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Can’t Lift With ‘Em,
Can’t Lift Without ‘Em!
You have probably noticed that some muscles are very responsive to training. They get big, fast. But unfortunately, other ones always seem to lag behind. The more you train, the bigger the disparity grows, until you end up looking like “This Guy” over on the left. Obviously he thinks this is a nice look, but I think we can all agree that this is not an arm. It’s a bicep.
Biceps are low-hanging fruit in the world of bodybuilding. Triceps Brachii, in my opinion, are what make an arm an arm. Take a look at That Guy on the right. See what I mean?
The trouble is, even if your workout looks solid on paper, it might not be translating at the gym. There’s a good chance that you aren’t netting enough gain for your pain. The triceps’ structure make it much more difficult to exercise properly. For example, if your hands are too close or too far apart on the bar, you may miss the muscle entirely. If your lifting angle is off even a hair, the whole set might be worthless.
Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.
Lucky for you, something so easily botched is almost as easy to correct. Funny how things work out sometimes!
But some of these things would be practically impossible to figure out intuitively. Everyone can benefit by learning directly from an expert, but that’s not always possible…Just read a few blogs and watch an hour of youtube videos for a similar effect (jk).
We’re gonna start with the big picture and then whittle it down into a clearly-defined set of rules. Be prepared to learn something new!
If you can apply these ideas to your workout, I guarantee results.
Triceps Brachii Basics:
The name of Triceps Brachii comes from the three bundles of tissue working together to form the muscle. Each of these bundles has a head (lateral, medial, & long head) which attach to specific sites on the upper arm and extend down over the elbow. It is actually much larger and more useful than the noisy show-off around front, so it makes sense to spend some time to make it shine.
Long Head | Medial Head | Lateral Head
—The Long Head is the largest–
(Stretches from the scapula to the bottom of the humerus)
–The Medial Head is near the middle and faces the body–
(It’s the smallest one, & is mostly covered up by the other two)
–The Lateral Head is on the outer side of the arm
(A developed lateral head creates that distinct “horseshoe” shape)
The main function of triceps is extension of the elbow:
(Straightening the arm)
The secondary function is adduction:
(Bringing the arm down to the side)
Got it? Great. Let’s recap:
One muscle, two functions, three heads, and…
Four Big Mistakes:
1. Bad form is a universal problem, and must be avoided. Always make sure you lift properly to avoid injury and get the full benefits of the exercise. Unless you were directly trained by an expert, your form most likely needs some work.
2. Under-working one or more of the muscle heads. Since the muscle has three parts, they need to be worked evenly for the whole muscle to progress. The medial head is usually the victim in this case.
3. Overworking is no good for any muscle, but triceps are even more likely to get over-worked since they are partially-engaged in many arm/shoulder exercises. Make sure you understand the exact function of each lift so you can plan for recovery.
4. Wrong order of exercising individual heads. To get the full effects, start with the long, move to the lateral, and finish with medial isolation.
Five Rules to Regulate Your Workout:
1. The best way to work this muscle is to use rotating sets of exercises. Variation is the key. Also, it’s good to alternate light/heavy days and only use compound lifts on light days. Just remember that despite three heads, it’s still a single muscle. You really can’t work one head without engaging the others, so be careful not to do too much.
2. Work on triceps at least 2-3 days apart from your regular upper-body day to allow for a full recovery. Overtraining is very common if you aren’t thorough with your notes!
3. Take a look at some of the links below to find a few exercises that you enjoy. There’s no perfect plan that works for everyone, but there is a perfect plan for you! It’s going to involve a bit of trial and error, but that’s life.
4. Keep detailed notes about what you’re doing, how many, in what order, etc. Trial & error is very different than hunt & peck, so do not try to wing it. If you really want to improve, get into research mode. Use your notes to make the next set better. It won’t take long to figure out!
5. Try “pyramiding” sets every few days. That means starting with high reps with less weight and gradually building weight and lowering reps (1st set: 15 reps at 15 lbs…2nd set: 12 @ 20…3rd set: 8 @ 25…etc).
Top Ten Trainer Tips:
- Make sure elbows lock, or it stops working triceps and moves to shoulders.
- Flaring the elbows is also no good, since it switches the load to the pecs.
- Parallel/overhand grip on pushdowns will focus on the lateral head.
- If you switch the grip to underhand, it works out the medial head.
- A close grip on bars hit the long head, wider grips work medial & lateral.
- Overhead extensions are about the only way to truly focus the long head.
- Save isolations and unilaterals for the end. Start with compound lifts.
- Do triceps on a cardio day to make sure you have fully recovered.
- Push until there’s no push left. Muscle failure = Success!
Specific Exercises for Triceps:
Keep the structure of this muscle in mind when planning a routine. To make sure each head gets a proper workout, you need to have perfect form. Even compound exercises favor one head over the others, so maintain a good balance when deciding your routine.
There are many tools that we can use to build triceps: barbells, dumbbells, cables, bodyweight, and so on. Check out some of the links at the bottom for a few thousand potential combinations for your routine.
I’ll start you off with the easy ones:
MEDIAL HEAD: Dips, Reverse-grip Pushdown, Close-grip Bench Press, Skulls.
LATERAL HEAD: Dips, Kickbacks, Rope extensions, Pushdowns.
And here’s about 20 years’ worth of muscular domination:
- Huge List of TRICEPS Workouts (Bodybuilding.com)
- How to Train the Three Muscle Heads (IronManMag.com)
- Best Triceps Workout (RealSimple.com)
- Dumbell Exercises for Triceps (Dumbell-Exercises.com)
- Printable Workout Sheet to Record Progress (BB.com)
1. Use Correct Form
2. Find Enjoyable Exercises
3. Take Good Notes & Use Them
4. Change Up Your Routine
5. Work Out Big to Small
6. Recovery is Vital