On arms day, triceps exercises tend to get thrown in as an afterthought once you’ve burned out your biceps and shoulders. But though the backs of our arms may not get top billing, that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve their fair share of attention.
Though they might be easy to ignore, your triceps are an important element for helping your entire upper body functioning properly. Fun fact: The muscle actually makes up two-thirds of your entire arm. “The tricep muscles extend the shoulder and the elbow joint, and building up tricep strength, stability, and control can improve flexibility in addition to improving posture,” says Joey Cifelli, a master trainer at Crunch Gym in New York City.
From a functional movement standpoint, these muscles are integral in all of the pushing movements we do throughout the day, whether that means dropping down for 20 push-ups or pushing a grocery cart. “You need to strengthen your triceps in order to master these pushing movements and become truly functional,” says Dave Schenk, co-owner and co-CEO of LIFT Society. To help you strengthen this oft-forgotten part of your body for the sake of your posture and your push-pull movements, we tapped trainers to share their best practices for mastering triceps exercises. Read on for what they had to say.
How to work your triceps
1. Mix things up with weights
“Both weighted and unweighted exercises have their place in any fitness program,” says Cifelli. While bodyweight triceps exercises can certainly do the trick in strengthening the backs of your arms—particularly if you’re a beginner—it’s worth grabbing some weights every once in a while for the sake of the cause. “When it comes to working your triceps, both bodyweight and weighted exercises will play an important role in their development,” says Schneck. “That said, using an external weight like a dumbbell does offer you the ability to fine tune an exercise, and create the perfect angle and load you want to use on your triceps.” This ability to play with different loads will allow for variety in your workouts, and switching things up with your weights will ultimately help you avoid injury.
2. Pair with shoulder work
When it comes to strengthening your triceps, doing actual triceps exercises is only half the battle. In order to keep them strong, you’ll also want to work on strengthening your shoulders. “Triceps are used in all of our pushing movements, like push-ups and bench presses,” says Schneck. “And if you want to get stronger in these movements, you need to strengthen your shoulders along with your triceps, because your shoulders will help support these big lifts which will, in turn, allow you to load up your triceps with more weight.” And of course, using more weight will help you build overall strength, so think of these two muscles as an important duo that should work together during your workouts.
3. Train in three distinct sections
In order to get the most out of your triceps exercises, Schneck suggests thinking of your workout in three distinct sections. First, you’ll want to load up with heavy weight for moves like heavy tricep extensions and weighted dips (which use your body weight). Then, you’ll want to focus on creating muscular damage (aka soreness) with slow, eccentric lifts like skull crushers. Finally, you’ll want to use a light weight, high rep model for moves like kickbacks and pushdowns, which stimulate blood flow in order to bring a “pump” to your tricep muscle.
5 triceps exercises worth trying
1. Tricep push-ups
Unlike your standard push-up, this version of the move puts all of the work in the back of your arms. Start in a high plank pose with your hands planted directly under your shoulders. As you lower down, keep your gaze toward the floor and your elbows close to your body (instead of letting them extend out to 90 degrees in the way you normally would with a push-up). Be sure to keep your core engaged, back flat, and butt down, and after a few reps, you’re sure to be feeling it in those triceps.
2. Side push-ups
Flip your traditional push-up on its side for a move that targets your triceps in a whole new way. Start by lying on your side on the mat with your knees stacked and your bottom arm wrapped around your body. Place your upper hand flat on the mat alongside your upper arm with your wrist just above your elbow and fingertips around the top of your shoulder. Draw your belly in and press your palm flat into the mat to push up your body. Once your arm is straight, slowly lower your body back down to the mat. Repeat 10 to 12 times then flip over to switch to the opposite side.
This moving plank will burn out those triceps (and bonus: your core) almost immediately. Hold a high plank, and push your hips up and back toward the ceiling into a pike position. While in your pike, touch one hand to your opposite foot, then return back to parallel. Repeat on the other side to make sure both arms get an equal amount of work.
4. Tricep kickbacks in a plank
If you want to take your plank to a whole new level, add some weight and try your hand (literally) at some kickbacks. In addition to firing up your triceps, shoulders, back, and core, it will also spike your heart rate. Grab a set of light-to-medium weights, and pop up into a high plank position with your weights underneath you. Hold the dumbbell and row it into your armpit, then extend the weight back squeezing your triceps as you move. Return to the starting row position, then continue for 12 to 15 reps on each side.
5. Dumbbell lat pull downs
Swap your pushing exercises for a pushing option with this move. Start sitting on a bench or chair with a set of light-to-medium weights. Keep your palms facing forward as you raise the dumbbells straight up over your head. Pull one arm down toward your shoulders, squeezing your lats as you move by pulling your shoulders together. Stop the movement when your weight is parallel to your shoulder, then press it back up to start. Repeat on the other side.