I have never met a bodybuilder satisfied with the size of their arms, and I probably never will! If you want to build a pair of sleeve-busting arms then you need to focus your attention on the 11 best tricep exercises for mass!
One of the keys to making progress as fast as possible is to use the most bang-for-your-buck exercises.
This means selecting exercises that recruit as many motor units as possible in the target muscle.
In my experience training literally hundreds of clients these are the 9 best triceps exercises:
- Number 9: Overhead Extensions
- Number 8: Reverse Grip Bench
- Number 7: Decline Close Grip Bench
- Number 6: Close Grip Bench
- Number 5: Dead Skulls
- Number 4: Pullover Extensions
- Number 3: Flat Triceps Extensions
- Number 2: Decline Extension
- Number 1: V-Bar Upright Dips
Some of these are exact exercises, while others represent a “family” of a few different exercises that are very closely related.
Trust me, you do not want to miss this cutting-edge information! You won’t be able to find anything like this anywhere else!
Now let’s get down to business…
Number 9: Overhead Extensions
When I say overhead extensions I am talking about any kind of triceps extension where the upper arm is pointed directly overhead.
As a rule of thumb, the further overhead your elbow is when you do an extension movement, the more you recruit the long head of the triceps!
It should come as no surprise then that this is one of the best exercises there is for training the long head of the triceps.
The long head is the largest and meatiest head of the triceps muscle so giving this muscle the attention it deserves is quite important.
One of the major disadvantages of this exercise is that it is relatively difficult to make progress over time in terms of the load you are using.
Even during higher-rep accumulation phases you should still be recording your workouts in a logbook and trying to beat the previous workout that you did.
The fact that this exercise is relatively difficult to progress on over time is one of the primary reasons I haven’t rated it higher on my list.
Here are 3 great variations of this exercise that you may want to try:
Standing Cable Rope Overhead Extensions
This is probably my favourite version of the overhead tricep extension.
This exercise is very friendly on the shoulders, even for people who normally have pain with any sort of overhead pressing.
The Ez-Bar French Press
This is another excellent version of this exercise. The main drawback of this variation is that it can be a little bit tougher on the shoulder joint.
You need relatively flexible and healthy shoulders before attempting this exercise to target the long head.
Seated DB Overhead Extensions
Big Ronnie shows us the way!
This exercise was a staple amongst bodybuilders in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, but has sense fallen out of fashion.
The main drawback with this variation is that it can be very difficult getting the dumbbell ready in the starting position, especially if you are super strong.
Number 8: Reverse Grip Bench
I believe this exercise is due for an increase in popularity. In reality it is an absolutely fantastic exercise for targeting the long head of the triceps!
For example, here is Mike O’Hearn giving an incredible display of strength on the reverse grip bench press:
I believe one of the main reasons this exercise is not more popular is that it is a very awkward movement!
It really does take a while before you get the “feel” of the exercise. It can also be very difficult to balance the weight with the reverse grip.
If this describes you then you may want to consider performing this exercise in the smith machine.
As a general rule of thumb I am not a huge fan of the smith machine as it tends to put a lot of stress on the joints and can increase the risk of overuse injuries in the long-run.
That being said there are plenty of bodybuilders who have used this machine for years on end with no issues.
Here is former Dante Trudel trainee Jason Wojo giving an excellent demonstration of the reverse grip bench press in the smith machine:
If you have been neglecting the lateral heads of your triceps for too long then give the reverse grip bench press a shot!
Number 7: Decline Close Grip Bench
Note: when I say “close grip” I am referring to a shoulder-width grip.
This is another exercise that has been relatively neglected by the bodybuilding world.
I don’t see why that should be the case, as the decline close grip bench press is one of the best exercises there is for absolutely smoking the lateral head of the triceps!
You see, the further your upper arms are held down towards your torso and the more internally rotated your shoulders are, the easier it is to recruit the lateral head.
With that in mind the decline close grip bench press is practically the perfect exercise for recruiting this part of the muscle!
If you are a true student of the iron game then you may want to know that the lateral head of the triceps is recruited more in the stretched position of this exercise while the medial head is recruited more in the shortened position.
Let’s look at a demonstration:
If you are after hypertrophy gains at all costs then I recommend you push your elbows out to the sides as you lower the barbell down.
This is the opposite of what powerlifters recommend on the flat bench press where they say to “tuck” your elbows in.
If you can keep your elbows directly under the bar throughout the whole set then this will recruit your triceps muscles even harder!
Number 6: Close Grip Bench
This exercise is an absolute staple in the arsenal of practically anyone looking to beef up the size of their arms.
In fact, the bench press is probably the single most popular exercise in the entire world!
The long head is recruited more in the stretched position of this exercise, while the lateral head is recruited more in the shortened position.
The medial head also receives a fair amount of stimulation here, but that is true for almost all triceps exercises!
Here is a demonstration:
I probably don’t need to tell you to do this exercise. Instead I will warn you of two instances when this may not be the most appropriate exercise.
If you have poor upper body structural balance then the bench press in all its forms is actually the single worst exercise you can do.
I recommend you check out this article and do the testing protocol.
If your bench press is too high relative to your other lifts then it may even be best to take a few months off bench pressing altogether! (Blasphemy!)
On the other hand, I sometimes work with clients who have an incredibly difficult time feeling and recruiting the triceps during compound pressing exercises.
Even on something like a close grip bench press they seem to use all chest and shoulders and get nothing out of the movement.
If this describes you then the close grip bench press may not be your best choice for building massive triceps.
Instead I would focus primarily on the various triceps extensions covered in this article and tricep dips!
Number 5: Dead Skulls
Wait a minute… what the heck are dead skulls?
I’m glad you asked! The name is short for “dead-stop skull crusher.” It is an exercise invented by the ever-creative Dante Trudel many years ago.
Let’s check out a couple of videos.
First up is Justin Harris giving a picture-perfect demonstration of dead skulls:
Justin’s execution is absolutely flawless.
Here is an excellent video of IFBB Pro Bodybuilder Dusty Hanshaw performing dead skulls:
Again this is absolutely textbook execution!
This is one of those exercises that you are just going to have to try for yourself. No amount of words can do it justice.
When you wake up the next day and you feel like someone took a bamboo stick and spent 60 minutes beating on the long head of your triceps you will know what I mean!
Unlike regular skull crushers you actually want your upper arms to drift behind you a little bit and stay there the whole time.
This places the long head of the triceps on an enhanced stretch which is wonderful for eliciting hypertrophy gains.
The dead-stop that you take in between each rep is also quite effective for recruiting the triceps.
If you have a hard time feeling your triceps work on skull crushers then this will solve that problem right away!
Seriously, I can’t recommend this exercise enough. Give it a shot if you are looking for a good kick-in-the-ass!
Number 4: Pullover Extensions
This exercise goes by the name PJR pullovers in many bodybuilding circles.
The exercise was popularized by the bodybuilding coach Paul Carter although I wouldn’t be surprised if it was invented by someone else long ago in the 1900s.
Let’s watch a couple of sample videos before we dive into the specifics.
Here is a variation with the ez-bar:
The lifter’s technique is a little bit too erratic for my taste, but it demonstrates the idea.
Here is a version with a single dumbbell (this is Paul Carter demonstrating the exercise so you know the technique is right – he invented it!):
By now you may be asking yourself what the heck the point of this exercise is. In order to understand that we need to talk about the anatomy of the long head of the triceps.
Unlike the other two triceps heads the long head actually crosses two different joints in the body: the elbow joint AND the shoulder joint! This is because one of its attachments is on the scapula.
This means that the long head of the triceps has two functions: elbow extension AND shoulder extension!
Therefore, if we wanted to design the absolute perfect exercise for targeting the long head, it would need to include both shoulder extension and elbow extension together.
Well, this is exactly what these pullover extensions accomplish!
You initiate the movement by pulling your arms forward, then once the bar (or dumbbell) gains some momentum you start to extend the elbows while still pulling forward.
Not only that, but the long head is placed under a very significant stretch in the bottom position. Maybe not as much of a stretch as with overhead extensions, but it’s still pretty darn significant.
All of these factors explain why pullover extensions are one of the greatest exercises of all time for targeting the long head of the triceps!
I highly recommend you give this exercise a try, especially if you have an easier time “feeling” your triceps work and you are mature enough as a lifter to utilize good form.
Number 3: Flat Triceps Extensions
The “skull crusher” family of exercises would go here, but you can also use dumbbells to perform this exercise.
OK, time for a little bit of a rant. The skull crusher and all its variants has been vilified in recent years by many well-known names in the bodybuilding community.
I’m not here to argue with these coaches, but I am here to defend the merits of this exercise.
This is 100% perfectly safe exercise to perform.
If you hurt yourself using this exercise, it is not because the exercise itself is bad, or because your order of exercises was wrong, it is because you don’t know what you’re doing!
Sure, if Joe Average “dive bombs” the weight down to his forehead and then rapidly reverses the weight back up then he will probably run into some issues with his elbows.
But in that case the problem isn’t the exercise itself, it’s Joe Average’s refusal to control the speed of his eccentric contractions!
Of course, the blame may also fall on Joe Average’s coach for refusing to learn the basics of manipulating tempo in his clients’ training programs…
If you are using proper form, with an appropriate weight, and if you are using controlled eccentric tempos on this exercise, then you will NOT run into elbow issues with this exercise!
This is valid whether you perform skull crushers as the first triceps exercise of the day or the last.
Now let’s look at some videos!
Here is the classic ez-bar skull crusher performed to the forehead:
Notice that the trainee does not let his upper arms drift behind his head. This is very important, as otherwise the exercise turns into more of a pullover extension.
Another great variation of the skull crusher involves bringing the weight down to your chin instead of the forehead.
This turns the exercise into something resembling a JM Press. That is, it becomes almost a hybrid triceps extension and barbell pressing movement!
This is a great way to overload the triceps with a little more weight on a triceps extension than would normally be possible.
One of the drawbacks of skull crushers is that it can be very hard to get the weight into the proper starting position and to maintain your balance throughout the exercise.
More and more I am having my clients perform these flat extensions like Dusty Hanshaw in the following video:
This form solves two problems: one, it is very easy to balance if you scoot your butt off the edge of the bench. Two, it is extremely easy to get the weight in the starting position!
Of course doing flat triceps extensions with dumbbells is also a great choice.
You now have at least 4 different flat tricep extension exercise variations to play around with. I am sure you will find at least one that works for you!
Number 2: Decline Extension
When it comes to recruiting as many motor units in the triceps as possible, the verdict is clear: decline triceps extensions are actually superior to flat triceps extensions!
This is almost hard to believe given the enormous popularity of skull crushers performed on a flat bench, but it is true!
This exercise is especially good for recruiting the lateral head and medial heads of the triceps.
For you anatomy geeks the lateral head is recruited more in the stretched position of this exercise while the medial head is recruited more in the shortened position.
For example, here is a demonstration with an ez-curl bar:
Notice that the upper arms do not move throughout the entire movement and the ez-bar is lowered to the trainees forehead.
Of course dumbbells are also an excellent choice here.
They often allow for a superior range of motion on this exercise and getting into the starting position is much easier with dumbbells.
These exercises are number 2 on my list of the all-time best tricep mass building exercises for a reason: they work!
Neglect them at your own peril!!
Number 1: V-Bar Upright Dips
We now get to talk about the grand-daddy of all triceps mass building exercises:
V-bar upright dips!!
The scientific literature is rather clear on this one: dips are absolutely superior at recruiting all three heads of the triceps muscle!
For example, research comparing the v-bar upright dips and the close grip bench press have found rather conclusively that dips are superior at recruiting the long, lateral, and medial heads of the triceps!
Even many trainees who have a hard time recruiting their triceps on barbell pressing exercises often find that dips smoke the triceps quite nicely.
One of the keys with this exercise is to make sure that you go all the way down on the eccentric range.
In the bottom position your forearms should come in contact with your biceps!
You may even want to use a 2-second pause in the bottom position to really overload the triceps in the stretched position of this exercise.
For example, a 3/2/X/0 tempo (three seconds down, two second pause in the bottom, explosive concentric range, no pause at the top) is an AWESOME tempo to use when training the triceps for hypertrophy!
One of the most common questions I receive from trainees about dips is this:
What do you consider an impressive dip?
I would say anyone doing their bodyweight plus 200 pounds for reps is damned impressive in my book.
I’m not quite there yet myself, but I’m getting close!
If this sounds like an impossible task then perhaps you are thinking too small.
Someone like Stan Efferding was certainly capable of this in his prime, yet look at where he started! In college he was 5 foot 10 inches and weighed about 120 pounds!
His soccer coach recommended he start lifting weights because he was too skinny to be a soccer player!
Too skinny for soccer? Have you ever heard such a ridiculous thing?
The point is this: where the mind goes, the body will follow.
Start opening up your mind to the possibility that you will one day dip with your bodyweight plus an additional 200 pounds and I promise you that you will progress so much faster than the guy doing trice kickbacks with the pink dumbbells.
Of course an experienced coach can help you reach your goals faster if that is something you’re interested in…
There you have it – the 9 greatest mass-building triceps exercises of all time!
If you have made it this far I will reward you with the “too long, didn’t read” version of this article:
- Dips are the absolute king of tricep mass builders!
- All forms of triceps extensions, particularly decline and flat extensions, are also fantastic
- If you have good structural balance and don’t have issues “activating” the triceps then the close grip bench press, decline close grip bench press, and reverse grip bench press are also awesome choices
Thank you so much for reading!
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Of course I am always available for online coaching if you want help reaching your fitness goals as quickly as possible.
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