For many people, the triceps are just something you rest on a pad while doing biceps curls. But, this important muscle on the back of your upper arm is responsible for extension of the elbow joint—basically, you can’t straighten your arm without it. In fact, the triceps are an integral muscle for many everyday movements, from pushing a heavy shopping cart to driving a car. If you’re an athlete (or just like to dabble in sports on the weekends), the muscle is a vital component to properly throwing a ball, swinging a racket, and doing a push-up workout like you might find in the Aaptiv app.
And, despite many people focusing on the glamorous biceps muscles, triceps make up about two-thirds of your upper arm and contribute significantly to upper body strength. So, if you really want to build those arms, don’t neglect your triceps.
How to Work Your Triceps
There are many great exercises for targeting your triceps; however, not all are created equal.
To find out exactly which moves provide the most benefit to your triceps muscles, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) partnered with the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Exercise and Health Program. A team of researchers studied a variety of different exercises and found that a few in particular resulted in the greatest muscle activity: triangle push-ups, dips, and kickbacks.
“All across the board, the triangle push-ups elicited the most muscle activity in our subjects,” said University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Researcher Brittany Boehler. “The dips and triceps kickbacks weren’t that far behind either. Essentially, all three exercises could be used interchangeably.” Of course, there are more than three ways to work your triceps, but the above trio is a great place to start.
Give It a Try
This variation of the classic push-up primarily targets your triceps and also works your chest and shoulders.
Get into a push-up position with your hands close to each other, forming a triangle or diamond with your fingers. Slowly lower your chest toward the floor while keeping your back straight, then press back up.
“Depending on your strength and skill level, dips can be performed unassisted on parallel bars or on a bench,” says Personal Trainer Matthew Martin. “The bench is easier, puts less pressure on the elbow, and is safer for beginners.”
With the long side of a bench behind you, place your palms on the edge of the bench at shoulder-width and extend your legs out in front of you. Slowly lower your hips toward the ground by bending at the elbows until your arms are nearly 90 degrees. Raise back up.
Simple and effective, the overhead extension is a great candidate for resistance bands, but it can also be performed with a dumbbell.
Stagger your feet slightly with your left foot ahead of your right. Loop one end of the resistance band under your right foot and place the other in your hand. Bring your hand up to just behind your head with your elbow bent. Press up until your elbow is fully extended above your head. Return to the starting position.
Work your triceps and lats with this simple resistance band exercise you can do anywhere.
Standing in a forward lunge position, loop an exercise band around the bottom of your front foot and grasp a handle in each hand. Lean slightly forward while keeping your back straight. Pull the band back with straight arms until your hands pass by behind your hips. Return to the starting position.
“If you’re doing the kickbacks correctly, it doesn’t really take a whole lot of weight to get a good workout,” says Dr. John Porcari, an exercise physiologist at the University of Wisconsin and former personal trainer.
With a dumbbell in each hand, bring the weight up toward your shoulders like you’re performing a biceps curl and hold it there. Hinge slightly forward at the hips while keeping your back flat. Extend the weights behind you by contracting your triceps muscles until your elbows are fully straightened. This move can also be completed one side at a time with the hand and knee of your non-working side resting on a bench.
This classic triceps move can be performed with dumbbells, but if you can find an EZ Bar in the gym (also known as a curl bar), try that for more comfort and control.
Grab a small barbell or curl bar with your hands about shoulder-width, and lie faceup on a bench. Extend the bar above your chest, then bend at the elbows to lower the bar to your forehead. Return to the starting position.
Though typically performed on a dedicated machine at the gym, this move can also be executed with a resistance band by looping a band over a fixed overhead object, like a squat rack or wall anchor. “When doing pushdowns, momentum is the enemy,” says Martin. “Keep your upper arms still. The move should isolate the triceps, not recruit chest and shoulder muscles.”
Face the machine. Grasp the rope or bar with both hands at chest-height, keeping your elbows tight by your sides. Press down until your elbows are fully extended, then return to the starting position.
For more workouts, consult the Aaptiv app. You can browse by category or search for something specific, like “arms.”