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Triceps Training Tips and Myths

A smarter approach is to look at how body position affects the triceps, specifically the differences produced by performing triceps extensions on flat, incline or decline surfaces.

Q: Can you give me some tips for isolating each head of the triceps?

A: One key to making the fastest gains possible is controlling the variables of training. Tempo, rest intervals, frequency and exercise selection are among the loading parameters I look at closely when designing workouts. Another variable to consider is body position, an often-overlooked aspect of training.

Many bodybuilders—and strength coaches, for that matter—regurgitate and perpetuate training ideas that are off base, such as: Leg extensions can develop cuts in the quads, high-rep twists with a broomstick will trim the waist, and close-grip presses will target some mysterious muscle group called the inner pectorals.

One reason those nonsensical ideas have persisted for so long is that top bodybuilders often endorse them, and their big muscles suggest that they know what they’re talking about. If it were revealed in the latest issue of Hypertrophy Today that Mr. Olympia Jay Cutler used triceps kickbacks “to sharpen the shoehorn edges of his mammoth triceps,” young bodybuilders would tend to believe it.

What’s even more absurd is that the bodybuilders such stories are written about often have nothing to do with the story. One writer I know who’s published hundreds of training articles in national magazines told me that when he calls champion bodybuilders for interviews for training articles, the muscleheads often tell him they don’t care what he writes as long as he includes a plug for their guest-posing services.

Bodybuilding urban legends aside, strength training and bodybuilding have evolved thanks to sophisticated testing methods, including muscle biopsies and electromyography. In one of the more creative research endeavors, sport-scientist Per A. Tesch, Ph.D., used magnetic resonance imaging to determine exactly how hard specific muscles worked during numerous common strength-training exercises. For example, Tesch had subjects perform various types of squats to see which areas of the upper-leg muscles worked the hardest during each exercise. His book Target Bodybuilding (Human Kinetics; available at provides a summary of those results. Although MRIs have their limitations, such research gives us data we can use to make more intelligent decisions about training to achieve specific goals.

We use research so that we can take exercise selection one step further by looking at how body position affects recruitment. Performing a triceps extension from a seated position with elbows perpendicular to the floor, for example, doesn’t have the same strength-training stimulus as performing the exercise from a seated position with the elbows parallel to the floor. That example demonstrates that the approach many exercise gurus take of limiting the variety in their workout programs to “Keep it simple, stupid” is simply stupid.

A smarter approach is to look at how body position affects the triceps, specifically the differences produced by performing triceps extensions on flat, incline or decline surfaces.

Keep in mind that the triceps has three heads: long, lateral and medial. Because the three heads join at a common tendon to insert on the forearm, it’s impossible to purely isolate one single head. By changing your position to change the orientation of your upper arm in relation to gravity and to your torso, however, you can affect the percentage of contribution of each muscle. Here are some specifics:

Incline to perpendicular. The farther away your arms are from your belly button, the more long-head recruitment you get. Exercises for that area include triceps extensions performed on an incline bench (incline position) and overhead triceps extensions (perpendicular position).

Flat. Performing triceps exercises on a flat bench increases the contribution of the lateral and long heads.

Decline. As your arms get closer to your torso, which occurs during exercises performed on a decline bench, the medial head gets more work at the end of the range of motion. At the bottom of the range, however, the prime mover is the lateral head.

You also need to consider your hand position. Simply stated, pronation means “palm down,” and supination means “palms up.” When your palm is pronated, the lateral head is usually more active, whereas when the palm is supinated, the medial head works harder.

How about a practical example? If you’ve got poor medial triceps development and want to break a plateau in arm development, superset the following:

A-1: Decline EZ-curl-bar triceps extensions with chains, 4 x 6-8 with a 4/1/1/0 tempo, rest 10 seconds. I use chains because they provide resistance that creates a better overload on the medial head.

A-2: Decline elbows-under-the-bar close-grip bench presses, 4 x 6-8 with a 3/0/X/0 tempo, rest two minutes. That elbow orientation, with the arms close to the torso, maximizes medial-head recruitment.

I hope you get a chance to attend our seminars to learn more about the effects of body position on muscle-fiber recruitment. There is much, much more exciting information available on the subject—just as there are many common myths that need to be forgotten.


Q: Is the old “gram of protein per pound of bodyweight” rule still good? I hear some coaches say we need less—like a gram per pound of lean body weight only—and some recommend 300 grams a day for a 200-pounder.

A: For a 200-pound lean male, 300 grams of protein per day would be the minimum. In fact, I think the rule should be closer to two grams of protein per pound of bodyweight, assuming the person is lean.

For about 70 percent of the population—those who aren’t carb tolerant—two grams per pound is good for mass gains. It can make a huge difference. Personally, I couldn’t get above 192 pounds until bodybuilder Milos Sarcev persuaded me to start taking in two grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. In no time I was up to 205 lean.

Now, if a person handles carbohydrates very well, that value would drop to one to 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight.

Someone like my colleague Christian Thibaudeau, who’s not carb tolerant, should be getting two grams per pound. But for a guy like Milos Sarcev, who can wake up and drink a gallon of 50 percent maple syrup/50 percent dextrose without its affecting his blood sugar, I’d say one to 1.5 grams. Guys like Milos, however, do need to get 70 percent of their calories from carbs.


Q: How important is water intake for muscle growth?

A: Water is often the most neglected nutrient. Dehydration leads to higher cortisol output and repercussions ranging from increased oxidative stress on the brain to increased fat storage.

As a rule of thumb you should drink 0.6 to 0.7 ounces for every pound of bodyweight. In other words, if you weigh 200 pounds, you should drink 120 to 140 ounces of water a day. An easy way to ensure that you’re drinking your proper daily quota is to measure your prescribed amount out in containers for the day every morning. By bedtime all the containers should be empty.

When first starting this hydration protocol, many individuals realize that they’ve barely drunk 40 percent of their water needs by the time they retire for the evening. That in itself is very educational. The best indication that you’re staying well hydrated is that your morning urine is clear. If it has the color of Vermont’s finest maple syrup, drink up.


Q: Why don’t you like low-intensity, “steady-state” cardiovascular work for fat loss?

A: With low-intensity, steady-state cardiovascular work, your body usually reaches maximal adaptations after six to eight weeks—for life. It’s therefore better to move on to interval training if you want very rapid fat-loss results. Although aerobics gurus call for a single cardiovascular training protocol for maximum weight loss, research suggests otherwise.

Further, the notion that low-intensity cardiovascular work is superior to high-intensity work was refuted years ago in a study published in the July 1994 issue of Metabolism, “Impact of Exercise Intensity on Body Fatness and Skeletal Muscle Metabolism.” The authors reported: “The results of the present study show that for a given level of energy expenditure, a high-intensity training program includes a greater loss of subcutaneous fat compared with a training program of moderate intensity.”


Editor’s note: Charles Poliquin is recognized as one of the world’s most suc-cessful strength coaches, having coached Olympic med-alists in 12 different sports, including the U.S. women’s track-and-field team for the 2000 Olympics. He’s spent years researching European journals (he’s fluent in English, French and German) and speaking with other coaches and scientists in his quest to optimize training methods. For more on his books, seminars and methods, visit Also, see his ad on page 245.  IM

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