Thursday, August 11, 2011

SuppVersity EMG Series - M. Triceps Brachii: The Best Exercises to Get That Horseshoe Look on Your Triceps

Image 1: The m. triceps brachii. As if you did not
know where to find your "horseshoes" ;-)
After last week's issue on leg training, devoting a whole issue of the SuppVersity EMG Series to a three headed muscle of your upper arm appears kind of unthrifty... well, maybe we should say "extravagant" and thus acknowledge that a well-built triceps unquestionably contributes to the muscular, athletic look most trainees are trying to achieve - especially if you are wearing one of those short-sleeved business shirts and complement them with appropriately muscled forearms ;-) As its name already implies the triceps consists of three heads,
  • the long head, caput longum, which arises from the infraglenoid tubercle of the scapula and extends distally anterior to the teres minor and posterior to the teres major, and
  • the two short heads, of which the caput mediale and the caput laterale which run along the rear side of the humerus.
Being the antagonist of the m. biceps brachii, the triceps functions to extend the arm and to stabilize the elbow joint when the forearm and hand have to be held steady to perform independent movements. Moreover, the long head which is the only one that originates from the scapula, also acts on the shoulder joint and is also involved in retroversion and adduction of the arm.
Navigate the SuppVersity EMG Series - Click on the desired body part to see the optimal exercises.
Its effect on the overall appearance of your sleeves aside, triceps strength (not looks, guys!) is a major factor in many sports such as basketball, boxing, gymnastics, tennis, etc. but I guess those of you who are into athletics will know that, anyway so that we can, without further delay, get into the meat and potatoes of EMG optimized triceps-training. Here they are, the most effective exercises for the m. triceps brachii, as measured by electromyography (10 male resistance-trained subjects, mean age 22y, mean body-fat 13%; data from Boeckh-Behrens & Buskies. 2000)...
I. Exercises With Standard Equipment for the m. triceps brachii 

As mentioned time and again in the previous installments of this series the idea of training a muscle in isolation, or, in case of the triceps, even training individual heads of a muscle without activation of its other parts is futile. Nevertheless, it is possible to put the focus on a certain part of the muscle and this is, i.e. shifting focus vs. isolating specific muscle strands, is also how I want you to understand the following exercise top 5 for the lateral head and the long head of the m. triceps brachii.
Note: If you are missing a specific list for the caput mediale, i.e. the medial head of the triceps, I suggest you have another look at the triceps anatomy in image 2. Situated right beneath the caput laterale, the EMG activity of the caput mediale will inevitable be recorded, as well, when you place one of the EMG electrodes on the skin right above the caput laterale.
Image 2: Triceps anatomy (image from
    ... for the lateral part (+medial head)
  1. Cable push-downs, straight or bend bar
  2. SZ-bar triceps extensions, lying on the bench
  3. Guillotine presses, shoulder wide grip
  4. DB kickbacks, torso horizontal on bench
  5. DB extension, single arm, behind the head
    ... for the long head 
  1. DB Kickbacks, incline bench + retroversion
  2. BB Neck presses
  3. DB kickbacks, torso horizontal on bench
  4. DB extension, single arm, behind the head
  5. SZ-bar triceps extensions, seated
Figure 1: EMG activity of lateral head and long head of the m. triceps major during selected triceps exercises with standard equipment relative to the SZ-bar lying (lateral head) and seated (long head) triceps extension  (data adapted from Boeckh-Behrens & Buskies. 2000)
Image 3: Its not really necessary to turn the
triceps extension into a pullover,
like the old-school bodybuilders did it.
A regular french press where the
bar does not pass beyond your head will suffice.
While it is not surprising that the SZ-bar triceps extensions (both seated as well as lying on a bench), which also serve as reference exercises for the relative EMG intensities plotted I in figure 1, are among the most effective exercises for both the lateral, as well as the long head of the triceps, the specificity of the triceps kickback on a 60° incline as the #1 exercise for the long head of the m. triceps brachii may come as a surprise. This may be explained by the previously mentioned exclusive role of the long head in the retroversion of the arm, which is particularly challenging, when the angle between your upper arm and your torso is <0° (where 0° would be parallel to your torso as in the bend over triceps kickbacks on a bench).
Training Tip: With DB kickbacks perfect form is the key to optimal triceps activation. This is all the more true if you really want to "isolate" the long head of the triceps with the DB kickbacks on a 60° incline, where it is absolutely imperative to extending the loaded arm backwards, maximally (this by the way is what retroversion means in practice). You also want to keep your upper arm parallel to the floor all (!) the time. If you let it drop back to a neutral  position after each rep that would take away -20% of the intensity! Please do me a favor and start with a really light dumbbell - you will feel that just by retroverting your arm with a light load so that it forms a horizontal line from your shoulder to your pinky, is sufficient to induce a profound muscle burn in the long head.
An even greater surprise, however, probably is the 2nd place of BB behind the neck presses in the ranking of the most effective exercises for the long head. Thus, it is only valid that you are asking yourself "What on earth does a shoulder exercise have to do with my triceps?" Well, think about the origin of the caput longem, it attaches directly to the scapula and is frantically trying to stabilize a movement of which I would think twice whether or not I find it so elementary that I put myself at risk of a tedious shoulder injury, just to get "titanic triceps" or "bolder shoulders" ;-)

Image 4: Using a rope instead of
a straight  or V-bar makes
the cable pushdowns
an overall more balanced exercise
It's also noteworthy, that, other than the SZ triceps extensions or the guillotine presses, which owe their name to the unlucky circumstance that you might decapitate yourself (the standard narrow bench press is already -25% less effective!), when you let the barbell drop, the cable pushdown with the straight or V-bar targets the lateral and the medial head of the triceps almost exclusively. That being said, your triceps routine would not be complete without at least one complementary movement such as the triceps kickback on the 60° incline, where the long head clearly is the weakest link and thus guaranteed to get hammered pretty decently, not even, but especially with appropriately light weights! You may remedy this problem by using a rope instead of a straight or v-bar (cf. image 3). If you deliberately pull the rope apart at the end of the movement you will hit the long head of your triceps pretty efficiently and thus turn the #1 isolation exercise for the lateral head into a more balanced triceps exercise.

II. Body Weight Exercises for the m. triceps brachii 

Image 5: If you wonder why Arnold is showing up
in almost each part of this series,  here is your answer:
This guy simple knew what he was doing.
It does not take a rocket scientist, but just a brief glance at the enormous horseshoes of gymnasts to realize that you do not even have to train with metal weights, in order to build impressive upper arms. It is thus not surprising that many pro bodybuilders still swear by doing dips with their arms behind their back in between to benches (cf. image 5), which *surprise* actually turns out to be the most effective body weight exercise you can do to really hammer the lateral head of your triceps.
    ... for the lateral part (+medial head)
  1. Dips, arms behind the back, between two benches (cf. image 5)
  2. Dips, bars slightly more than shoulder wide apart, not going past 90° elbow flexion
  3. Pushups, fingers facing forward, hands slightly narrower than shoulder width apart
    ... for the long head 
  1. Dips, bars slightly more than shoulder wide apart, not going past 90° elbow flexion
  2. Pushups, fingers facing forward, hands slightly narrower than shoulder width apart
Figure 2: EMG activity of lateral head and long head of the m. triceps major during selected body weight triceps exercises relative to dips between bars (data adapted from Boeckh-Behrens & Buskies. 2000)
As you can see, Arnold's behind the back bench dips (cf. image 5), or whatever you want to call them, are simply unbeatable when it comes to activating the lateral head of the triceps. Even in absolute terms, this variety of the dips is only 7% less effective than the SZ-bar lying triceps extension the #2 in the top 5 ranking of the most effective triceps exercises with exercise equipment.
Figure 3: EMG activity of lateral head and long head of the m. triceps major during selected body weight triceps exercises relative to dips between bars (data adapted from Boeckh-Behrens & Buskies. 2000
I've mentioned it before, going all the way down may on the dips does increase the workload on the tendons and joint capsules of your shoulder girdle and is thus neither beneficial for your triceps development (-12% EMG activity), nor for your joints. Flaring out your arms, on the other hand has a much smaller influence on the activation of the caput longe during parallel dips, than you may have expected - in fact, the -3% reduction in EMG activity is practically negligible.
III. Conclusion - For Maximal Triceps Development Specialization Does Have Its Place

From all that has been said before, it should have become obvious that, probably even more so than with any other given body part, the use of "specialization" exercises for the individual heads of the triceps does make sense. Although exercises such as the classic dips between two bars (done "Jay Cutler"-ish, i.e. only down to an elbow ankle of 90°) stimulate both the lateral, as well as the long head of the triceps adequately, there is no "jack of all traits"-triceps exercise - not even the SZ-bar triceps extension since you would at least have to switch from a lying to a seated position to adequately stimulate both the caput laterale + mediale as well as the caput longem.
Figure 4: EMG activity of lateral head and long head of the m. triceps major during three common triceps exercises relative to maximal activation of the respective head in any exercise evaluated in the study (data adapted from Boeckh-Behrens & Buskies. 2000)
The data in figure 4 elucidates the inevitable trade-off between maximal stimulation of the lateral and medial head, on the one, and the long head, on the other hand, for three classic triceps exercises. I tried to factor this, as well as my personal observation that out of hundred trainees maybe five do the incline kickbacks the way they are supposed to in with the following exemplary triceps routine (if you are willing and able to do the kickbacks with proper form and adequate weight instead of just swinging the dumbbell up and down on the side of the torso, you can alternate those with the bench dips, I propose as the third exercise in the routine below).
Know your own limits! If you train triceps and biceps with another muscle group on the same day and want to do a single exercise only, I would suggest doing either dips or the suggested mix of lying and seated SZ-bar triceps extensions from the EMG optimized routine below to limit the absolute number of sets you perform.
An EMG-optimized routine
Image 6: Although many trainees
swear by it the narrow grip barbell bench
is not particularly effective in
isolating the triceps and thus did
not make it into the "EMG routine"
(image from
There is of course a myriad of ways of combining the individual exercises, my personal recommendation for overall triceps development (based on EMG measures) would yet be as follows
  1. SZ-bar triceps extensions*, 6-10 reps *alternate lying and seated variety
  2. Cable push downs, 8-12 reps, straight bar or v-bar
  3. Bench Dips (cf. image 5), to failure
You may notice that I do not make volume (i.e. set) recommendations. This is due to the fact that I found that everyone has to find what works best for him / her in terms of optimal volume, training frequency and body part splits. This may also change over time / according to lifestyle factors / nutrition and supplementation.