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Triple threat triceps

By Stephen Kelly

Observe the strange repetitive nature of the bicepus obsessivus, one of nature's most hard-working but deluded animals. You can see bicepus obsessivus at almost any gym, curling dumbbells and barbells and small automobiles, all in a frenzied quest to build the arms of a gladiator. Yet there's something missing... Sure, bicepus obsessivus has formidable biceps, but he never seems to get the overall arm girth he's so obviously working so hard for. What poor bicepus doesn't realize is that just working the biceps is less than half of the equation. For real arm size, he needs to work his triceps just as hard.

This tendency among amateur bodybuilders to overlook a prime muscle group is perplexing, but hardly surprising. Looking head-on in the mirror, many gym goers will naturally work harder on the showier muscle groups like pecs and biceps. But consider this: the triceps comprise 66 percent (that's two thirds!) of the upper arm. With that much real estate, it doesn't make sense to neglect them. So show your triceps a little love with our tried and true triceps routine.

Let's look closer at the triceps before we start working them. The triceps are a collection of three muscles that work together to extend the elbow: the medial head, which runs down the middle of the posterior (rear) arm; the lateral head on the outside posterior arm; and the long head running along the inside posterior arm. When flexed, the lateral and long heads form the famous "horseshoe" that's the hallmark a well-developed set of triceps.

To help you build horseshoes any thoroughbred would be proud of, we've chosen four exercises, each designed to work all three heads of the triceps. This is a hard-hitting training program, so three exercises per routine should be enough. You can cycle the fourth into your workout to keep things fresh.

If you combine muscles groups, the "push-pull" nature of the bicep/tricep union makes training the two on the same day a good idea. Or you may double-up triceps with chest, as exercises like bench and incline presses puts demands on the triceps anyway. Since you're goal is to put on some size in your triceps, go heavier with the weights, performing three to four sets of 10 to 15 reps for each exercise.

The Exercises

  1. Lying triceps barbell extension (see Photo 1): Known fondly around gyms by its less formal name—the skullcrusher—the lying triceps extension can be performed with a barbell, an EZ-curl barbell, a set of dumbbells, or a cable machine. Lie on a flat bench and grab a barbell (or one of its cousins mentioned above) with a full overhand grip, hands about six inches apart, and arms extended; do not lock your elbows. Inhale and bend your elbow, lowering the bar in a circular arc until the bar almost touches your forehead. Be careful to stop before you hit your forehead. Keep your elbows in tight throughout, never allowing them to flare out. At the bottom of your arc, pause, then reverse and lift the bar to the starting position, exhaling as you lift. Tip: Holding the bar directly over your eyes keeps the extended arms at a slight angle, prestretching the long head and making this exercise more challenging.
  2. Triceps parallel bar dip (see Photo 2): Dips are great for working all three heads of the triceps, but they also hit the pecs, deltoids and upper back, making them a highly effective upper-body exercise. Grip the handles of the parallel bars and push yourself up into the starting position, body upright on locked arms and feet suspended in the air. Keeping your elbows in tight, your chest out, and your shoulders pulled back, bend your elbows to lower yourself to a comfortable position. Do not descend too far at the bottom, as overstretching puts a tremendous amount of strain on the joints and shoulder rotators. Pause at the bottom and then press the body up, raising your body to the starting position. Repeat. If you have trouble doing dips unassisted, you can start with the dip assist machine, which can be found at most gyms.
  3. Rope extension (see Photo 3): One of the most effective isolation exercises for the triceps, the rope extension really emphasizes the lateral and long heads. Attach a rope handle to a high pulley. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your knees slightly bent. Grip the rope in both hands, with your hands about six inches apart. Keeping your arms close to your sides to ensure you isolate the triceps, push the rope down toward the floor until your arms are straight. You should feel your triceps contracting as you push. At the bottom of the movement, push your hands down a bit so that your palms are facing downward; this will give your triceps an extra push. Pause when your arms are straight, then reverse and return to the starting position.
  4. One-arm dumbbell kickbacks (see Photo 4): Grab a dumbbell in one hand and place your opposite hand and knee on a flat bench. Bend forward until your torso and upper arm are parallel to the floor. Be sure to keep your back straight—do not hunch. Hold the dumbbell at your side with a neutral grip, elbow pointed toward the ceiling. Lift the weight up and back until your arm is straight and parallel to your body. Pause, then return to starting position. Complete a full set on one side before switching to the other arm.
Stephen Kelly is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and NPTI-certified personal trainer. He trains his clients at Gold's Gym in San Francisco's Castro district.