The triceps brachii is composed of three heads; long, medial, and lateral. All three heads span the upper arm (humerus) and attach to the forearm (ulna). However, the long head originates at the shoulder blade (scapula), while the medial and lateral heads originate at the top of the upper arm.
While all three head of the triceps extend the elbow, the long head is unique, extending and adducting the shoulder. Put simply, bringing your arm back and towards your body respectively. Not so unlike other muscles, many think of the triceps as functioning in isolation when they program their training, equating their total volume with only isolation movements such as triceps extensions in mind. However, it's integral to consider the triceps role in larger, multi-joint pushing (and even pulling) exercises when putting together an overall training program.
1) The Shortened Position: Single-Arm, Elbows Back, Rope Triceps Extension
Working Sets: 3
Repetition Range: 10-12
Rest: ~45 seconds between arms
Stand upright in a strong, grounded posture holding a rope or cable attachment with one hand. Place your other hand at your side or anchored to a sturdy object if possible. Holding good upper body posture your working upper arm should be slightly behind your body, but only to the extent that you can keep your good shoulder position. What will happen if it’s too far back is your shoulder will roll forward, we do not want that to happen. Extend your arm back fully and hold the shortened contraction hard for one second while really making a connection with the triceps. Return to the starting position in a normal, smooth cadence. This movement is meant to essentially warm up the soft tissues around the elbow, get an initial pump in the target muscle, and gain a strong connection to your triceps to start off your session. Keep your effort such that you’re a rep or so shy of technical failure, we will save that for the next couple exercises.
2) The Mid-Range Position: Slight Decline DB Skull Crusher (French Press)
Working Sets: 3-4
Repetition Range: 6-8
Rest: ~90-120 seconds
Use either an actual decline bench on its closest setting to horizontal or a normal bench propped up with a couple of traditional 25-lb weight plates to start. Lay with feet on the floor and a good packed shoulder position (shoulder blades together and down, retracted and depressed). Throughout the movement keep your elbows either right above your shoulders or slightly behind. Descend the dumbbells slowly and under control bringing them to full range of motion beside your head. You may need to scoot up on the bench so that the dumbbells don’t hit the bench as the come to the bottom end range. Now drive, or what I call “hammer,” the dumbbells back towards the ceiling in a controlled, but strong motion. This is our mid-range, “meat and potatoes” exercise.
3) The Lengthened Position: 45-90 Degree Incline Bench Cable Extension
Working Sets: 3
Repetition Range: 8-10
Rest: ~90 seconds
Your shoulder mobility will dictate what bench angle is the most appropriate for you. The worse your mobility the lower the bench angle needs to be so that you don’t compensate by overarching your lower back. Don’t force yourself into a higher bench angle if you don’t have the mobility, you will just compensate and it doesn’t add any more to the movement per se. However, it should be noted that arching your back in a movement like this isn’t inherently dangerous as the spine is not axially loaded, I simply prefer my clients to practice bracing their abdominal wall when they can and not overarch to compensate when they don’t need to. The amount of flare outwards your elbows will have in this exercise will also be dictated by your shoulder mobility. Aim for near shoulder width, however, again forcing them closer when you don’t have the ability will result in compensation. Slowly lower the rope or handle of your choice to a full range of motion and then extended up and slightly back. Again, with this movement, you want to keep your elbows either directly above or slightly behind your shoulders throughout the movement. Keep these smooth and controlled. We are aiming to hit the long head of the triceps by getting the triceps into a stretched position.
Similar to the Biceps Brachii, the Triceps Brachii are often paired in a traditional “arms day.” A “Push” or “Chest and Tris” day is another great implementation and quite often utilized. While there are numerous other permutations of body part splits and combinations these two are the most commonly put into action.
When utilizing the Optimal Growth Strategy, it may be best to stick to with a traditional arms day, pairing the biceps and triceps, as this puts them into action when they’re not already fatigued. Both straight (one exercise at a time) and super-set (“A and B,” back and forth) approaches are viable options when implementing an arms day and both strategies can be used within a single session successfully.
If your split dictates a “push” or “chest and tris” day the Optimal Growth Strategy can be utilized as well. Typically, in a push day, the larger, multi-joint exercises like bench, dumbbell, and machine presses are done first. The smaller, single-joint exercises outlined above are most often completed towards the latter portion of the session. Similar to the biceps brachii used in a “pull” day, a plausible best-case-scenario may be implementing all three exercises over a microcycle (~1 week). Incorporating one or two of the above exercises split into two sessions during the week such that you hit all three within a week. The above exercises’ respective repetition, set, tempo, and effort variables would remain the same so that they touch on different mechanisms of muscle growth throughout the week for optimal progress.
*Tempo is referred to in a 4-digit sequence whereby the first digit and thirst digits are the lowering/lengthening (eccentric) contraction and raising/shortening (concentric) contraction respectively. The second and fourth digits are the times between those two contractions/movements. For example, using the Single-Arm Rope Triceps Extension tempo above (2011) you would lower the weight and lengthen your triceps for 2 seconds (2011), not pause (2011), extend your elbow/arm for 1 second (2011), and then hold that full extended, shortened contraction for 1 second (2011) before lowering the weight again.
**RIR stands for Repetitions in Reserve and is essentially the assumed amount of repetitions you have left before you technically fail on the exercise. Technical failure is denoted by the last repetition you can complete with technically sounds failure, this is not absolute failure, where simply completing the repetition with breaks in form and compensation most often occurring.