Isolating the triceps in a compound movement that also involves the chest.

Truly isolating the triceps in a so-called "isolated" triceps movement.

Keeping the elbows, shoulder joints and surrounding muscles safe!


#1 Dips

I put dips first because they're the triceps equivalent of the squat – the big, basic movement. All heads of the tricep get worked and like any body-weight movement, there's no place to hide! If you only have time for one triceps exercise, this should be the exercise of choice! I admit to my bias here, however. I spent a few years during my teens with a set of gymnastic parallel bars outside my dormitory room, and they got visited religiously every day!

Because dips aren't an isolated triceps movement, you can vary the way you do them to increase the reliance on and development of the triceps, should this be your goal. The other primary muscle trained by dips is the chest. This isn't a bad thing, but if you're already doing chest movements, and if you're not doing many other triceps movements, you may want to give the triceps as much isolation as you can. This is how I do this:

Choose parallel bars (or use after-market modification devices) that are of a diameter where there's little overlap of your thumb on your fingers. You may notice that a fatter grip feels harder than a thinner grip.

Use a parallel dip bar that's parallel, not v-shaped.

Select parallel dip bars (or adjust them) so that they're just outside shoulder width, not too wide, but not too jammed up against your body, either.

The above two points will result in your arms traveling closer to your body which means a big stretch on the triceps. This also minimizes the work done by the chest which increases the role of the triceps. Be conscious about not allowing your elbows to flare out too much. Some outside movement is okay.

To further increase the isolation on the triceps, maintain a relatively vertical trunk angle.

To support this trunk angle, I use the following leg position: bend the legs until the lower legs are parallel to the ground; cross the legs at or just above the ankles; have the knees as far forward of the center of your body as your heels are back.

Keep your legs totally still and your trunk angle constant throughout the movement. Don't allow any body sway at all.

Come up the way you went down. Don't come back up like your body is a plane taking off! Make the triceps do the work; don't use some party-trick technique!

Go down until your shoulder joint is below the elbow joint.

Avoid lockout at the top, stopping just short of full extension.

Once you can do ten full-range dips at body weight, you need to get into external loading (add weight). I prefer to use a weight plate on a rope or chain, and then secure the plate between the legs to avoid swaying. If you don't control this swaying, you can damage the training effect.

Never take too big a jump in weight between sets. For example, I wouldn't exceed 10 pounds in my jumps.

Never use a load you can't handle with good form. There's a risk in this movement and until you've seen a sternum "pop out" or felt your ribs sublux you probably don't appreciate this! Don't go there!

No matter what speed you choose, always control the descent into the bottom. Going down too fast may mean your sternum stays down when you come back up (and I'm not joking! Unfortunately, I've seen something like this happen!)

This is one movement that responds well to all speeds, but don't ignore the power of the pause at the bottom.

Some of my favorite slow-speed combos are 814 and 1 and 1/3's. (Note: See the "Ian King Cheat Sheets" Part I and Part II if you aren't familiar with these techniques.)

The greater the loading, the greater the need for control during the lowering.

If using an explosive concentric (lifting) phase, don't allow your body position to change.

Most programs have dips toward the end of the chest workout or the end of the entire workout. Don't overlook the fun and potential of doing what I call a "prioritized dips program," where they're done first in the workout. You'll be impressed by how strong you can get in this movement from a program like this and yes, this increased strength will transfer to many of your major movements.

Some people, from a shoulder stability or injury-history perspective, shouldn't be doing dips at all. Make sure you're "safe" to do them!

Always warm up for dips using the following or similar:

A set of light triceps pressdowns.

A set of bench dips.

If going on to weighted dips, a few reps of body-weight dips.

As this is a bilateral movement (where you're using both arms at once), anyone with imbalances in strength or range in the arms or shoulders should use other movements until these issues are sorted out.

I like to use wrist wraps when doing dips to support the wrists and reduce the strain. My preference in these is to take a powerlifting knee wrap and cut it in half.

If the parallel bars don't have knurling, you may also want to use chalk on the hands.


#2 Close Grip Bench Press

The close grip bench press is a fantastic triceps movement. As with dips, this exercise also involves the chest so we need to look at how to maximize triceps involvement.

Make sure the bench is wide enough. If you have your shoulder blades hanging off the sides, then you lose a critical base of support. The standard bench width of 30cm suits most.

Make sure the racks are set high enough or are adjustable. At full extension in a close grip bench press, you run the risk of missing the top of the rack when going back to rack the bar. That would be very damaging! The closer the grip, the higher the racks are going to need to be.

If you want to isolate the triceps as much as you can, put the feet up in the air, bent at the knees and crossed over at the ankles. Grip the bar such that if your thumbs were extended out they could just touch each other.

If you want to maximize the loading, use the feet on the ground body position and grip the bar with your arms in line with your shoulders or just inside.

With a very close grip, use the thumbs-out position (where the thumbs aren't wrapped around the bar). This reduces the rotational strain at the wrist.

Use full range in the lowering. The bar should touch the chest.

I tend to avoid lockout at the top, stopping just short of full extension.

What you'll find with this movement is that there's a very distinct sticking point, and when your triceps get fatigued you'll struggle to get through this joint angle. The closer the grip, the lower this point may occur. You may be surprised at how vicious the muscle failure can become at this point when it comes – so don't be too adventurous at first and make sure your spotter's "switched on"!

Never use a load you can't handle with the technique you've decided to use. Make the last rep look like the first!

There's no value in benching movements if you aren't going to control lowering. Control down no matter what speed you use for the rest.

Like all bench movements, I use a pause nearly 100% of the time. The only question is, how long of a pause!

I use more slow and controlled movements with a very close grip. With the shoulder width grip I tend to go for loading and therefore use a more conventional speed like 311 or 211.

If you're using a very close grip, you won't be using too much loading. If it's a loading based program and you have other triceps movements in there, I'd sequence this toward the end.

If you're using the shoulder-width grip option and you're trying to go heavy, there should be times when this is the first exercise in the workout!

The close grip bench press isn't as harsh on the chest as are dips, but be sure to warm-up the elbow and be progressive in load selection. The closer the grip, the more strain on the elbows.

If you're doing close grip bench presses later in the workout there's less need for specific warm up sets, but if you're doing them first up in the workout be conscious of the need for warm-up sets.

Again, it's a bilateral movement, so anyone with imbalances in strength or range in the arms or shoulders should look elsewhere until these issues are sorted out.

I'd be reluctant to do close grip bench presses without wrist wraps such is the strain on the wrists.

As the loading gets up (or if the bar lacks knurling) I'd be using chalk here also.


#3 Bench Dips

I find this option valuable in certain situations, including:

Before you have the strength to do full, body-weight dips.

When you want to do dips, but your triceps/chest are too fatigued.

When you want or need to do high reps in the dips and you aren't capable of doing this with your full body weight.

Most reading this will probably fall into the second or third situation.

Find a bench. The height of the bench will only be an issue if you have long arms or can use a long range of motion. Most standard prone benches will do the trick; however, if you need, you can always go to a higher bench.

If you're going to put your feet up on another bench, you're obviously going to need a second bench or similar object.

Sit on one bench, placing your hands on either side of your body, palms down and at the edge of the bench. Have your fingers off the end of the bench and pointing forward.

If you're using a second bench, have your heels on the second bench.

Keep the body as close to the bench as you can (the bench you're supporting your hands on). Traveling further away from the bench increases stress on the shoulder joint.

Go down until your shoulder joint is below the elbow joint.

Avoiding lockout at the top isn't as much of an issue in bench dips as it is with full dips because your body is forward of your arm supports. Your triceps will be working hard even if the arms are fully extended.

The lowest level of difficulty option is to have your feet on the ground.

The next higher level of difficulty is to have your feet up, but on a lower block than your hands.

The next option is to have your feet on a bench the same height as the bench your hands are on.

The highest level is to add an external load by placing a weight plate or dumbbell on your waist. This can be added to any of the above.

No matter what speed you choose, always control the descent into the bottom.

Don't bounce out of the bottom position. A pause here is a good insurance of control.

One of my favorite slow speed combos is 814. 1 and 1/3's are an option but as the strain on the shoulder is greater in the bottom position, you'd want to have a healthy shoulder to be spending more time down there.

The greater the loading, the greater the need for control during the lowering.

If you're using this movement because you're too weak to dip your own body weight, you shouldn't be doing small muscle group prioritization, so this exercise will appear later in the workout.

If you're using this movement because your triceps are too fatigued to do the reps, then you're obviously doing this exercise lower down in the workout sequence. If you're using bench dips as a "back-off" set for parallel bar dips, even if the dips appear first in the workout, you're doing these after you've fatigued with parallel dips. So in most cases, this exercise won't appear high in your exercise sequence!

Some people, from a shoulder stability or injury-history perspective, shouldn't be doing bench dips at all. Just keep that in mind.

The stress in this movement is less on the sternum, more on the shoulder. However, I've seen the sterno-clavicular joint damaged in bench dips (admittedly with a very fragile person) but take care anyway and always warm-up!

Anyone with imbalances should do single limb movements to fix these problems before moving on to bilateral exercises like bench dips.

I'd use wrist wraps in this exercise.


#4 Lying Triceps Extension (Skull Crusher)

This is another great basic movement with a lot of history! It also warrants a lot of respect to safeguard the elbows as you'll read below! Now we're getting into isolated triceps exercises, so in theory there need be no discussion of how to isolate them. However, most people doing these so-called isolated arm exercises are still doing a compound movement that involves the muscles around the shoulder! So one of the main things I'm going to aim for is to teach you how to truly isolate the triceps in these movements.

My first choice is to use a straight bar. When you're no longer able to do this movement pain free, then you'll gravitate to the EZ-curl bar.

The fatter the bar the better. This isn't a truly high-load movement, so it's safe for me to say this.

Be conscious of the need for collars if the plates are sloppy on the bar. There's already enough strain on the elbows in this movement without adding sudden lateral load shift!

I put my feet up on the bench (knees bent) in this movement unless it's one of those rare times when I'm searching for load and want more stability with feet down.

Have the head just off the end of the bench so the axis of the head is about 45 degrees to the ground.

Start out with your grip at shoulder width. There'll be a time and a place in later programs to use the narrower grip and even the reverse grip (palm facing head), which is a fantastic option!

Start the movement with the upper arm "behind the vertical" i.e. at about 70 degrees. This keeps tension on the triceps from the outset.

Lower the bar to the forehead for now. Again, over time there'll be opportunities to exploit the variations – to the chin, to the neck, and so on.

With the head off the end of the bench, lower the bar to the forehead. You want no movement in the elbow at all and this will determine if your starting arm angle was suitable.

Return the bar to the starting angle without any forward or sideways movement of the elbow! The elbows should remain parallel throughout the movement!

Lower the bar all the way to the forehead. With the head off the end of the bench, this will mean more range.

With the return to the "behind the vertical" start position, you should feel tension on your triceps at all times!

I can't stress this enough on this movement: be conservative initially and progress in small jumps from there! There's a very good reason some call this exercise the "elbow fucker." If you err in judgment, you run the risk of aggravating your elbows and the soft tissue that runs over it. Some call this tennis elbow. I don't care what you call it, I can tell you it takes a long time to heal! So don't bring it on!

Never use a load that you can't handle with good form – elbows in and constant distance apart!

Since you're bringing a weighted object in contact with your forehead, I see control as a prudent option!

This isn't a movement that provides a lot of options in speed. It's more a matter of how slow the lowering should be and how long the pause should be. In the lifting phase, only conservative attempts to accelerate are available unless you don't respect elbow position. Remember, if the elbows move, you've worked more muscle around the shoulder than is appropriate for isolation.

Because this isn't really a wise option for maximum loading, I'd rarely do this movement early in the workout sequence, unless you were only doing arms and if your other triceps movements had even less load potential.

Elbows! Be kind to them! Warm up appropriately, control the movement and be sensible in load selection!

Once again, this is a bilateral movement so anyone with imbalances in strength or range in the triceps should look elsewhere until these issues are sorted out. (I'll go over some unilateral movements further down.)

Even though the compression forces are less in this exercise than the earlier ones, I still choose to use wrist wraps.

Also, as the loading gets up or if the bar is lacking in knurling, you may want to apply chalk to the hands.


#5 Standing Triceps Extension

This is my second favorite way to do barbell triceps extensions! Whilst the movement is the same, the position of the upper arm relative to the trunk is significantly different. There's something very unique about doing triceps exercises in the "arm above head" position! Some suggest that it's only in this position that you get to truly stretch and recruit the long head of the triceps.

Again my first choice is to use a straight bar. However, I'll switch to an EZ bar earlier in the training career with this movement, as compared to the lying triceps extension. When you're no longer able to do this movement pain free, then you'll gravitate to the EZ bar!

Use collars.

I also recommend you work in front of a mirror to receive feedback about the elbow position.

One of the greatest challenges with this movement is to get both hands up over the head so that upper arm is vertical, and then to keep the elbow still and in during the movement. To help accomplish this, one technique I use is to unlock at the knees and lean back slightly on a low, stable object such as a seated preacher bench so your bum is resting against the support object. This frees the mind to focus on keeping the upper arms up, back, and still.

Start out with your grip at shoulder width. A narrower grip or reverse grip (palms facing head) is an option you can use later on.

Start the movement with the upper arm completely vertical. This in itself can be a challenge!

Keep the elbows in and still during the movement. The elbows may drift apart a little, but keep this to a minimum.

Lower the bar as far down as your range allows, ideally until you feel your hands on your upper back! But don't do this at the expense of the elbow drifting forward!

This is one movement that I say come up to full extension, because provided your arms are kept high and back at the top, you're already in a stretch in the triceps!

If you go too high in loading for your ability, you won't be able to maintain the strict technique I've recommended. Remember, these are more isolated movements than true loaded movements, so do them well for what they offer!

This is another movement with few options in speed. It's more a matter of how slow the lowering should be and how long the pause should be. In the lifting phase, only conservative attempts to accelerate are available unless you don't respect elbow position. Again, if the elbows move, you've worked more muscle around the shoulder than is appropriate for isolation.

This isn't really a wise option for maximum loading. I'd rarely do this movement early in the workout sequence unless you were only doing arms. Depending upon your strength and movement background, you may find this movement a weaker position than the lying tricep extension.

The stress on the elbows may be less in this movement than the lying triceps extension, but it still warrants respect with regard to elbow safety!

If you have an imbalance in range or strength, skip this one and start with a single arm movement.

Again, even though the compression forces are less in this exercise than the earlier ones, I still chose to use wrist wraps. As this exercise is standing, some may even want to wear a weight belt, but only if you're reliant on it. Otherwise you shouldn't need it.


#6 Triceps Pressdowns

These are my third favorite way to do triceps extensions! Again the movement is the same, but the position of the upper arm (by the side of the body) relative to the trunk is different. Technically easier to master, triceps pressdowns still have the challenge of maintaining them as an isolated exercise!

As in the above, my first choice is to use a straight but short bar. If need be, the lat pulldown bar will work.

Make sure the cable has no fraying in it, especially where it joins the arm piece. This could lead to facial or eye injuries.

For me, the base position is to grip with a prone (palms down) grip, hands shoulder width apart. To handle more loading, I move to a narrower grip, and to provide excellent variation I use a reverse (palm facing up) grip.

I choose a feet parallel, shoulder width stance for this movement. My concern with a split stance (one foot in front of the other) is the chance that it may lead to placing more work through one arm than the other. This concern is also faced when you place your head on one side or the other of the cable. So I prefer to keep my head with the cable central to my face.

Body lean is an option. In a program where my focus is on isolation, I keep upright. In a program with focus on loading, I may have some forward lean. In this case, my shoulders are vertically ahead of my toes with my knees slightly bent. Just don't overdo the body lean and don't change the body position during the movement!

The elbows are to be placed beside the body and are not to move at all during the movement. That means at the top of the movement you're going to have to avoid full range or else your elbows will move forward.

The definition of "elbows beside the body" will be influenced by trunk lean. When using an upright trunk they can be truly beside the body. When using more forward trunk lean, they're going to be slightly forward of central.

Press the bar as far down as your range. If you feel the need to allow the elbows forward to complete the extension, that's okay as long as they come back immediately upon lowering the plates and don't come forward again!

At the top of the movement you're going to have to avoid full range or else your elbows will move forward. So limit the degree of flexion.

If you go too high in loading for your ability, you'll find yourself changing the movement up by doing things like leaning into it more, allowing the elbows to move, etc. Make your mind up from the start as to what technique you're going to use, select a conservative load, and stick to the game plan! There's always the next set or the next workout if you want to use more load!

Again, I don't see too many options in speed. Remember, if the elbows move you've worked more muscle around the shoulder than is appropriate for isolation.

Sequencing of this Exercise

I'd rarely do this movement early in the workout sequence.

Elbows aren't as big an issue as with the above two movements, but still need respect. Warm up and be smart about your load selection.

This is yet another bilateral movement, so if you feel you have an imbalance in strength or range, choose a one arm movement instead, then later move on to this and other bilateral exercises.

Wrist wraps can be used here.


#7 Bent Over Rope Kickbacks

This variation of elbow extension completes the body positions for my bilateral tricep movement preferences.

Use a low pulley or an adjustable pulley set about a foot off the ground.

The other thing you'll need here is a rope arm piece, which is simply a two to three foot piece of rope through a ring on the end of the cable. You could do the same with a towel if you don't have the special rope fitting.

The fatter the rope the better, as long as you can still hold it without losing your grip!

Face the machine and bend forward. Have the knees slightly bent and the trunk flexed so that the upper body is just above parallel to the ground.

Place the upper arms beside the body with the elbow just behind the body.

Position your body relative to the weight stack such that when the arms are flexed forward, the plates aren't touching.

Grip with a neutral grip (palms facing in).

Extend the lower arms to full extension.

Keep the elbows still.

In the lowering phase, allow the lower arms to come forward to the point just before the elbows start to move.

This isn't a strong movement, but it doesn't put a huge stress on the elbows either. Maybe that's why!

Just make sure you can perform the range described above without the elbows moving and you getting to full extension. As you'll find, getting to full extension when fatigued may be a greater challenge than you anticipated!

Again, I don't see too many options in speed. If the elbows move, you aren't fully isolating the triceps!

Once again, I'd rarely do this movement early in the workout sequence, unless I were only working arms.

Not many issues to be concerned about here!

I use wrist wraps in virtually all pushing movements, so of course I'd use them here, but it isn't a necessity. As this exercise is performed in full flexion, some may want to wear a weight belt, but only if you're reliant on it. Otherwise you shouldn't need it.


#8 Dumbbell Triceps Extension

This is the first variation in this list that has unilateral movement potential. It's also my favorite one-armed triceps exercise! I say "potential" because if you do both hands at the same time, you lose the true nature of unilateral exercise.

You're going to need a dumbbell (bet you knew that!) and a bench because my favorite body position is the seated option. I also encourage the use of a mirror to keep the elbow "honest"!

Sit on the bench, facing the mirror.

Lift one arm up over the head, holding the dumbbell in the hand with the little finger facing the mirror.

Also have the elbow pointing at the mirror, even if it means rotating the trunk slightly to allow this.

I want the arm as vertical as you can get it!

Keep the elbow in and still. The elbow is to point to the mirror at all times during the movement.

Lower the dumbbell as far down as your range allows, ideally until you feel the dumbbell on your upper back! But don't do this at the expense of the elbow drifting forward!

Avoid full extension, stopping just before this point.

If you go too high in loading for your ability, you won't be able to maintain the strict technique I've recommended. Remember, these are more isolated movements than true loaded movements so do them well for what they offer!

Because this is a unilateral movement (one arm at a time), start with the weak side and note the load used and reps achieved. Don't do any more reps for your strong side than you can get for your weak side (my weak side rule.)

This exercise is a fantastic one for doing a strip set!

This is another movement with few options in speed. It's more a matter of how slow the lowering should be and how long the pause should be. In the lifting phase, only conservative attempts to accelerate are available unless you don't respect elbow position.

Again, as this isn't really a wise option for maximum loading, I'd rarely do this movement early in the workout sequence, unless you were only doing arms.

Nothing major.

Yep, I still like wrist wraps for this one.


#9 Single Arm Pressdowns

This is my second favorite unilateral tricep movement.

Ideally I want a specially made single arm piece for a cable. Most gyms have one; they look like a horseshoe with a handle joining up the ends.

Make sure the cable has no fraying in it, especially where it joins the arm piece. This could lead to a nasty injury if it snaps.

Because loading is less of a focus in this movement, my favorite arm position is supine (palms up), but you have options including prone (palms down) and neutral (palms in).

I choose a parallel, shoulder width stance for this movement. Again, avoid the split stance.

Keep reasonably upright.

The elbows are to be placed beside the body and not to move at all during the exercise. That means at the top of the movement you're going to have to avoid full range or else your elbows will move forward.

Keep the wrist neutral at all times, i.e. hand in line with lower arm.

Extend the arm piece down as far down as possible. If you feel the need to allow the elbows forward to complete the extension, that's okay as long as they come back immediately upon lowering the plates and don't come forward again!

At the top of the movement you're going to have to avoid full range or else your elbows will move forward, so limit the degree of flexion.

You aren't going to need to use too much weight on this option! You'll get a surprise as the set progresses as to how much your triceps fade! If you can't get the same degree of extension you started with, that rep doesn't count and you should terminate the set!

Not many options in speed with this one either.

This is another exercise where I'd rarely do this movement early in the workout sequence.

Warm up and be smart about your load selection.

Don't let go of the arm grip from a low position, as it could come up and hit you. (Then again, if you didn't already know that, then maybe you deserve to get bashed!)

Apply my weak side rule!

Wrist wraps!


#10 Dumbbell Triceps Kickbacks

This movement cops a lot of flack by self-labeled strongmen, but in the reality of general strength training, it has its place and is a fantastic option!

A prone bench, a dumbbell, and a mirror!

Place one knee on the bench and the hand from the same side leans on the bench. The other arm is the workout arm.

Bend forward so that the upper body/trunk is parallel or just above parallel to the ground.

Take the arm up until the elbow is just higher than the shoulder. This relationship shouldn't change during the movement. Also, the elbow is not to move during the movement.

Grip the dumbbell with a neutral grip (palm facing in).

Extend the lower arm to full extension. Do this without the elbow moving.

Remember, this finishing position should be slightly higher than parallel to the ground.

Keep the elbows still.

In the lowering, allow the lower arm to come down until it's vertical; that's the end of the movement. Don't take the elbow into an acute angle; otherwise it turns into a biceps flexion exercise!

This isn't a strong movement, so take it easy. You can always slow the movement down further or increase the pause and squeeze at the end of extension should you feel you used too light a weight!

Just make sure you can perform the range described above with you getting to full extension without the elbow moving. As you'll find, getting to full extension when fatigued may be a greater challenge than you anticipated! Yes, I know, it'll be humbling to be seen struggling to complete extensions with such a light weight on such a "sissy" movement! Get over it! Do what's best long term, not what looks impressive to observers in the gym!

Not many options in speed. Again, if the elbows move, you've worked more muscle around the shoulder than is appropriate for isolation.

Chances are, this exercise will be used toward the end of the workout.

Not many issues to be concerned about here! Hurt pride maybe, and perhaps the discomfort of swallowing humility!

I use wrist wraps in virtually all pushing movements, so of course I'd use them here. Not a necessity though.


Conclusion

That should give you some new choices for triceps training the next time you go to the gym. Or, if you already knew all of those exercises, perhaps now you'll know how to perform them optimally!