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man doing triceps extension

Sorry, Biceps, But Triceps Have You Beat

Having massive or perfectly toned arms is a major goal for virtually every bodybuilder, male and female alike. To this end, a lot of gym-goers set themselves up two inches from a mirror and do curls until the cows come home. Here’s the unfortunate part, though; it doesn’t usually lead to arms that are all that great.

The secret to really boosting your arm size and definition? Stop forgetting about the back half of your arm. If you want to level up your arms, it’s time to give your triceps the attention they deserve. 

Let’s Review: Triceps and Biceps Anatomy

Everyone knows the biceps, the muscle on the front of your upper arm that makes that glorious bulge when you flex and give directions on the beach. The back half of the arm, meanwhile, is made up of the triceps—and speaking from a purely muscle size standpoint, the triceps are nearly three times as big as the biceps!

Indeed, your triceps make up a major portion of your upper arm mass. (They’re also one of the biggest muscles in your upper body in general.) Think of it this way: If you flex in the mirror, your arm looks a lot bigger when you view it from the side, doesn’t it? That’s because this angle also shows off your triceps, which make up a large chunk of the overall muscle on your arm.

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The major action the triceps are responsible for is extending the elbow, which you can isolate during triceps pushdowns or skullcrushers. However, this motion is also trained during compound movements like bench press and shoulder press. Importantly, the triceps are basically the only muscle that extends the elbow (it’s no wonder they’re so big). Sure, the anconeus helps out a bit, but your weird uncle probably helps cook more at Thanksgiving than the anconeus helps with elbow extension.

On the other hand (pun intended), the biceps have two other powerful muscles helping them out: the brachialis and brachioradialis. 

Want Jacked Arms? More Triceps

If you want jacked arms, the short answer to getting there is to include a lot of triceps training in your program. Doing endless amounts of curls might help a bit, but stacking slabs of muscle onto your triceps is the easiest way to get that 3D look in your arms. Moreover, as your triceps develop, you carve that lovely horseshoe shape into the back of your arm. A well-defined tricep is an easy signal to look for if you’re trying to determine whether someone lifts or not.

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Worth noting: On top of hitting your triceps more often, you need to alternate your curl training, too. Those other two muscles that I mentioned, the brachialis and brachioradialis, also help out in the aesthetics department of your upper arm. Doing curl variations with a reverse grip or hammer grip can help emphasize those muscles, as can doing curls with cables or even bands.

Triceps Training Tips

Just as altering curl variations helps develop all of your curling muscles, altering triceps exercises is also crucial for the full development of the triceps muscles. As its name suggests, the triceps muscle consists of three muscle heads; the long head, the medial head, and the lateral head. Each individual portion of the triceps has a unique ability to extend the elbow (or shoulder) at a different angle or in a different loading position.

With this in mind, you need to use multiple pressing or extension angles to develop the triceps. I always recommend that folks perform three types of triceps exercises each at least once per week:

  1. Overhead extensions: The long head of the triceps becomes stretched in the overhead position, meaning that the lateral and medial heads have to produce more force to extend the elbow. These variations are great for building those heads of the triceps.
  2. Extensions at 90 degrees: These include exercises like skullcrushers, in which each muscle head has a generally similar advantage to produce force. Force is the stimulus for growth, so the more force a head can produce, the more it’ll grow.
  3. Pushdowns: Pushdown variations are performed mostly with your elbows at your sides. In this position, the long head is in a great spot to produce a ton of force, so these are necessary to build out that upper portion of your triceps.

Keep most of your training in that 8- to 12-repetition range, but don’t be afraid to adventure outside of that every once in a while. I’ve personally found great success training triceps a little heavier (think five to six reps per set), but everyone will be slightly different. Three to four sets per exercise will help you start building your horseshoes.

The Bottom Line

Triceps training is a major factor of arms-building that many people miss out on. While the biceps often get all the glory because you can see them in the mirror easily and virtually everyone knows how to “make a muscle” (i.e. flex your biceps), they’re not all that matters.

In fact, if you want to take your arms to the next level, you better get working on your triceps. Maybe then, the cows can come home to a jacked farmer.

Known as ‘The Muscle Ph.D.,’ Dr. Jacob Wilson has a knack for transforming challenging, complex concepts into understandable lessons that can support your body composition and health goals. A skeletal muscle physiologist and sports nutrition expert, Wilson is a leader in muscle sports nutrition. As the CEO of The Applied Science & Performance Institute and researches supplementation, nutrition, and their impact on muscle size, strength, and power.

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