Any arms workout that doesn’t spend at least as much time focusing on the triceps as the biceps is an arms workout that isn’t worthy of you and your (soon-to-be) mighty arms-enal. The triceps make up the majority of the muscle mass in your upper arms, which means if you’re chasing sleeve-busting muscles, you need to be doing triceps exercises regularly.
Training your triceps isn’t just about aesthetics either, as Olu Adepitan, head of fitness at BXR London, explains. “Not only do well developed triceps look good, but they can also enhance sporting performance, because of the association of triceps strength with punch power or throwing a ball at speed.”
Below, Adepitan, Annabelle Breakenridge, head trainer at F45 Peckham Rye, Carl Martin, personal training manager at Equinox, and our good selves, guide you through a selection of beginner, intermediate and advanced triceps exercises, so all gym-goers – however experienced – should find some inspiration for their next arms session.
Beginner Triceps Exercises
The first three of these beginner exercises use the cable machine, employing both hands and are done standing.
“Attach a straight or angled bar to a high pulley,” says Adepitan, “and hold it with your palms facing down (overhand grip) and your hands shoulder-width apart. Standing upright with your torso straight, bring your upper arms close to your body and perpendicular to the floor. Your forearms should be pointing up towards the pulley.
“Using your triceps to move your forearms, bring the bar down until it touches the front of your thighs with your arms fully extended and perpendicular to the floor. Your upper arms should remain stationary next to your torso. After holding for one second at the contracted position, bring the bar slowly back up to the starting point. Exhale as you bring the bar down and breathe in as you return to the start position.”
“Start by setting a bar attachment (straight or EZ-bar) on a high pulley of the cable machine,” says Adepitan. “Facing the bar attachment with feet shoulder-width apart, grab it with palms facing up (supinated grip) and hands shoulder-width apart. Lower the bar by using your lats until your arms are fully extended by your sides with elbows tucked in.
“Moving your forearms but keeping your elbows and upper arms stationary by your sides, slowly bring the bar attachment up, inhaling as you go, until it is at chest height. Lower the cable bar back to the starting position while exhaling and contracting the triceps.”
“Attach a rope to the bottom pulley of the cable machine,” says Adepitan. “Face away from the pulley and, holding the rope with both hands with palms facing each other (neutral grip), extend your arms until your hands are directly above your head. Your elbows should be in close to your head and the arms should be perpendicular to the floor with the knuckles pointing to the ceiling.
“Slowly lower the rope behind your head as you hold the upper arms stationary. Inhale as you perform this movement and pause when your triceps are fully stretched. Breathe out as you return to the starting position by flexing your triceps.”
The diamond press-up variation may put more focus on the triceps, but when you’re starting out it’s a good idea to split the work between your chest and triceps so you can complete the optimal number of reps with good form.
Start on all fours, supporting yourself on your toes and palms with your arms extended and hands under your shoulders. Your body should form a straight line between your shoulders, hips and heels. Take approximately three seconds to lower your chest to the ground, keeping your elbows tight to your sides. Once your chest is roughly 5cm off the ground, press back up with force, taking one second to return to the top position.
Intermediate Triceps Exercises
These exercises are more advanced because they either use free weights or require the individual to have enough strength to lift their own bodyweight. The first two are unilateral (single-arm) exercises which require more skill than bilateral (both arms) exercises.
“Position yourself on the left side of the bench with your right knee and right hand resting on it,” says Adepitan. “Using a neutral grip, pick up the dumbbell with your left hand. Keep your back straight and look forward. Tuck your left upper arm close to your torso and bend at the elbow, forming a 90° angle with your upper arm and forearm.
“Moving only below the elbow, raise the dumbbell behind you until your arm is fully extended. Pause, and then lower the dumbbell back to the starting position. Repeat this movement for the desired number of reps and then switch to your right arm.”
Using dumbbells rather than the cable machine works each arm individually, helping to even out any strength imbalances in your triceps. The move is done in the same way as with a cable machine. Start holding both dumbbells above your head with your arms extended.
“With your elbows tucked in close to your ears, hinge at the elbow to move the dumbbells behind your head and then extend back fully to the top,” says Breakenridge.
Cable unilateral triceps extension
“Stand directly in front of the weight stack in a staggered stance,” says Adepitan. “With your right hand, grasp a single handle attached to the high pulley using an underhand grip so your palm faces up. Pull the handle down so that your upper arm and elbow are locked in to the side of your body. Your upper arm and forearm should form an acute angle (less than 90°).
“Contract your triceps and breathe out as you move your forearm to bring the attachment down to your side until your arm is straight. Squeeze your triceps and hold for a second in this contracted position. Slowly return the handle to the starting position. Complete all reps, then switch arms.”
“Place two flat benches parallel to one another, around 1-1.5m apart (adjust the width to suit your height),” says Adepitan. “Place your hands on the edge of the bench, around shoulder-width apart, and put your heels on the edge of the other bench.
“Keeping your body close to the bench, slowly lower in a dip until your elbows are at the same height as your shoulders. Slowly push back up, squeezing through the triceps. Do not lock out your elbows at the top of the exercise.”
Advanced Triceps Exercises
These advanced exercises require enough strength to lift your own bodyweight and the physical awareness to isolate the triceps at the same time as another body part.
Roman chair dip
“Position yourself on the Roman chair (find a gym staff member to help you if you’ve not used one before),” says Adepitan. “Bend your knees, slowly lower yourself, then press back up. Make sure to look up, keep your body straight and keep your elbows next to your body so they bend back behind you, rather than out to the sides.”
“Lie with your back on a flat bench,” says Adepitan. “With hands around shoulder-width apart, lift the barbell from the rack and hold it straight over you with your arms locked.
“Lower the bar slowly until the bar touches the middle of your chest, inhaling as you go. Make sure that, as opposed to a regular bench press, you keep the elbows close to your torso at all times in order to maximise the involvement of your triceps. Pause for a second, then press the bar back to the starting position using your triceps muscles, exhaling as you go. Lock your arms in the contracted position, hold for a second and then start coming down slowly again. It should take at least twice as long to go down than to come up.”
“This is similar to the standard press-up, but you bring your hands together and form a diamond shape with your index fingers and thumbs, which puts more emphasis on the triceps as you perform the exercise,” says Breakenridge.
Make sure you keep your elbows close to your sides as you drop down and push back up – this will ensure you are hitting your triceps as hard as possible.
Barbell/EZ-bar French press
“The French press is an important exercise for the long head of the triceps,” says Martin, “but if done incorrectly it can place a huge amount of stress on the elbow joint.
“Set a bench on a high incline (90° or a notch shy of). Hold the bar overhead with a narrow grip and your elbows facing forwards. Bend at the elbows, then allow the weight of the bar to pull your arms back until your forearms are next to your head. Then drag your elbows forwards while pressing the bar back up to the start position. Use a controlled motion throughout and make sure your elbows don’t flare during the movement. To help keep tension in the muscles, don’t fully lock the elbows at the top.”
Lying dumbbell triceps extension
“Many gym-goers place an undue amount of stress on their elbow joints,” says Martin, “so if you’re going to do triceps extensions of any kind where you flex the elbow, dumbbells are preferable because they allow a greater range of movement. Lying on a flat bench, press two dumbbells above your head with your elbows facing forwards. Lower the dumbbells towards your shoulders by flexing at the elbow. Once there, return to the start by contracting your triceps and extending your elbows until the dumbbells are back overhead. Don’t fully lock the elbows at the top so that you maintain tension in the muscles.”
Hold a weight above your head, then bring it closer to your head. Yep, we’ll file this one under “advanced”. As simple as it sounds, it’s not for beginners.
Lie on your back on a flat bench holding two dumbbells with your arms extended straight up and palms facing. For (hopefully) obvious reasons, choose a light weight while you familiarise yourself with the form and demands of the move.
Keeping your upper arms stationary throughout, bend at your elbows to slowly lower the weights under control towards your forehead, then use your triceps to raise the dumbbells back to the start. You can use an EZ-bar or a barbell, but there’s a greater chance of losing control with these, so only consider them once you’ve truly mastered the dumbbell version.