We asked two experts to weigh in on the obstacles of training this often stubborn muscle.
Muscle & Fitness Editors 1 / 4
Even though bicep curls seem to be the official move of bodybuilders everywhere, the reality is that triceps—not biceps—represent about three-quarters of your upper arm mass. That means training your triceps should always take precedence.
Of course, most guys out there have understood this for decades. But some dudes—the ones who still just curl all the time—were still slow to catch on. Looking around the gym today, some people are still pretty one-sided with their arm training. To bring balance, symmetry and aesthetics to your arms—if you're into that sort of thing—you need to understand that can't live by curls alone. You need to figure out how to train your triceps, especially if you expect to tap into the larger of your upper arm muscles.
Here, we address three of the most common complaints we hear from our readers about building bigger triceps, plus some practical remedies you can implement today.
"My biceps tend to overpower my triceps. Why is that and what can I do to fix it?"
"Ahhh, the 'show me' muscles!" says New York-based trainer Rocco Castellano, NASM-C.P.T. "We only work the muscles we can see. You're obviously not hitting your triceps as hard as your biceps. Triceps are three muscles compared to two muscles, so they need to be hit at least one-third harder than their counterpart. If you schedule an all-arms day, I would hit your triceps first with two compound movements and one single-joint or finishing movement. On a push day (chest, shoulders, triceps) keep it to two movements—one compound, one single-joint— compared to your biceps, which I would limit to one exercise until you feel there is a balance."
Jimmy Pena, M.S., C.S.C.S., sees a few additional possibilities: "Are you training your biceps alone or with something else like back? What about your triceps? If you're training your biceps alone, then tossing your triceps in at the end of a chest or shoulder workout, you're treating them as an afterthought and that's how they'll respond. And if you're training bi's and tri's together, you probably train biceps first. Try to mix up which muscle group you train first to ensure balance. Finally, don't always chase a pump with your arms—if you expect them to grow, then you need to challenge them with heavier weights in the 8-12-rep range."
"I can't seem to bring up that outer 'horseshoe' part of my triceps, even though my inner triceps are pretty meaty. What should I do to improve the 'horseshoe'?"
Castellano, who advocates variety in the gym, suggests shaking things up for getting untapped muscles involved. "Creating a little chaos in the joint does the trick here. You can do that by utilizing cables, ropes and towels on a push-down machine. As you push down on the positive phase of the movement you will find that your arms shake a little; this is the instability that I'm talking about. Your neurotransmitters are now asking your brain to recruit another muscle to help out with the load. That's where the weaker heads come in to stabilize the joint."
Pena: "Well in any triceps exercise, you're working all three heads of the triceps, just to varying degrees. If your outer, or lateral, head is lagging, you may be doing a few too many skullcrushers or overhead dumbbell extensions, which hit the long head. Pressdowns, where your elbows remain at your sides, blast that lateral head."
"I do plenty of extensions—lying, cables, dumbbells, overhead, kickbacks—but can't seem to add any size to my tris. Am I doing something wrong?"
"You're doing wussy exercises and you'll stay in Punyville until you step up and complete some heavy compound movements," says an animated Castellano. "Use compound movements, which recruit multiple joints to complete a specific task. Try weighted dips. Another of my favorites is the negative close-grip bench press with a drop. Aim for 3-4 heavy negatives and immediately strip the bar by 30% and perform 15 more reps. Add the weight and start all over for at least two more sets. If you want to get massive you need to push weight—not a hard concept to grasp."
Pena, who also advocates weighted dips and close-grip benches, suggests trying reverse-grip bench presses with a slightly narrower grip than usual. "These fry your triceps and doing them on a Smith machine allows you to safely overload them without fear of injury."