your sleeves pretty well.
In order to optimize your triceps training, you need to understand how to hit each head. You see, while one muscle, the triceps is composed of 3 heads which is why it’s called tri (three) ceps (heads). All of these heads have slightly different functions meaning that proper exercise selection is necessary to be sure you train each head adequately. If not, you’ll be walking around with a set of lop-sided triceps and nobody wants that.
No worries as that won’t happen now that you found this article as you’re going to learn a ton of stuff including;
As mentioned numerous times, the triceps contain 3 heads in muscle. This means that three distinct muscle bellies originating from different areas come together to form one muscle at their insertion at the olecranon process of ulna. Because these heads combine and have the same insertion, they will always work together as it’s utterly impossible for them to not. This also means that all 3 heads work together to extend the elbow, the primary triceps function.
However, because of their different origins and position on the arm, their contribution will vary depending on the arm placement and motion.
While we are going to concentrate on the long head, it’s good for you to know the functions of the other two heads so that you are able to compare. That being said, these are the 3 heads of the triceps with their unique functions.
The Medial Head of the Triceps
In the world of anatomy, the term “medial” doesn’t necessarily mean “middle” as many presume. “Medial” actually refers to the location of a muscle or body part that is nearest the middle of the body (or muscle). For example, to have a “middle”, you need to have at least three objects. However, you can have only two objects, and the one closest to the center is “medial”. Or, you could have three objects that are all located on the same side of the body split down the middle. The middle object would be the 2nd object, while the medial object would be the object closest.
That being said, the medial head of the triceps is the object in the center of the arm AND happens to be in the middle as well. It is actually almost completely covered by the long head and lateral head due to its location.
As the medial head is smaller and made up of more slow twitch muscle fibers, its primary job is to be used in motions that require minimal amounts of force and endurance (study).
Related: Best Medial Head Tricep Exercises
The Lateral Head of the Triceps
Remember the illustration I gave above about what “medial” means? Well, “lateral” refers to the object closest to the outside of the body. Therefore, the lateral head of the triceps sits on the outside of the arm. When looking at the horseshoe, the lateral head and long head make up the outer portions.
The lateral head is believed to be the strongest of the 3 heads and is actually responsible for movements requiring high levels of force (study).
Related: Best Lateral Head Tricep Exercises
The Long Head of the Triceps
And now the long head. The long head sits on the other side of the horseshoe and runs up the entire arm. In fact, it gets the name “long head” because the long head triceps origin is actually located on the infraglenoid tubercle of the scapula. This means the long head crosses the elbow joint and the shoulder joint, meaning the triceps muscle is actually bi-articular (a muscle that crosses two joints). And again, along with the other two heads, the long head triceps insertion is at the olecranon process of ulna
This unique design means that the long head of the triceps muscle has a very unique purpose. That is it is involved with the extension of the shoulder. Extension of the shoulder occurs when the humerus moves backward as in the freestyle swim stroke or with retroversion. It’s also involved in arm adduction and helps with the general stability of the arm at the shoulder joint. This is the reason you will “feel it in the triceps” doing movements like swimmers or using the ski-erg.
Lastly, the long head of the triceps is still involved with the extension of the elbow joint.
When determining at what arm angle is the long head most activated, studies have shown that the long head experiences great activation levels as the arm moves from overhead (180 degrees shoulder elevation) to pointing straight down (0-degrees shoulder elevation. This makes sense as we learned that the long head is the only part of the triceps involved with shoulder extension (a decrease in shoulder elevation).
There’s also one more reason you’ll want to train the long head. Along with the lateral head, the long head makes up a large portion of the triceps muscle. This means you’ll definitely want to increase your long head’s muscle mass to really blow up your arms.
Training the long head has some pretty straightforward benefits, and maybe not so much. Here are some of the best reasons you might want to optimize your training.
Improve The Symmetry And Size Of Your Triceps:
The triceps make up about 60% of the total mass in the upper arm, and the long head of the triceps makes up a large portion of the triceps. This means it’s impossible to look jacked with a small long head. While training the entire muscle should be your main goal, being sure to throw in a few long head specific movements will guarantee you make the most out of your triceps.
In the same vain, symmetry is a massive part of being aesthetically pleasing. The long head and lateral head run parallel down the arm and are both the most prominent parts of the tricep. In other words, if your lateral head is distinctly larger than your long head, it’s going to show. There’s even an argument that states having smaller symmetrical muscles is more appealing than large, asymmetrical muscles. Think about what someone would look like with massive biceps but small triceps?
It just looks silly.
In fact, you should put a bit of emphasis on all your heads to be sure this doesn’t happen. This article just so happens to be going over the long head
Improve Pushing Strength:
As mentioned, the triceps are the primary extensor of the elbow. This makes it a vital component to all-around pushing strength. Therefore, if you want incredible pushing power, train your triceps as a whole AND by training your individual heads.
We’re not going to overcomplicate this. Train your triceps to increase your pushing strength.
Improve Shoulder Stability:
The above two benefits can really apply to all three heads of the triceps, as mentioned. However, the one unique component of the long head that isn’t seen in the medial or lateral head is its role in stabilizing the shoulder. While it’s not the only muscle involved in adding stabilization, it definitely plays a role.
Therefore, if you want optimal shoulder stability, you need to train every muscle involved in the manner it functions. This means you need to definitely include some type of shoulder extension movement in your training.
All the science stuff is done now. We talked about how the long head functions and why we need to train the long head. Now we’ll go over the fun stuff...how to train the long head.
You have quite a few exercises to choose from, both compound and isolation exercises. Therefore, we’ll break these exercises into these two categories. Just like with a workout session, we’ll start with big compound exercises that will allow you to add a significant load for maximum strength. Next, we’ll go over the isolation movements you can use to finish a session off with a lot of volume for maximum growth.
Here are the top exercises to build muscle mass and strength on the long head.
First, we have 5 compound exercises that hit the long head tricep very effectively...
You are in luck. We are starting off this list with an amazing exercise that allows you to train your long head anywhere; a long head tricep bodyweight exercise! However, the triangle push-up might just be the single best exercise to add muscle mass onto your arms! Actually, a study by Bohler (2011) showed this to be the case.
In this study, Bohler examined 8 different pushing exercises and took EMG readings of the long head and lateral head of the triceps. The number 1 exercise? The triangle push-up. Before we go further, the other exercises were very effective too and included on this list, but triangle push-ups took the win.
This is awesome news is you can train triangle push-ups wherever you are, so there’s no reason you can’t train the triceps!
When performing these, you will use a much narrower grip than a traditional push-up. In fact, the name “triangle” comes from the fact that you will make a triangle with your hands. Place your hands together so that your pointer fingers touch as well as your thumbs. If you ask me, it actually looks like a diamond but same-same.
Anyways, from there, the push-up is performed exactly the same. Because your arms are close together, there will be less contribution from the pectorals, requiring the triceps to compensate. Further, there is going to be a more considerable amount of elbow flexion to increase the range of motion of the triceps movement.
One awesome thing about triangle push-ups is that you are still able to load them with an external load to further increase strength and build muscle mass.
Related: Increase Push Up Difficulty Using Bands
Yet another long head tricep bodyweight exercise!
The next must-do exercise you’re going to want to train is dips. While we can’t categorically say the dips target the long head of the triceps, you can be sure dips will train the long head, medial head, and the lateral head. In other words, dips will destroy everything.
There are many different variations of the dip that you can perform. In order to target the triceps, you’ll want to use triceps dips, also known as vertical dips. Due to the body’s positioning, vertical dips have been shown to activate the triceps to a much larger degree than other forms.
In reality, triceps dips are generally what most people think of when they hear of “dips”. Once you are in the top position of the dip, you will want to come down with minimal lean in your torso. Allow your body to come forward just enough to allow the movement to be completed comfortably.
Related: Best Dip Alternatives
The close-grip bench press was another movement studied in the Bohler study. Now, out of the eight exercises, the close grip bench press came in last. HOWEVER, keep in mind that this study used the literal best exercises so just being on the list means the close-grip bench press is highly effective at training the triceps.
Still, we like the close-grip bench press because you are able to load the muscle. Note that the other two movements above are bodyweight movements. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with bodyweight movements as they’re awesome. The only issue may be with limitations in loading.
This is not an issue with the close-grip bench press, as you can load a barbell with as much or as little weight as you want. These may not get as much activation as the other movements, but you’ll be able to load them appropriately,
When gripping the bar, you’ll obviously want to take a grip width that is closer than the traditional bench press. Grab the bar so that your hands are just slightly narrower than shoulder-width apart. Basically, when you grip the bar, you want your arms to slightly angle inwards. Your elbows will come down much closer to the body than a traditional bench press when going down.
At the bottom, your hands should be just on either side of the rib cage. If your grip is too close, you will have a balance issue. If your grip is too wide, the activation will be transferred back to the chest. Therefore, use the advice from above when prepping and then use the bottom of the lift to gauge hand placement.
VERY IMPORTANT!!! For maximal tricep activation, the lockout is key. Therefore, make sure every single rep is 100% locked out and give a little pause before descending again.
Suspended push-ups are a prime example of why understanding the anatomy of a muscle will help with exercise selection. We already know that push-ups can be great for training the long head and triceps as a whole. That’s why we included triangle push-ups up top. So why include another push-up exercise that’s done while suspended?
Since reading this article, you now know that the long head is involved in shoulder stability and what do suspended push-ups require? Shoulder stabilization!
In fact, as a whole, the triceps is activated to a higher degree during suspended push-ups. However, if you choose this exercise, you need to choose a height of around 65cm (study), as differences in triceps activation aren’t always seen at lower elevations.
*One training variable to note. When choosing exercises to use, don’t train triangle push-ups and suspended push-ups on the same day as the movement pattern is too similar.
The rolling dumbbell extension has “Long Head” written all over it. If you are unfamiliar with the rolling triceps exercise, it’s basically a skull crusher or French press on steroids. I know what you might be thinking, “this guys don’t know what he’s talking about because skull crushers are an isolation movement”. If you are, that’s rude. Regardless, wait until you get to the bottom to find out that we do know what we’re talking about and that you should definitely be doing rolling triceps extension.
To perform the rolling dumbbell extension, you are going to set up exactly like you are preparing to perform skull crushers. While these are generally performed with dumbbells, it won’t really matter what you choose. Pick what’s most comfortable (i.e. dumbbell, barbell or EZ bar), get on the ground or bench, and extend your arms directly over your head. Now you’re ready to begin.
Allow the weight to come down by flexing your elbow. Your elbow should remain stationary until your arms get to about a 90-degree angle. At this point, these skull crushers will become rolling triceps extensions. Instead of extending back up, you will let your arms move behind you over your head, similar to a pull-over. Let the weight go back as far as you are able. You should be able to feel a good stretch in your triceps.
Now, give a little bounce to activate the stretch-shortening cycle and forcefully pull your arms back, so your upper arms are vertical; this is the original position. Once you reach here, you will then explode the weights up with a powerful elbow extension. The rolling back portion, along with the stretch-shortening cycle, will allow you to use momentum to drive much heavier weights up when compared with typical skull crushers.
Notice that this movement includes shoulder extension AND elbow extension, two joints which make this a compound movement! Actually, it’s like two isolation movements that occur back to back? Ugh...it doesn’t matter. What does matter is these are the two movements that the long head of the triceps is responsible for! This is the secret as to what makes these such a great exercise for the long head of the triceps.
To complete the 9 best long head tricep exercises, here are 4 isolation exercises that you should be including into your routine (at least at some point)...
Time to leave your ego at the door, grab some small weights, and knock out some triceps kickbacks. The triceps kickback is an awesome exercise to choose for targeting the long head as, again, your arm is going to be in a retroversion position with the arm pulled back past your back. This motion alone will cause greater activation in the long head AND then you will be throwing on elbow extension on top.
Remember that Bohler study? It shows this to be the case as kickbacks were actually the second most effective exercise for the long head. This means dumbbell kickbacks are the best isolation exercise to train the long head!
As mentioned, when performing the bent-over triceps kickback, you will want to start with small weights. You are at a great mechanical disadvantage, so a little weight goes a long way. Bend over so that your torso is slightly above parallel. You want this little wiggle room as you want to pull your arm back past your back so that it is parallel with the ground.
So, bend over and bring your arm back as far as you comfortably can. Keeping your elbow stationary, extend your elbow until your arm is straight. Give it a little squeeze and come back down slowly.
Rope pushdowns come up as the 4th best exercise to train the long head of the triceps in the Bohler study. Interestingly, when looking at the EMG readings, there is a significant difference in activation of the long head (81) and lateral head (67) with the rope pushdown. This same phenomenon is seen in the bar pushdown (75 vs. 59) as well as the overhead triceps extension to a lesser extent (81 vs. 72). Most of the other exercises only differ by 1-5%. This is likely due to the above observation that showed the long head has higher activation when shoulder elevation is 0, or straight down.
That being said, do rope extensions!
When prepping the pulley, be sure to set the rope as high as you can go as you want the force to be coming from above you. On this same note, you want to stand just a few steps back from the pulley.
Grab the rope and pull down with a fully flexed elbow until you can place your elbows by your side. Drive the rope down until the bottom. The key is to give the rope a little outward flick towards the bottom to fully activate the triceps.
**Side note: You can also perform straight bar pushdowns as they are also very effective at targeting the long head. While the rope pushdown seems to be superior (most likely due to the last little flick), having a bit of variety in your workout is always a good idea.
Related: Triceps Pushdown Exercise Guide & Variations
The overhead triceps extension is very close behind rope pushdowns on the list of most effective long head exercises. You’ll need to leave your ego at the door again and start by using low weight on the cable machine or smaller dumbbells to perform these correctly. These can take a little while to get used to as they require a bit of shoulder mobility to function the movement correctly.
To perform triceps extensions, you will need to be able to raise your arms over your head completely erect. Next, you will let your arms come down back behind your head while keeping your elbow stationary. At the bottom of the movement, your triceps should be completely vertical with your elbows pointing up. You will then extend your arms all the way so that your arms are back at the original position completely straight above the head.
Once you’re able to perform this movement quite easily, you can then move on to introducing heavier dumbbells. Again, start light and concentrate on using a mind-muscle connection as well as keeping perfect form. You can then begin progressing with weights from there.
Related: Overhead Dumbbell Tricep Extension Exercise Guide & Variations
Swimmers (as we like to call them, but most call them straight arm pulldowns) are a fantastic exercise to train the back. True, so why am I including a back exercise on this list for the triceps? Well, you can only perform so many pushing movements in a week or even a session. Therefore, if we are able to find exercises from other muscle groups that will still get greater activation in the long head, we want to use them. This is the swimmer.
Swimmers are an isolation movement that occurs solely with shoulder extension in the same manner as seen during the freestyle swim stroke; hence, they’re called “swimmers”.
However, as we now know, shoulder extension is also driven by the long head of the triceps. This makes swimmers a great exercise selection to use on your back day if you are trying to focus on improving your long head.
Related: Best Cable Arm Exercises
When choosing how to utilize these exercises, you will need to decide on your goal or what you want to accomplish. For example, if you just want to make sure you are getting an all-around workout and hitting every muscle evenly, you should just make sure to use at least 1-2 of these exercises during every pushing or chest/tricep session. But remember, all of these exercises will train other muscles as well, so you could definitely use more.
However, if you feel your long head is really lagging, I would develop a program where the majority of the exercises that you use on your pushing or chest/tri sessions come from this list. Again, these are still going to train your chest and other triceps heads; it’s just that these exercises cause the most significant activation of the long head. An example program would look like so:
This workout definitely favors the long head of the triceps, but you’re still going to get an awesome chest workout and workout all of the triceps.
Be sure to include a variety of exercises that will allow you to train with a range of reps. Only performing low reps or only going with high reps is not doing you any favors. Over your time training (not every session), you need to train the entire spectrum from 3-20+. Also, make note of whether you have any other arm muscles that need some additional attention, and if so, consider including a few of these dumbbell arm exercises, targeting the biceps, triceps, and shoulders.
The Long Head Won’t Build Itself
Remember that wherever there is a body part that you want to work on, you are going to need to give it some priority. This means you need to change something to your current program. Well, you have more than enough now to build an impressive set of triceps WITH an excellent long head. Now you just need to put the information above into actual training.
Get to it!
January 29, 2023
Agreed. Excellent article. Very helpful.
September 07, 2022
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