October 1, 2005

Weight-Gainers Series: Triceps

BY David Bohn ("Fitness")

Well the summer has finally transitioned into fall and what a summer it was! It was sunny and warm from May until the end of September! Thankfully, that helps to make up a little for the dismal summer we had last year! Now that you have a little less excuse for skipping your workouts, it’s time to get serious again, just in time for the Halloween party weekend!

This month’s article is going to focus on the triceps muscles; the set of three muscles that run along the back of your upper arm. In well-developed arms, the muscles form a horseshoe that helps to show the definition of the three separate muscles of the upper arm. While men in particular tend to focus more on biceps as they are more the “show” muscles, it are the triceps muscles that help to give the arm it’s size. If you are having trouble growing your triceps, then consider breaking them out into their own workout, as triceps are the primary assistors with a chest workout (bench press, incline press, for example), it can be hard to then workout the triceps as hard as you need to if they have been assisting in your chest workout.

As with all exercises, strict form needs to be maintained. This is important because if you lift improperly, it is pretty easy to bring in the shoulders, back and chest into an arm workout, which essentially gets you nowhere with the triceps.

As you get ready to workout your arms/triceps, make sure you’ve warmed up properly. Again, this is important to make the muscles and connective tissue more pliable and able to adapt to the heavy load you are about to place on them. Do between 5 – 10 minutes on a stationary bike or treadmill or whatever gets your heart rate up between 65 – 75 % of your Heart Rate Max (HRM). Sometimes I find that the Precor cross-trainer with the moving arm handles are useful for getting the blood pumping to the arms.

In general once you have warmed up, you typically want to start of with the heaviest exercises first as these will recruit the most muscle fibers. Typically these exercises include heavy skull crushers, bench dips or close-grip bench press.

Skull Crushers
With skull crushers, using a straight or EZ-curl bar lay down on a decline bench. The bar starts directly over the shoulder joint. Now, working to keep the elbows in their starting position (over the shoulder), bend the elbows until the bar comes close to the hair line or forehead. Exhale as you straighten the forearms back to the starting position without locking the elbow joint out. If you want to make the exercise harder, start with the bar just a tad closer to the head, i.e., in line with the jaw, rather than the shoulder joint. This starting point does not allow you to rest between repetitions, thus keeping the triceps loaded for the entire set. Complete 3 – 5 sets of 8 – 12 repetitions. If you used a straight bar for this exercise, the next time you do triceps, use the EZ-curl bar; variety helps to keep the muscle fibers guessing and helps in their development.

Weighted Bench Dips
Another big muscle fiber recruiter is the bench dip. With this exercise you typically place a plate (or several) on your lap. Your hands go right next to your hips on the edge of a bench and then the feet are propped up on another bench. The distance of the other bench should generally be so you can comfortably place your heels (and not much else) on the other bench, legs are almost straight and when you bend the elbows and lower your hips towards the floor the hips are still close to the bench you were sitting on. Try to keep the entire shoulder girdle depressed; you want to maintain the weight on your triceps, not your shoulder joint.

With this exercise, like the skull crusher, I recommend with a spotter. You don’t want to get stuck in the down position with no way to get back up without tearing your shoulders out…. yeah, not such a fun day at the gym. Additionally, if you have a spotter, then you can do the exercise with several plates and rather than doing a static 10 – 15 repetitions, you can do 8 – 15 repetitions, strip a weight and repeat, several times if necessary. Continually lightening the weight produces a great pump in the arms.

Triceps Pushdown or Extension with Rope
For definition, the rope triceps pulldown or extension are great exercises. The former you stand upright, either using a back pad or free-standing, the latter your hips are pressed against the machine as you hinge away from the machine at your waist. With the pulldown, shoulder blades should be low on your back; do not crunch the shoulders into the neck to work with a heavier weight; you’re missing the point of the exercise. Start with the elbows right next to the ribs; forearms are slightly above parallel to the floor. As you contract and straighten the arms down towards the floor, press down and then rotate the wrists out towards the side at the end of the movement. It is this twisting motion that helps to recruit additional muscle fibers and hits more than one head in the triceps bunch.

Performing the overhead extension, face away from the cable machine. Press your hips into the machine as you hinge from the waist and the biceps are up next to the ears. Keeping the upper arms close together next to your head, straighten the arms away from the body. Remember to rotate the wrists out at the end of the movement. Additionally, the more you can bend at the waist (while keeping the back straight), the more stress you will put on the triceps muscles (in this instance a good thing). Both of these exercises can be done with a variety of handles and pullies for different leverages against the triceps muscles. Again, perform 3 – 4 sets or 8 – 10 repetitions.

Triceps Kickback
Another great exercise is the triceps kickback. Grabbing a moderately heavy weight, place your hand at one end of the bench, usually directly under your shoulder joint and the knee underneath the hip. Supporting your body weight with your hand and leg, try to keep the spine neutral, the more parallel to the ground the better and bring the arm with the weight up next to the ribcage. Simply extend the arm all the way out and control the weight back to its starting point. You can also rotate the wrist on this exercise varying the angle of stress on the muscle fibers.

As with most other body parts there are several other exercises to do and of course variations on each. Once you finished this routine, within 30 minutes try to have a low-sugar, high-protein supplement to replace your amino acid and glycogen stores and allow your arms to heal and grow.

The current research is also in dispute as to how much one should work the biceps and triceps. On one side is the belief that you hit the muscles as hard as you can as much as possible for 4, 5 or even six exercises; at 3 – 5 sets per exercise, that’s a long workout! Other research suggests that you only need about eight total sets, so only two maybe three exercises, claiming that anymore simply breaks down the muscle fibers too much. Whichever belief you subscribe to will depend a lot on genetics, diet and rest; the better they are, the more you can pound the weights. In general, if you are dedicated to your workout, hitting the body parts at least once, maybe twice a week for 6 to 12 weeks and notice no change, then you need to modify the program. However, this is a great starter program and can even jazz up a current program, so get ready to buy some snug short sleeve shirts!