The upper arm. Home of the bicep, and a bone. While many of us know a whole bunch of exercises to get swole biceps, too many of us are apt to ignore the humble tricep, across the humerus from the bicep.
If you spend much time rolling around this site, you know our philosophies on muscles: You have to work them all. Sure, the tricep isn’t as impressive as it’s neighbor across the street, but if you neglect it there are consequences. Sure, you’ll look off balance, but you’re also setting yourself up for chiropractic issues and overuse injuries.
Here, we’re doing a deep dive on what the tricep is, where it is, and how to work it out.
“Tricep” or “Tri” is short for “triceps Brachii.” I love breaking down muscle names, but we won’t get lost in the weeds on this one. “Tri” means “three”, “cep” means “head” – where the muscle attaches to bone – and “Brachii” refers to the muscle’s location in the arm. The back of the upper arm, to be precise.
Of this muscle’s three heads, one is located below the elbow. The “lateral head” connects on the top of the humerus (the upper arm bone) and the “long head” connects to the scapula on the back of the lower shoulder.
Due to the muscle’s close proximity to the shoulder joint, most movements of the upper arms involve the triceps to some degree. The proximity of this muscle to the shoulder also makes it a supporting muscle for the rotator cuff, so if you’re worried about shoulder injuries, working out this muscle won’t hurt.
However, the main role of this muscle is extending the arm at the elbow. As such, it’s also an antagonist to the biceps brachii- it does the opposite of what the bicep does. That means that if you’re as thoughtful about relaxing your arm after a bicep exercise as you are about exercising the bicep, you’re also working out the tri.
It also means that if you only focus on the biceps, these muscles can overdevelop and potentially put undue stress on your arms and shoulders making some injuries more likely.
Now that we know where this muscle is and what it does, how does one exercise it?
If you really don’t care about the tri, we’ve already touched down on one handy way to work it out. The action of the tri undoes the action of the bicep. So, when you do, say, a bicep curl, spend as much time straightening your arm as you do curling them. While you curl you work out the bicep and while you extend you work out the tricep.
This same basic principle is true of any bicep exercise that you do. However, there are also targeted exercises specifically for this muscle that you should consider working into your routine. This is handy because, in most bicep exercises, gravity is helping you relax your arms, meaning that they aren’t as effective exercises for the triceps.
French Press (Weights or Cable)
This basic exercise can be done with weights or – if you have access to a machine – with cables.
To do this exercise with weights, hold a dumbbell with both hands above your head, held such that your fingernails are pointing behind you. Bend at the elbows to lower the weights behind your head, and then lift again. This exercise can be a bit awkward, so you might want to do it with a spotter at least at first. And no shame starting with light weights to nail down form.
The cable exercise works essentially in the opposite way. You start holding the handles behind your back and extend them above your head against tension.
Usually, I prefer free weights to cables, but with a weird exercise like this one, the machine is a lot easier and safer – particularly if you’re new to the lift. Because the form is basically the same, you can also explore it on a cable machine before moving to free weights – handy if you don’t have a spotter.
Just remember that the feeling of weight on a machine to the feeling of free weights isn’t always 1:1.
Triceps Pushdown and Reverse Weights Cable Extension
Both of these exercises require a cable machine. We’re talking about them together because, as you’ll see, they’re more or less the same exercise. Depending on the model machine and how well you know it, the same machine will work for both exercises.
For the pushdown, holding the handle overhand with bent arms at about waist height. For each rep, bring the handle down by extending the arms at the elbows while the upper arms remain in place.
For the cable extension, hold the handle underhand with bent arms at about waist height. Proceed to extend the arms at the elbows just as for the pushdown.
Close-Grip Bench Press (Or pushup)
A modification on the classic bench press that involves having the hands close together – but not touching – will target the traps. This lift is slightly more awkward than the standard bench press, so, again, don’t be afraid to experiment with a lesser weight and never be ashamed to use a spotter.
Don’t have access to a weight set? No problem. A bench press is essentially an upside-down pushup. So, just like you moved your hands closer together on your weights, move your hands closer together on the floor to modify your pushup.
The only benefits to using weights over pushups are that you can adjust the weights and that pushing the weights rather than pushing the body supported on the toes means that the bench press targets the arms and chest rather than distributing weight over the core and lower body.
Hitting the Gym
The tricep doesn’t get the love that it deserves because it isn’t as flashy a muscle to flex as the bicep. However, for aesthetics, for health, and for practical use, it’s just as important a muscle to workout. Hopefully, this article has helped you to understand and appreciate this woefully under-rated muscle and has inspired you to treat it right.
Caciolo, C. (ed.) “Men’s Health: Total Body Workbook.” (p. 4 – 7) Rodale. 2007.