Blame it on Popeye, Arnold, or the Rock, but if you ask someone to pose like a strongman, they’ll inevitably puff up their chest and flex, and then turn to the side and make their their horseshoe-shaped triceps pop. At some point in our history, a jacked torso and chiseled arms became cultural symbols of strength; these days, bodybuilders don’t rest until they have to walk through a door frame sideways. But say you’re not vying for a Mr. or Ms. Olympia title. Do you really need to go all out with focused chest and triceps workouts?
Probably not, but you shouldn’t skimp on chest and triceps exercises in your workout program, says Cody Braun, Openfit fitness specialist. “The chest and triceps are involved in various functional movements that include pressing and overhead pressing,” he explains. Beyond showboating, the triceps and chest muscles allow you to get you through an arm workout full of push-ups and dips. They also fire up when you’re playing one-on-one basketball with your kids, rearranging furniture, or stowing your luggage in an overhead compartment.
But before you dive into chest and triceps exercises, let’s take a look at how these muscles actually work – together and separately.
Add These Chest and Triceps Exercises to Your Next Workout
We picked the best exercises that work your chest muscles and triceps muscles. But don’t forget to warm up! “Dynamic stretches for the chest and shoulder joint, such as pull-aparts or arm circles, are a good way to prep for exercise,” says Braun. “Myofascial release on the chest and triceps also helps prep for exercise by increasing blood flow and releasing tension that could be inhibiting motion.” So grab a foam roller and spend a few minutes massaging your triceps and chest muscles ready for the work ahead.
For optimal results, Braun recommends training the triceps and chest muscles two to three times a week. Regarding sets and reps, it all depends on your goals. If muscular endurance is your primary concern, keep the weights light, and aim for high rep (12-plus) sets with short (30 to 60 second) rest periods. If you want to focus on muscle growth, go a bit heavier and do three to six sets with one to two minutes of rest between them. Training for maximum strength? Choose a heavy weight that will allow you to complete just one to five reps. Do between four and six sets, resting three to five minutes in between.
1. Bridge chest fly
Benefits: The bridge puts you in a decline position, which targets the sternal head of your pectoralis major. You’ll also work your glutes and hamstrings.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor, holding a pair of dumbbells directly over your chest with your palms facing each other.
- Engage your core, squeeze your glutes, and press through the balls of your feet to lift your hips until your body is straight from shoulders to knees. This is the starting position.
- Keeping your elbows slightly bent and glutes engaged, slowly lower the weights out to your sides (like you’re opening up for a bear hug) as you lower your hips to the floor.
- Reverse the move to return to starting position, and repeat.
2. Decline push-up
Benefits: This challenging variation on the classic push-up gives beginners a level to shoot for after they’ve mastered the flat version, and allows advanced trainees to work the muscles harder with fewer reps.
- With your hands on the floor and your feet elevated on a sturdy bench or box, assume a standard push-up position: arms straight, hands slightly wider than your shoulders, core braced, and body straight from head to heels. This is your starting position.
- Keeping your body straight and core engaged, lower your chest as far as possible toward the floor.
- Slowly return to the starting position.
- Make it easier: Try the move with your hands elevated on a sturdy bench or box.
3. Incline dumbbell press
Benefits: By performing this press on an inclined bench, the clavicular (upper) head of the chest muscle gets special attention.
- Lie on a bench set to a 45-degree incline, holding a pair of dumbbells at arm’s length above your chest, palms forward.
- Keeping your core braced and your elbows close to your body (so they’re not flared), lower the dumbbells to the sides of your chest.
- Pause, and then push the weights back up to the starting position.
4. Decline dumbbell press
Benefits: This exercise works the entire chest, with special emphasis on the lower chest muscles. This is also one of the safer pressing angles for your shoulders.
- Keeping your core braced, lie back on a decline bench, holding a pair of medium-to-heavy dumbbells at arm’s length over your chest, with your palms facing your feet.
- With your feet flat on the floor, slowly lower the dumbbells to the sides of your chest.
- Pause and then push the weights back up to the starting position.
Benefits: This variation on the classic bench press forces your two sides to work equally, thus ensuring that your weaker side pulls its share of the weight.
- Lie back on a sturdy, padded bench, feet flat on the floor, holding two heavy dumbbells at arm’s length over your chest, palms facing forward.
- Slowly lower the dumbbells to the sides of your chest.
- Pause and push the weights to the starting position.
6. Reverse lunge curl kickback
Benefits: This combo move targets not only your triceps, but also your biceps and legs.
- Stand holding a pair dumbbells at arm’s length by your sides with your feet hip-width apart. This is the starting position.
- Step back with your right foot and lower your body into a lunge position (chest up, back flat, knees bent 90 degrees, and back knee held off the floor).
- Keeping your elbows tucked, curl the dumbbells toward your shoulders, rotating your hands so that your palms end up facing back.
- Keeping your front knee bent, straighten your back leg and raise your hips, tilting your torso forward.
- Straighten your arms behind you, keeping them close to your sides as you rotate your hands toward the ceiling.
- Return to the starting position, and repeat. Switch legs–stepping back with your left one–halfway through each set.
7. Skull crusher press
Benefits: This exercise emphasizes the long head of the triceps by working the muscle in the fully extended position.
- Stand holding a single dumbbell horizontally in both hands at shoulder height, palms on the weighted ends, with your elbows tucked. This is your starting position.
- Press the weight straight overhead.
- Without moving your upper arms, lower the weight behind your head.
- Reverse the movements to return to the starting position, and repeat.
8. 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.
9. Rope push down
Benefits: This machine-based move forces the triceps to work hard when your arms are fully locked out, emphasizing the long head of the muscle.
- Attach a two-handled rope to a cable machine and set the pulley to about shoulder height.
- Holding the handles with a neutral (palms in) grip, move backward a foot or two (feet together) to create tension on the cable, and then hinge forward with your torso about 30 degrees.
- Without moving your upper arms, extend your arms fully toward the floor.
- Reverse the movement to return to the starting position, and repeat.
10. Tower dip
Benefits: This challenging bodyweight move works the triceps in conjunction with the chest and shoulders.
- Grab the handles of a dipping station and jump or step up to the starting position: feet off the floor, arms straight, ankles crossed.
- Keeping your forearms vertical and elbows in (not flared), allow your torso to lean forward as you lower your body until your elbows form about a 90-degree angle.
- Reverse the movement, returning to the starting position. Repeat for as many reps as possible.
Too tough? Perform the move with your hands on a sturdy chair or bench behind you and your feet on the floor.
11. Triceps push-up
Benefits: This exercise will work your chest, but because your hands are closer together than they are during a standard push-up, it increases the load on your triceps.
- Assume a high plank position with your feet together, your body straight from head to heels, your arms straight, and your hands in line with (but slightly narrower than) your shoulders.
- Keeping your core engaged, your elbows tucked, and your head in line with your spine (i.e., don’t look up), lower your chest to within a few inches of the floor.
- Reverse the movement to return to the starting position, and repeat.
Chest and Triceps 101
While the connection between your chest (on the front of your body) and your triceps (on the back of your upper arms) may not be immediately obvious, it does make sense to group them together when planning your workout. “These two muscles typically work together in exercises, so it’s wise to train them during the same workout,” explains Braun. The pecs main function is to adduct the arm from various angles, and the triceps extend the elbows – think of the push-up and bench press as examples. By hitting both muscle groups in the same workouts, and resting them both between those workouts, you can optimize their development.
But the fact that most chest exercises also hit the triceps is also why you don’t want to focus on the triceps first in a workout, which might cause you to tire your triceps out before you need them to assist in chest exercises, which typically require heavier weights.
The pectoralis major is the fan-shaped muscle that we associate with a well-developed chest, and the pectoralis minor located just under it. The pec major spans from your collarbone to your sternum, attaching to your humerus. This helps to brings your arms towards the body, turn your arms inward, and raise your arms.
The triceps brachii are the muscles found in the back of the upper arms. Each tricep is made up of three heads that span from the shoulder blade and upper portion of your humerus to your forearm. This allows your triceps to extend your elbow and aid in shoulder extension.
Fueling Your Muscles
You’ve heard it before, but we’ll say it again: you can’t out-train a bad diet. You can be consistent with your workouts, but if you’re not paying attention to nutrition and supplementation, you’ll never see the best results. Muscles need the proper fuel to both grow and recover.
After your workout you want to focus on protein intake, which is crucial to muscle growth and repair. A supplement with 20 grams of protein per serving will help you maximize your gains, while keeping you in top shape for the following day’s workout.