The 10 best triceps exercises for beginners
The secret to bigger arms is to work both the bi’s and the tri’s.
When most beginner lifters think about building their arms, the biceps seem to get all the love. And while being able to pop an impressive upper-arm peak is nice, the real mass magic comes from doing tricep exercises.
“The triceps are the bigger muscle group of the arm, taking up approximately two-thirds of the girth and forming the classic horseshoe shape in the back of the arm,” says Mike Clancy, C.S.C.S., a New York City-based personal trainer. “As there are three heads (long, lateral, and medial) to the triceps, they need to be stressed with a combination of angles, volume, and intensity, which is why wrist position, elbow position, and arm position can dramatically change where the emphasis is placed on the triceps muscle group.”
Adds Weight Training Without Injury: “Generally speaking, you should spend at least half your triceps workout training the long head, which crosses the shoulder joint. Exercises that target the long head generally have your elbows near your head, like overhead exercises.”
When starting your triceps plan, you want to incorporate both heavy-lifting tricep exercises and high-volume ones. “Triceps need a lot of stress—four sets of eight reps simply ain’t gonna cut it,” Clancy says. “An exerciser should aim to accumulate at least 100 total reps within 30 minutes.”
Here are 10 classic, tried-and-true triceps moves every beginning lifter should know.
“This exercise targets the long head of the triceps, which tends to be neglected—hence, it’s one of my favorite barbell exercises,” Straub says. “For the best results, your palms should be facing toward you—not away, as commonly done.”
Start this classic heavy-lifting move by lying on your back on a bench, grasping a barbell with a close grip just above your forehead, elbows bent so upper arms are perpendicular to the ceiling. With control, straighten your arms so the weight is over your chin; then bent to return to the start.
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Like the skull crusher, this movement begins behind the head.
“This exercise is mainly for stretching the triceps (specifically the long head), which is a necessary step for an ideal triceps workout,” says Straub, who likes to alternate this with the skull crusher as a superset.
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Seated Overhead Dumbbell Extension
Another move that targets the long head, Straub suggests doing one arm at a time for the best results. Sitting up, grasp a dumbbell in each hand (or one in both), upper arms perpendicular to the ceiling, elbows fully bent. Straighten your arm(s) without changing the position of your upper arms. Re-bend to return to start.
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Standing Triceps Kickbacks
“This is one of my favorite exercises for the medial/lateral heads of the triceps,” Straub says. From a standing position, hold the dumbbells at your sides and hinge at the waist with soft knees, as if you’re at the bottom of a deadlift. Start with your upper arms parallel to your torso and arms bent. Straighten your arms and raise them up so they break the plane of your back. Come back to the start.
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Cable Rope Overhead Triceps Extension
This move, when done correctly, both stretches and strengthens the long head of the triceps, says Straub. Raise the cable up to the top with the double-handled rope attached. Facing away from the machine, grab the rope and hinge at the waist, with arms bent, and hands behind your head. Straighten your arms up alongside your ears, maintaining your torso angle. Re-bend the arms with control to return to the start.
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Cable Rope Triceps Pushdowns
This exercise targets the medial and lateral triceps heads, which makes it ideal to superset with the overhead triceps extension, Straub says. Set still elevated to the top. Grasp either end of the rope, and set your elbow at right angles, alongside your waist. Press your arms to straight, bringing your hands to either side of your thighs. Control to return to the start position.
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Only do these if you have good control of your shoulders—dips done wrong can cause serious shoulder strain. It’s safest to do them with a neutral grip on parallel bars; the short floor-resting ones are best if you need to have your feet on the ground to lessen the load.
Grasp the bars, arms long alongside your torso, shoulders down your back. (If using low bars, pike at the waist so your legs are straight, resting on your heels in front of you.) Bend your elbows back behind you and press to come back to straight.
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Close-grip Bench Press
Yep, this “chest” exercise is great for the tri’s, too. The trick to work your triceps harder is to keep your upper arms tight into the torso.
Using a barbell or dumbbells, lie on your back on a bench, with elbows right along your sides. Press straight up, weight above pecs, then lower to the start position.
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The chest gets a major assist from the triceps in this gold-standard upper-body move, especially if you keep your hand position close to the chest and shoot your elbows straight back rather than flaring them to the sides. Think about pitching your chest forward to really put the onus on your tris.
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Consider this one “advanced beginner”. This modified pushup makes the triceps work hard to stabilize the body. From high plank position, pike your hips up, then bend your elbows back as you pitch your head down and forward, as if you were diving under a low barrier. Press your arms straight to come back to the top.