Because I recently discussed the best arm curl exercises, it’s only fair that I also cover the best arm extension exercises – especially since the triceps makes up two thirds of the bulk of the upper arm. Yes, big biceps will stick out when you “make a muscle,” but when you stand with your arms at your side, it’s your triceps development that will make your arms stand out.
As with arm curls, there is no such a thing as a “single best” triceps exercise. I like using thick implements (dumbbells, 2 inches to 2 1/2 inches; barbells, 3 inches), and I’m a big fan of chains and bands for triceps. However, to avoid elbow problems, limit use of bands to one workout out of two, and alternate their use, performing one workout with bands and the next with chains.
Now here are 10 of the most productive triceps movement variations for your workouts. Enjoy!
1. Convergent Bar Dip.
Also known as the V-bar dip, this is the absolute king of triceps builders. Dips were a key exercise for bodybuilders of the past; one of the best dippers was Marvin Eder, who placed third in the 1951 AAU Mr. America. Eder could perform a single repetition with 434 pounds at a bodyweight of 198 pounds. Pat Casey, the first to bench press 600 pounds (which he did in 1967 at a bodyweight of 300), could perform a single rep with 380 pounds strapped to his waist.
If you have access to the better V-shaped dipping bar, use as narrow a grip as possible without compromising shoulder integrity. Stay as upright as possible throughout the range of motion; leaning too far forward would bring your pecs into the movement.
2. Close-Grip Bench Press.
The name of this exercise is a misnomer, because I advise most individuals to use a 14-inch grip. I don’t believe in a very narrow 4- to 6-inch grip, as it creates enormous strain on the wrists and elbows. As soon as the bar is 4-6 inches above the chest, concentrate on pushing the bar back toward the uprights and move the elbows under the bar for a more effective biomechanical advantage. Locking out the elbows will take the precious muscle-building tension away from your triceps, so just go to 95 percent of lockout. I suggest having a partner help you for the unracking and racking of the barbell to ensure the longevity of your rotator cuff muscles.
3. Decline Elbows Under-Bar Close-Grip Bench Press.
This is performed in almost exactly the same manner as the conventional close-grip bench press, except that it’s done while in a decline position, and the elbows are pointing outward so they are aligned with the bar, especially during the lift’s eccentric portion.
4. Seated EZ-Bar French Press.
Use an EZ bar, grasping it with a grip slightly narrower than shoulder width. Press the weight overhead until your elbows are just short of lockout – this is where you’ll begin the exercise. To ensure triceps isolation, the forearms are the only body part that should move during this exercise.
5. Decline Dumbbell Triceps Extension.
MRI studies have shown that this exercise is one of the most effective movements to recruit the triceps. It provides a great stretch of the triceps. For variety, add a pronating motion at the end of the elbow extension (turning the palms away from you), which will further recruit the small anconeus muscle.
6. Lying Triceps Extension.
There are several possible bar pathways for this exercise: You can bring the bar to the bridge of the nose, to the hairline or to the forehead (aka skull crushers). You also can do this exercise by using a handle attached to a low pulley machine. You’ll quickly adapt to any variation – so if you don’t feel the exercise in your triceps, scrap it.
7. Seated Half Press in Power Rack.
As testimony to the effectiveness of this exercise, consider that Pat Casey claims a personal best of 400 pounds. It’s great for packing meat on the lateral head of the triceps, which is often the most underdeveloped of the triceps muscles. You can tell when it’s developed, though, as it will make the back of the triceps look like an X, in addition to making you appear considerably wider. When you perform the exercise, set the inclination of the bench at 80-90 degrees (in relation to the floor), and adjust the pins in the power rack so the bar is at hairline level for the starting position.
8. Incline Bench Overhead Pressdown.
In my opinion, this movement is the triceps equivalent of concentration curls because it offers an incredible degree of isolation. In essence you are doing a fairly traditional pressdown, but doing it on an incline bench allows you to keep perfect form. I recommend adjusting the incline to about 60 degrees.
9. California Press.
This is a cross between a close-grip bench press and a lying triceps extension. It’s a very popular assistance movement used in powerlifting circles, particularly by lifters who need to increase triceps mass and strength to bring their bench press poundages upward. A good starting weight for this exercise would be about halfway between what you use in the lying triceps extension and what you use in the close-grip bench press.
10. Triceps Overhead Extensions with Thick Rope.
This is a popular exercise that emphasizes the long head of the triceps. This is one on the best variations because the hands are placed in the strongest position and as such increase the intensity of the exercise.
There are many more excellent arm extension exercises, and I encourage you keep experimenting to see what works best for you. Meanwhile, these 10 are superb for building big, strong triceps.