Last Updated: September 15, 2016
If you want to know the best triceps exercise for building big, horseshoe tris that make eyeballs pop, then you want to read this article.
When it comes to building big arms, the triceps don’t get their just deserts.
For most people, it’s just all about the biceps.
Well, ironically, the biceps constitute much less of your arm size than the larger triceps.
This is why building big triceps is one of the little-known “secrets” to building big arms.
Case in point:
If that’s a bit dramatic for you, here’s a recent shot of me that illustrates a more achievable look:
And in this article, I’m going to show you how I did just that (and how you can too).
So, let’s start with a quick overview of the triceps muscles and then dive into how to train them effectively.
The Anatomy of the Triceps Muscles
The triceps, or more technically, the triceps brachii, is a three-headed muscle on the back of your arm.
Here’s how it looks:
As you can see, when each of the three heads become pronounced, they form the distinctive “horseshoe” shape.
You can also see that the lateral head is the largest of the three and thus is the one that both develops the fastest and most determines the overall look of your triceps.
In short, when people think of “big triceps,” they’re thinking of big lateral heads.
That said, if you want the full, “3-D” look, you want to make sure all three heads are well developed.
Fortunately, that’s pretty simple to do.
The Simple Science of Effective Triceps Training
There are a lot of theories out there about how to best train your triceps.
Some people say you have to focus on high-rep training and really feel the burn.
Others say you should be training them several times per week.
Well, I’ve tried all the above and more, and I’ve worked with thousands of people, and here’s what I’ve learned:
1. Most people need to train their triceps directly to get the size and definition they want.
Heavy chest training will build the triceps but it’s rarely enough to build enough size and definition to satisfy.
2. Heavy compound movements are best for adding strength and size.
High-rep sets and cable and machine exercises can be included in your triceps workouts, but they can’t replace heavy free weight movements.
3. One heavy triceps workout per week is generally enough.
A crucial part of your triceps training that you have to get right is volume, or the total amount of reps you do each week.
This is especially important when you’re doing a lot of heavy weightlifting in general because the overarching rule is this:
The heavier your reps are, the fewer you can do each week without risking overtraining.
When your training emphasizes heavy weights (80 to 85%+ of 1RM), optimal volume seems to be about 60 to 70 reps performed every 5 to 7 days.
This not only applies to the triceps but to every other major muscle group as well.
Now, in the case of the triceps, we have to take into account the fact that they’re heavily involved in your pushing.
If you’re doing, let’s say, about 60 reps of heavy chest pressing per week for your chest and about 15 to 20 reps of heavy overhead pressing for your shoulders, then an additional 60 reps of heavy triceps training is going to be too much.
If you drop that to 30 to 40 heavy for the triceps per week, though, you’ll find that it stimulates additional growth without causing issues related to overtraining.
That said, every so often I run into people whose triceps are very stubborn, even when bulking properly, and I have them do the following each week:
- 9 sets of heavy (4 to 6 rep) chest pressing plus 3 sets of triceps exercises in the 8 to 10 rep range.
- 3 sets of heavy overhead pressing a couple days later.
- 6 to 9 sets of heavy triceps training a couple days later.
This slight increase in weekly volume isn’t a “magic fix” by any means, but it does help break through stubborn muscle growth plateaus.
Alright, now that we have basic training theory under our belts, let’s look at the 5 best triceps exercises.
The Best Triceps Exercises
Ignore the muscle mags.
You don’t need to do fifty types of triceps exercises to build great arms.
In fact, out of the scores and scores of triceps exercises you could do, only a small handful are really necessary.
And they are as follows…
1. Close-Grip Bench Press
If I were to do just one triceps exercise, it would be either the close-grip bench press or weighted dip.
They both emphasize the lateral heads of the triceps and also gives a little boost to your chest development.
There are two types of dips you can do: the bench and upright dip.
I prefer the upright dip because it’s easier to load with weight and involves the shoulders and chest more, but both are good for training the triceps.
Here’s the bench dip:
And here’s the upright dip:
3. Dumbbell Overhead Triceps Press
This is one of my favorite triceps exercises.
It’s particularly good for targeting the long head of the triceps and allows you to safely press heavy weight and overload the muscles.
4. Lying Triceps Extension (Skullcrusher)
The lying triceps extension is a movement that emphasizes the medial head.
It has been a bodybuilding staple for decades now because it’s simple and effective.
5. Triceps Pushdown
This is the most common triceps exercise that people do and, surprisingly, it’s quite good.
That said, I like to save it for later in my workouts after I’ve done heavier work on the compound movements given in this list.
I also like the V-bar and straight bar attachments more than the rope.
Progressive Overload is the Key
Before we talk triceps workouts, I want to make sure you understand a vitally important part of weightlifting in general:
The key isn’t just doing exercises–it’s progressing on them.
And as a natural weightlifter, the most important type of progression is overload.
That is, increasing the amount of weight you can move over time.
The reality is if you want any part of your body to get more muscular, the best way to do this is make it stronger.
If you do that, and if you eat enough food, your muscles will grow.
The Ultimate Triceps Workout
I have two simple criteria for what makes a good triceps workout:
- It includes exercises that emphasize each of the muscles’ heads.
You’re going to get the most mass out of triceps exercises that emphasize the lateral head.
These are exercises that have your arms at your side with an overhand grip, like the close-grip bench press, dip, and pushdown.
You don’t want to neglect exercises that emphasize the other two heads, though.
Exercises that have your arms overhead, like overhead extensions and skullcrushers, emphasize the long head, and exercises that have your arms at your side with an underhand grip, like lying extensions, emphasize the medial head.
- It emphasizes heavy weightlifting.
This is why your primary goal as a natural weightlifter is to get stronger, and especially on key compound exercises like the squat, deadlift, and bench and overhead press.
You can learn more about programming workouts in my books Bigger Leaner Stronger (men) and Thinner Leaner Stronger (women), but I want to give you here a simple triceps workout so you can see how my advice works for you.
Do the following triceps workout once every 5 to 7 days for the next 8 weeks. Do that and get your diet right and your triceps will respond.
Close-Grip Bench Press
Warm up and 3 sets of 4 – 6 reps
3 sets of 4 – 6 reps (weighted if possible)
3 sets of 4 – 6 reps
Just 9 heavy sets for your entire workout.
And in case you’re not familiar with how rep ranges work, it’s very simple:
- If you’re able to get more reps than the top of your rep range, the weight is too light. Go heavier.
- If you’re not able to get the reps at the bottom of your rep range, the weight is too heavy. Go lighter.
So, in this case, when you can do 6 reps, it’s time to add weight. If you can’t get 4 reps, you need to lighten the load.
I generally recommend you add weight when you hit your reps for ONE set.
For instance, if you get 6 reps on your first set of dips, you add 5 to 10 pounds to the dip belt for your next set and work with that weight until you can dip it for 6 reps, and so forth.
Thus, your weekly goal is to add reps to your exercises, which in time turns into adding weight.
What About Supplements?
I saved this for last because, quite frankly, it’s far less important than proper diet and training.
You see, supplements don’t build great physiques–dedication to proper training and nutrition does.
Unfortunately, the workout supplement industry is plagued by pseudoscience, ridiculous hype, misleading advertising and endorsements, products full of junk ingredients, underdosing key ingredients, and many other shenanigans.
Most supplement companies produce cheap, junk products and try to dazzle you with ridiculous marketing claims, high-profile (and very expensive) endorsements, pseudo-scientific babble, fancy-sounding proprietary blends, and flashy packaging.
So, while workout supplements don’t play a vital role in building muscle and losing fat, and many are a complete waste of money…the right ones can help.
The truth of the matter is there are safe, natural substances that have been scientifically proven to deliver benefits such as increased strength, muscle endurance and growth, fat loss, and more.
As a part of my work, it’s been my job to know what these substances are, and find products with them that I can use myself and recommend to others.
Finding high-quality, effective, and fairly priced products has always been a struggle, though.
That’s why I took matters into my own hands and decided to create my own supplements. And not just another line of “me too” supplements–the exact formulations I myself have always wanted and wished others would create.
I won’t go into a whole spiel here though. If you want to learn more about my supplement line, check this out.
For the purpose of this article, let’s just quickly review the supplements that are going to help you get the most out of your arms (and other) workouts.
Creatine is a substance found naturally in the body and in foods like red meat. It’s perhaps the most researched molecule in the world of sport supplements–the subject of hundreds of studies–and the consensus is very clear:
Supplementation with creatine helps…
You may have heard that creatine is bad for your kidneys, but these claims have been categorically and repeatedly disproven. In healthy subjects, creatine has been shown to have no harmful side effects, in both short- or long-term usage. People with kidney disease are not advised to supplement with creatine, however.
If you have healthy kidneys, I highly recommend that you supplement with creatine. It’s safe, cheap, and effective.
In terms of specific products, I use my own, of course, which is called RECHARGE.
RECHARGE is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored and each serving contains:
- 5 grams of creatine monohydrate
- 2100 milligrams of L-carnitine L-tartrate
- 10.8 milligrams of corosolic acid
You don’t need protein supplements to gain muscle, but, considering how much protein you need to eat every day to maximize muscle growth, getting all your protein from whole food can be impractical.
That’s the main reason I created (and use) a whey protein supplement. (There’s also evidence that whey protein is particularly good for your post-workout nutrition.)
WHEY+ is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored whey isolate that is made from milk sourced from small dairy farms in Ireland, which are known for their exceptionally high-quality dairy.
I can confidently say that this is the creamiest, tastiest, healthiest all-natural whey protein powder you can find.
There’s no question that a pre-workout supplement can get you fired up to get to work in the gym. There are downsides and potential risks, however.
Many pre-workout drinks are stuffed full of ineffective ingredients and/or minuscule dosages of otherwise good ingredients, making them little more than a few cheap stimulants with some “pixie dust” sprinkled in to make for a pretty label and convincing ad copy.
Many others don’t even have stimulants going for them and are just complete duds.
Others still are downright dangerous, like USPLabs’ popular pre-workout “Jack3d,”which contained a powerful (and now banned) stimulant known as DMAA.
Even worse was the popular pre-workout supplement “Craze,” which contained a chemical similar to methamphetamine.
The reality is it’s very hard to find a pre-workout supplement that’s light on stimulants but heavy on natural, safe, performance-enhancing ingredients like beta-alanine, betaine, and citrulline.
And that’s why I made my own pre-workout supplement. It’s called PULSE and it contains 6 of the most effective performance-enhancing ingredients available:
- Caffeine. Caffeine is good for more than the energy boost. It also increases muscle endurance and strength.
- Beta-Alanine. Beta-alanine is a naturally occurring amino acid that reduces exercise-induced fatigue, improves anaerobic exercise capacity, and can accelerate muscle growth.
- Citrulline Malate. Citrulline is an amino acid that improves muscle endurance, relieves muscle soreness, and improves aerobic performance.
- Betaine. Betaine is a compound found in plants like beets that improves muscle endurance, increases strength, and increases human growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor 1 production in response to acute exercise.
- Ornithine. Ornithine is an amino acid found in high amounts in dairy and meat that reduces fatigue in prolonged exercise and promotes lipid oxidation (the burning of fat for energy as opposed to carbohydrate or glycogen).
- Theanine. Theanine is an amino acid found primarily in tea that reduces the effects of mental and physical stress, increases the production of nitric oxide, which improves blood flow, and improves alertness, focus, attention, memory, mental task performance, and mood.
And what you won’t find in PULSE is equally special:
- No artificial sweeteners or flavors..
- No artificial food dyes.
- No unnecessary fillers, carbohydrate powders, or junk ingredients.
The bottom line is if you want to know what a pre-workout is supposed to feel like…if you want to experience the type of energy rush and performance boost that only clinically effective dosages of scientifically validated ingredients can deliver…then you want to try PULSE.
The Bottom Line on Triceps Workouts
Building great triceps is like building any other part of your body.
- You have to do the right exercises.
- You have to lift heavy weights.
- You have to do enough weekly volume.
- And you have to be patient.
So, train hard, stay consistent, and eat right, and you’ll get the body you want.