Exercising can be a personal experience – some exercises will feel great to you but not to others. I’ve gathered here the most popular triceps exercises and separated them into what I think are best and worst in my experience.
The top triceps exercises
The best exercises put little stress on the elbows and allow you to go heavy to build mass.
Narrow grip bench press
Despite the misleading name, this exercise hardly works the chest area. This is probably my favourite exercise when it comes to lifting extremely heavy. Just make sure you keep your elbows tucked in to your side at the bottom of the exercise, even though you will feel you want your elbows to point out. With your elbows pointing down instead of to the side, you put less stress on them.
This is another exercise where you can lift very heavy. Unfortunately, it is not possible to do this as a free-weight exercise. You can put your feet high up on a bench and add some plates on your lap to increase the difficulty. But because your feet support a large proportion of the total weight, this position will never feel challenging enough as you progress. The alternative is to use a dip machine and you’ll be able to go very heavy indeed, easily exceeding your bodyweight. However, this is not free-weight. There is no balancing of the weight. Dips put very little stress on your elbows if you keep them to your sides.
You perform this exercise at the cable station with a high pulley. You can also go heavy with it but it’s easy to lose good form and use your bodyweight to push the bar down. There is some stress applied to the elbows as well, especially when going very heavy and cheating.
Still at the cable station and using a high pulley, you replace the bar with a rope. The grip will feel very different and will affect your triceps in a very different way. You won’t go as heavy but you will be able to get a very strong contraction at the bottom.
Lying triceps extension (skullcrushers)
This used to be my favourite exercise when I just started out and I would go very heavy indeed. I stopped doing it as much when I found out that it puts a lot of stress on the elbows. I only keep it among the best exercises because it feels like a very natural movement and allows you to go heavy.
The worst triceps exercises
The worst triceps exercises are those that apply too much stress on the elbows and do not put you in a position of strength where you can recruit maximum muscle fibres. Over many years, too much stress on the elbows can lead to injury. So you want to avoid these exercises or not go heavy on them.
I don’t know why this is such a popular exercise, it barely challenges the triceps, especially with the dumbbell version. You have maximum strength at the bottom of the exercise when the weight is at its lowest and you have minimal strength at the top of the exercise when the weight is at its heaviest – it’s backwards! The cable version is better as the tension on the muscle is constant but you are still not in a position of strength. Elbow stress is high too.
The Tate press
This is a rather obscure exercise and I have never seen it done in the gym, except by myself to try it out a few times. I included it here to show everything that is wrong with a triceps exercise.
To perform it, you lie on a bench with a dumbbell in one hand which you hold over your chest just below the nipple. Your elbow is at 90 degrees such that your upper arm is vertical and lower arm horizontal and the dumbbell vertical in your pronated grip. To do the exercise, you simply extend your lower arm so that it becomes vertical.
This exercise places a lot of stress on the elbows and does not put you in a position of strength. There is also very little stretching.
Overhead dumbbell extension
You can use the 2-arm variety or the 1-arm variety which feels worse in my opinion. You could also use a cable instead. A lot of elbow stress here and the exercise itself is difficult to master and uncomfortable to perform – you need to lift a heavy weight up and behind your head. But the good side is that it does give you a lot of stretch in the muscles, so a good exercise to add when warming up or cooling down.
Seated or standing ez-bar extension
This is similar to skullcrushers except that you are standing or seated (more strict). It is also similar to the overhead dumbbell extension in that the weight is behind and above your head. The exercise is more comfortable to do than the 2-arm dumbbell extension as you can more easily bring the bar above your head and the grip feels more natural. The stress on the elbow is higher than skullcrushers but it does give you a good stretch, which is why I still do this exercise when going light.
So when choosing a triceps exercise, try it out to see how it feels, if the movement is natural, if you are in a position where you can recruit all your muscle fibres and if stress on the elbows is minimal, otherwise, keep the weight low and enjoy the stretch you hopefully get in return.