The lateral head of the triceps is easily the most underdeveloped muscles in the upper body. You can add inches to your upper arms in no time by learning how to train this neglected muscle group!
Consider this your all-in-one comprehensive guide to training the lateral head of the triceps.
I strongly believe that in order to get the most out of your training you need to combine scientific knowledge with real-world in-the-trenches training experience.
And that is exactly what we’re going to do today in this article. We’re going to cover both the “why” and the “how” of targeting the lateral head.
In order to give this muscle group the attention it deserves I am dividing this guide into the following sections:
- Part 1: A Confession
- Part 2: Triceps Functional Anatomy
- Part 3: Lateral Head Exercise Selection
- Part 4: The “Lazy Head”
- Part 5: Sample Routines Overview
- Part 6: Uni-Angular Trisets
- Part 7: The 5 To 8 Method
- Part 8: Post-exhaustion Supersets
- Part 9: The 8+2 Method (Eccentric Training)
- Part 10: Conclusion
In the first half of this comprehensive guide we take a deep dive into the science behind training the lateral head.
I guarantee you will walk away from these three sections learning something new about the “lazy head” of the triceps, even if you are an advanced trainee!
I have a feeling some of you are going to skip right over the first three sections and skip straight to the good stuff: the sample training routines!
I can hardly blame you – after all, I have used variations of these routines time and time again to blast through triceps strength and hypertrophy plateaus with my online training clients.
In fact, many of my clients have told me that I should stop giving away so many kick-ass sample training routines in my articles!
C’est la vie! Besides, I always have new routines up my sleeve that you won’t find in any of my free articles…
Part 1: A Confession
I have a confession to make: I have a love-hate relationship with the lateral head. For the longest time I just could not get the feel for this muscle.
No matter how hard I trained, or what routine I tried, my lateral heads remained small and weaky-weak.
So I had a choice to make: I could buckle down and truly learn the ins-and-outs of training this stubborn muscle group, or I could keep banging my head against a wall expecting a miracle.
Fortunately for you, I chose the former path!
Well, okay, I kept banging my head against the wall for a little while longer first – some of us are more stubborn than smart…
I hope this information is just as valuable for you as it has been for the hundreds of clients I have worked with over the years!
Now let’s get down to business…
Part 2: Triceps Functional Anatomy
As the name suggests, the triceps (or the triceps brachii) is made up of three different muscle heads:
- The long head
- The medial head
- The lateral head
Let’s briefly go over the long and medial heads before tackling the subject of this guide.
The long head
The long head is the largest of the three triceps heads and is located on the backside of the arm.
It is by far the “meatiest” head of the triceps muscle group.
As a general rule of thumb, the long head responds best to exercises where the upper arm is in front of the trunk or overhead.
It also responds extremely well to exercises that place the triceps in an extreme stretched position.
For more information on training the long head of the triceps I highly recommend you check out the following article:
The medial head
The medial head is also located on the backside of the arm and is actually located underneath the long head.
It is somewhat smaller than the other two heads of the triceps, but it certainly contributes to overall triceps strength and size.
The medial head is quite unique in that it is strongly activated during almost all of the major triceps exercises!
This is how it got its nickname “the workhorse of elbow extension.”
However, there is one exercise variation that seems to do a particularly good job of activating the medial head: decline extensions and decline bench presses.
Specifically, decline extensions and decline bench presses where you fully lock out the elbows during the concentric range.
Emphasizing the shortened position of this exercise does a WONDERFUL job of targeting the medial head.
Now onto the main course…
The lateral head
As the name suggests, the lateral head is located on the outside of the triceps.
The lateral head contributes significantly to the “width” of the triceps and helps to give the appearance of the coveted V-taper.
It is a little surprising then that the lateral head is commonly underdeveloped in most trainees compared to the other upper arm muscles.
How could such an important muscle be so neglected?
I think the number one issue is that most trainees just don’t understand their functional anatomy.
You don’t need to dissect a cadaver to understand anatomy as it relates to strength training.
But you do need to understand how you can shift tension on or off of a muscle by playing with the exercise selection.
Incline and overhead type movements, such as overhead rope extensions, tend to place the most stretch on the triceps in general.
Therefore, most people think that these overhead type exercises are great for the lateral head.
In fact, overhead movements are terrible for recruiting the lateral head! Instead, your arms need to be at a 90 degree angle or less relative to the torso!
This is true for both compound movements and isolation movements.
Another interesting fact about the lateral head is that it is composed almost entirely of fast-twitch muscle fibers.
This has been confirmed through numerous scientific studies.
In many cases they used direct muscle biopsies to get tissue samples of the triceps lateral head from volunteers!
So most people trying to target the lateral head are using the wrong exercises for the wrong rep ranges.
Let’s take a deeper dive into each of these problems.
Part 3: Lateral Head Exercise Selection
Picking the correct exercises is probably the first step towards bringing up a pair of lagging lateral heads on a weight trainee.
In no particular order, here are the best exercises for targeting the lateral head:
- Upright V-Bar Dips
- Decline Close Grip Bench Press
- Close Grip Bench Press
- Decline triceps extensions
- Flat triceps extensions
Let’s take a closer look at each of these exercises:
Upright V-Bar Dips
It is rare to see someone moving some serious weight on dips in the typical commercial gym.
There is a simple explanation for this: dips are hard work! But they are also amongst the most rewarding exercises that you can do for the triceps.
In fact, research has shown that dips recruit all three heads of the triceps (including the lateral head) better than just about any exercise out there.
Dips also have the added benefit of allowing you to use some powerful training methods such as supra-maximal eccentric training without needing a spotter.
Decline Close Grip Bench Press
Research has shown that the more internally rotated your shoulders are, the more you recruit the stubborn lateral head.
This probably explains why the decline close grip bench press is such a great lateral head builder!
On this exercise I highly recommend you let your elbows flare out on the way down so that your elbows are almost sticking straight out to the sides.
You can’t lift as much weight this way, but it recruits the lateral head WAY harder.
One more tip: on decline movements the lateral head is primarily recruited in the stretched position.
This means you want to really emphasize the stretched position of this exercise by going all the way down and potentially even pausing in the bottom position.
Bands and chains would NOT be appropriate on this exercise to target the lateral head as this would shift emphasis to the shortened position of the strength curve and target the medial head more.
Close grip bench press
Ah, the most popular exercise in the world: the bench press.
Many people should avoid bench presses as their upper body structural balance is so incredibly poor that they are just jacking up their shoulders even worse by using this exercise.
However, the close grip bench press is not inherently bad. It can be very effective for targeting the lateral head!
During flat pressing movements the lateral head is most strongly recruited during the shortened position.
This means that things like bands, chains, and pin presses are a GREAT idea on this exercise to further recruit the lateral head!
Decline Triceps Extensions
For a variety of reasons, some people have a very difficult time recruiting the triceps (and especially the lateral head) during pressing movements.
I am definitely one of those people.
I could do thousands of sets of close grip bench presses or decline close grip bench presses and my triceps would never improve.
If this describes you, if you have an ESPECIALLY difficult time recruiting the lateral head of your triceps, the decline triceps extensions should be your new best friend.
There is no other exercise as effective as decline extensions for isolating and recruiting a “dormant” lateral head.
Similarly to decline close grip bench presses, decline extensions work the lateral head the most in the stretched position.
This means you should really emphasize the bottom of the movement using things like isometric pauses in the stretched position or even one-and-a-quarter reps.
Here is a great demonstration of one-and-a-quarter reps for the triceps:
Flat Tricep Extensions
This family of exercises includes the infamous “skull crusher” which has destroyed more elbows than any other exercise in the world!
However, if you check your ego and use a weight you can handle, then this exercise can be great for recruiting the lateral head, especially in the shortened position.
Make sure you are fully locking out your reps (or close to it!) on this exercise.
If you are using an ez-bar then you may want to vary where relative to your head you lower the bar.
For example, you may want to lower the bar to your forehead for one routine, to your nose on another routine, and to your chin the next time etc.
If you are using flat extensions to target the lateral head, then you have to be very very careful to NOT let your upper arm drift behind your head!
Instead, you want to make sure your upper arm is perfectly perpendicular to your torso or pointed further down.
Part 4: The “Lazy Head”
The lateral head of the triceps has earned the nickname “the lazy head” both in the scientific community and amongst the world’s greatest strength and bodybuilding coaches.
The scientific community has repeatedly shown that the lateral head is composed almost entirely of fast-twitch muscle fibers.
This is in contrast to the other two heads of the triceps, which generally have a slightly more varied muscle fiber composition (although they also tend to lean fast-twitch).
What does this mean for you?
If you want to maximally recruit the lateral head of the triceps, then you generally need to be using loads that represent at least 85% of your 1-rep max, or a load you can lift no more than 5 times!
This is where the name “lazy head” comes into play.
If the load on the bar isn’t heavy enough, the fast-twitch muscle fibers of the lateral head will just say “meh” and take the day off!
You really do need to train in the 1-5 rep range on at least a semi-regular basis with this muscle group to get it responding.
This doesn’t mean that you have to go in and start maxing out every week, Westside-Barbell style. This is especially true if you are more interested in hypertrophy than strength development.
But it does mean that you are going to have to step out of your comfort zone and start training the lateral head with the appropriate (lower) rep ranges if you want them to respond!
Onto the sample routines!
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations.
You should now have a much better appreciation of why the triceps lateral head is so neglected, functional anatomy of the lateral head, the best exercises for the lateral head, and the muscle fiber composition of the lateral head.
Unfortunately, all the knowledge in the world won’t do you any good if you don’t know how to apply it.
This is the meaning behind the statement “knowledge not applied is useless.”
I know plenty of “science guys” who will spend hours arguing over the significance of various strength training studies, but who have less muscle mass themselves than Russel Brand.
Don’t worry, I’ve got your back. We’re going to take these key principles for training the lateral head and work them into five sample training programs.
But these won’t just be any old training programs. These are some of the best, most effective training programs I have ever used with myself or my clients.
I have personally seen countless guys completely transform the “look” of their arms and jack up their pressing strength faster than they thought possible using these training methods.
I have to warn you though: these routines are not for the faint of heart.
I think you will find them exponentially harder than your standard “4 exercises for 4 sets each” high volume training program.
What I’m trying to say is, don’t go crying to Mommy when you can’t even comb your hair the morning after any one of these workouts!!
Part 6: Uni-Angular Trisets
This is a brutal arm training method that I first learned of from the legendary strength coach Charles Poliquin.
Uni-angular tri-sets are just like regular tri-sets, but with a twist:
The angle of your arm will be the same for each of these three exercises!
The key is that you slightly alter each of the three exercises so they all recruit a similar but slightly different motor unit pool.
Uni-angular trisets performed with different variations of decline extensions is one of my favourite ways to develop a “mind-muscle connection” with the lateral head with an experienced trainee.
Expect some serious delayed onset muscle soreness after this one!
Sample triceps routine:
- A1: Decline DB extension, 3-5 x 5-7, 3/2/1/0, 10 seconds rest
- A2: Decline EZ-bar extension (close grip to forehead), 3-5 x 5-7, 3/0/1/0, 10 seconds rest
- A3: Decline EZ-bar extension (wide grip to forehead), 3-5 x 5-7, 3/0/1/0, 180 seconds rest
Note: please consult my article “How To Read A Workout Routine!” if you are having any difficulty reading this article. It will answer all of your questions for you!
The total number of sets you perform on this routine is a function of your performance on that day. If you feel like superman and you are losing very little in terms of strength from one set to another, go ahead and do 5 total sets.
On the other hand, if your performance on your first exercise drops by more than 20% at any time (your first set you used 100 lbs but only 80 lbs on your third etc.), then you should wrap up the workout right there.
Of course you could (and perhaps should) train biceps together with your triceps to create a complete arm workout.
Here are a few articles to give you some ideas on how to train the biceps properly:
- How To Train The Elbow Flexors!
- Train The Long Head Of The Biceps!
- The 3 Greatest Bicep Training Tips Of All Time!
Part 7: The ‘5 To 8’ Method
This method is another Charles Poliquin specialty. Actually it is an adaptation of the extremely effective “rest-pause” sets as popularized by Dante Trudel of DC Training.
Here are the steps for performing a “5 to 8” set:
- Perform a very challenging set of 5 reps
- Rack the weight and rest for 15 seconds
- Perform 1 rep with the same load
- Rack the weight and rest for 15 seconds
- Perform 1 rep with the same load
- Rack the weight and rest for 15 seconds
- Perform 1 rep with the same load
After the third single you are done!
So it is 5 reps, rest 15 seconds, 1 rep, rest 15 seconds, 1 rep, rest 15 seconds, 1 rep, and you are done for that set!
Some of you may be familiar with Dante Trudel’s version of rest-pause sets.
To avoid any confusion I will discuss the differences between Dante’s rest-pause sets and Charles Poliquin’s 5 to 8 method here.
The first difference is the rep ranges. The 5 to 8 method obviously uses much lower rep ranges.
The second difference is whether or not you train to failure. In Dante Trudel’s training system training to failure was recommended and even required.
With the 5 to 8 system you are NOT allowed to train to failure! This is very important.
Finally, the number of rest-pauses varies a little bit. You are performing 3 additional mini-sets with the 5 to 8 method vs 2 with Dante’s rest-pause sets.
Sample 5 to 8 routine:
- A1: Decline close grip bench press, 3 x “5 to 8”**, 4/0/X/0, 180 seconds rest
- B1: Flat DB extensions, 3 x 6-8, 3/0/1/0, 90 seconds rest
**performed as a “5 to 8” set as described above.
I recommend you perform no more than 3 of the “5 to 8” sets on this routine.
This training technique is very demanding on the central nervous system and performing too much volume could easily cause you to regress in performance.
This routine is especially effective for boosting functional hypertrophy and absolute strength levels. Highly recommended!
Part 8: Post-exhaustion Supersets
One of the classic ways to train for hypertrophy is to train to near-muscular failure, and then find a way to prolong the time under tension of the set.
Super sets are a very simple but surprisingly effective way to accomplish this.
A superset usually involves performing two exercises for the same body part back-to-back with only 10 seconds rest between exercises.
- Perform exercise A for the triceps for some reps
- Rest 10 seconds
- Perform exercise B for the triceps for some reps
Over the years I have found post-exhaustion supersets to be one of the most effective versions of supersets.
Post-exhaustion supersets involve performing a compound exercise for a body part followed by an isolation exercise for the same body part with very little rest between exercises.
Many bodybuilders are of the opinion that pre-exhaustion supersets, where you perform an isolation exercise followed by a compound movement, are a better way of doing this.
The argument is that you get a great “mind-muscle connection” this way and can really feel the working muscle this way.
However, the scientific literature and my own experience working with countless clients has convinced me that post-exhaustion supersets are generally a better way to go.
Here is a great post-exhaustion superset routine for the lateral head:
- A1: Close grip bench press with chains, 3-5 x 5-7, 2/1/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A2: Flat ez-bar skull crushers (close grip, to forehead), 3-5 x 5-7, 4/0/1/0, 180 seconds rest
Don’t worry, it is not necessary for you to use chains on this routine if you do not have access to them. The routine will still be highly effective with just straight-weight.
Be careful on this routine, post-exhaustion supersets are known to cause quite a bit of delayed onsent muscle soreness!
Part 9: The 8+2 Method (Eccentric Training)
I feel like this article just wouldn’t be complete without me rambling on again about the benefits of eccentric training.
It is no secret that I am a huge fan of eccentric training. On the one hand I am always curious about more unusual or unorthodox training routines.
On the other hand, eccentric training just flat-out delivers results faster than almost anything else I’ve tried with my clients!
The routine I am about to share with you does not have an official name, so I am just going to call it the 8+2 method.
The idea is to perform a hard set of 8 reps, then INCREASE the load on the exercise by an additional 5-10% and perform 2 eccentric-only repetitions with an 8 second lowering phase.
- Perform a hard set of 8 reps
- Rest 10 seconds while increasing the load by 5-10%
- Perform 2 eccentric-only reps with an 8-second lowering phase
These eccentric-only reps are absolutely nasty but I know of no faster way to break a plateau in strength or size for the lateral head.
Don’t worry, we are going to be performing the eccentric-only reps on v-bar dips so you won’t need any spotters.
Sample training routine:
- A1: V-bar dips, 3 x 8+2**, 4/0/X/0, 240 seconds rest
- B1: Standing rope cable pushdowns, 3 x 6-8, 3/0/1/2, 90 seconds rest
**perform the 8+2 sets exactly as described above.
If you are a long-time reader of mine then you may be a little surprised about the inclusion of the cable pushdowns for triceps here.
It is true that pushdowns do a very poor job of recruiting a lot of motor units in the triceps (sorry, these are just facts, don’t shoot the messenger).
However, on a routine like this they certainly have their place. There is no need to kill yourself after performing the eccentric dips with an exercise that is really hard on the elbows.
And admittedly the rope pushdowns do in fact emphasize the lateral head.
Part 10: Conclusion
There you have it!
You are now equipped with everything you need to know on how to bring those lagging lateral heads of your triceps up to speed.
I know how frustrating it can be to train this stubborn muscle group.
I sincerely hope that this information serves you well in your weight lifting career.
And, as always, I am here to help if you want to reach your goals on a faster timeline.
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck in your strength training endeavors!