Muscle Study: The Triceps Muscle

In each muscle study, we’ll take a look at a muscle group, and examine what its purpose is in the body. Then using that information, we’ll take a look at a few ways to exercise the muscle and close with a sample workout that should effectively work the muscle. There may be some biological / technical jargon in this, but I’ll do my best to explain in plain English the terminology we’re throwing around as we go along!

The triceps muscle (also called the triceps brachii) is the muscle on the back part of the upper arm that connects the scapula (shoulder blade) and the top of the humerus to the forearm at the ulna. It consists of a single muscle, the triceps brachii which splits into a long, lateral and medial head.

The Triceps Brachii

As mentioned, the triceps splits into a long, lateral and medial head which work together as a single muscle. Each head connects to the ulna at the insertion point. The long head originates at the infraglenoid tubercle of scapula, which is just underneath the socket where the humerus bone, or upper arm, enters the shoulder. The lateral head attaches above the radial groove of the humerus. The medial head attaches below the radial groove of the humerus. The three heads then converge into a single muscle which attaches to the ulna bone of the forearm at the olecranon process.

So What Does This Muscle Do?

The triceps connects to both the shoulder, humerus and the elbow, so it can affect movements governed by both the shoulder and elbow joints. It is capable of:

  • Primarily Extending the forearm at the elbow joint effectively straightening the arm and assisting with pushing motions
  • Pull the upper arm backward in extension

To simplify this understanding, the triceps come into play during the act of straightening an arm bent at the elbow.

Strong triceps muscles have a number of additional benefits when it comes to training, like shoulder stabilization and increasing the strength of the shoulder and elbow.

So How Do We Best Work This Muscle?

If we look at the muscle’s primary function of extending the forearm to straighten the arm, we can logically determine that to get maximum flexion of the muscle, anything that focuses on this movement will place resistant stress on the muscle.

So let’s look at three different exercises we can do to target the muscle fully, examine why they work, and how to properly perform them to best effect.

The 3-step Triceps Pushdown

The triceps pushdown is a classic exercise that isolates the triceps muscle and can be performed multiple ways. It can be performed using a weight stack and a high pulley or alternatively at home using resistance bands attached to a high point – preferably overhead (looped over a pullup bar in a doorway for example). By rotating the direction the palms face – from parallel to the floor to perpendicular to the floor, it is possible to target the long, lateral and medial heads. This can be accomplished manaully in the case of a resistance band, or more effectively by using a straight, angled or rope attachment on a pulley machine.

When performing the exercise, your shoulders should be back and down (pinching the shoulder blades together slightly) and square with the hips.

1The starting point of the exercise will be with the hands at or near shoulder height as you grip the bar/band, but once the exercise has begun, the forearms should go no higher than parallel to the floor in order to maximize resistance to the triceps. stand with feet shoulder width, and grip the bar with hands also about shoulder width apart, if necessary, pull the bar down until your elbows are pointing at the floor, and held comfortably at your side. Lock the elbows at this point – they should not move in or out, forward or backward during the movement. Inhale prior to pressing the bar down.

2Exhale as you press the bar/band downward until the arms are straight over a slow 2 or 3 mental count. When the arms are straight, squeeze the triceps muscle hard. Pause for a 1 second mental count at the bottom of the movement while squeezing the muscle.

3Inhale and slowly allow the weight to raise back up in a controlled motion over a mental count of 2 or 3. Remember, the forearms should stop the movement when parallel to the floor. Rest for a mental count of 1 or 2, holding the bar/band under tension and repeat the movement until failure (the point at which you cannot perform another movement, or you cannot perform another movement without sacrificing form).

Remember, the elbow should remain relatively motionless while performing this exercise. I like to imagine there’s a steel rod pinning my elbow to my side. This should prohibit any cheating or “leaning into” the weight limiting any additional muscles than what we want to target from assisting too much. Also, don’t allow yourself to lean over the bar. You don’t want your body weight to move the bar – you want the muscles doing the work – that’s how progress is made!

The Standing Overhead Triceps Dumbbell Extension

Again, we’re working the triceps by isolating them through a short elbow extension movement, but this time it’s overhead. The standing overhead triceps dumbbell extension feels a little awkward, but makes full use of gravity to maximize the effectiveness of the exercise. I like it because it can be modified to be done with one arm and because it can be done with dumbbells, it’s something that a home gym enthusiast can easily incorporate into their routine. It’s also possible to do this exercise with resistance bands by creating a loop on the floor and stepping on it, then raising the bands behind you to get into position. The bigger the loop, the greater the tension, so the bands can be particularly effective and easy to increase or decrease the weight during the exercise.

Similar to the first exercise, your shoulders should be back and down (pinching the shoulder blades together slightly) and square with the hips.

1Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, knees should be slightly bent to protect the spine and move the dumbbell into the position shown in the diagram above. Exhale

Tip: Some people find it easier to hold the dumbbell by the weight (similar to the guy in the diagram), with a hand on either side, and others prefer to hold the bar between the weighted ends with both hands. Either way is fine, just try to find the way that’s most comfortable to you and doesn’t cause any pinching in the wrist.

2Inhale and slowly lower the weight behind your head (be careful not to brain yourself!) over a 2 to 3 count. The elbows should remain as motionless as possible and should be pointing at the ceiling when the weight is fully lowered behind the neck. Pause for a 1 second mental count at the bottom. Unlike many exercises, the work will be felt most in step 3 of this movement, so get mentally ready!

3Exhale and slowly raise the weight back to the starting position over a mental 2 or 3 count, squeezing the triceps hard at the top of the movement. Focus on trying to keep the elbows as motionless as possible. Rest for a mental one second count and repeat the exercise until failure.

Tip: if you can’t raise the weight without moving your elbows, then it’s too heavy for your current strength level. Reduce the weight and focus on proper form – the strength will come.

We intentionally take a mental one count at the bottom of each repetition to break any momentum that we may have and reset our form. This makes the movement a little more difficult, but that means it’s also a little more effective.

Triceps Dips

There are several ways of performing a triceps dip that can really increase the difficulty from relatively challenging, to pretty difficult. Triceps dips can be performed by placing the palms behind you, facing forward on a bench or chair, and keeping the feet on the floor in front of you and lowering your butt up and down by bending the elbows for beginners. They can be performed the same way, but elevating your feet on another bench and/or lifting one leg to increase the difficulty as an intermediate movement. and for the truly advanced, they can be performed on parallel bars similar to the diagram above, and if that’s not enough, additional weight can be attached to the body by hanging them from a belt. This versatility truly makes the triceps dip an exercise you’ll want to include in your exercise routine.

1Place the palms of your hands behind your butt/back resting on a bench or chair with the fingers facing forward. Your body should be far enough in front of the bench that you can lower yourself without scraping your back on the equipment, but still relatively close to avoid stressing the shoulder joint. The feet should be placed in front of the body as far as you can, heels on the floor, toes pointing to the sky. You should need to tighten the core to hold the body at around a 30 degree angle. – no sagging in the middle (yet!). Inhale.

2Exhale and lower your butt toward the ground, allowing your body to bend at the hips and stopping when your elbows are around a 90 degree angle – you should feel your triceps working to support the weight. Squeeze the tricep and hold for a 1 second mental count at the bottom of the movement.

tip: if this is too difficult, try bending your legs during the step 1 setup, placing your feet flat on the floor. This should allow your legs to assist with the movement in step 2, and make the work easier on the triceps, but push yourself. Remember, there is growth in the struggle, not in the ease.

3Inhale, and use the triceps to straighten the arms back the the starting point over a 2-3 second mental count. Similar to the overhead triceps extension, you’ll feel the muscle work most during this step of the exercise. Rest for a mental one second count at the top and repeat the exercise until failure.

Stretch That Thing!

Strengthening the muscle isn’t good enough. You want a functional, strong, lean muscle that not only looks good, but that you can rely on. If you don’t stretch your muscles, you’ll begin developing range of motion issues that you don’t want. My rule of thumb – any time you work a muscle, you should also stretch the muscle. A few stretches you could perform after a triceps workout might be:

Overhead Triceps Stretch
Horizontal Triceps Stretch

Wrap Up

There are many reasons to exercise this muscle group, ranging from functionality to simply aesthetic reasons. Hopefully this article sheds some light on the complexity of this muscle group, and increases your knowledge of how it’s used by your body. I’d love to hear your thoughts on ideas how you might be able to train it to work even harder.

Know someone who might like this article? Please share it with them, or via your social media network, it helps the blog out, and you never know who you might be responsible for motivating to live a healthier lifestyle!

Resources

Triceps Brachii – Physiopedia.com

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