The triceps are the biggest muscle in your arms, but they can be difficult to train and grow when compared to the more celebrated biceps. But Jeremy Ethier, kinesiologist, fitness trainer, and founder of Built with Science, has one movement (in the form of multiple variations) that will help you train them more effectively for noticeable gains.
Some people might think that a full complement of pressing movements, like bench press, can be enough to stimulate triceps growth. There is some evidence to that, as Ethier cites a relevant study. But you can do more. "If you’re struggling with your triceps growth or just want to get bigger triceps and bigger arms fast, then there’s one triceps exercise that you need to include in your weekly routine," says Ethier.
If you didn't know, your triceps muscle is comprised of three 'heads': the long head, the lateral head and the medial head. That's why you need to do the extra work: the study Ethier cites found that all of the pressing left the long head underdeveloped. That's partly because of its function.
"Two heads (the lateral and medial) of your triceps only cross the elbow joint and only function to extend the elbow, while the long head also crosses the shoulder joint and has an additional function to extend the shoulder," says Ethier.
He also explains that the long head is what makes up the most of the mass of your triceps—so if you're neglecting one of its chief functions in your training, you're leaving gains on the table.
"To get bigger triceps, what I’d recommend is to ensure that you’re regularly performing a triceps exercise that specifically emphasises the long head within your triceps workout," says Ethier. "Most triceps exercises where the arms are held overhead will effectively accomplish this."
The exercise he loves: modified rope or bar pushdowns.
"Instead of keeping your elbows locked into your sides, allow them to raise up and initiate each rep by first extending the shoulder and then finishing the rep with elbow extension with your elbows by your sides," says Ethier.
To take it one step further, Ethier says once your triceps fatigue to the point where you can no longer finish the reps, you can extend the set by just performing the first part of the exercise until you completely fatigue there (by extending the shoulder).
Another option: perform these modified pushdowns lying down instead.
"The line of resistance from the cable forces the long head to constantly work against the resistance to not only bring the elbows down, but to then keep the elbows pinned in place as you fully extend at the end of each rep," says Ethier.
And finally, there is a third option to add to your lying overhead extensions with either a bar or dumbbells, if you don't have a cable machine or bands handy.
To complete one rep, follow these instructions:
Part 1: First, start with your hands holding the weights directly above you. Then, lower them to your sides.
Part 2: Straighten your arms back behind your body and lock your elbows in position.
Part 3: Lower the dumbbells to behind your head and then extend them back up again.
Part 4: From here, drive your elbows back to the starting position and then straighten your arms up overhead.
Since you're moving through so many steps and putting your shoulders in potentially dangerous positions, only work with light weight. Additionally, don't arch your back when doing this motion. And if your upper arms aren't quite parallel with the ground, that's OK; you may not have the shoulder mobility to do that yet. "You won’t be able to get many reps, but each individual rep will place a ton of tension on your long head as you move through its various movement functions," says Ethier. "Focus on control, use light weight, and experiment with different grips and ranges of motion with this movement just to find what feels most comfortable for you and your elbows."
According to Ethier, he's found that using a neutral grip with dumbbells tends to be the best option for most people. He recommends choosing one or two of these exercises to do at least once a week to supplement your current pressing movements or to even swap out some of your other triceps exercises with.
"By focusing on this, you’ll very quickly be able to get bigger triceps, fast," says Ethier.
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