Although we often roll our eyes when we see some vapid infomercial trainer talking about "sculpting" the abs, the analogy really does hold true when you're talking about the application of iron to triceps.
Hey, think about it: You've got three muscle heads to work with there. By bringing up the weak points you really can "sculpt" how your upper arm looks. You can make it bigger and more aesthetically appealing.
And that's what this series is all about: sculpting a symmetrical bodybuilder body. As an NPC bodybuilding judge, competitor, and medical professional, Dr. Clay Hyght is a darn good sculptor. Roll up those shirtsleeves and get your chisels ready!
Your Biceps' Big Brother
So far in this serious we've covered building a bodybuilder back and chest. Now that you know how to thicken up your torso by building symmetrical muscle in just the right places, let's move laterally and talk about building world-class arms, starting with the triceps.
Just as the barbell bench press gets far too much attention over the equally-worthy (if not more worthy) dumbbell bench press, the biceps seem to steal our attention away from their bigger brother, the triceps.
While they may not comprise two-thirds of the upper arm mass as many say, the triceps are certainly the largest muscle group in the upper arms. And whether you train for looks or function, the triceps are even more important than the biceps.
Let me explain.
From a performance aspect, the triceps are of utmost importance as they contribute greatly to your pressing ability, whether in the frontal plane as with a shoulder press or in the transverse plane as with a bench press.
Although it would be nice if we could isolate the chest and/or delts more with presses, there's simply no way to take the triceps out of these movements. In fact, at least one EMG study has shown that the triceps (and anterior delts) are actually more active than the pecs during the barbell bench press!
That would explain why another study showed that training triceps before chest significantly reduced the subjects' strength on the subsequent chest exercises. But you already knew to train chest before triceps, right?
From a cosmetic standpoint, the triceps are far more important than biceps to your looking studly when strutting around. Why? Because we walk around with our arms straight. This puts the biceps in an unimpressive stretched position and the triceps in a potentially impressive, semi-contracted position.
In competitive bodybuilding it's hard to get by without great triceps. They are, of course, critically important in the pose named after them: the side triceps pose. But they also give depth to the back of the arm in the side chest pose.
You'd think that the front and rear double biceps poses are all about the biceps, but in fact, the triceps are just as important in those poses. Have you ever seen someone hit a front double bi that has great biceps yet their arms don't "hang" down in the pose? It's almost as if the back of the arm is just flat – straight across at the bottom.
That's not something you want. Instead you want that full, hanging look that comes from having great triceps, specifically the long head of the triceps.
That brings me to one of the take-home messages of this article: You can alter the appearance of your triceps via your exercise selection. Most people simply do a couple of triceps exercises and go on their way. Even if you do select "bread and butter" exercises like close-grip benches and dips, you may not be positively affecting the appearance of your triceps.
As I overheard contest promoter John Lindsay telling a young competitor who vowed to come back to the USA next year 15 pounds bigger, "Bigger is not better. Better is better."
Anatomy of the Triceps Brachii
Just like a tricycle has three wheels, the muscle group we call the triceps is comprised of three heads: the lateral head, the medial head, and the long head.
As the name implies, the lateral head of the triceps is situated most laterally on the back of the humerus. It essentially forms the lateral aspect of the triceps "horseshoe."
Although it would make sense that the medial head of the triceps would be situated most medially of the three heads, this isn't the case. Instead, the medial head basically lies in between and deep to (under) the other heads of the triceps. Because of its orientation, this head of the triceps is largely not visible, although it certainly contributes to the overall mass of the triceps muscle.
That leaves us with the long head of the triceps, so named because it is, in fact, the longest of the triceps heads. The long head is longer because its origin is on the scapula as opposed to the humerus itself like the other two heads.
Now, I'm not trying to make you nod off by talking origins and insertions, but it's of physique-enhancement importance that the long-head of the triceps crosses the shoulder joint. More on why in just a moment.
What "Type" of Triceps Do You Have?
Although triceps come in as many shapes and sizes as there are people, I categorize them into four categories:
- Evenly developed and thick
- Evenly developed but lacking thickness
- Well-developed long head and thin lateral head
- Well-developed lateral head and shallow long head
If the lateral and medial aspect of your triceps horseshoe is proportionately developed, then the lateral and long heads of your triceps are, at least in terms of symmetry, good to go. If this is the case and your triceps have good overall mass and thickness, then the medial head of your triceps is also well developed – as in scenario #1 above – and you are a lucky bastard!
If the size and proportion your triceps horseshoe is good, yet your triceps lack overall depth and thickness, especially down by the elbow, then you fall into category #2 and need to maintain the visual symmetry of your triceps while thickening them up from the inside out. This is a fairly common scenario.
To remedy this problem, your focus should be on the medial head of the triceps. Since it lies under the other two triceps heads, it'll give more overall girth to your upper arm.
However, the reality is that you can't isolate the medial head! In fact, it seems that the medial and lateral head of the triceps almost always work as a team, with the medial head leading the way.
Although you can't selectively isolate and hypertrophy the medial head, you can strategically select exercises that take the long head out of the equation. Therefore, the stimulus and growth from that exercise will only be divided among two heads as opposed to three.
The close-grip bench press is a great option if you're looking to thicken up your triceps. Not only does this exercise not stimulate the long head well, but you can also use a lot of weight and get some spillover stimulation to your pecs.
Although not as "manly" an exercise, dumbbell kickbacks also hit the medial and lateral heads well while, for the most part, leaving the long head out of the movement.
Before moving on, it's worth noting that the oh-so-popular straight-bar pushdown doesn't seem to hit the medial triceps head very well. So if the back of your upper arm looks more like beef jerky than a slab of beef, leave this exercise alone, Cable Boy!
Now, this is less common, but it does occur. This occurs when the inside of your triceps horseshoe is nice and thick, yet the outer (lateral) aspect is rather thin. In this case it's your lateral triceps head that needs more attention.
As in the preceding scenario, the close-grip bench is a great compound exercise option, and the dumbbell kickback is a great option for an isolation exercise as they both hit the lateral triceps as well.
I know I poo-poo'd the straight-bar cable pushdown earlier, but it's actually a good option if you need to focus on the lateral head of your triceps.
By far the most common developmental problem that I see with the triceps is having good development of the lateral triceps while having poor development on the medial aspect and subsequently no "hang" to the arms in the double biceps poses. This is due to poor development of the long head.
After getting creamed in my first bodybuilding show at the age of 19, I decided to more closely evaluate my physique as I prepared for my next show. I soon noticed that when I did a front double biceps pose, my arms didn't "swoop down" on the bottom like the people in magazines. Instead mine were flat as a board on the bottom!
I realized that although I was doing a variety of triceps exercises, I wasn't hitting the long head of my triceps, the one responsible for giving that rounded look to the bottom of my flexed guns. Oddly, it's not hard at all to overlook exercises that really hit the long head well.
Recall that the long head crosses the shoulder joint whereas the other two triceps heads don't. When you raise your arm overhead, the long head of the triceps is stretched a bit, while the others aren't. Since more tension is already on the long head, it will subsequently end up doing more work, as if a bit of slack were in the other two heads.
So, by pre-stretching the long head of the triceps, more motor units in that muscle will be activated. This occurs because it's simply more mechanically advantageous to use a taut muscle than one with slack in it.
So although you may fry your triceps with close-grip benches and pushdowns, you're simply not going to tax the long head well until you implement an overhead movement like unilateral dumbbell extensions. This is my personal favorite when it comes to targeting the long head of the triceps.
On a bit of a side note, it's not just close-grip presses that don't hit all the triceps heads. Presses in general don't hit the long head well. In fact, during overhead presses the long head of the triceps is practically snoozing! That's all the more reason why former powerlifters will specifically need to target the long head to achieve even triceps development.
Now, back to what does hit the long head.
Ever noticed that your triceps have "mysteriously" gotten sore after a back workout? I'd be willing to bet that the back workout in question included a pullover variation and that it was specifically the long head that got sore. This happens because the long head is trying its best to be nice and help your lats pull that heavy-ass dumbbell or barbell back to the starting position.
You can take advantage of this by doing a bit of a hybrid pullover/skull crusher. Skull crushers with an EZ-bar already hit the long head pretty well, but if you further stretch the long head by lowering the bar behind your head as with a pullover, you'll really blast the long head and fill out that flat-ass posterior arm of yours.
Even though not overhead in nature, dips and pushdowns with an angled bar and/or rope also hit the long head pretty well. But as a general rule, the long head will help out on most exercises if the resistance is high enough. So I wouldn't count solely on heavy dips and pushdowns to beef it up.
I work with a lot of very advanced bodybuilders. For them, just one underdeveloped muscle can make the difference between first and tenth place. Do you need to be so meticulous with your training? Probably not.
But just remember, you can't do two or three triceps exercises and assume you've thoroughly and evenly stimulated your triceps. You must first assess your weakness, then select exercises that address that weakness.
Remember, assess then address!