The long head is the largest and beefiest head of the triceps muscle. Training this muscle group might be the key to building bigger, stronger arms!
- Part 1: Triceps Anatomy
- Part 2: The Best Long Head Exercises
- Part 3: Sample Tricep Routines
In this comprehensive guide I am going to teach you everything you need to know about how to train the long head of the triceps!
The first half of this article will focus on functional anatomy of the long head as well as some of the best exercises that you can do to target this muscle group.
The long head is very unique because it performs two major functions: elbow extension and shoulder extension.
The long head of the triceps responds best to a wide variety of compound and isolation exercises such as dips, close grip bench presses, flat extensions, overhead presses, and overhead extensions.
Of course the absolute king of exercises for the long head of the triceps might be the PJR pullover. This unique exercise works both the elbow extension and shoulder extension functions of the triceps at the same time!
The second half of the article is even more exciting: we are going to cover 5 of the best workout routines of all time for annihilating the long head of the triceps!
They say that if you teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime. By the end of this article you will be fully equipped to train the long head of your triceps for a lifetime!
Please note that the routines in part 3 of this article are written with all of the loading parameters clearly defined. If you have any trouble reading these routines then please consult this article.
Now let’s get down to business…
Part 1: Triceps Anatomy
There are three major heads of the triceps brachii muscle:
- The long head
- The lateral head
- The medial head
It is impossible to fully isolate any one of these muscle heads during an exercise. However, it is possible to shift emphasis onto one or more of these muscle heads at the expense of the others. Therefore it is extremely important to understand which types of exercises recruit which of these muscle heads.
All three of the tricep heads extend the elbow. Therefore all three heads will be activated at least to some degree during all pressing exercises (bench press, overhead press etc.) and extension exercises (skull crushers, cable pushdowns etc.).
As a general rule of thumb the more your elbows are placed above your torso the more you will recruit the long head of the triceps.
This is why exercises such as overhead extensions and overhead presses are so good for developing the long head: they place the long head under an enormous stretch. As Charles Poliquin liked to say, “the muscle that is stretched the most is recruited the most.”
Unlike the other two heads of the triceps the long head also performs a second major function: shoulder extension. This may sound really surprising until you look at the anatomy of the long head.
It turns out the long head of the tricep crosses two separate joints: the elbow and the shoulder!
This means that any time you extend the elbow OR extend the shoulder you are working the long head of the triceps to some degree. This has profound implications on optimal exercise selection for the long head.
No, I am not recommending that you go and perform pull ups and rows to target the long head of your triceps. However, there are some unique ways that we can combine both elbow AND shoulder extension into one exercise to annihilate this muscle group!
Part 2: The Best Long Head Exercises
There are six main types of exercises that you should use to train the long head of the triceps. The triceps are rather unique in that they respond best to a healthy mix of BOTH compound and isolation movements!
We will first cover the best compound exercises for the long head followed by the best isolation exercises. Here they are in no particular order:
- Close Grip Bench Press
- Overhead Presses
- Flat Extensions
- Pullover Extensions
- Overhead Extensions
Of course these exercises were chosen for their ability to specifically target the long head of the triceps. If you want to know more about the best overall triceps exercises then I recommend you consult this article.
Long Head Exercise #1: Dips
Dips are easily one of the most effective triceps exercises that you can perform. EMG (electromyography) studies have repeatedly shown that dips are superior to other compound pressing exercises such as the close grip bench press for recruiting the long head of the triceps.
There are at least three reasons the dips are so effective for targeting the long head:
- Dips let you lift a very large amount of weight
- Dips give you a huge stretch on the triceps in the bottom position
- Dips are a closed-chain exercise
Let’s take a closer look at each of these advantages.
Advantage #1: Dips let you lift a very large amount of weight
One of the most obvious advantages of dips over other compound triceps exercises is the amount of weight that you can lift. Charles Poliquin found that his athletes could lift 17% more weight on dips than they could on close grip bench presses.
Of course when you calculate the amount of weight you use on dips you should include your bodyweight and any additional loads attached to your dipping belt.
Advantage #2: Dips give you a huge stretch on the triceps in the bottom position
Another advantage is that you get an absolutely enormous stretch on the triceps in the bottom position of the exercise. Of course this is only true if you use a full range of motion.
If you have optimal shoulder health then you should be able to lower yourself until your biceps make contact with your forearms in the bottom position. Jim Stoppani does an a excellent job demonstrating this in the above video.
Advantage #3: Dips are a closed-chain exercise
Finally dips are so effective because they are a closed chain exercise. This simply means that you are moving your own bodyweight through space as you perform the exercise.
This is in contrast to something like a reverse grip bench press where your body is fixed on the bench but the weight is moving away from you.
As a general rule of thumb closed chain exercises such as squats, deadlifts, chin ups, pull ups, and dips recruit the greatest number of motor units and give you the largest return on investment.
If you want to bring up the long head of your triceps (or any head of your triceps for that matter!) then dips are one of the key exercises you should include in your programming.
Long Head Exercise #2: Close Grip Bench Press
The close grip bench press is a classic exercise for developing the triceps. Actually it does a fantastic job of overloading both the long head AND the lateral head of the triceps!
The long head tends to be recruited more in the stretched position of this exercise while the lateral head tends to be recruited more in the shortened position.
For this reason using training tools such as bands and chains on this exercise would be a poor choice if you are trying to target the long head. On the other hand, inserting a 1-2 second pause in the bottom position of each rep would be an excellent choice.
There are of course some drawbacks to the close grip bench press.
Most trainees have very poor upper body structural balance including relatively strong bench pressing strength but piss-poor strength in their scapular retractors and external rotators. If this describes you then it may be wise to hold off on close grip bench presses for now in favor of more overhead- and extension-based triceps exercises.
Of course if you have optimal structural balance then the close grip bench press is one of the best exercises for developing the long head of the triceps and definitely deserves a place in your triceps routines!
Long Head Exercise #3: Overhead Presses
Most trainees understand that the long head of the triceps is heavily recruited during overhead extension exercises such as the ez-bar french press or the cable rope overhead extension.
However, the long head is also heavily recruited during overhead compound pressing exercises!
Some of the best overhead pressing exercises for recruiting the long head of the triceps include the barbell military press, the barbell behind the neck press, and the barbell half-press in a power rack.
Here is a video of the military press:
Here is a video of the behind the neck press:
And here is a video of the half press in a power rack:
It is extremely rare to see anyone overhead pressing heavy weights these days. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw anyone besides strongmen competitors and Larry Wheels overhead pressing impressive weights!
Even if you are more of a bodybuilder it is absolutely essential that you spend some time driving up your overhead pressing strength. It is impossible to maximally develop the long head of the triceps if you are still military pressing 135 pounds for reps.
Long Head Exercise #4: Flat Extensions
Let’s kick off our discussion of some of the best triceps isolation exercises for the long head with flat extensions! Of course the most famous version of a flat triceps extension exercise is the infamous “skull crusher.” For example:
As the name suggests you are going to lower the ez-bar to your forehead before lifting the weight back up.
Of course you can also lower the ez-bar to your nose or your chin. Lowering the bar to your chin will turn the exercise into a hybrid between a close grip bench press and a traditional skull crusher.
This exercise is actually very similar to the “JM press,” an exercise made famous by the powerlifter JM Blakely of the Westside Barbell powerlifting club.
Many trainees shy away from skull crushers and other lying ez-bar extension exercises in their training in order to reduce their risk of injury. There is certainly some logic to this.
For example, Josh Bryant tore his triceps tendon right off the bone performing a skull crusher variation with 300+ pounds!
Some bodybuilding coaches such as John Meadows advocate performing exercises such as skull crushers later in your triceps routine when your muscles are already warmed up and slightly fatigued.
This is a viable approach. However, in my experience a better solution is to simply control the speed at which you lower the weight!
If you rapidly drop the weights to your forehead then yes your odds are high for developing elbow problems. However, if you lower the weight under control over 2-4 seconds then your odds of injury practically disappear.
Another great flat extension exercise for the long head of the triceps is the flat DB extension. For example:
As a general rule of thumb dumbbell extension movements tend to be a little more forgiving on the elbows. If you know that skull crusher variations bother your elbows then using dumbbells is a perfectly reasonable substitution.
One of the challenges with using dumbbells on this exercise is that it can be difficult to make small weight jumps. If you are using less than 50 pound dumbbells then you are increasing the weight by more than 10% every time you jump to the next heaviest pair of dumbbells.
You may need to be creative when programming this exercise into your routines including using a wider rep target so that you can still train progressively. For example, instead of shooting for 4 sets of 8 reps you may shoot for 4 sets of 7-9 reps or even 4 sets of 6-10 reps.
Long Head Exercise #5: Pullover Extensions
Charles Poliquin has called pullover extensions the absolute king of exercises for targeting the long head of the triceps. After extensive experimentation on myself and my coaching clients I have to agree!
As I talked about earlier the long head of the triceps performs 2 main functions:
- Elbow extension
- Shoulder extension
This is in contrast to the lateral and medial heads of the triceps which only perform elbow extension. If we had to invent the perfect exercise for the long head of the triceps it would have to perform both of these functions. Fortunately for us that exercise exists!
There are three main types of pullover extensions I want to cover here:
- Ez-bar pullover extensions
- PJR pullovers
- Dead stop skull crushers
Here is a video of ez-bar pullover extensions:
Notice how the athlete lets his hands drift BEHIND his head on the lowering phase. He then initiates the concentric phase by first extending his shoulders and only the by kicking in his triceps.
Another great variation of the pullover extension is the PJR pullover. This exercise is named after Paul Carter as he is primarily responsible for popularizing this exercise. Check it out:
With this triceps exercise you are performing both shoulder extension and elbow extension equally throughout the entire concentric range of motion.
Finally the last variation is called the dead stop skull crusher, or “dead skulls” for short. For example:
This last exercise was invented by Dante Trudel and is particularly effective for thrashing the long head. During the first half of the movement you are using a combination of shoulder extension and tricep extension to get the weight moving.
However, once you reach the second half of the movement your upper arm stays still and you use nothing but your triceps to move the weight.
If you are new to pullover extensions I suggest you start with the dead stop skull crusher before progressing to the other 2 exercises shown above.
If you perform them correctly you will experience some of the worst muscle soreness and some of the best triceps gains of your life!
Long Head Exercise #6: Overhead Extensions
When most people think of exercises for the long head of the triceps they immediately think of overhead extension exercises. This is perfectly reasonable as overhead extensions are easily some of the best long head exercises that you can perform!
Perhaps the biggest advantage of overhead extensions is that they place the long head in a maximally stretched position. This stretch is absolutely key for strength and hypertrophy gains.
Here is the bilateral cable rope overhead extension:
Here is the ez-bar french press:
And here is the DB french press:
Please note that many of these exercises can be performed using either one or both hands at the same time.
In my experience overhead extension exercises work best towards the end of your triceps routine. If I were you I would use exercises such as dips, barbell pressing exercises, and various extension-based exercises first in your routine before performing any overhead extensions.
Part 3: Sample Tricep Workout Routines
There are many different ways to organize your triceps workouts for size or strength gains. I would like to introduce you to four of the most effective triceps training methods.
- Post-Exhaustion Supersets
- Uni-Angular Tri-Sets
- Supra-Maximal Eccentric training
- Fast-Twitch Drop Sets
The first two training methods are more geared towards hypertrophy gains while the second two are fantastic for boosting all-out triceps strength.
Please note that I will only be providing exercises for your triceps in these routines. I think it would be great to train at least one other muscle group such as the elbow flexors together with the triceps in these routines. However, I will leave that choice up to you.
Training Method #1: Post-Exhaustion Supersets
Supersets are definitely one of the most effective bodybuilding training methods that you can use. The procedure for performing a superset is simple: you perform 2 exercises back-to-back for the same body part with only 10 seconds rest between exercises.
- Perform exercise A, rest 10 seconds
- Perform exercise B, rest 120-240 seconds
Supersets work so well because they force your muscles to work longer and prolong the overall time under tension of the set. This dramatically increases the amount of muscular damage and metabolic fatigue that you accrue which in turn improves the quality of the hypertrophy training stimulus.
Post-exhaustion supersets are a special type of superset. They simply involve supersetting a compound exercise and an isolation exercise together.
In my experience post-exhaustion supersets work particularly well for the triceps because the triceps respond extremely well to a healthy mix of compound and isolation exercises.
Here is one post-exhaustion superset you may want to try out.
Check it out:
- A1: V-bar dips, 3-5 x 6-8, 3/2/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A2: Close grip ez-bar overhead extension, 3-5 x 12-15, 4/0/1/0, 180 seconds rest
Both dips and overhead ez-bar extensions are FANTASTIC for overloading the long head of the triceps. You may have trouble brushing your hair for a few days after completing this routine!
Of course some of you may be used to performing more than 10 sets per body part in a workout. If you are someone who thrives on higher-volume routines then you may find the following post-exhaustion superset routine to be even more effective.
Check it out:
- A1: PJR pullover, 5 x 6, 2/0/X/0, 180 seconds rest
- B1: Shoulder-width bench press, 4 x 8-10, 2/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- B2: Overhead rope cable extension, 4 x 12-15, 2/0/X/0, 180 seconds rest
On this routine you are first going to get in some quality work with maximal loads on the PJR pullover. Then once your long head is nice and fatigued you will proceed with a brutal post-exhaustion superset featuring close grip bench presses and overhead rope cable extensions.
This is an extremely demanding hypertrophy routine and should be reserved for advanced trainees only. If you have “eleven-teen” inch arms then this triceps routine is too advanced for you!
Training Method #2: Uni-Angular Tri-sets
Tri-sets are somewhat similar to supersets. The main difference is that you will be performing three exercises back-to-back during a tri-set instead of 2 exercises during a superset.
Tri-sets have the potential to build more muscular hypertrophy than supersets but they can also be somewhat more difficult to recover from.
This routine uses a special type of tri-set called uni-angular tri-sets. The basic idea is to select three different exercises that overload the triceps on the same muscular plane.
For this routine you are going to perform a tri-set with three different variations of a lying triceps extension. The slight variation from one exercise to the next will allow you to tap into a slightly different portion of the triceps motor unit pool.
In layman’s terms you are going to annihilate the long head of the triceps with three similar but slightly different exercises performed back-to-back.
Check it out:
- A1: DB flat extensions, 3-5 x 6-8, 3/0/1/0, 10 seconds rest
- A2: Ez-Bar extensions to chin, 3-5 x 6-8, 3/0/1/0, 10 seconds rest
- A3: Ez-bar extensions to forehead, 3-5 x 8-10, 3/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
This routine is absolutely fantastic for increasing the size of the long head of your triceps! I recommend you perform between 3 and 5 total tri-sets on this routine. The number of tri-sets that you perform depends on how you are feeling on that particular day.
If you are having a great day and you are losing very little strength from one tri-set to the next then go ahead and perform 5 total tri-sets. On the other hand, if you are having a so-so day and find that your strength is rapidly decreasing from one tri-set to the next then 3 total tri-sets is probably plenty for you.
Remember, more does not always equal better. Larry Scott was famous for using tri-sets to build his arms and he found through trial and error that he got his best results from only 3 total tri-sets per body part.
If you want to learn more about uni-angular tri-sets then you must check out the following article:
Training Method #3: Supra-Maximal Eccentric Training
One of the big advantages of dips is that it is very easy to perform supra-maximal eccentric repetitions on this exercise! The idea is simple: you lower yourself down from the top position using a 10-second negative phase.
When you get to the bottom position you let your feet make contact with the ground. Then you simply stand on the support bars to get back to the top position. You then repeat this process to perform as many eccentric-only reps as you want.
Supra-maximal eccentric training has many benefits. In my experience it is one of the best ways to bust through strength and size plateaus in intermediate and advanced lifters.
Of course supra-maximal eccentric training is an especially effective tool to use when training the triceps. The triceps are composed primarily of fast-twitch muscle fibers and respond extremely well to eccentric training protocols.
Check it out:
- A1: Eccentric-only v-bar dips, 5-6 x 3, 10/0/1/0, 240 seconds rest
- A2: 45 degree incline DB extension, 3-4 x 6-8, 2/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
It is very important to be extremely conservative with your weight selection on the eccentric-only dips. Ideally you want to use the same weight for all 5-6 sets.
If you have to decrease the weight half-way through then it was clearly too heavy and you should select a lighter weight the next time you repeat the workout.
If you do this routine correctly you might be shocked at how quickly your strength shoots up. Accentuated eccentric training is one powerful training method!
If you want to learn more about eccentric training then I highly recommend the following 2 articles:
These might be 2 of the most important articles ever written on eccentric training. Yes, they are that important!
Training Method #4: Fast-Twitch Drop Sets
Here is another fantastic intensification or strength-focused routine that you can use to build stronger triceps. As I mentioned earlier the triceps are primarily composed of fast-twitch muscle fibers.
One of the best training methods to boost strength levels in your fast-twitch muscle fibers is definitely fast-twitch drop sets. Most drop set protocols use relatively higher rep ranges to maximize the amount of muscular damage and metabolic fatigue that you can accumulate.
Fast-twitch drop sets take a different approach: they utilize extremely low rep ranges to maximize the amount of mechanical tension on the target muscles!
This protocol features 2/1/1/1 drop sets. Here is what a 2/1/1/1 drop set looks like in practice:
- Perform 2 reps with a weight that is close to your 2-rep max. Then reduce the load by 2-5% and rest 10-15 seconds.
- Perform 1 rep, then reduce the load by 2-5% and rest 10-15 seconds.
- Perform 1 rep, then reduce the load by 2-5% and rest 10-15 seconds.
- Perform 1 rep, done!
This is an extremely demanding but rewarding training system. I highly recommend you use a spotter to help you with the weight drops on this drop set protocol.
Check it out:
- A1: Shoulder-width bench press with chains, 3-5 x 2/1/1/1**, 4/0/X/0, 180 seconds rest
- B1: Seated unilateral DB french press, 3-4 x 5-7, 3/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
**Performed as a 2/1/1/1 drop set as described above.
I recommend you play around with the number of 2/1/1/1 drop sets that you perform on this training day. If you feel like superman then go ahead and perform 5 total drop sets.
On the other hand, if you are having a shitty day where everything feels heavy then you may want to perform 3 total drop sets or perhaps just 1-2.
Don’t worry, this routine will still prove extremely effective even if you do not perform a huge number of drop sets. After all, the quality of your sets is more important than the quantity!
The long head of the triceps can be one of the more difficult muscle groups to train. For optimal strength and size gains you need to use a wide variety of exercises in your long-term programming including a healthy mix of compound and isolation exercises.
If you focus your efforts on the most bang-for-your-buck exercises then I am confident you will be filling out your shirt sleeves in no time!Of course it wouldn’t be a bad idea to try out one of my 5 sample training programs for targeting the long head of the triceps.
Always remember: the mind is more important than the body. Where the mind goes the body will follow. Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck on your strength training journey!
Chad Wesley Smith is one of the brightest minds in the fitness industry today. Chad has competed at the absolute highest levels in three different sports: shot put, powerlifting and strongman....
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