When it comes to strengthening and building big triceps, no single exercise will do, because no single triceps exercise hits every part of these complex muscles the same way.
“There’s a reason why each triceps muscle is referred to in the plural: It has three parts or ‘heads’ — lateral, medial, and long,” explains Trevor Thieme, C.S.C.S., Openfit’s senior manager of fitness and nutrition content. “All three contract every time you extend your elbow, but the angle of your arm determines which head is emphasized.”
That’s why you need to include a variety of exercises in your triceps workouts. “Different exercises focus on different parts of the muscle,” says Thieme.
But to understand which of them you should add to your routine, it pays to dig a bit into the anatomy and function of the triceps muscle, and the three heads that comprise it.
Anatomy of the Triceps
The triceps makes up about two thirds of your upper-arm musculature, so if you’re looking to sculpt a more muscular look, you can’t ignore them.
All three heads of the triceps fuse together and attach to the elbow via a single tendon, but the lateral and medial heads originate at the humerus (upper arm bone) near the shoulder while the long head originates at the scapula (shoulder blade). The lateral and long heads are the most visible ones, and form the classic “horseshoe” shape of the developed muscle (long head on the inside, lateral head on the outside). The medial head lies under the other two. “It doesn’t contribute much to the shape of the muscle, but it contributes significantly to its overall mass,” says Thieme.
Beef Up Your Triceps Workouts: 11 Exercises You Can Do at Home
Work the triceps from all angles with these moves.
Benefits: Your triceps muscles don’t work in isolation, but this equipment-free compound exercise zones in on them while also working your chest and core for overall upper-body strength and definition.
- Assume a high plank position: Get on all fours with your feet together, your hands slightly narrower than shoulder-width, and your body straight from head to heels.
- Brace your core and bend your elbows to lower your chest to within a few inches of the floor. Keep your head in line with your spine (i.e., look at the floor, not at the wall) and your elbows tucked.
- Pause, and then push back up to the starting position.
Benefits: For this comprehensive triceps builder — which is effective for strength-training newbies and veterans alike — all you need is a chair and your own bodyweight.
- While seated on a sturdy chair or bench, grip the seat firmly just outside of your hips, and then scoot forward until you’re supported solely by your arms and legs. You can keep your legs bent 90 degrees (feet flat) or extend them straight out in front of you so that your weight is on your heels. This is the starting position.
- Keeping your core tight and your back flat, slowly bend your elbows to lower your hips toward the floor, stopping once your elbows reach 90 degrees.
- Reverse the move to return to the starting position, pushing back up until your arms are fully extended.
Make it harder: Lift one foot off the floor or place both feet on an elevated surface.
EZ bar overhead extension
Benefits: This move emphasizes the long head of the triceps muscle without going easy on the medial and lateral heads.
- Begin seated on an incline bench holding a loaded EZ bar on your lap with a shoulder-width grip, palms down. Reverse-curl the EZ bar to your chest and then press it overhead. This is the starting position.
- Keeping your upper arms vertical, your back straight, and your feet flat on the floor, slowly lower the weight behind your head until your elbows are bent 90 degrees.
- Reverse the move to return to the starting position, pushing the weight back up until your arms are fully extended, but not locked out.
Two-arm triceps kickback
Benefits: By loading each arm individually, you promote a more balanced musculature by preventing either triceps from doing more of the work.
- Stand holding a pair of dumbbells in front of your shoulders (palms in) with your elbows bent and tucked. Step one foot back into a staggered stance, and bend your knees slightly. Hinge forward at your hips so that your chest is almost parallel to the floor. This is the starting position
- Keeping your back flat, core engaged, and upper arms firmly by your sides, straighten your elbows, pushing the weights back so that your forearms extend behind you.
- Reverse the move to return to the starting position. Alternate your forward foot with each set.
Benefits: This triceps exercise maximizes muscle fiber recruitment in the long head of the muscle with a single dumbbell.
- While seated on a bench or stability ball, cup one end of a dumbbell behind your head with both hands so that your palms face the ceiling. Both elbows should be bent 90 degrees. This is the starting position.
- Keeping your back flat and your elbows tucked, slowly push the weight above your head, stopping just short of full extension.
- Pause, and then lower the weight slowly back to the starting position.
Side tri rise
Benefits: All you need is the floor to isolate one triceps at a time with this bodyweight exercise.
- Lie on your right side with your legs straight and feet stacked. Place your left hand on the floor by your armpit and your right hand on your opposite shoulder. This is the starting position.
- Keeping your feet stacked, push through your left hand to straighten your left arm and lift your upper body off of the floor.
- Reverse the move to return to the starting position. Perform equal reps on both sides.
Rope skull crusher
Benefits: Perfect for those with access to a cable station, this move forces you to keep constant tension in the cable (and, thus, your triceps) for the duration of each set. Muscle tension is a key trigger for muscle growth.
- Attach a rope to the high pulley of a cable station and face away from it, assuming a staggered stance with one end of the rope held in each hand behind your head. Both elbows should be bent about 90 degrees.
- Keeping your back flat and upper arms locked in place, hinge forward at your hips. This is the starting position.
- Press the rope forward until your arms are fully extended in front of you. (Bonus tip: Pull the ends of the rope apart at full extension.)
- Slowly reverse the movement to return to the starting position. Alternate your forward foot with each set.
Lying-down triceps extension
Benefits: This move forces you to lift slowly and under control — two key factors for maximizing strength gains and reducing the risk of injury.
- Lie face-up holding a pair dumbbells directly above your chest with your palms facing each other. Your knees should be bent, your feet flat on the floor, and your arms fully extended but not locked out.
- Without moving your upper arms (and keeping your lower back pressed against the floor), slowly bend your elbows to lower the weights to the sides of your head.
- Reverse the movement to return to the starting position.
Benefit: This exercise works the triceps at all three heads, but you’ll feel it most in the lateral head.
- Holding a pair of dumbbells at arms length by your sides, place one foot on a box or bench, and extend the other leg straight behind you.
- Bring the weights to your shoulders (palms facing inward and elbows tucked), and hinge forward at your waist. This is the starting position.
- Keeping your back flat, core braced, and upper arms locked in place, extend your elbows fully to push the weights behind you.
- Reverse the movement to return to the starting position. Alternate your forward foot with each set. If elevating your foot is too difficult (or if you simply don’t have a box or bench), you can perform this move with both feet on the floor.
Front-to-back triceps extension
Benefits: This triceps exercise hits the long heads of the muscles from multiple angles while also firing up your core stabilizers.
- Assume a staggered stance with your left foot forward (knees bent slightly), holding a dumbbell in your right hand. Curl and press the weight over your head, and then slowly lower the weight sideways to rest vertically on your left shoulder. This is the starting position.
- Press the weight back up until your arm reaches full extension, and then lower it sideways behind your head (you might have to tilt your head forward slightly).
- Continue alternating. Perform all of your reps, switch legs and arms, and repeat.
Overhead triceps extension
Benefits: This standing variation of the classic move optimizes muscle recruitment in the core while training each arm separately, helping to iron out muscle imbalances as it builds strength.
- Assume a staggered stance holding a pair of dumbbells directly overhead, palms facing each other, weights touching. This is the starting position.
- Keeping the dumbbells pressed together, and without moving your upper arms, lower the weights behind your head until your elbows are bent 90 degrees.
- Reverse the movement to return to the starting position, pressing the weights back up until your arms are fully extended but not locked out.
- Alternate your forward foot with each set.
Nutrition for Your Best Triceps Workout
When working on developing the triceps muscle (or any other muscle, for that matter), you’d be remiss to not dial in your diet and increase your daily protein consumption.
“Like all muscles, the triceps need protein for repair and growth,” Thieme says, noting that consuming whey protein immediately after exercise is particularly effective at optimizing strength gains. Science agrees; a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that participants who drank a protein shake following strength training for 12 weeks gained significantly more muscle than those who drank a placebo.
The optimal dose: Twenty grams, according to a recent review in the journal Frontiers in Physiology. Also consuming a nighttime protein supplement can help you build muscle during the overnight muscle-growth window that most people miss.
Rounding out the mass-maximizing nutrients, creatine has been scientifically shown to help boost muscle growth and strength, as well as fend off fatigue, so you can bang out additional reps. Creatine monohydrate is the least expensive and most effective form of the supplement.