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  • Writer's pictureJulian Molteno

HOW TO . . . train your Triceps

This blog is not really “instructional” or “how to.” It’s not about the “secrets” of building a big chest or the techniques of deadlifting properly. That being said, I do have a few thoughts on successful training in general — and in this post — some ideas on how to train your triceps in particular.

I have always enjoyed training my triceps and was once fortunate enough (20+ years ago) to have a fairly decent pair of tri’s.

Horseshoe triceps — and a full head of hair — those were the days!

I put the word secrets in inverted commas earlier because there are no real secrets to building muscle. These days, with all the information available on the internet, a total beginner could have as much theoretical knowledge on how to build muscle as a seasoned pro. If all the information we need on muscle-building is readily available though, why do some people grow and others dont? In my opinion, there are two main reasons for this.

The first is your genetic potential. Some people just build muscle more easily than others. If you took a group of individuals — trained and fed them all in exactly the same way — there would always be a small band of them who would run faster, jump higher and lift heavier than the others. They are (physically at least) genetically superior and will always respond better than others to a set stimulus. There is nothing you can do to alter your genetic make-up. It is what it is.

The second reason is that theory don’t count for shit. Practical application, over a period of time, results in experience, and that experience gives us the opportunity to gain a fund of knowledge that is unique to us and to our bodies. (Read that sentence again please, it’s important!)

In other words, although the broader principles of muscle-growth do generally apply to everyone, to really know what works for you and how to get the most from your training — how to pack on some top quality Grade A beef — you have to get out there and actually train! And learn from your experience. There is no substitute for discovering what makes your muscles grow other than knuckling down and doing some hard training. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year after year!

Actually, there is a third reason why some muscle-groups don’t grow — and that is because they are neglected. This post is all about how to get big triceps, and while it is the physical training that delivers your monster guns, without understanding the psychology of arm training, you will never achieve your tricep goals.

When thinking about arms, biceps are the main event, they are the one hundred meter sprint, a T-bone steak and the summer blockbuster all rolled into one! Triceps are biceps’s poor cousin! In stark contrast to the glory of bi’s, they are a piddly 5k charity walk, the side of over-cooked Brussels sprouts or an interminable Scandi Noir bore-fest!!!

My good friend “American” Matt tucking into a monster T-bone steak at O Tino’s, London’s best Portuguese restaurant!

Yes Sir!! Big guns are all about biceps!! Comic book-hero, Saviour of the Beach, bring it on Bi’s!! The personification of which is, of course, the One-and-Only, Mr Arnold Schwarzenegger!!! Arnold is generally considered to have had the best arms ever, and if not ever, most certainly the best arms of his generation. Think of his arms and all you see are his baseball-like biceps, representing the type of arms every young bodybuilder aspires to — his triceps do not even get a look-in. In fact when Arnold does occasionally have to pose his triceps, he turns the pose into a chest and bi shot!!!

Not possessing the greatest set of triceps, Arnold had the good sense to include his amazing chest and biceps in this so-called tricep pose.

Of course, an intelligent bodybuilder develops all his (or her) body-parts to the same degree and would never focus more on bi’s than tri’s. While the less educated lifter may delight in focusing on the “showy” biceps, the more enlightened will take a quiet pleasure in developing an equally as impressive set of triceps.

There is one final reason why we should not neglect our triceps, the clue to which is in the name. The word “ceps” is derived from the Latin word caput, meaning head. Muscles such as biceps, triceps, etc., are named such because they have two/three origins or heads. Bicep meaning double-headed with tricep meaning triple-headed. The expression, “Two heads are better than one”, can be extended when it comes to triceps, to “Three heads are better than two!” For those of us old-style bodybuilders who are still interested in measurements, a big arm measurement comes mostly from the larger three-headed tricep, which makes up the bulk of the upper arm.

Finally we get to the “how to” bit of this post, where we will discuss how to combine squeezing and stretching, and how to do a “thinking” and “doing” exercise at the same time.

Triceps are a unique muscle to train. Most muscles (with the possible exception of chest) are trained by contracting and squeezing them, while triceps respond to a combination of both contracting and stretching. Here is a tricep workout I would recommend:

Starting the workout with a superset of Cable Pushdowns followed immediately by Cable Extensions is a winning combination. I normally go heavy and loose on the pushdowns and then lighter and tighter on the extensions. If done properly, you will feel a deep, deep ache, right down to the bone. Pushdowns can be done with a bar or a rope but for cable extensions, only a rope will do. When doing cable extensions, take care to extend — not to press. Your upper arms should stay almost motionless and as close to your head as possible, with your elbows pointing to the ceiling. A word of caution on all standing/cable tricep extension movements is that they put a lot of stress on your elbows, so I prefer to do them as the second part of a superset and focus on form and feel, rather than the weight. My last tip on Pushdowns is to do them facing away from the machine — this stops your elbows from travelling forward, ensuring the bar is pulled up towards your body, as opposed to away, thus increasing your range of motion.

As you can see, facing away from the machine pulls the bar towards you, enabling a better range of motion. Joy is also getting a complete contraction in her triceps by fully extending her arms. Well done, Joy!!

After completing the Pushdown/Extension superset, I would move on to one of the very best tricep exercises in the book — Dumbbell Tricep Kickbacks. This is an old-style exercise unfortunately seldom seen these days. It has fallen out of favour because it is difficult to do correctly and can be quite awkward — but neither of those reasons are any justification for not doing this excellent exercise.

This shot gives you a flavour of how basic the school gym was. The photo was taken in June of 1984. I was sixteen at the time, weighing in at a respectable 83 kgs.

Here at, we love feeling connected to our bodybuilding heroes of the past, and of the ways in which we do that, is by doing the types of exercises they used to do. With the Corona Virus lockdown, I have been forced to train at home, using pretty basic equipment, and adapting what I have to make the best of the limited kit available — AND I’M LOVING IT!! It is taking me back to my roots, back to when I first trained as a 13 year old boy in South Africa. The school “gym” was an extremely basic affair. It was in the old armoury, a very small basement with an absolute minimum of equipment. To be honest “equipment” does not really describe what was in this so-called gym. We literally had a flat wooden bench, (with a thinly padded mat placed on it, that I think was first used in the Boer War!) some barbells and dumbbells, the most rudimentary pulldown/pushdown machine, plus a pole embedded into one of the corners to enable us to chin — that was it! As it was a basement, it was a pretty dank and dark room with only one very small window and a naked bulb for light. The ceiling was pretty low so the chin-ups bar was quite close to the ceiling, and I remember once using a piece of string to hold some 10kg plates around my waist to do some weighted chins. As I pulled up with all my might, the string snapped, propelling me up much higher than I had anticipated, bashing my skull into the cement ceiling! What larks!!

The COVID-19 lockdown has brought back memories of my early training days in SA, where we had to make the most of what little training equipment was available to us. I just LOVE training!

What were we taking about? Oh yeah. Dumbbell Kickbacks. This out-of-vogue exercise comes highly recommended for a number of reasons. Firstly, no matter how sore and creaky your elbows may be, (I’m afraid all of us “Million Rep Body” guys ‘n gals will all have picked up a few aches and pains along the way) it’s good to know that Kickbacks are pain-free — only for your elbows, definitely not your tri’s. Secondly, it’s a free-weights exercise, when so much tricep work is done on cables, and there is nothing better than picking up some heavy iron in the gym. Thirdly, as alluded to earlier, Dumbbell Kickbacks are an old-style exercise that directly connect us to Arnold and his era, and we love the feeling of keeping the faith with the ethos and traditions of that time.

Oh dear! Even the Great Man himself is doing DB kickbacks in a “girlie” style.

Most people do Kickbacks as a “finisher” — a strict, high-rep exercise done at the end of the workout to get a pump. I see loads of people using light weights, going slowly and deliberately, squeezing for all they are worth, this is most certainly not my style, and I urge you to reconsider if it is yours.

I have written two posts on “thinking” versus “doing” exercises. “Thinking” being mostly a light, strict, isolation exercise, and “doing” a heavier, looser, more compound exercise or style. Occasionally you find an exercise that is perfect for combining the two. And yes, you’ve guessed it, Dumbbell Tricep Kickbacks is one of those. In my opinion the optimum way to perform this exercise is heavy and loose but . . . with a tight contraction when extending your arm at the “top” of the movement. Combining both styles of training in one exercise takes concentration and practice, but is well worth the effort as this a great way of obtaining mass and shape.

Now that I think of it, Bent Over Dumbbell Raises are similar to Kickbacks in many ways. You are in the same bent over position, you can’t really see what you are doing so have to rely on the “feel”, and most people do them in a light, strict way, while I like to go heavy and loose but still really focus on the final squeeze at the end/top of the movement.

When doing Kickbacks, most trainers would tell you to keep your upper arm immobile, only moving your forearm when extending your arm. When I do Kickbacks however, I take a slightly more relaxed attitude, and basically, anything goes as long as you abide to my two rules. The dumbbell starts at your shoulders (Rule One) with your elbows dropped and pointing to the floor, you then swing the weight up using as much momentum as you like, aiming the dumbbells at the ceiling, and (Rule Two) fully extending your arms. Simples.

Our third (actually fourth!) and final tricep exercise is Lying Tricep Extensions. NOT Skull Crushers! Not Skull Crushers because it’s a stupid name, and not Skull Crushers because we do not bring the bar to our foreheads. If you had to choose one exercise for legs, it would be squats. One exercise for back? Deadlifts. One for chest? Bench Press. And if you had to chose one exercise for triceps, it would have to be Lying Tricep Extensions. It is in that elite group of half a dozen or so big, bad, basic exercises that every bodybuilder must do.

Conventional wisdom would decree that you should start your workout with those basic, heavy movements — and most often, that is a good call. However, in this instance, perhaps we should take heed of the words of Matthew when he speaks of the blessedness of life to come, “Then Jesus said, ‘The first shall be last and the last shall be first’”.

After nearly 40 years of heavy lifting, I have discovered that it can be very beneficial to do those “primary” movements last. Benching last or squatting last feels amazing! You are totally warmed up so no need for loads of time-wasting warm-up sets, and because you are fatigued you will use a lighter weight, (thus placing less stress on joints and ligaments) but still get the maximum growth from your muscles.

My style when doing LTE’s is fairly loose. I don’t bring the bar to my forehead, Skull Crusher style, I slide it just over the top of my head taking the bar towards the floor. Then with effort, explosive power, and big momentum, I forcefully whoosh it back to the extended arms position.

We say No! to the short-range Skull Crusher (top) and Yes! to the long-range Lying Tricep Extension.

So there you have it — my guide to tricep training. Understanding why triceps are important when developing a Million Rep Body, realising that there is no substitute for hard work, and knowing what to think about and what to focus on, when doing our selection of top tricep exercises.

The workout summary:

Start the workout with a Pushdown/Cable Extension superset — squeeze first, stretch last. Pushdown facing away from the machine to increase your range of movement.

Dumbbell Tricep Kickbacks done in thinking and doing style.

Finish with a flourish! End with a big, basic movement — Lying Tricep Extension NOT a Skull Crusher.

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