The 8 Most Effective Triceps Exercises

Strong arms are important for almost every upper body movement you do each day and your triceps are often the heavy lifters. Anytime you push something - A door, a stroller, a lawnmower or a barbell, you're using your triceps. 

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The 8 Most Effective Triceps Exercises

woman doing triceps kickbacks
woman doing triceps kickbacks. Alen Ajan/Getty Images

Strong is important and, for many of us, so is having shapely, toned arms. In other words, most of us don't like it when our triceps keep waving even after we've stopped.

The best way to build strong, firm triceps is to choose the exercises that hit all those muscle fibers from every angle.

The triceps, as the name suggests, has three different heads - The long head, lateral head, and the medial head. All of these heads contract during triceps exercises, but some moves emphasize different parts of the triceps.

Also, some triceps exercises are more effective than others, something we know from the 

American Council on Exercise.

In an ACE-commissioned study, researchers took exercisers through eight of the most common triceps exercises and recorded muscle activity by attaching EMG electrodes to their triceps.

With this information, they were able to rank the best triceps exercises.

Before you start, here are some basics about setting up a workout and choosing your exercises.

How to Set Up Your Triceps Workout

This study found 8 different exercises, but you don't necessarily want to do all of those moves in the same workout. What you do want is to choose exercises that emphasize all the different areas of the triceps. The top 4 moves:

  • Triangle pushup - This exercise emphasizes all three heads of the triceps muscle and, as shown below, it's the most effective move for that. 
  • Kickbacks - This move also targets all three heads of the triceps, but not quite as much as the triangle pushup. This exercise is also easier so may be more user-friendly than the pushups.
  • Triceps extensions - Including this exercise means you have a move that emphasizes the long head of the triceps muscle, a nice complement to the other exercises. 
  • Triceps pushdowns emphasize the lateral head of your triceps, again a nice complement to the other exercises.

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Triangle Pushups

Man doing triangle pushups
Man doing triangle pushups. Mario Castello/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images

The triangle pushup is probably the hardest triceps exercise in this list. It requires tremendous upper body strength, so you may need to try this move on your knees and slowly work your way up to the toes.

How to:

  1. Begin the move by positioning the hands on the mat directly under the chest with the fingers spread and the thumbs and forefingers touching, making a triangle shape.
  2. Straighten the legs into a plank position (harder) or keep the knees on the floor for an easier version.
  3. Make sure the back is flat and the abs are engaged as you bend the elbows, lowering until your chin or chest touches the mat. If you can't go that low, go as low as you can and work to build enough strength to lower all the way down over time.
  4. At the bottom of the movement, your elbows will naturally flare out to the side.
  5. Press back to start keeping the torso rigid and repeat for 1-3 sets of 8-16 reps.

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Kickbacks

Man doing kickbacks
Man doing kickbacks. David Foster/Getty Images

The kickback is the second most effective triceps exercise and not far behind triangle pushups, coming in at about 88% of muscle activation.

By bending forward, you really have to work against gravity to move the weight up and down. The key to this move is to use your shoulder to stabilize the upper arm, allowing the forearm to extend behind you. If you feel your elbow drifting down, use a lighter weight to keep good form.

How to:

  1. Prop the right foot on a step or platform, resting the right forearm on the thigh to support the back.
  2. Hold a weight in the left hand and pull the elbow up to torso level.
  3. Keeping the elbow in that position, extend the arm behind you, focusing on contracting the triceps.
  4. Lower the forearm down to about 90 degrees and repeat for 1-3 sets of 8-16 reps.
  5. Focus on keeping the upper arm stationary against the body throughout the exercise.

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Dips

Woman doing dips
Woman doing dips. AzmanL/Getty Images

Dips are the third most effective exercise and a tough one depending on how you position your feet.

In this version, the knees are bent, making the exercise easier. Extending your feet out will increase the intensity of the exercise.

The key to keeping this move safe is to keep your hips close to the chair or bench to avoid straining the shoulders. Make sure you keep the shoulders down and away from the ears and, if you feel any discomfort in the shoulders, skip this exercise.

How to:

  1. Sit on a chair or bench with hands just outside of the hips and the knees bent or the legs extended straight out (harder).
  2. Lift up onto the hands and, keeping the hips very close to the chair or bench, bend the elbows, lowering down until they're at about 90 degrees.
  3. Keep the elbows pointing behind you, the shoulders down and the abs engaged.
  4. Push back to start and repeat for 1-3 sets of 8-16 reps.
  5. Avoid this exercise if you feel any pain in the shoulders.

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Overhead Triceps Extension

Woman doing triceps extension
Woman doing triceps extension. Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images

The overhead triceps extension is the fourth most effective triceps exercise, coming in at about 76% of muscle activation. The key to this exercise is to keep the arms next to the ears as you lower the weight behind you. Make sure you can contract the abs to keep your back from arching.

You can do this exercise seated, as shown, or standing.  Believe it or not, this move actually feels harder when you're sitting.  A ball adds an element of core strength.

How to:

  1. Sit on a chair, bench or ball and hold a weight in both hands, extending it up overhead.
  2. Keep the ears next to the shoulders as you bend the elbows, lowering the weight behind your head until the elbows are at about 90-degree angles.
  3. Straighten the arms, contracting the triceps and repeat for 1-3 sets of 8-16 reps.
  4. Keep the abs engaged throughout the exercise and avoid arching the back.

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Rope Pushdown

Woman doing triceps pushdown
Woman doing triceps pushdown. gilaxia/Getty Images

The rope pushdown, normally done on a cable machine with a rope attachment, comes in at number five, eliciting about 74% of muscle activation. The idea is to spread the rope at the bottom of the movement to really fire up the triceps muscles.

If you don't have access to a cable machine, you can use a resistance band. Attach it to the top of a doorway and tie a loose knot in the band about halfway down.

How to:

  1. At a cable machine with a rope attachment, hold on to the rope near the knotted ends and begin the exercise with the elbows bent at about 90 degrees, elbows next to the torso.
  2. Extend the arms, taking the hands down towards the floor, spreading the rope slightly out on either side as you contract the triceps.
  3. Bring the forearms back to start and repeat for 1-3 sets of 8-16 reps.

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Bar Pushdown

Man Doing Triceps Pushdowns
Man Doing Triceps Pushdowns. Severin Schweiger/Getty Images

The bar pushdown is similar to the rope pushdown but slightly less effective at about 67%.

This exercise is usually done on a cable machine at the gym using a small bar attachment, although you can also do this exercise at home with an exercise band and a small pole or bar threaded through the handles.

The key to this move is to keep the elbows stationary as you push the weight down. If you lift the bar too high (say, higher than neck level), your elbows may come forward, making the exercise less effective.

How to:

  1. Stand in front of a cable machine, holding onto the bar with the elbows bent to about 90 degrees.
  2. Keeping the elbows stationary, push the bar down, contracting the triceps as you extend the arms.
  3. Bring the bar back up to about chest level without moving the elbows and repeat for 1-3 sets of 8-16 reps.

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Lying Barbell Triceps Extensions (Skull Crushers)

Skull crushers
Skull crushers. Paige Waehner

Barbell triceps extensions (or what we often call skull crushers for obvious reasons), come in at a surprising number seven, eliciting about 62% of muscle activation.

This is surprising because, if you've ever done these, you know how challenging this exercise is.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't do these anymore, but work them into a program that includes some of the top exercises as well.

How to:

  1. Lie on a bench, step or floor and hold the barbell with hands about shoulder-distance apart.
  2. Begin the exercise by extending the weight up over the head, palms facing out and thumbs next to the fingers.
  3. Bend the elbows and lower the weight until the elbows are at about 90-degree angles. This would be the part where you wouldn't want to crush your skull by going too low.
  4. Squeeze the triceps to straighten the arms without locking the joints.
  5. Repeat for 1-3 sets of 8-16 reps.

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Close Grip Bench Press

The close grip bench press comes in 8th as an effective triceps exercise, eliciting about 62% of muscle activation. This move also involves quite a bit of chest, which may be why the triceps don't work as much as in other exercises.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't do this exercise. In fact, this can be a great exercise if you're working both the chest and triceps in the same workout.

Doing this move at the end of your chest exercises can warm up the triceps before you move on to more targeted moves.

How to:

  1. Lie on a bench or step holding a barbell with hands about shoulder-width apart.
  2. Begin the exercise with the elbows bent and the barbell hovering just over the ribcage.
  3. Press the weight straight up over the ribcage, focusing on contracting the triceps.
  4. Lower and repeat for 1-3 sets of 8-16 reps.

Source

Boehler B, Porcari J, Kline D, et al. ACE-sponsored Research: Best Triceps Exercises. The American Council on Exercise Certified News, August 2011.

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