These Are the Three Best Tricep Exercises

These Are the Three Best Tricep Exercises

Arm day can be one of the most fun days at the gym, but don’t limit yourself to just bicep exercises. Your triceps, on the back of your arm, are an even larger arm muscle, and they’re what give you the strength to lift things overhead or bust out a set of pushups. Here I’ll share some of my favorite tricep exercises, along with a crash course on what the triceps are and what they do.

What is the triceps? 

The triceps brachii (“three-headed muscle of the arm”) is the muscle on the back of your upper arm. Its main function is straightening your elbow. 

Each head has a different origin point near the top of your upper arm: The lateral and medial heads both originate on the upper humerus (upper arm) bone. The long head actually starts on your shoulder blade.

The three heads of the tricep merge together into a big flat tendon on the lower part of your arm, above the elbow. This is what creates the “horseshoe” shape you can sometimes see when somebody flexes their tricep. That tendon continues downward and attaches to the olecranon process of the ulna, or to put it in clearer terms, the pointy part of your elbow. 

Unlike the deltoids, where the three heads perform different motions, the three heads of the tricep will all get worked reasonably well with any exercise that has you straighten your arm. 

What’s with all these special exercises for the “long head”?

Since the long head of the triceps originates on the shoulder blade, rather than the upper arm bone, you can stretch the long head a bit by putting your arms overhead. As I discussed in my article on the best bicep exercises, you arguably get the best stimulus for growth when training a muscle in its stretched position. So, overhead tricep exercises are sometimes said to “hit the long head” better.

Will tricep exercises tone my upper arms? 

The same logic that has people doing crunches to get rid of belly fat (which doesn’t work) also has people doing tricep exercises to get rid of “chicken wings” or “bingo arms.” It doesn’t actually work that way, in either case. 

The only thing that will reduce fat in a specific body part, like the upper arm, is reducing fat all over your body. You can’t meaningfully control where your body stores fat; you do have a small amount of control over how much total fat. 

Strengthening a muscle can make it larger and can make it easier to see definition (like that horseshoe where the muscle bellies meet the tendon). It doesn’t change the wobbly appearance of your arm when it’s relaxed, but it does mean you can flex the muscle and show off a little. 

The best exercise for triceps: dips

I’m going to award the crown here to dips. I’ll give some barbell, dumbbell, and cable options below, but if I could only pick one tricep exercise? It would be dips. 

Dips are the exercise where your hands are down at your sides, on handles, and you bend and straighten your elbows to move your body up and down. 

Dips are a compound exercise traditionally done with just your body weight, but you can make it easier by using a band or an assisted dip machine. Once you get strong enough that bodyweight dips are easy, start adding weight. Grab a dip belt (your gym probably has one in a bucket of accessories somewhere) and thread as many weight plates as you like onto the chain. Weighted dips are a seriously underrated exercise, and they tend to improve your bench press as a side effect.

Dips are sometimes divided into two categories: “chest dips” when you lean your torso forward and flare your elbows out, and “tricep dips” when you keep your body as upright as possible, with elbows close to your body. Both are great. Here’s a video on how to do tricep dips: 

If you don’t have access to dip handles (or gymnastics rings, which also work), the next best bodyweight exercise would be tricep pushups. These are pushups with the hands placed close together, and the elbows tucked in close to your waist. 

The best exercise for the long head of the triceps: overhead extensions

Since the long head attaches to the shoulderblade (on the underside, near the shoulder joint), arguably the best way to train it is while your arms are reaching overhead. A 2023 study found that overhead tricep extensions produce greater hypertrophy (size changes) in the triceps than pushdowns. Interestingly, the increase wasn’t just in the long head, but in all three heads of the triceps. 

Whatever the reason, I’d recommend overhead extensions if you like the idea of doing the most “scientific” or “optimal” tricep exercise. (Although to be honest, people have gotten great results doing a variety of tricep exercises, so you don’t have to stick to this one if you don’t like it.) 

This video shows a version of the exercise you can do on a cable machine, but a dumbbell tricep extension would also fit the bill. 

The best barbell exercise for triceps: close grip bench press

The triceps are used in all pushing exercises, including bench press and overhead press. I like barbell exercises, and I like overhead press, so personally I’d gravitate toward overhead strict press if I were just picking something for myself. 

But I’m going to be a little more fair to the gym community at large, and put in a good word for a classic tricep developer, the close grip bench press. 

Bench press uses a lot of different muscles, but the main movers are your pecs (chest), which bring your arms together and in front of you; and, of course, the triceps, to straighten your elbows. The wider your grip, the more you need to use your pecs, and the narrower your grip, the more you need to use your triceps. 

That means that most people take a medium grip width on the bar (hands near or just inside of the rings, usually) to get the best of both worlds. But as an accessory, you can do close grip bench, with your hands just barely shoulder width apart. 

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