I'd wager that if you chatted with 100 lifters over the age of 30 with more than five years of strength training experience, they'd tell you that their triceps exercise selection has increasingly diminished with each passing year.
It's sad and disturbing, but not unexpected.
Barbell and dumbbell triceps extension variations can kill the underside of the elbows.
Dips can irritate the medial aspect of the elbow in the bottom position, or just bother the AC joint at the shoulder girdle.
Eventually, all the hapless lifter is left with are bench and overhead pressing variations and pressdowns, and pink dumbbell kickbacks.
Can you build big triceps with just these exercises? Apart from the kickbacks, absolutely. Does it give you the kind of variety that makes training fun? Not really.
More importantly, it's a sign that you're just ignoring something that's wrong.
Here's what it'll take to get your triceps training back on track.
Triceps Functional Anatomy
Most folks just recognize the triceps as the muscles that extend the elbow, and while this is true, it overlooks a key part of their anatomy: the long head of the triceps crosses the shoulder to attach on the supraglenoid tubercle of the scapula. It assists the more powerful latissimus dorsi in extending the shoulder.
In other words, to take the long head of the triceps through its full range of motion, you need full elbow flexion and shoulder flexion simultaneously. I don't know how many of you do a lot of this throughout the day, but I certainly don't.
Truth be told, I'm not convinced that it's really just a tissue length issue. Sure, when muscles hypertrophy (grow), they tend to do so in a shortened state.
However, it's rare that you'll come across a lifter that can't get their upper extremity into the position above, even though it requires great lat length and some thoracic spine mobility.
Moreover, I've seen a lot of pitchers present with posterior shoulder, triceps, and posterior elbow irritation when they had a ton of congenital laxity (loose joints) that allow them to get to this position extremely easily.
So what gives?
The answer (for me, at least) is one of tissue density/soft tissue quality. In the past, I've called the elbow the most "claustrophic" joint in the body; though it's a relatively small joint, there are actually more muscles/tendons crossing it than you see in the knee.
Add in ligamentous structures, nerves, blood supply, and fascia, and things can get really "gross" in there. In other words, lots of structures create friction against one another, particularly where the tendons attach to bones and transmit force.
You can easily palpate dense, nasty, fibrotic tissue at the medial epicondyle, lateral epicondyle, anterior elbow (biceps attachment point), and – most specific to the triceps – posterior elbow.
The problems don't end there. Follow the long head of the triceps up to the posterior shoulder and you'll see that it comes together in a small area that involves the posterior rotator cuff, lat, teres major, posterior deltoid, and various ligamentous structures. It's like a double whammy.
Imagine tissues that everyone wants to make bigger and use all the time (especially in the shortened position), yet they never get fully stretched, and don't really get any foam rolling love, either.
That friends, is the triceps.
What To Do
If you're someone who has dealt with some annoying issues on this front, you're in luck, as I've got a four-part plan to get you back on track.
Step 1: Manual Therapy
If you've read any of my work in the past, you know that I'm a big advocate of regular manual therapy. Regardless of the chosen modality – an instrument-assisted version or just one's hands – anyone who trains hard needs to get regular treatments with a qualified professional. Certainly, cleaning up triceps tissue quality is no exception.
In the video below, Cressey Performance massage therapist Chris Howard treats the posterior elbow (distal attachment point of the triceps) and posterior shoulder (proximal attachment point) using the Fibroblaster.
You'll notice that the area reddens up pretty quickly, and may bruise up in the days that follow. Some folks (the more advanced cases) will also benefit from some work all along the muscle bellies, too. Check out the video below.
Step 2: Self Myofascial Release
You have to get a little creative to loosen up this tissue yourself, but it can be done with the help of The Stick and a functional trainer. Simply set the tops of the machine's arms up at chest height, and then work along the length of the muscle. Check out the video below.
You can also do this using the J-pegs in a power rack, though in my experience it doesn't work quite as well:
Step 3: Getting Length
There are countless drills you can try to build some length in the long head of the triceps (really anything with overhead reaching). That said, the bench t-spine mobilization is definitely my favorite because it gives a great triceps and lat stretch while building some thoracic spine extension mobility, anterior core stability, and deep neck flexor recruitment simultaneously.
The key coaching points here are:
- Make sure you're in full elbow flexion in the bottom position.
- Make a double chin so that you don't drift into forward head posture.
- As you rock back, brace the anterior core and focus on extending through the upper back and flexing through the shoulders, rather than just arching the lower back.
Step 4: Build Stiffness
Once we've established some range of motion (ROM), we need to solidify that improvement by establishing stability at adjacent joints. One thing you'll usually see in folks with triceps issues is a big anterior pelvic tilt and lumbar lordosis.
The shortness of the long head of the triceps goes hand-in-hand with the same issue with the lats, which pulls folks into a "gross extension" pattern. When they try to go into full shoulder flexion, they'll substitute forward head posture and lumbar extension (lower back arching). The video below shows what that looks like:
I like two separate exercises following the bench t-spine mobilization in your warm-ups.
1 – Forearm wall slides at 135 degrees abduction.
Brace the core, activate the glutes, and keep the chin tucked to create a neutral cervical spine posture. The arms should go up to 135 degrees of abduction (imagine your body and arms forming a "Y").
When you get to the top position, gently posteriorly tilt and retract the scapulae, and you'll find that the hands come off the wall slightly:
2 – Back-to-wall shoulder flexion.
This is a great exercise I learned from physical therapist Eric Schoenberg. Set up with your back against a wall and arms at your side. Posteriorly tilt the pelvis slightly so that the back flattens out against the wall, and your arch (which is probably excessive, anyway) disappears.
Next, slowly raise your arms while maintaining that pelvic and lumbar spine position. If the arch disappears at any point, stop the flexion and go back down. Gradually work to get to the point that you can get the hands all the way to the wall without bending the elbows. See the video below.
There are two important notes. First, if you're already someone with a really flat-back posture, you can skip it. Second, if you've got a big butt, you'll have to walk your feet farther away from the wall at the start.
Following these additions to your warm-ups, make sure to include some full ROM triceps exercises from a variety of positions. Obviously, overhead triceps extensions are good choices, and can be performed seated or standing. I also like TRX Fallout extensions, as in the video below.
Finally, make sure that at the end of your strength training session, you throw in some easy overhead triceps static stretches. One set for thirty seconds per side should get the job done just for preventive maintenance.
Everyone wants to move big weights and get big guns, but not everyone appreciates just how important arm care is in the big picture. Try these quick and easy strategies – your triceps, elbows, and shoulders will thank you.