Ask a gung-ho bodybuilding newbie to find the best way to build big arms, set him loose in the gym, and you can bet that in no time flat you’ll find him straining out a set of standing barbell curls at the nearest power rack.
It’s not his fault. The curl has been the exercise poster child for decades, glamorized by glossy photos of such big-armed giants as Larry Scott and Dave Draper in Joe Weider’s iconic magazines back in the ’50s and ’60s. Yes, when it comes to arms, biceps rule the roost, and the typical “arm” workout revolves around the ubiquitous curl.
Now, don’t misunderstand us. If you want to build exceptional biceps, the standing curl is a potent weapon. The problem is, that popular muscle only accounts for about one-third of your total upper-arm size.
Meanwhile, the three-headed muscle known as the triceps represents the other two-thirds of your upper-arm growth potential. If you haven’t yet, it’s time you prioritized them, don’t you think? With the following hardcore workout aimed explicitly at the tri’s, you can do just that.
Push and a Shove
The triceps aren’t just important for aesthetic purposes. They have key functions in the gym and in your daily life. Their primary chore is to contract to straighten the arm at the elbow joint, while the biceps in turn contracts to bend it. Try getting through the next hour without bending your arms, and you’ll see how useful the triceps are (and how silly you look trying to accomplish daily tasks without using your elbow joint).
The triceps are critically involved in all pushing motions, in the gym and out of it. Every time you do a bench press or overhead press, your triceps are busy bolstering your overall strength and making the movement possible. In short, those in pursuit of bodybuilding perfection will never achieve the results they crave in the chest and delts without fully developed triceps.
The workout we’ve created will help maximize strength and size. It’s physically devastating enough that you’ll likely have to give your triceps their own training session, which provides them the undivided attention they need if they’re lagging behind other bodyparts. The workout can be done once a week, unless your body recovers exceptionally fast and you’re very accustomed to doing high-intensity training techniques.
Admittedly, that’s all run-of-the-mill stuff in bodybuilding circles — nothing extraordinary or groundbreaking — which is exactly our intention because what we’ve created is based on years of in-the-trenches results achieved by pros and amateurs alike. We picked exercises that allow you to move a lot of weight and that engage your triceps in subtly different ways, so that by the end of the session, you’ve touched on the muscle fibers from the triceps’ origins to their insertion points.
High ’n’ Tri
Our plan of attack does, however, diverge from common iron wisdom in one key aspect. Most gym rats will tell you that you can “go heavy” or you can go “high rep” but that you can’t do both. The argument is, if you choose a heavy enough weight, there’s no way you can physically pound out a high number of reps, in general parlance meaning 12 reps or more per set.
Our contention? That’s not necessarily true, at least not with the help of a spotter and one other trick of the trade. There is a compromise involved in the total amount of weight you can handle by going higher reps, but you can still ramp up the repetitions while moving a heavy, extremely challenging weight.
The key is to use an advanced training technique called rest/pause. Load the bar with a weight that you can get six to eight reps with. But you won’t be stopping there. No, your goal is to get 15 reps in each set. How is that possible? Well, you’ll start lifting, and when you reach muscle failure, which should be around or possibly just beyond the eight-rep range where you would normally stop, put the bar down. Rest 10 to 15 seconds and then pick the bar back up and do as many reps as you can until you hit muscle failure again. Repeat this process as many times as it takes until you get 15 reps. Then the set’s over. Rest two to three minutes between sets to give your poor arms a break before beginning the onslaught again.
This is how you craft a workout that combines barbell and dumbbell basics with reps in the teens. You’ll struggle, you’ll swear, but you’ll set muscular growth processes into motion. Pushing your muscles way beyond muscle failure with a heavy weight puts them under more mechanical stress, which causes the physical damage to the muscle that spurs growth. But by repeatedly pushing muscles beyond failure, you’re also causing metabolic changes in the muscle that promote growth via certain growth factors that are released within muscle tissue.
The Workout, Step by Step
You’ll start this five-exercise, 15-set training session with the overhead cable extension. Because this is a warm-up, meant to pull some blood into the triceps muscles and knock the cobwebs out of your elbows, you’ll want to go relatively light and not work to failure on these three sets. (Don’t worry, failure comes next.)
The second exercise, the close-grip bench press, is the first opportunity to move some significant poundage. While beginners should never worry about weight — focusing only on learning perfect form — if you’re an intermediate or advanced trainee, you can approach the bench with the aim of handling as much weight as you safely can, sliding enough plates on the bar to fail at somewhere between six to eight reps.
For the third exercise, incline EZ-bar triceps extensions, you’ll adjust the weight again, keeping in mind that you’ve already fried your muscles and might not be able to push the same weight you normally would for this exercise. By the time you reach the fourth exercise, dumbbell overhead triceps extensions, your arms will be sore and fatigued. Refocus, breathe deep and go for it.
To finish, you’ll test your mettle by completing three sets of bodyweight triceps dips to failure. Whether that’s three reps or 30 doesn’t matter, as long as you’re confident you’ve shoved your muscles as far as they can possibly go.
At this point, you’re likely exhausted. That’s great. But if you see a confused newbie making his way toward a barbell with curls in his sights, here’s hoping you can at least work up the energy to lift an arm and point him in a much better direction. He’ll thank you later.
High-’n’-Heavy Triceps Workout
Overhead Cable Extension
Start: Grasp a rope attached to a high-cable pulley station with a neutral, shoulder-width grip and face away from the stack. Take a step forward with one foot and lean forward at the waist 30 to 45 degrees, keeping your abs tight, back straight and elbows at a 90-degree angle.
Action: Keeping your upper arms stationary, extend your arms out in front of you until they’re parallel to the floor. Flex your triceps for a count before returning to the start position.
Insider Tip: Concentrate on form. The only action in this exercise takes place at the elbow and does not involve rocking the torso to gain extra leverage.
Close-Grip Bench Press
Start: Lie back on a bench with your feet flat on the floor, then reach up and grasp the barbell with a narrow (less than shoulder-width) overhand grip. Press the bar up slightly to unrack it, and hold it above your chest with your arms extended.
Action: Lower the bar to your lower chest, keeping your elbows close to your body. When the bar is an inch or so away from your chest, pause for a count and press it back up to the starting position.
Insider Tip: Avoid the temptation to bounce the barbell off your chest at the bottom; it’s a cheat some use in an attempt to move more weight than they can legitimately handle.
Incline EZ-Bar Triceps Extension
Start: Lie faceup on an incline bench set to 30 to 45 degrees with your feet flat on the floor. Have a partner hand you an EZ bar; grasp it with an overhand grip, elbows extended. When your partner lets go, hold the bar so that it’s directly over your forehead, not above your chest.
Action: Slowly lower the bar down toward your forehead. When you reach a 90-degree angle in your elbows and/or the bar is about an inch from your head, pause for a moment and then powerfully extend your arms to lift the bar back to the starting position.
Insider Tip: If training alone, you can get the bar into position in two ways. One, sit at the end of the bench with the bar on your knees, then grasp it with both hands and bring it into position on your chest as you lie back. Alternately, you can balance the bar centered at the end of the bench just above where your head will be, then lie down, reach back and grasp the bar. Lift it up enough to clear your head and then bring it to your chest before pressing it to the start position.
Dumbbell Overhead Triceps Extension
Start: Sit erect on a low-back bench, feet flat on the floor, elbows bent near your ears and your hands behind your head. Have your spotter hand you a dumbbell, and hold it with both hands cupping the inner upper plate of the bell, wrapping your thumbs around the bar. Keep your head straight and lower back pressed into the pad.
Action: Keeping your elbows in place next to your ears, press the weight overhead to nearly full arm extension, tightening your triceps strongly at the top. Lower the weight back behind your head.
Insider Tip: If you don’t have a spotter, put the dumbbell on your lap, grasp it with both hands, heave it to sit atop one shoulder and lift it into the start position.
Start: Get into position by grasping the dip bars, holding your body upright with your arms extended.
Action: Keep your elbows tight to your sides as you bend them to lower your body downward. When your elbows form 90-degree angles, press your palms into the bars and extend your arms to raise yourself back up to the start position.
Insider Tip: Performing reps with your torso angled forward calls more of the pectorals into play during the dip; keeping your body upright emphasizes the triceps’ involvement.