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As a full time personal trainer and physique coach, I’ve helped hundreds of athletes, bodybuilders, and weekend warriors get more out of their workout programs.
To say the client assessment process can get a little repetitive is an understatement, and while no two cases are ever exactly alike, you can’t help but spot the consistent factors. I can usually guess four of the five things that new clients would most like to change about their physiques before even asking them!
With women, nine-tenths of the time the priorities are to lose fat, get more “toned” through the stomach and butt, build shapely arms, and either not change the bust or give it more “lift.” (Hey, I’m a trainer, not a surgeon!)
With guys, it’s also interesting. 15 years ago, when I started coaching, priority #1 was always to get big and strong, like a mid-70’s Arnold Schwarzenegger. Today, “Get ripped abz!” is the number one goal of the mid-20’s male, unfortunately. Whether this is an indication that young men are now a bunch of vain bastards who prefer to stand shirtless in front of cell phone cameras or are all just too damn fat is open to interpretation. In either case, priority # 2 for guys is always to build bigger arms.
Ahh, big arms…now we’re talking! Deep down, even the most functional-minded “weeds, seeds, and wheat grass” zealot still longs for an extra inch or two of beef in the sleeves of those hemp T-shirts.
The biceps are the star of the show and for good reason. Ask your typical gym rat to “make a muscle” and he’ll invariably hit a half-assed biceps pose. However, for most of the trainees I encounter, it’s the triceps that are the major issue.
You can build a set of biceps so freaky that they would make Boyer Coe proud, but if your triceps aren’t up to snuff, then you’ll never reach your aesthetic potential. After all, the triceps make up two-thirds of total arm size and make (or break) your bench press — hence the need for bodybuilders and strength athletes alike to give the triceps the love they deserve.
Mike Matarazzo had incredible arms with absolutely massive triceps
When asked to come up with a few ways to improve the triceps, I immediately thought of five things. After going through my client logs, that number quickly reached ten (I quit counting at 15). Suffice it to say that when it comes to triceps, there’s no shortage of ammunition for your arsenal.
I’m going to begin by giving you my 11 best tips. Obviously, using all of them would be impossible, not to mention insane, so I’ve also included a brief explanation as to when and why you might choose to use each one.
At the end, I’ve also supplied a couple of routines that I’ve used with two vastly different clients, each of whom approached me with complaints of substandard triceps development.
#1 – Train Heavy: The triceps often respond well to multiple low-rep sets, as evidenced by the massive triceps development many powerlifters possess. Coaches like Charles Poliquin have noted that the lateral head of the triceps in particular can be notoriously fickle and often responds almost exclusively to heavy loads. The take-home message: if the bulk of your triceps work involves a cable station, switch things up to include multiple sets of weighted dips, close-grip bench presses, and pin presses, all in the 2-6 rep range.
#2 – Change Your Frequency: It never ceases to amaze me how many bodybuilders train each bodypart once every seven days. I imagine the popularity of this practice stems from the convenience of working the same bodyparts on the same day of the week, thereby making Friday night gun shows a weekly ritual. Obviously this system “works,” but I would argue that if the aim is to bring up a weak point, then working it once every seven days is about the least effective approach you can take.
Weak triceps often require more frequency. This doesn’t necessarily mean more volume, but more frequent exposures instead, preferably with different rep ranges. If you’re still hung up on the same-days-of-the-week thing, a routine that trains triceps with biceps on Monday (nine sets of 4-8 reps) and then on Thursday after chest (five sets of 8-15 reps) is very effective.
#3 – Do The Opposite: This is a classic personal training trick. Often, when I pick up new clients who are not growing, I ask to see what they’ve been doing for the past six months – and then have them do the opposite. Nine out of ten will start growing again.
We all have favorite body parts, workout routines, and set-and-rep protocols; it’s human nature to repeat the things we enjoy and with which we experience success. The problem is that the body is highly adaptable, and as any strong dude will tell you, always playing to your strengths eventually stops working. It can also set you up for muscle imbalance issues and injury. Therefore, you need to change your routine, change the stimulus, and force adaptation.
#4 – Focus on Form, Not Weight: Many bodybuilders use horrific form in order to lift more weight. Don’t get me wrong–using a small amount of body English to complete that last rep or two of a gut-busting set is permissible, but if your first reps are shoddy already, then take note: you’re doing nothing more than reinforcing poor technique, not to mention greatly increasing the potential for both acute and long term injury.
For years, bodybuilders have yammered on about the “mind-muscle connection”, and while much of that is “gym science”, there may be some truth to the saying when it comes to stubborn triceps. Slow down the reps and practice perfect form, especially with the single-joint isolation movement. Really feel the stretch at the bottom of extensions, and contract forcefully on your precious pressdowns. In either movement, keep the elbows locked in place at all times.
As an aside, perfect form makes achieving “da pump” much easier. Many lifters scoff at the importance of the pump, and while it may be irrelevant for strength, it is crucial for hypertrophy, especially if the given muscle is a stubborn weak point.
#5 – Try Partial Reps and Lockouts: Board presses, pin presses, floor presses, and seated half presses are all powerlifting staples commonly used to bring up triceps strength, and specifically, to assist in the lockout portion of the bench press. The shortened range of motion allows for significantly heavy loads and can serve as a great remedy for triceps that lack thickness and mass. To maximize muscle-building tension, take a 2-second pause at the bottom of the rep but keep tension on the bar. Press it back up to a full, hard lockout.
#6 – Try Chains on Presses and Extensions: Adding chains to a loaded barbell is a way to incorporate what the Westside guys refer to as “accommodating resistance.” Extensor movements like presses and extensions are hardest at the bottom and get gradually easier as you approach lockout. With chains (correctly) hanging off the ends of the bar, the weight gets heavier as you progress down through the range of motion, thus mirroring the strength curve. Similarly, the weight “deloads” at the bottom, where you’re weakest, as more of the chain rests on the floor. This is more of an advanced strength training technique but is very effective.
Not many men have arms literally larger than their head. Sergio Oliva did!
#7 – Target the Long Head of the Triceps: The long head is the largest of the three heads of the triceps and is arguably the “showiest”. Although isolating one head completely out of the others isn’t possible, it is possible to preferentially recruit the different heads by manipulating elbow position.
According to Charles Poliquin, “The further away the arms are from the belly button, the more recruitment there is of the long head of the triceps.” Exercises that fit this description include incline triceps extensions and overhead dumbbell triceps extension.
#8 – Stretch: DoggCrapp training is very popular with bodybuilders, at least as long as they’re able to stay healthy while doing it. One aspect of DC training that all lifters should consider regardless of the program they’re on is fascia stretching. John Parillo was the first to introduce this to bodybuilding circles, before Dante Trudel popularized it a decade or so later. Fascia stretching literally means expanding the fascia or connective tissue surrounding the muscles to make room for more mass. It’s about as enjoyable as dropping a 45-pound plate on your pinky toe, but the results are undeniable, especially in the quads, pecs, lats, and triceps. A heavy overhead dumbbell stretch can provide this kind of stimulation as can an extreme dip between bars, provided your joints approve.
#9 – Try Drop Sets: You’re probably going to do triceps pressdowns anyway, so why not do them in a butt-kicking fashion? Drop sets allow you to use a heavy load with an extended time-under-tension, a winning combination for hypertrophy. Drop sets work best with safe exercises that allow for quick weight adjustments; this is the cable station’s moment to shine. There are dozens of drop set protocols, such as 5/5/5, 6/12/25, etc; pick one and perform three sets, preferably as a finisher. I like to program these after a heavy chest workout for a fast and effective secondary triceps blast.
#10 – Supercompensate: This is one of my favorite programming tricks: beat the tar out of a muscle, then pull back and watch it grow. Those who have done a (successful) specialization program will report that they didn’t really “see” the gains until after they quit specializing. In other words, fatigue masks fitness, and therefore it wasn’t until the body was given a chance to recover that those hard-earned gains appeared. You can try this with numerous approaches, such as 2 or 3 weeks on and 1 week off; but one of my favorites is given in the sample workouts below.
#11 – Gain Weight: My apologies if this is frightfully obvious, but considering some of the boneheaded stuff I read on bodybuilding forums, I suppose it bears repeating. Addressing a weak point involves building muscle, which requires a calorie surplus. Combining your summer beach diet with a titanic triceps specialization program is akin to riding two horses with one ass. That doesn’t mean you need to eat like a fat bastard to gain muscle, but you shouldn’t be restricting calories either.
That’s a lot of tips, for sure: so much so that you’re likely thinking, “How the heck do I combine all that into a routine?”
Simple. You don’t.
Many trainees make the mistake of trying to cram too much work into one training session, especially with body parts that they desperately want to improve. The end result is usually over training and sometimes injury to boot. Choose your battles carefully.
Here’s what I suggest:
If your training diary shows a lot of higher rep, machine-based, Planet Fitness-friendly triceps work, you likely have triceps that lack overall size and fullness. In addition, you probably have comparatively weak triceps as evidenced during pressing movements.
Try this for six weeks. It’s a two-a-day routine that works wonders for folks stuck in the Muscle and Fiction “once a week from all angles” rut.
While this is a relatively elbow-friendly routine (the PM workout can be an issue), your rotator cuffs may not like the half presses and dips. Performing the half presses to the front as opposed to behind the head can help, as would replacing the dips with decline close-grip bench presses.
Roelly Winklarr has some of the best triceps in bodybuilding today
Perform the following on Monday & Thursday (or Tuesday & Friday, etc.)
Warm-up: Rope pushdowns – 3 x 15 reps (both AM and PM workouts)
|AM Workout – Heavy||Sets||Tempo||Rest|
|A1. Seated 1/2 press||6 x 2-4||52X0*||2 min|
|** come to a 2 sec stop on pins|
|A2. Weighted chin||6 x 2-4||40X1||2 min|
|B1. Dips||4 x 6||41X1||90 sec|
|B2. Incline hammer curl||4 x 6||31X1||90 sec|
|PM Workout – Heavy||Sets||Tempo||Rest|
|A1. EZ bar extension w/chains||6 x 6-8||32X0*||90 sec|
|A2. EZ bar preacher curl||4 x 6-8||30X2||90 sec|
|B1. Overhead DB triceps ext||3 x 8-10||3030||60 sec|
|B2. *Incline concentration curl||3 x 8-10||3030||60 sec|
* See below for an explanation of tempo.
** Performed by lying prone (backwards) on an incline bench, holding two dumbbells with the arms hanging completely straight. Curl the weights up high as possible without moving the elbow, while being careful to come to full extension at the bottom.
“Two-a-days? Do you think I live in a gym?”, I hear you cry.
Easy there, sport. It’s just for a short period of time, and you’ll actually be in the gym twice on only two days a week. Before anyone asks, the other days should consist of one upper body and one lower body day with no more than 12 work sets per workout. We’re specializing here, right?
Here’s how the specialization would play out over a six-week period:
- Week 1: Two a day, twice a week
- Week 2: Two a day, twice a week (push the intensity a bit)
- Week 3: One a day, twice a week (drop the PM workout)
- Week 4: Two a day, twice a week (change the exercises slightly – grip width, attachments, etc)
- Week 5: Two a day, twice a week (push the intensity a bit)
- Week 6: One a day, once a week (drop the PM workout)>
The following routine is for a different triceps-challenged trainee: a lifter who is plenty big and strong, but has triceps that lack detail and shape (or whose training history shows a lot of basic, low-rep barbell work).
Perform this bad boy every 4-5 days:
|A1. EZ bar triceps ext||3 x 4-6||42X0*||10 sec|
|A2. Flat DB triceps ext||3 x 6-8||31X0||10 sec|
|A3. Rope triceps ext||3 x 12-15||21X1||90 sec|
|B1. Reverse EZ preacher curl||3 x 4-6||4020||10 sec|
|B2. Supinated EZ preacher curl||3 x 6-8||3020||10 sec|
|B3. *Preacher DB hammer curl||3 x 8-10||3020||90 sec|
*Can use a neutral-grip triceps extension bar.
A note on tempo:
Exercise tempo is a subject of much debate in the lifting community. Some say it’s an essential lifting parameter, like sets and reps, while others argue it is completely irrelevant information.
My opinion falls somewhere in the middle. While at times tempo is somewhat self-fulfilling (can you really perform a one-rep max safely without anything other than a slow eccentric?), when you do the math, it does make sense, especially for hypertrophy.
Even if you always press the bar up explosively, a set of 10 reps with a 4-second eccentric (lowering of the bar) puts the muscle under load for a lot longer than pressing the same weight for 10 reps with a swift, 1-second eccentric. The difference is literally four times the amount of precious muscle-building “time under tension.”
I’ve borrowed (stolen?) this tempo prescription from strength coaches Charles Poliquin and Ian King, though both would admit that they didn’t invent them, either.
Here’s how the four numbers work, using 4212 as an example:
- The first number is the eccentric tempo, or lowering phase. In this example, the lifter would take 4 full seconds to lower the bar.
- The second number is the isometric pause at the end of the eccentric. In this example, the lifter would pause for 2 full seconds; a zero indicates no pause is taken.
- The third number is the return or concentric phase. This example has a 1-second concentric; an X indicates an explosive return, pushing the weight back up as fast as proper technique allows.
- The fourth number is the isometric pause at the end of the concentric phase, before the start of the next rep. In this example, the lifter would pause 2 full seconds before lowering the bar again.
If you’re cursed with stubborn triceps, there’s no need to disown your parents or head down to see Mickey the local Synthol dealer. Simply conduct an honest assessment of what you have been doing and use the above suggestions to adjust your workout program accordingly.
Take heart– it often doesn’t take much to get things growing again, and one thing is for certain: if what you had been doing was still effective, you wouldn’t need an article like this.
Thanks for reading!