Back around the same time Kurt Cobain sang about mulattos, albinos, and mosquitoes, I worked as a full-time "fitness assessor" for a major health club chain.
Given I was young, bored, and burning out faster than Kurt's short-lived career, I eventually started to give all the raw beginners similar programs. The triceps workouts in particular were always the same: triceps pressdowns, 3 sets of 10-12 reps. And bizarrely enough, it seemed to work — for about three weeks, which is about as long as my tenure in that job lasted before I moved onto other things.
Trouble is, I'd often run into some of the folks I assessed months, even years later, and it never failed to amaze me how many of them would say, "I just love that program. I'm still doing it! Can ya tell?"
Uhh, yeah I can. I've seen bigger arms on a lawn chair.
Coach Nick Tumminello knows a thing or two about cooking up creative, effective workouts that will blast you out of a training rut, fast. Next arm day, give a couple of these bad boys a try. And don't worry, you can always come back to your favorite 3 sets of 10 routine.
In the first installment of the Unconventional Workouts article series, I presented you with a few out-of-the-box workouts to get even the most stubborn set of biceps on the path to new growth. In this installment, the gun show continues as we target the often-neglected (and underdeveloped) triceps with some unconventional sleeve-splitting stimulation.
Why Train Triceps?
If you're a power lifter, you already know that strong triceps help you to lock out the elbows on the bench press. So, big benches require strong triceps. We all clear on that? Good.
If you're a bodybuilder, you've probably heard that the triceps comprise the lion's share of upper arm mass. And, as a God-fearing mirror-trainer, you likely understand the importance of including isolation work in order to achieve full, well-balanced triceps. So if you want huge arms that every little Hulkamaniac will envy, you must include some isolated triceps work. No arguments from anyone yet, right?
But as far as athletes are concerned, many strength coaches don't believe in doing isolation or single-joint work. These coaches eschew almost any form of isolation training at all, justifying their ideologies with phrases like "train movements, not muscles".
While it makes for a clever catch phrase, I don't think it makes any damn sense, because what creates movement? The muscles! So, if muscles create movement, then all muscle training, isolation or otherwise, is movement training.
Furthermore, if the triceps aren't a "functional" muscle, how come folks dealing with a torn triceps often can't do anything even remotely athletic?
The truth is, there are no major or minor muscles in the body; there are only muscles, and every last one of them is just as important as the other. I'm not saying athletes need to have a "triceps day", but some isolation triceps work at the end of an upper-body workout can only help improve performance and prevent injury.
Got Dips? Or Not Dips?
One of the most popular triceps exercises of all time is the triceps dip. Although I don't think a few dips here and there is going to kill you, as a rule I'm not a big fan. The optimal end-range of shoulder extension is around 60-70 degrees, but in the bottom position of a triceps dips, extension can far exceed this "healthy" range. Considering the loads used in a triceps dip are generally high (at least bodyweight), this can be a recipe for injury. Plus, dips can cause a lot of unwanted stress on the biceps tendon and anterior shoulder musculature.
Bottom line, if training longevity is the goal, why do dips when you can get similar triceps activation without the unwanted stress by using exercises like triceps rope extensions and skull-crushers?
A New Angle On Triceps Work!
In my first article ever published at T NATION, I took some complex physics principles and applied them in a simple manner to improve muscle recruitment and minimize joint stress when performing triceps rope pressdowns.
Then, in the Unconventional biceps article, I explained how you can (and should) change the load vectors to get a better-rounded workout and increase overall muscle development.
In the following triceps workouts, I'll apply both sets of principles.
Here are three of my favorite unconventional triceps workouts. You can rest assured that these workouts are all versatile enough that anyone, regardless of equipment or special limitations can apply them.
Triceps Workout #1
This workout is based on changing the force vector to maximally load the triceps from different angles with each exercise.
We'll start with an exercise that maximally loads the triceps from the fully contracted (shortened) position. We'll then load the triceps at the midrange, before finishing with an exercise that loads the triceps from more of a lengthened position.
1 Low Pulley Triceps Extension 2-3 sets x 8-12 reps, 60 seconds rest.
2 Prone Skull Crusher 2-3 sets x 8-12 reps, 60 seconds rest.
3 High Cable Extension w/posterior cable vector 2-3 sets x 8-12 reps, 60 seconds rest.
Note on Low Pulley Triceps extension: To maximize triceps contraction, isometrically drive the bar into your thighs for 1-2 seconds at the end of each rep.
Notes on Prone Skull Crusher: This is a great bodyweight exercise that's a real triceps killer. Be sure to keep the spine straight (tight core) throughout the movement. To increase difficulty, place your hands closer to the ground using a small plyo box or step platform.
Triceps Workout #2
As with the 60/30 biceps workout, the 60/30 triceps workout is one of my favorite ways to trash the triceps and pump up the arms more than Donald Trump's ego.
Grab a heavy-duty band; tie it up at the top of a squat rack or cable column. Try to bang out 60 triceps extensions in 30 seconds without using too much extra body English.
I use a heavy band because it allows you to move fast without gaining momentum. I recommend using a 1/2-inch band for weaker (beginner) individuals and a 1-inch or larger band for the stronger folks.
Perform 60 reps in 30 seconds x 2- 4 sets, with 1-2 minutes rest.
If you can't complete all 60 reps in the given time frame of 30 seconds, the band is too heavy.
Triceps Workout #3
I have to admit, I love bodyweight training. How can you not like that you can get super strong anywhere, anytime, with zero equipment?
This workout involves one exercise, the Reverse Skull crusher. It's a three-tier drop set that shortens the lever arm each time, providing you with a greater mechanical advantage, so that you can continue to crank out reps.
Perform as many reps as possible with your feet elevated on a bench. Once you only have about two reps left in the tank, drop your feet to the floor (this shortens the lever arm). Continue to bang out as many reps as you can until once again you reach the two reps left point. Finally, place your hands on top of the bench, further shortening the lever arm, and burn out as many reps as possible. Now, stand back and watch your arms inflate!
Basically, as you fatigue in this drop set, you shorten the lever arm and make the exercise easier, thereby allowing you to continue cranking out more reps.
Perform 2 sets with 2-3 minutes rest in between.
Triceps Workout #4 — The Iron Arms Challenge!
I know I promised three workouts but I always try to deliver BIG! So, for your triceps training pleasure, here's another killer workout for you to try.
This is my other favorite triceps protocol, along with the 60/30 workout. The Iron Arms Challenge is also of the most popular strength challenges among my athletes.
My male athletes perform it from the floor (as shown in the video). My female athletes usually perform it on top of a bench, although I do have some girls who can do it from the floor.
You're going to need a medicine ball for this one.
4-10 x 1-Arm Lock-offs (each arm)
4-10 x Crossovers (5 each side)
4-10 x Close Grip Push Ups
4-10 x Drop and Returns (minimal ground contact time)
To successfully complete the Iron Arms Challenge, you must finish the entire sequence, 10 reps of each exercise (all four exercises), without ever dropping to a knee.
Most elite athletes can't get through this protocol using five reps each exercise, much less 10, without putting a knee down for at least the first one or two weeks. After a few weeks, I've had athletes repeat multiple sets of this protocol with little to no rest. If you can do that, you, my friend, have Iron Arms!
For a killer triceps workout, Perform 1-3 sets with 3-5 minutes rest between sets.
Note: Yes, this protocol will also hit your chest and shoulders because it involves push-ups, but it's always the triceps that seem to feel the most soreness the next day. So, this workout makes a great finisher for an upper-body pushing workout.
Putting It All Together
You might have noticed that some of these workouts are almost mirror images of the workouts featured in the previous biceps article. That's because often the principles that work for stubborn biceps will work for stalled triceps.
So why change a winning formula? You can build a killer overall arm workout by combining both workouts and hitting it super set style.
For example, Unconventional Biceps workout #1 can go with Unconventional Triceps workout #1, and Unconventional Biceps workout #2 can go with Unconventional Triceps workout #2.
If you're interested in just adding the above triceps workouts into your existing training program, here's a sample three times-a-week triceps blast combined with the classic Push/Pull/Quad Dominant/Hamstring Dominant workout.
Mon: Upper Body (Vertical Push/Pull) + Triceps workout #1
Tue: Lower Body (Quad dominant)
Thu: Upper Body (Horizontal Push/Pull) + Triceps workout #3
Sat: Lower Body (Hamstring dominant) + Triceps workout #2
Or, you can just throw any of these workouts onto the end of an upper body workout or perform them as a stand-alone workout.
There you have it guys! I'm about ready to change my name to Fed-Ex because once again, I've delivered the goods!
Remember, anyone can do three sets of ten on a triceps pressdown and call it a day. With a little physiology combined with some ingenuity, you can start challenging your triceps in a completely different way.
Get back on the right side of the adaptation curve and give these unconventional workouts a try!