Everything you need to know about building your triceps but were afraid to ask.
By Michael Schletter, CSCS*D, NSCA-CPT*D
Everyone is given a genetic gift when it comes to growing muscle. Some guys have ripped abs no matter what and some guys have biceps that grow like weeds. However, for every gift one is given, there will be one bodypart that doesn’t grow like the rest of them. Usually, this is out of plain old neglect (yes, I’m looking at you gym "bros" who don’t do legs), but sometimes it just seems like the part you want to grow the most is the one that just never does, regardless of how hard you work on it. For many, that's the triceps.
The Science Behind Your Guns
First, let’s review some basic human biology. To build muscle, you need to increase the rate of muscle protein synthesis (the creation of muscle proteins and thus bigger muscles) above the rate at which your body is breaking it down. The biological pathway that signals the body to build more muscle is called mTOR, and that pathway is controlled by your blood amino acid profile – that's how much of each amino acid is circulating in your blood at any given time.
The most important amino acid involved with this pathway is leucine. Leucine activates the mTOR pathway. Unfortunately, no amount of working out will magically cause your body to increase blood levels of leucine. In fact, leucine is one of the three amino acids your body simply can’t synthesize, so it's therefore called an essential amino acid. Sorry vegans, you can’t get it without a protein supplement. Leucine can be found in most animal-based protein products (like chicken, eggs, beef, fish, etc) and is also sold as a branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) supplement. It's usually delivered in combination with the other two essential amino acids: Isoleucine and valine.
Another pretty awesome benefit of leucine is that when the body breaks it down in the muscles, another substance is formed as a result of this breakdown: HMB. What you need to know about HMB, as a lifter, is that it's an extremely powerful anti-catabolic substance, meaning it prevents the body from eating its own muscle tissue. However, only about 3 to 5 percent of the leucine you take in is converted to HMB. The rest is used to build muscle and stimulate mTOR.
Of course, you can buy HMB as a supplement. I recommend the calcium salt form (it comes as a free acid too). Consider taking it three times a day with your breakfast, lunch and dinner. It'll provide an anti-catabolic muscle shield, so to speak, pretty much around the clock. As long as you are consuming enough calories, your body will be in a near-constant anabolic state (which means it’s building things, namely muscle).
You're probably wondering, what about the workout? Slow down! We first need to explain the anatomy and muscle actions of the triceps. The triceps is a three-headed muscle that, generally speaking, originates in the shoulder region and inserts just below the elbow, on the posterior (back) side of the arm. The three heads are called the medial head (closest to your ribs), long head (on the back side of your arm, forms the inside of the wishbone) and lateral head (on the outside of your arm, forms the outside of the wishbone). The muscle actions the triceps performs are various and essential: It pulls your elbow down from an overhead position, extends your elbow (straightens your arm) and also plays a role in pronation of your hand (turns your hand palm-down).
Training Your Triceps
So why do you need to know all this science and anatomy info? Simple: You need to know the muscle actions to train them. You can do all the Tate presses, skullcrushers and straight bar pressdowns you want, but those moves are all working on the same movement: Extension of the elbow. Plain and simple if you work on only one motion, you’ll only train one part of the muscle.
With that in mind, what follows are four different moves that will help you build bigger triceps. Not sure why we picked these? Rest easy. We give you a short explanation of what action it is working on and why it’s important.
- Close-grip bench press works on extension of the elbow and pronation of the hands. Of course, that's if you’re doing it right. Also, you can’t really hope to get large without at least one big, compound (multi-joint) lift in your workout. And no, traditional skullcrushers don’t count – the wrist and elbow are minor joints. The fact that heavy compound moves activate mTOR is an added benefit of this move.
- Rolling skullcrushers pull the arms out of an overhead position and also extend the elbow. Two joints, two muscle actions worked on and two heads of the triceps emphasized.
- Pullover presses mainly focus on elbow extension. But, similar to the rolling skullcrusher, they work on pulling the arms out of that overhead position as well. Again, two muscle actions, two joints worked and two heads of the triceps involved.
- Rope pressdowns are unique in the way that they can work on all three muscle actions and are best used as a finishing move. Why? Although there are a lot of joints involved, you have to keep it light due to the degree of hand pronation required to do the move correctly. All three major muscle actions and all three heads stressed.
So where do you put these moves in your workout? Now this is just a recommendation, but on your arm day, push day, back and tris, or whatever, do the following as your triceps workout. Be sure to perform all moves in straight-set format. For example, do all sets of exercise one first, then all sets of exercise two and so on. Also, select a weight that allows you to complete the prescribed reps, but no more.
Close-Grip Bench Press 4 sets 12 reps
Rolling Skullcrusher 4 sets 15 reps
Pullover Press 4 sets 12 reps
Rope Pressdown 4 sets x As Many Reps As Possible
Use this workout for eight weeks and your triceps are sure to grow. Feel free to do this workout as many times as you want per week, as long as you're not sore prior to starting it. You'll be sore the first couple of times. Consider yourself warned.