The Ultimate Guide to Tricep Workouts:
By Tyler Woodward
You can't have a great physique without triceps to match. If you're tired of having scrawny arms, here's everything you need to know to build some horseshoes!
Table of Contents:
- Tricep Anatomy
- Muscle Physiology 101
- Physics 101
- Mechanisms of Hypertrophy
- The Ultimate Tricep Workout
- Notes on Exercise Selection
Because everyday is arm day right? ;)
Tricep Anatomy 101:
To understand how to do a triceps workout, you need to understand the anatomy of the tricep muscles. The triceps actually make up about 55-60% of your upper arms! Every muscle has an origin and insertion point which are the locations where the muscle starts and ends respectively. The triceps have three heads or “starting points”, the long, short and medial head.
- The long head of the triceps attaches along the side of the scapula (shoulder blade).
- The lateral head of the triceps attaches to the top of the humerus (the upper-arm bone)
- The medial head of the triceps attaches to the humerus (upper-arm bone) below the lateral head.
All three heads of the triceps come together and attach onto the ulna (one of the lower-arm bones).
*Note* - The Triceps do not cross over both arms of the lower-arm, so they are not influenced by the grip. For these reasons, there is no benefit to doing “reverse grip” or supinated tricep exercises because all they do is increase the amount of grip strength and forearm work required in the exercise.
Muscle Physiology 101:
I like to view muscles like strings. Each head of the muscle is a different string that all converge onto one insertion point or the end of the muscle. Since the triceps have three heads, they are made up of three strings. Just like a string, by contracting your muscle you can bring the two ends closer together and “shorten it” or bring them further apart and “stretch the muscle. When the two ends of the muscle are fully stretched we refer to this as a fully lengthened muscle. When the two ends of the muscle are as close together as possible or flexed, this is a fully shortened position.
You can find your fully lengthened tricep by putting your thumb (facing down) into the small indentation on the top of your shoulder.
Your fully shortened triceps will be in the position that your arms are fully locked out and around 30-45 degrees outside of your torso. (You should look like an M).
You can also bias the different heads of the triceps by performing exercises in various positions.
For example, you can fully lengthen the medial head of your tricep by putting your thumb along the inner portion of your clavicle (bone at the top of the rib cage). Next, the fully lengthened tricep position will mostly bias the long head of the triceps. Lastly, you can bias the lateral head of the triceps by going wider on your triceps pressdowns, instead of 30-45 degrees more like 45-60 degrees.
If you haven’t read my article, “The Ultimate Guide to Chest Workouts”, I highly recommend you check it out, as I go much more into depth with how muscles work.
It’s also important to note that our muscles are stronger in certain positions. In the fully shortened position (arms straight and out to your side around 30-45 degrees), your muscle will always be the weakest because your muscle is literally running out of room to contract/shorten. In the string analogy, if you bring the two ends of the strings together so they are touching, they can’t get any closer together. In contrast, the fully lengthened position of the triceps is much stronger (arms overhead, thumbs in shoulder indent). If you imagine the string analogy when you stretch the ends of string as far apart as possible and let go, the ends bounce in towards a more neutral or less taught position. The same idea applies to your muscle as the muscle and the joint attempt to get out of this fully stretched position. Lastly, our muscles will be strongest in their mid-range about halfway between these two points. Try to keep in mind where your muscles are the strongest and weakest because it will allow us to pick exercises that match the strength our muscle is capable of producing, which will result in more muscle growth.
There are two forces mainly involved in lifting weights, tension and torque. Tension is often referred to as the pull force. The easiest way to think about tension is like in a tug of war. Whichever team pulls the rope the hardest will generate the most tension onto the rope and will win the game. Torque is similar to the pull force, but it adds two elements. First, it takes into account moment arms which are basically the distance between the “load” or weight and your joint. Basically, the longer your arms are the harder it is to light a weight because the weight physically has to move a greater distance. It’s the same reason that a bag of groceries feels way heavier if you bring it out further away from your body compared to letting it hang straight down.
This brings us to the second part of torque, the angle. Torque is always greatest at 90 degrees, so imagine bringing that bag of groceries so your arm is straight out to your side like a “T”. This will be the hardest position to hold the bag in because torque is maximized here. Anything greater than or less than 90 degrees will actually be easier because there is less torque.
In the gym this is why squats, bench and shoulder presses are hardest at the bottom and why rows and lateral raises are hardest at the top.
We can use the combination of physics and physiology to choose exercises that are hardest when our muscles are the strongest to maximize the amount of tension placed on our muscle or overload a specific position.
Mechanisms Of Hypertrophy:
There are primarily two adaptations that occur in our muscle cells that result in hypertrophy or muscle-growth. Adaptations are
- Myofibrillar Hypertrophy - This occurs mostly as a result of applying large amounts of tension to our muscles. The better an exercise matches the strength our muscle has in that position, the more tension and force we will be able to produce. For the triceps, this will mean easier in the lockout position and harder when our arms are more bent.
- Myofibrillar hypertrophy exercises are best performed in the lengthened or mid-range position of a muscle
- Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy - This is the result of the accumulation of fluid in our muscles. This is more commonly referred to as “the pump”. For every molecule of glucose (energy) stored in our muscles it's believed that about three times as much water is stored in the muscle.
- Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is best performed in a muscle’s fully shortened position with short rest periods between sets.
Myofibrillar hypertrophy is like upgrading your car’s engine while sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is like increasing the amount of fuel you have in the tank.
The Ultimate Triceps Workout:
To build the big triceps workout, we need to abide by the following principles:
- Take the triceps through their full range of motion and apply adequate resistance throughout the range of motion.
- Use exercises that involve both mechanisms of hypertrophy to continually progress over time.
For these reasons, it’s much easier to spread out your tricep workouts over a few days, so that your muscles are fully recovered each time you hit them. As you may not get as much output from your triceps on the second or third exercise as the first. For whatever reason you may not be able to do this or you may just prefer hitting one muscle group per day, so I will give you options for all of these.
*Once your form has broken down in any way you have reached “technical failure” and should end that set*
Notes on Exercise Selection:
For triceps, it is extremely important to be able to adjust the exercises to fit your structure. Cable exercises offer the greatest amount of adjustability because you can move the height of the cable and also alter where the exercise is hardest by moving either further or closer away. Free weights, especially barbells, can be extremely tough on the elbow joint during tricep exercises because they do not have any adjustability. The resistance is always against gravity. Additionally, the lack of ability to rotate your wrists in barbell movements often results in elbow and/or wrist pain for many people when doing barbell tricep exercise. Using cables for triceps allows for more tension being placed on the muscle and less tension on the joints, leading to less wear and tear and more gains.
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My goal in writing this article, as always, is to provide you with logically-based principles that you can use to form your own conclusions regarding any information you may come across within this subject. I really hope you found this article interesting and if you have anything to add to this article, or any comments or criticism, feel free to reach out to me on our facebook groups (The Thermo Diet Community Group, The UMZU Community Group) or on Instagram @tylerwoodward_fit. Also, please feel free to share this article with anyone that might be interested.
Thanks for reading!
Until next time… be good
B.S. Physiology and Neurobiology