When it comes to arm strength, biceps get all the attention. They’re aesthetically-pleasing — evoking images of jacked bodybuilders doing bicep curls at Venice Beach — and (OK fine) do play a role in a lot of simple lifting movements.
But your triceps — the long muscle on the back of your upper arm — is an incredibly functional muscle, responsible (along with the biceps) for activating the extension and retraction of your arm. This guides motions as simple as closing a door or pushing your shopping cart through the grocery store. As as result, you’re likely to engage your triceps while training chest or shoulders at the gym, as each of those major muscle groups often incorporate that pushing motion.
The Latin name of the triceps — triceps brachii — literally translates to three-headed muscle of the arm. Those three heads are the long head, lateral head and medial head. And what many folks don’t realize is the triceps is actually much larger than your biceps. So if you really want to add some dimension to your arms, you’d be wise to give your triceps some love.
We’ve got a list of great tricep exercises you can knock out at the gym or at home.
Tricep Exercises to Knock Out at the Gym
As we said, you engage the triceps during a number of other upper body lifts — the bench press, push-ups and overhead shoulder presses, just to name a few. But there are ways to specifically target the triceps at the gym and really get those arms pumping.
A few notes before we begin:
- Safety First: Many tricep exercises involve hoisting weights directly over your head, so definitely proceed with caution. Start with a weight that’s comfortable so you can learn the form and avoid any serious injury.
- Technique: Form is incredibly key here, as even the slightest lack of commitment to technique will make the exercises less effective. Use lighter weights (or resistance bands) to help you understand and perfect the motions.
- Warm Up: The triceps sit right between the shoulder and elbow, both of which are susceptible to injury if treated poorly. Warm up with some stretching or a light pair of dumbbells to get the blood flowing.
1. Close-Grip Bench Press
If you’ve done any kind of strength training before, you’ve surely hit the bench press on chest day. That compound lift incorporates a grip that’s wider than your shoulders. But the close-grip bench press — as the name suggests — shifts your hands more toward the center of the barbell. Most barbells have a spot where the chrome knurling begins, which is a great reference point for your hands to sit.
Keep in mind: The objective with moving your hands closer together is to target the triceps and place less emphasis on the chest, the biggest muscle of the upper body. This means you should start with a much lighter weight than you would while doing a traditional bench press, since you shouldn’t be primarily using your chest to push the weight.
Instructions: Lay flat on a bench and grip the barbell with your hands at shoulder width apart. Lift the barbell off of the rack and bring it down to your torso, ensuring your wrists stack over the below joint. Press the bar back to the starting position.
2. EZ Bar Skullcrushers
For anyone training arms, the EZ bar is your best friend. Its curved handle makes it a favorite for bicep curls, but it’s also the weapon of choice for an iconic triceps exercise — the skullcrusher. The brutal name is an apt warning: You should be extremely careful when performing this exercise, as it places a heavy bar directly over your head, touching it in some cases. Enlist the help of a spotter if you plan on going heavy.
Instructions: Lay flat on a bench and (either with a spotter’s assistance or by hoisting the bar up yourself) grab the bar at its curved handles and extend your arms above your chest. Keeping your elbows and upper arms still, lower the bar with your forearms until it reaches your head, then extend your arms to raise the bar back to the starting point.
Another classic triceps exercise, pushdowns utilize the cable pulley system most gyms provide. You should reach for the straight or curved bar attachment for tricep pushdowns, though a two-handled rope will also offer a great pump for your triceps. The change in attachments will adjust your grip ever so slightly and engage slightly different heads of the triceps.
Instructions: Set the pulley at the highest position and grab the bar with your palms facing the floor. Bring the bar to the starting position around your chest and keep your elbows at your sides. Push the bar down until your arms extend, making sure your forearms and hands are the only things moving. Your upper arms should be locked at your sides. Maintaining the tension, return the bar to the starting position.
Dumbbell Tricep Exercises
As you’ve gathered so far, every tricep exercise is some version of pushing or extending your elbows. The variety arrives as you start incorporating different grips, handles and gear, making those slight adjustments to target different areas of the triceps.
Dumbbells, the quintessential tool for strength training, don’t keep your arms into a fixed plane, and as a result offer a more flexible, dynamic workout. They’re particularly useful for triceps exercises because you can target one arm at a time. We’ve included three great dumbbell tricep exercises, and listed our recommendations for the best dumbbells toward the end of the article, just in case you’re looking to train triceps outside the gym.
1. Overhead Tricep Extension
Once again, exercise caution anytime you’re hoisting heavy weights above your head. The overhead tricep extension can be performed seated on an upright bench or standing. For the latter, make sure to engage your core and glutes, which will keep the resistance of the movement adequately targeted on the triceps.
Instructions: Stack your hands in a diamond shape to grab one head of a dumbbell in your palms. Bring the dumbbell around your head and behind your neck so the dumbbell is perpendicular with the floor. Push the dumbbell straight up, extending your arms and ensuring the dumbbell maintains its perpendicular plane.
2. Triceps Kickback
The triceps kickback is a great one-handed dumbbell exercise to engage the triceps. It’s easy to mess up the form here, so we recommend starting with a lighter weight to ensure you’re maintaining a controlled motion. We also suggest using a bench to support the motion. You can perform this exercise standing, but it will place stress on your lower back and won’t encourage the best possible technique.
Instructions: Grab a dumbbell in your right hand, placing your right knee and opposite hand on a flat bench for support. Your torso should be parallel with the ground, and your elbow should form a 90-degree angle in the starting position. Press the dumbbell backwards until your arm is extended.
3. Dumbbell Skullcrusher
This takes the exact same motion as the EZ bar skullcrusher but swaps in a pair of dumbbells instead. This allows each of your arms to move independently. However, that can also lead to problems, as the independence creates more opportunities for your arms to move out of position. You’ll see some folks perform this with both arms, but we actually recommend going one at a time, which lets you focus on the technique and use your free hand for support.
Instructions: Lay flat on a bench and grab a dumbbell in one hand, bending your elbow so it forms a 90-degree angle. At the starting position, the dumbbell should be perpendicular to the ground. Extend your arm to raise the dumbbell above your chest, ensuring your elbow stays still throughout the motion.
Tackle Tricep Exercises at Home
If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that even the most avid fitness fanatics can get a pretty great workout at home. There are a handful of bodyweight tricep exercises to perform, and a number of great tricep workouts that utilize simple gear like resistance bands.
If you’re looking to tackle some tricep exercises at home, we’ve got you covered.
1. Tricep Dips
Dips are a staple of many chest workouts, but moving them over to the bench allows you to target your triceps with only your bodyweight. A fair warning: Dips can be deadly if you have any kind of shoulder issues. Form is paramount — which the video below demonstrates — as it’s all too easy to put stress on your shoulders while performing triceps dips. If you’re in a pinch, you could use a flat chair or sturdy coffee table in place of the bench.
Instructions: Sit on the side of a bench with your hands down and your knuckles facing away from your body. Extend your lower body away from the bench and push yourself up, engaging your core so your bodyweight rests on your hands. Keep your shoulders back and lower yourself toward a comfortable depth, then use your triceps to push yourself up to the starting position.
2. Close-Grip Push-Ups
Like our close-grip bench press variation from earlier, the same principle applies with push-ups — moving your hands closer together will move some of the resistance away form your chest and onto your triceps. Getting too close, however, will put too much stress on your elbows, so make sure your hands only go as narrow as shoulder width apart.
Instructions: Lay face down on the floor and place your hands at shoulder width, so your shoulders stack above your hands and your elbows kick back along the sides of your body. Push yourself up, pause, and return to the starting position. If you feel any elbow pain, try moving your hands a bit wider.
3. Resistance Band Pulldowns
A resistance band essentially mimics the cable pulley system at your gym, offering constant resistance throughout a workout, but keeps the movement a little more natural. You can adapt a ton of great gym tricep exercises by doing them with resistance bands instead. The video below offers a ton of different options, but we really like the classic pulldown.
Instructions: Secure your resistance band from a higher position, either by locking it on one side of a door or using a secure hook system (which comes with many resistance bands). Grab the band in one hand, keep your upper arm and elbow firmly perpendicular to the floor at your side, and pull the band down until your arm is extended. Control the motion as your return to the starting position.
The Best Gear for Tricep Exercises
As we mentioned, you can get a great tricep workout in the comfort of your own home. You could conceivably ball out on the gear required to do some of the in-gym exercises, but a full bench press setup and pulley system will be costly and take up a ton of space. We’ve already curated lists of the best equipment for your home gym, but here are a few recommendations that should specifically aid your quest for terrific triceps.
1. Bowflex SelectTech 552 Dumbbell
These Bowflex dumbbells are a consistent Spy favorite, and it’s easy to see why. They save space (a priority for home fitness aficionados) by combining 15 sets of weights, which you can swap between using an ultra-simple dial system. These go all the way up to 52.5 pounds, which might not be enough for professional bodybuilders, but is plenty for most home workouts.
2. Letsfit Resistance Bands Set
This resistance band set from Letsfit has five different levels of resistance, going from 10 to 50 pounds in increments of 10. You can also combine multiple bands for even more resistance. The handle attachments are particularly useful for arm workouts, as the ability to rotate your hand position helps target different muscles in the arms. The key feature here, though, is the door attachment, which will help you stabilize the end of the band and help you knock out the resistance band pulldown we mentioned above.
3. Flybird Weight Bench
We have a list of the best workout benches if you want to take a deep dive. But we’ll save you the trouble. This Flybird weight bench is a killer option, corroborated by more than 15,000 Amazon ratings. It offers great support and a handful of different flat, incline and decline angles, making it an easy choice for your home gym. Snag this if you want to tackle tricep dips, and combine it with a pair of dumbbells for some skullcrushers or kickbacks.