by Charles Poliquin
Pressdowns are, by far, the most popular triceps movement used in gyms throughout the United States. They are easy to perform and are especially popular in magazine photo spreads because the triceps really pop out on the exercises. The lower body equivalent would be leg extensions, which showcase the separation of the major muscles of the upper leg. Because so many trainees are fond of pressdowns and are unsure about what might be better, here is a “top nine list” of triceps exercises, in order of good to better to best.
9. California press. The California press is a hybrid movement that is actually a cross between a close-grip bench press and a lying triceps extension. It’s a very popular assistance movement used in powerlifting circles, particularly by lifters who need to increase triceps mass and strength to bring their bench press poundages upward.
A good starting weight for this exercise would be about halfway between what you use in the lying triceps extension and what you use in the close-grip bench press. To perform the California press, assume the same starting position as you would for a close-grip bench press. Instead of lowering the bar to the bottom position of your pecs, lower it to your upper pecs by pivoting your elbows forward. At this point, your forearms will come into contact with your elbow flexors, the bar will be touching your upper chest, and you’ll experience a great stretch in your triceps. From this position, push the bar away and upward from your chest; your elbows should come just short of lockout when you get to the top position.
8. Incline bench overhead pressdown. This movement is the triceps equivalent of concentration curls. It removes the temptation of using your abdominal muscles to complete the range of motion. In other words, it offers an incredible degree of isolation. This exercise is also suitable for a trainee suffering from a bout of lower back pain. You should perform this movement last in a triceps workout, after a high percentage of triceps motor units have been knocked off by other exercises.
Simply put an incline bench in front of a high pulley (so that when you sit down, you’re facing away from the machine). Adjust the incline to about 60 degrees. Grasp a straight-bar handle and, with your upper arms glued to your torso, extend your forearms. You are, in essence, doing a fairly traditional pressdown, but doing it on an incline bench allows you to keep perfect form. When you think about it, it’s a way to do pressdowns without cheating by using lats and abdominals to take a share of the load.
7. Seated half press in power rack. As a testimony to the effectiveness of this exercise, consider that Pat Casey is the first man to have bench pressed 600 pounds and that seated presses were one of his favorite exercises – he claims a personal best of 400 pounds. This variation of the seated press is one that powerlifting guru Louie Simmons has promoted extensively; it is excellent for packing meat on the lateral head of the triceps, which is often the most underdeveloped of the triceps muscles. You can tell when it’s developed, though, as it will make the back of the triceps look like an X, in addition to making you appear to be considerably wider.
Place an adjustable incline bench inside a power rack, setting the inclination of the bench at 80 to 90 degrees (in relation to the floor). The seat portion should be angled also so that you won’t slip off when executing the exercise. Adjust the pins in the power rack so the bar is at hairline level for the starting position. Your grip on the bar should be about shoulder width. Your elbows should be pointing outward.
Simply press the weight up as if you were doing a conventional press. However, make sure that you use a “dead stop” in the bottom position. In other words, let the weight come to a complete stop against the pins. Dead stops of 2-4 seconds in the bottom position are extremely effective for building up the triceps, as each rep forces you to fight against inertia. A recommended tempo for this exercise is either 2211 (2 seconds to lower, a 2-second pause, followed by a 1-second lift and a 1-second pause) or 3211, depending on your arm length.
6. Lying triceps extension. There are several possible bar pathways for the lying triceps extension. You can bring the bar to the bridge of your nose, to your hairline or to your forehead (a.k.a. skull crushers). These exercises also can be done by using a handle attached to a low pulley machine. Trying to figure out which pathway is best is futile because you’ll adapt to a particular movement in a matter of a few workouts.
It’s important to not turn this movement into a lat exercise. Resist the impulse to employ a pullover motion while extending your forearms. Also, make certain to keep your wrists in a neutral position to minimize the stress on your elbows.
5. Decline dumbbell triceps extension. MRI studies have shown that the decline dumbbell triceps extension is one of the most effective movements when it comes to recruiting the triceps. It also provides a great stretch of the triceps.
Lie on a decline bench and hook your feet under the padded rollers while holding a pair of dumbbells. Press the dumbbells upward in a bench press fashion. You’re now ready to start the exercise. Use a semisupinated grip so your palms are facing each other. Hold the elbows stationary and lower the dumbbells until your forearms make contact with your biceps. At this point, the end of the dumbbell will probably be making contact with your shoulders. Lift the dumbbells back to the starting position by extending your elbows. Your elbows, of course, should be the only joint moving during this exercise.
For the sake of variety, you can add a pronating motion at the end of the elbow extension (turning your palms away from you), which will further recruit the small anconeus muscle.
4. Seated EZ-bar French press. Sit on a flat bench with an EZ-bar racked on your clavicles. The bar should be held with a pronated (palms down) grip. The grip width should be slightly narrower than shoulder width. Press the weight overhead until your elbows are just short of reaching the lockout position – this is where you’ll begin the exercise.
Start by lowering the bar behind your head until your forearms make contact with your biceps – at this point, you should feel a good stretch on the long head of the triceps. Now extend your elbows, using only your triceps strength, to push the bar back to the start position. To ensure triceps isolation, your forearms are the only body part that should be moving during this exercise.
3. Decline elbows-under-bar close-grip bench press. You perform this exercise in almost exactly the same manner as the conventional close-grip bench press, except that you use a decline position, and your elbows point outward so they are aligned with the bar, especially during the eccentric portion of the lifts.
Perform this exercise on a decline bench that is set between 10 and 25 degrees of declination in relation to the floor. Lift the barbell off the rack and hold at arms’ length. Bring the bar to a point about two inches above the nipples, and keep your elbows extended just short of lockout during the pressing portion of the movement.
2. Close-grip bench press. From a supine position (lying on a bench), lift the barbell off the rack and hold at arms’ length. Bring the bar to the lower portion of your sternum, and extend your elbows just short of lockout during the pressing movement. Most individuals should use a 14-inch grip in this exercise. Any narrower tends to create enormous strain on the wrists and elbows.
As soon as the bar is four to six inches above the chest, concentrate on pushing the bar back toward the uprights and move your elbows under the bar to have a more effective biomechanical advantage. Locking out your elbows would take the precious muscle-building tension away from your triceps, so just go to 95 percent of lockout. For obvious safety reasons and to ensure the longevity of your rotator cuff muscles, have a partner help you unrack and rack the barbell.
And the number-one exercise for developing the triceps is…
1. Convergent bar dips (a.k.a. V-bar dips). This is the absolute king of triceps builders. Yet, like other ever-demanding movements such as squats and chins, it rarely makes the pages of general fitness magazines.
Dips were a key exercise for bodybuilders of the past, and as a result those muscle builders were as strong as they looked. One of the best dippers who made the cover of many muscle magazines is Marvin Eder. Eder could perform a single repetition with 434 pounds at a bodyweight of 198 pounds. Pat Casey, incidentally, at a bodyweight of 300 pounds, could perform a single rep with 380 pounds strapped to his waist.
To start the exercise, grasp the bars and boost yourself up until you’ve stabilized yourself at arms’ length over the handles. If you have access to the better V-shaped dipping bar, use as narrow a grip as possible without compromising shoulder integrity. Begin the exercise by lowering your body as far as possible in between the bars, making sure to keep lowering until your biceps make contact with your forearms. In other words, your triceps must get fully stretched. Once you reach the bottom position, press yourself back up by extending your elbows. Try to stay as upright as possible throughout the range of motion. If you lean too far forward, you’ll just be bringing your pecs into the movement.
If you can’t lower yourself under control until your biceps make contact with your forearms, perform the decline close-grip bench press movement until your elbow extension strength is sufficient. Incomplete range in the triceps dip is a complete waste of time. Further, don’t cheat yourself by performing chopped reps – that is, not going all the way down and coming up only three fourths of the way. Keep in mind that your elbows should only travel to 98 percent of full elbow extension to maintain maximal tension on the triceps.
At first, your bodyweight will probably suffice as the means of resistance. As you get stronger, you can progressively increase the resistance by holding a dumbbell between your legs or by hooking a plate or dumbbell in a specialized chin/dip belt. There are a lot of models on the market, including good ones that are standard leather lifting belts with hooks sewn into the belt. Belts that tree climbers use are the best; these can be bought inexpensively on eBay. Of course, adding chains to the belt will help match the resistance curve even better.
Do not use the version where you put your feet on a bench in front of you and your hands behind you. This exercise, along with Smith machine pressing exercises, is a major cause of shoulder impingement syndrome in the bodybuilding community.
Okay, so it’s not realistic for you to use all these movements in any one workout. Don’t sweat it. Think of this list as kind of a restaurant menu of triceps movements, and use it to plan current and future workouts. Unfortunately, there’s no fortune cookie to go along with it. But if there were, it would say: “Your future promises long life and humongous triceps.”