We admit it: Some of our “Top 10” bodypart exercise rankings have been easier to compile than others. After all, it’s not that controversial to tell you that the bench press is the premier chest exercise or the standing barbell curl is the best thing to come along for biceps since the open car window.
Triceps, however? That has proven more difficult. From the 10th pick to the first, debate echoed through the halls of Muscle & Performance (or at least electronically via a frenetic email exchange). Perhaps it’s due to the rather complex nature of the triceps: It’s made up of three heads — the lateral (outer), long (inner) and medial that splits those two down the center — that all share a common tendon at the elbow but attach individually around the shoulder area. While the lateral and medial heads attach to the humerus bone, the long head attaches to the scapula.
That structure means different exercises tend to target one head more than the others. For instance, overhead moves put the long head under stretch, and a stretched muscle will contract more forcefully. The lateral head comes into play when your arms are at your sides and your palms face down, while the medial head pops into gear when your arms are at your sides and you flip your palms up. Those factors make the task of sorting triceps exercises a tricky proposition, to say the least.
See Also Top 10 Best Biceps Exercises
The result of our passionate bickering over what constitutes the best when it comes to triceps development follows. It’s a mix of cables, machines, free weights and two revered bodyweight exercises, including a far-from-unanimous choice for the top spot. But quibbles over ranking aside, we can guarantee one thing: Every single move on this list can help you build bigger, stronger and more prominent tri’s.
Reverse-Grip Cable Pressdown
As noted in our introduction, a reverse grip where the palms face upward activates the medial head of the tri’s. Thus, no triceps workout is truly complete without an underhand exercise. To that end, the reverse pressdown is a standout, providing continuous resistance throughout the range of motion thanks to the cable.
Main Area Targeted Medial head
Strengths It’s not the most impressive movement you’ll ever do where weight load is concerned, but form is paramount since you’re targeting the smallest of the three triceps heads. Go too heavy and you’ll rely on momentum and an assist from the lateral and long heads, among other muscle groups. You won’t hear us say this often, but for a direct hit on the medial head, a machine beats any free-weight alternative hands down (pun intended). The cable pressdown is much preferred to the dicey nature of going underhand on barbell and dumbbell exercises, which tend to put the wrist under strain in awkward positions.
How-To Stand in front of a high-pulley cable and grasp a straight-bar attachment with a palms-up (supinated) grip. With your knees soft, lean forward slightly at the hips and keep your elbows close to your sides, bringing your upper arms parallel to the floor. From here, forcefully extend your elbows to push the bar toward your upper thighs at the very bottom of the range of motion. Squeeze and hold for a one-count before returning to the point where your arms are parallel to the floor.
Machine Triceps Extension
The typical machine triceps extension comes in a few different flavors, including an upper-arm pad that’s horizontal and another that’s angled similar to a preacher bench. All come from the same general playbook, however, pitting your triceps against a pin-selector weight stack, with a few advantages of mechanical design on your side that may help you handle a touch more weight than you could on a free-weight alternative.
Main Areas Targeted Long and lateral heads
Strengths As with all machines, the biggest strength is also viewed by some as a weakness, in that it locks you into a particular range of motion and creates a safer environment for the lift. If the arc of the particular machine feels natural and comfortable to you, great, but if not, the exercise could do more harm than good. That said, a machine-based movement is ideal for beginners just learning their way around the gym, as well as more experienced types who are looking for a change of pace or a solid finisher with which they can rep away without worrying that fatigue will overly compromise their form.
How-To Adjust the seat so your upper arms rest flush on the pad (whether angled or flat). Grasp the handles — you can often experiment with various grips, including hammer style — and push them forward slightly to separate the stack. Contract your tri’s to achieve full elbow extension, holding the endpoint for a one-count before returning to the start. Don’t let the weight stack touch down between reps. Don’t be afraid to go heavy here. One of the greatest advantages of machine work is that you can use more weight without the use of a spotter. With some machines, you can also train one side at a time, spotting yourself with your nonworking hand.
Overhead Cable Triceps Extension
Variations of cable-based pressdowns appear three times on this list, and for good reason. The cable apparatus offers versatility, a range of grips thanks to the various attachments and the aforementioned continuous tension, keeping pressure on the working muscle throughout every rep without the tension changes inherent in free weights. (Free weights have to contend with gravity and the various angles of pull that occur in each stage of a rep.) Such is the case with overhead extensions, which are often done with a rope but can also be performed with a straight bar, cambered bar or one arm at a time via a D-handle.
Main Area Targeted Long head
Strengths Putting the triceps under stretch, as we’ve explained, puts your long head in prime, pre-stretched position. Add to that the cable’s continuous tension and you have a viable alternative to another popular free-weight counterpart coming later in this list, giving you the ability to switch things up every now and again.
How-To Attach a rope to a high-pulley cable and, facing away from the stack, grasp each end with a neutral, shoulder-width grip with your hands near your ears. Take a step out with one foot and lean forward 30 to 45 degrees at the hips, keeping your core tight, chin up, back planed and upper arms nearly parallel to the floor. Moving only your forearms, extend your elbows out in front of you until your arms are parallel to the floor, stop and squeeze, then return to the start. Don’t let the weight stack touch down between reps.
For an even greater stretch, set the pulley to the lowest setting. This pulls your elbows back into line with your body and creates a more vertical path of resistance.
Cue Kanye West, because the kickback doesn’t take this award without an obligatory outburst of disapproval. In a sea of faulty form — squirming bench presses, half-finished squats, hip-helped barbell curls — it might just stand out as the world’s most poorly performed exercise. People don’t hold their upper arm in the right position and tend to bring the weight too far forward, generating extra momentum as they extend their arm. So it was only after some disagreement among the M&P editors that the dumbbell kickback made this list. Bottom line? If done correctly, kickbacks can be one heck of an effective movement.
Main Areas Targeted Lateral (outer) and long heads
Strengths An independent study commissioned by the American Council on Exercise in 2011 tabbed the kickback as one of three standout triceps exercises (along with dips and diamond push-ups), registering among the highest levels of muscle activation among eight movements tested by University of Wisconsin–La Crosse researchers. Indeed, the kickback elicits a powerful contraction at the apex of each rep, pitting the triceps directly against the pull of resistance.
How-To Grasp a dumbbell in your right hand and position yourself alongside a flat bench with your left hand and left knee on the bench and your right foot on the floor. Your torso should be nearly parallel to the floor. Raise your upper arm so it’s alongside your torso and keep your elbow locked there. From here, extend your forearm straight back to full elbow extension, holding that peak contraction for a beat before lowering slowly to the start. Don’t let the dumbbell track past the point where your forearm is directly perpendicular to the floor, and don’t allow your elbow to drop or rise at any point during a rep.
This top-10 rundown has been admittedly heavy on machine-based exercises, and that’s by design. It’s because we can get behind the many benefits of machines we’ve touched on to this point, but we know they also have their limitations, thus shifting them to the lower half of the list. This movement, for one, is a go-to for nearly everyone interested in stronger, larger triceps, and while it isn’t perfect because it’s relatively easy to cheat by leaning into the rep, it does an outstanding job of engaging the triceps. Watch the mirror as you move into a fully flexed position and you’ll see exactly what we mean.
Main Area Targeted Lateral head
Strengths In addition to all the cable benefits mentioned earlier, the pressdown has one more advantage of note: It’s such a simple setup. That means you can easily pair it with other exercises in a circuit, and do drop sets with ease with the slip of a pin.
How-To Stand in front of a high-pulley cable and grasp the straight-bar attach-ment with a palms-down grip. With your knees soft, lean forward slightly at the hips and keep your elbows close to your sides as you bring your forearms parallel to the floor. Flex your tri’s to press the bar toward your thighs until your elbows are fully extended. Hold the peak contraction for a beat before returning to the start, being careful not to allow the weight stack to touch down between reps.
You can also use a variety of grips and attachments for comfort or to slightly alter the muscular emphasis. A V-bar, for example, will provide some relief to those with wrist pain and a rope attachment will elicit a slightly longer range of motion.
Overhead Dumbbell Triceps Extension
When it comes to overhead dumbbell extensions, some people swear by the two-handed version, which allows you to drive some impressive weight overhead and engage a wide swath of muscle fibers in the triceps, notably the long head. Others prefer the one-hand overhead extension, explaining that a stronger triceps muscle cannot compensate for a weaker one, leading to more balanced development in the long run. The truth? Both camps are right, meaning you should use both one- and two-arm variations fairly regularly in your routine.
Main Area Targeted Long head
Strengths In the overhead dumbbell extension you rep directly against the pull of gravity; there are no angles or pulley systems, just a pure up-and-down action. The exercise also accentuates the stretch on the muscle via the overhead position of your elbow as you lower the dumbbell behind your head (the eccentric phase of the motion), which leads to a stronger contraction in the lifting (concentric) phase thanks to a phenomenon known as the stretch-shortening cycle.
How-To Sit upright on a low-back bench, feet flat on the floor. Grasp the inner plate of a dumbbell as you hold it overhead at full arm extension, wrapping your thumbs around the handle for safety. With your back and core solid, bend only at your elbows to lower the weight behind your head until your arms form 90-degree angles. Hold that stretch for a brief count, then press the weight back up to full extension. Keep your elbows tucked in close to your ears throughout the movement.
Do use the single-arm version to your advantage. Research shows that muscles produce up to 20 percent more force when worked unilaterally.
Lying Triceps Extension
It’s otherwise known as a french press, but don’t let that fool you; this exercise is always ready for battle. It’s a heavy-duty, mettle-testing move that can serve as an anchor leading off any triceps workout. It can be performed with a barbell, an EZ-bar or dumbbells, each of which changes the muscle fiber recruitment patterns in the triceps ever so slightly, although all maintain focus on the lateral head with secondary emphasis on the long head.
Main Area Targeted Lateral head
Strengths This exercise is a unique blend of brute force and refined movement. In other words, while you can handle a good deal of weight once you learn proper form, it also provides for a long, arcing range of motion that requires strict concentration.
How-To Lie faceup on a flat bench with your feet flat on the floor. Have a partner hand you a straight or EZ-bar and grasp it with an overhand grip. With your arms extended, hold the bar above you at a 45-degree angle back toward your spotter. (This puts more constant tension on the triceps in the elbows-straight position versus holding the bar directly perpendicular to the floor.) Engage your triceps as you slowly lower the bar toward your forehead. When your elbows reach a 90-degree angle, pause for a moment, then forcefully extend back to the start position. Keep your elbows turned in toward your midline throughout; don’t let them stray outward.
The skullcrusher is a closely related movement where you keep your upper arms perpendicular to the floor, increasing the contribution from the medial and lateral heads and allowing you to handle slightly more weight.
Weighted Triceps Dip
The parallel-bar dip is an amazing exercise that will provide plenty of muscle stimulation for beginners and a fair number of intermediate lifters. Advanced lifters, however, run smack into perhaps its only discernible flaw: Your ultimate resistance level is limited by your bodyweight. Enter weighted dips, where you either strap additional plates to yourself via a specialized belt-and-chain apparatus or wear a weighted vest to kick the intensity up a notch or two. (If you don’t have parallel bars, you can also try bench dips by placing your hands along one edge and lowering your rear end toward the floor; if you put your feet up on a bench set parallel to the first, you can also have a partner place a weight on your lap for added resistance.)
Main Areas Targeted Lateral and long heads
Strengths Like its cousins the push-up and pull-up, the dip is a pure, basic motion that engages multiple muscle groups synergistically; in this case the chest and shoulders tend to participate, which you can dial back by making sure your body is as upright as possible. And once you’re trained to the point you can handle your own bodyweight with relative ease, you can employ additional plates to pyramid up (or down) from set to set, giving you more variables to manipulate.
How-To Grasp the dip bars with your arms extended. Keeping your upper body as upright as possible and your arms in tight, bend your elbows to lower your body toward the floor. When you “bottom out” — you can’t bend your arms any farther — press your hands into the bars and flex your triceps to extend your arms and return to the starting position.
In the initial iteration of this list, the close-grip (or diamond grip, specifically) push-up was slotted fifth. But science can’t be denied and the data proved persuasive. For one thing, the 2011 American Council on Exercise-sponsored study cited earlier declared the diamond-grip push-up as the best traditional exercise for overall stimulation of the triceps muscles, with serious activation in the lateral, long and medial heads, beating out dips, kickbacks and pressdowns, among others.
Main Areas Targeted Lateral, long and medial heads
Strengths The ultimate do-anywhere exercise, push-ups are as pure a test of strength and stamina as you’ll find in the exercise lexicon. It not only engages the triceps — the closer grip calls more on the tri’s while a wider grip requires more of the pecs — but also indirectly works the core, since you need to hold the plank position throughout. Back to that ACE study, it’s notable that the diamond push-up was 13 percent more effective than kickbacks and dips at targeting the lateral and long heads of the tri’s, at least in terms of EMG measurement. That’s not a definitive argument-ender, as we explain next, but it’s convincing enough to make push-ups a mainstay in your triceps workouts.
How-To Assume the top position of a push-up, placing your hands beneath your chest and forming a diamond on the floor with your thumbs and index fingers. Your elbows should be extended, body straight from head to heels, just your toes and hands in contact with the floor. From here, bend your elbows to lower your body toward the floor, as low as you can get, before reversing back to the start.
To increase intensity, wear a weighted vest. You can also do three to five sets of three to five plyometric close-grip push-ups right after warming up to trick your central nervous system into recruiting more muscle fibers on your normal sets that follow.
Close-Grip Bench Press
So, about that 2011 ACE study we just mentioned: It ranks the close-grip bench dead last among the eight tested movements as far as triceps activation goes. So how can we possibly bestow our No. 1 ranking on it? Well, from the bodybuilding perspective, strength matters. That is, a stronger muscle is usually a larger one. Growth processes are engaged when you push a muscle group beyond its current capabilities, causing a cascade of reactions so the body is better prepared for that challenge next time around. And when it comes to building pure strength, no triceps-specific exercise can match the advantages of the close-grip bench.
Main Areas Targeted Lateral, long and medial heads
Strengths Like the dip, the close-grip bench is a multijoint move that calls on the chest, shoulders and triceps to complete a rep. While other exercises are much more efficient at isolating the tri’s, the synergistic action of a bench press means you can move more weight. More weight equals more intensity equals more strength equals — you guessed it — more mass in the long run.
How-To Lie faceup on a flat bench with your feet flat on the floor. Grasp the barbell with a narrow, inside-shoulder-width overhand grip. Unrack the bar and hold it above your chest with your elbows extended. To begin, lower the weight under control to your lower chest, keeping your elbows close to your body throughout the descent. At the bottom, lightly touch the bar to your lower pecs — no bouncing — then extend your elbows powerfully to drive the weight back to the starting position.