Curing TTS (Tiny Triceps Syndrome)
Q: To build my triceps, should I lower the weight and do more reps, or increase weight and do fewer reps? I'm having a hard time getting them to grow.
A: I have a question for your question: Are you lifting more weight, for more reps than you were six months ago?
I'll get back to why that matters in a minute, but first know that when a muscle group is stagnant there could be a multiple reasons why. If you're a dedicated lifter, the biggest one would be genetics.
Maybe you're just not going to be as developed in some areas as you are in others. I've spent many training cycles working on my chest development, and even so it's just never going to be what I'd like it to be.
That said, to truly maximize a muscle or muscle group's development there are some things you've got to do to make it respectable. Here they are:
1 – Progressive Overload
If you're not forcing your body to adapt to a greater amount of stress, then it'll yawn and go "meh, this ain't shit." I know the general consensus among lifters is that volume drives hypertrophy, but doing a bunch of half-assed junk volume just to meet a requirement based on a study doesn't mean shit to your body.
Sure, volume has its place. But striving to do more reps with more weight is what's going to get you to grow. That means you're going to put a high degree of effort into the big movements that tax a significant amount of musculature.
When you look at the strongest bodybuilders, natural or enhanced, more times than not they're the guys pushing the biggest weights for reps. I've yet to see a guy that could close-grip bench press 405 for reps that had small triceps. I've yet to see a guy that could squat 500 for 20 reps that had small legs. That should tell you something.
So the first step is finding exercises with a high degree of potential for progressive overload, that you can do pain-free, through a full range of motion, on a consistent basis. A close grip or reverse-grip bench press or dips will have a much higher ceiling for loading than something like pushdowns or kickbacks.
Make those the foundation you're going to build your training around. If you go from close grip or reverse-grip bench pressing 225 x 8 to 275 x 8 in the next six months, your triceps will get bigger.
2 – Mind-Muscle Connection
Mind-muscle connection used to be something bodybuilders talked about often, and to some degree it was dismissed as bro-science.
But now we know the meatheads had it right all along, and there's been quite a few studies which validated that feeling the muscle work actually matters. Simply thinking about the muscle you're trying to build can increase the activation of that muscle during movement execution.
It's also been shown that loading plays a part too. What I call the "break-over point" is the point at which the load becomes too heavy for you to establish a strong mind-muscle connection. When that happens, the lift becomes more about moving the weight through space. You lose the increased activation in the target muscle as other muscle groups get more involved to move the weight.
From an intensity loading perspective, something in the range of 60-80% has been shown to be the most effective for maintaining a strong mind-muscle connection. That range also tends to be ideal for muscle growth (8-15 reps) all depending on the lifter and the exercise.
If you're having trouble establishing a mind-muscle connection then begin the workout with something that puts the muscle into a shortened position, and work isometrics (holding the contraction) to help with that. Try a pushdown variation. My favorite for this is the reverse-grip pushdown.
Make a concerted effort to roll your knuckles back towards your body and hold that for a 2-3 count for 3-4 sets.
3 – Frequency
It's probably a good idea to hit each muscle twice a week for better gene expression and to keep the hormonal production involved in hypertrophy elevated. More growth occurs when muscles are trained twice a week compared to once a week. But three times a week appears to have some diminishing returns compared to twice a week.
Also, don't forget that triceps are involved in all pressing variations. So if you're going to bench press, incline press, overhead press, etc. all in the same week then the tension used for those will get distributed to the triceps as well.
When you're prioritizing a muscle group, reduce volume or effort in the areas not being prioritized. Maintain them. After all, you've only got so much energy to give to a week, so make sure each workout is set up so the energy is spent on the main goal.
4 – Placement
Train the lagging muscle early in the workout and also in the week.
Generally, muscles that are hit early in the workout will get slightly better growth than the ones trained later in the workout. So, train your close-grip work, reverse-grip work, or dips early in the week and first thing in those workouts to give them more of a priority.
The chest and shoulders are still getting a great deal of work when you're doing close grips, reverse grips, and dips. You don't need to start freaking out over losing "gains" in those areas while you prioritize the triceps. You're just not giving them EXTRA attention right now while the triceps are the priority.
5 – Metabolic Stress and Tension
Getting stronger on some basic compound movements should be the foundation, but don't leave out higher-rep work that'll induce muscle growth by way of increased metabolites. And you'll need to take some sets to failure to really tap into that modality.
Also, stressing the muscle at different lengths for complete development is a really good idea. While it's impossible to isolate a particular area of a muscle from the rest of it, you can stress different sections of the muscle more than others by movement selection and execution.
The long head of the triceps will bear the brunt of the work in movements where the triceps are put into a full lengthened position – where there's significant shoulder flexion, like with overhead extensions, and PJR pullovers.
The long head of the triceps crosses over the shoulder joint, but the medial and short heads do not, making them slightly more difficult to isolate. So select movements that remove a bit of tension from the long head, and pick ones that shift it more towards the short and medial heads. Pushdowns and dips actually do a great job of that.
6 – Giant Sets and Supersets for Size
Some supersets and giant sets work well for inducing metabolic stress. I have three go-to's for metabolic stress, which stress the muscle at different lengths:
- Do tricep 30's: This is a skull crusher variation where I lower the bar to my nose for 10 reps, then to my forehead for 10 reps, then behind the head for 10 reps.
- Try this giant set: 12 reps of pushdowns, 12 reps of overhead extensions, and 12 reps of bench dips. Do them all back to back, and repeat.
- Or try this giant set: 12 cross-body cable extensions, 12 dips, 12 seated dumbbell French presses. Do them all back to back, and repeat.
Remember, you want to stress the muscle with enough effort and loading so that it's forced to grow, then allow for enough recovery to take place so that growth can happen.
Ask Yourself These Questions
- Am I training hard with enough effort?
- Am I getting stronger in the moderate to higher growth rep ranges (8-15)?
- Am I getting a strong mind-muscle connection with the load I'm using, movement selection, and execution?
- Am I training the muscle often enough, so that it's responding to the stress and recovery that induces growth?
- Am I creating metabolic stress as an addition to progressive overload to spur growth?
You don't have to nail all of these points to bring up a lagging muscle group, but doing so will speed up the process. And when you write out your plan so that all of these factors are covered, it actually won't look as complicated as you think.
Here's a sample of how you might hit triceps twice a week. It doesn't really matter which days you choose as long as they're separated reasonably well in the week.
|A||Reverse-Grip Pushdown: Activation||3||12|
|Turn the knuckles down and back. Use a 3-second hold at the bottom.|
|B||Close-Grip Bench Press: Progressive Overload||2-3||8-12|
|Start with a weight you can do for 8 reps. When you can do 12 reps with that weight, increase the loading so that you're back to 8 reps.|
|C||Cross-Body Cable Extension, Dip, Seated Dumbbell French Press: Giant Set||3||12/each|
|A||Reverse-Grip Pushdown: Activation||3||12|
|Turn the knuckles down and back. Use a 3-second hold at the bottom.|
|B||Reverse-Grip Bench Press: Progressive Overload||2-3||8-12|
|Start with a weight you can do for 8 reps. When you can do 12 reps with that weight, increase the weight so that you're back to 8 reps.|
|C||Tricep 30's (Skull Crusher): Metabolic Stress||2||30|
|Lower the bar to your nose for 10 reps, then forehead for 10 reps, then behind the head for 10 reps. That's one set.|
Fat Loss Without Accountability
Q: I want to eat better and exercise more. How do I flip the mental switch to make the right decisions when I'm alone and there's no accountability other than me? My mind is my worst enemy.
A: A friend of mine has a great quote about this: "Every meal is a short-term investment in how you feel and perform, a mid-term investment in how you look, and a long-term investment in your freedom from disease."
Sure, accountability is powerful. But ultimately it's within those times of freedom that reveal what we desire most. If someone is only faithful to their partner when their partner is around to keep them accountable, but cheats when they aren't, then that freedom is revealing a level of dysfunction – their inability to forgo fleeting gratification at the expense of a committed relationship.
People don't end up in amazing shape by accident. They end up there because they make decisions that are congruent with what they say they desire most. And they do this on a consistent basis. They're able to sacrifice the temporary pleasures for a determined greater good.
The person who looks great naked got there because of all the little decisions they made on a meal by meal, day by day, week by week, and month by month basis. This resulted in achieving a rocking bod.
They were able to repeatedly forgo the temporary pleasure they'd get from say, a plate of 18,456 calorie nachos, and in the long term it paid off. You believe your mind is your enemy but it can actually become your strongest weapon. It all depends on how you're mentally framing the things you need to do.
Instead of saying, "I can't eat 18,456 calorie nachos" say, "I choose to eat foods that will transform me into a sexy beast instead of nachos."
Instead of saying, "I really want to eat Oreos until I hate myself" say, "I'm choosing this healthy meal because I'm investing in my life, my goals, and myself."
Ultimately you have to decide if the juice is going to be worth the squeeze. There's a reason why not everyone can get single-digit lean. And it's not because they don't have some physiological problem standing in their way. It's because they too often accept the short-term pleasures that circumvent the long-term process needed for results.
Now there's no magic or instantaneous trick that'll make you suddenly disciplined. But there are some small things you can do, along with your internal reframing, that can make the process of avoiding junk food slightly easier.
- Cucumbers and tomatoes are a great "get me by" snack that are super-low in calories and can help tide you over between meals. If they keep you from getting hungry and splurging on office cookies, then that's a win.
- Carbonated diet drinks can help curb your appetite without any additional calories.
- If you're using protein shakes between meals or as part of meeting protein requirements, use a blender or NutriBullet and blend them longer than usual. This will froth them up with air which takes up more space in your stomach and can help to increase satiation.
- Examine your food selections and make note of how long you feel satiated after each meal. Some will satiate you longer than others. So if you notice that certain meals have short satiation times, then experiment with other food sources that tend to have a greater effect on satiation.
How To Know If You're Show Ready
Q: How do I know if I'm ready to do a bodybuilding show?
A: That's mostly a personal decision. First ask yourself why you're going to do one, and what purpose you think it'll serve. If you're just looking to do one to check it off a bucket list, then you can do that with literally no training, diet, or tanning. Just pay the entry fee, get on stage, and do your best with the mandatory poses.
If you actually want to do well and possibly win your class, then go to a show or spend some time looking into the winners of the novice class in the federation you want to compete in. If you aren't anywhere near their level of development, or the development of the top three, then you might want to spend some more time building your foundation of muscle first.
Then you have to get your mind around the dieting issue. A lot of guys struggle to get truly inside-out peeled because they're afraid of being small. Never mind the fact that when you're nasty shredded you actually appear larger than you are onstage. The guys who show up nasty peeled get the respect of everyone, whether they win or not.
Next, if you want to do really well, then you'll need to spend months and months making that the main priority of your life. That means if you have a significant other or family, they'll have to understand that you'll need to potentially pack food around with you, make more trips to the grocery store than ever before, train multiple times a day, and do posing practice. They'll have to be willing to put up with how grumpy you're going to be by the end (not everyone, but most).
This is why a lot of competitors date other competitors. Because people who don't compete can have trouble understanding all the time, effort, and emotion that go along with competing.
You need to be aware of all that before getting on stage. Because it does require sacrificing a lot of personal time, and it means you're going to have months where you feel like over-cooked death.
If all of that sounds really good, and you've spent time packing on some quality muscle mass, then by all means get after it.