Don't be ashamed - we've all tape-measured our arms behind closed doors. Here's the drill...
After your initial disappointment, you do some push-ups and arm curls and repeat the process, looking for the longest route around your arm. Then you check the other arm because, after all, it may just be bigger.
Are your arms simply refusing to grow? Well, if you're looking to really fill out those shirtsleeves, you have two options. One is to buy smaller T-shirts. The second is to take another look not at your biceps, which probably already get a lot of attention, but at your tri's. Are you training them efficiently for big gains or doing endless sets of pressdowns in a spirited yet fruitless attempt at bigger guns? The fact is, if you want the kind of arms that get respect from both other guys and the girls, you need to train them smart. Here's how to put together a routine that'll bust your tape measure in no time.
1) Understand the Anatomy of Your Triceps
A sound understanding of your arms' physiology is paramount as you construct a well-designed triceps program. The triceps brachii, often referred to simply as the triceps, runs adjacent to the humerus (upper arm bone) on the upper rear side of the arm. As most regular of my readers know, this muscle group consists of three distinct heads, thus the name triceps. The lateral head, the long head and the medial head are recruited to varying degrees depending on how you position your arms. A triceps routine is complete only when maximum stimulus of all three triceps heads is achieved.
During elbow-extension movements that work the triceps, the lower arm moves away from the upper arm in an arm-straightening action. All three triceps heads are involved in extending the elbow. Yet individually, each head is specific in particular actions. For example, the long head, which is located on the back inner side of the upper arm and attaches to the scapula, is involved in shoulder-joint extension and comes into play in elbow extension only when sufficient resistance is used. Hence, when you raise your arms over your head, as when doing overhead extensions, you'll fully stretch the long head and facilitate a stronger contraction.
The medial head of the triceps, located on the lower inner side of the back of the upper arm, is considered the workhorse in elbow extension. It's the first muscle to contract regardless of the resistance involved and is strongest when you use a pronated (palms-down) grip, The lateral head on the outer side of the upper arm is most powerful when you use a supinated (palms-up) grip in elbow extension. When using other grips, it comes into play after the medial head and as the resistance increases.
2) Start With a Mass Builder, Not an Isolation Exercise
Just about everyone knows to do compound movements before isolation ones. You do your bench presses before flyes, and squats before leg extensions, right? Why, then, do so many bodybuilders start their triceps training with pressdowns? The fact is, by choosing a multijoint exercise to start your triceps routine, you'll be able to handle much more weight and develop more total force than if you start with an isolation movement.
Now let's see if you're paying attention. A very common triceps superset in the gym is lying triceps extensions with an EZ-bar (also called french presses or skullcrushers) followed immediately by a burnout set of close-grip bench presses. Guess what? These folks have it backward!
Start by choosing a compound movement when your energy and strength levels are high. Good choices include the dip (keeping your body as straight up-and-down as possible for emphasis on the triceps), bench dips and various dip machines, as well as close-grip bench presses. The close-grip bench incorporates all three heads with assistance from the pectorals and deltoids. Remember not to take too close a grip; about 10-12 inches will allow you to balance the bar and keep added stress off your wrists.
Inasmuch as you've picked a multijoint movement for your first exercise, by all means go heavy after your warm-up. Don't be afraid to add weight to induce muscle failure at about the eighth rep, which ensures you're building strength and muscle.
3) Add Another Mass Builder From a Different Angle
Your next exercise should also be a mass-builder, which means you'll need to move a significant amount of weight. Forget about unilateral movements like dumbbell kickbacks and other one-arm exercises that don't let you go very heavy. A bilateral (two-arm) exercise is your best bet.
On your second exercise, hit those tri's from a different angle - and prestretch the long head - with an arms-overhead movement. Good choices in which you use both arms and can go fairly heavy include overhead extensions with an EZ-bar or single dumbbell, seated machine overhead extensions, or even skullcrushers. If you happened to start your triceps workout with an arms-overhead exercise, any of the dip variations are good choices to follow up. Remember, you're still training for mass, so choose weights that cause muscle failure at about 8-10 reps. If you're doing dips, make sure to use as much extra resistance as you can handle. In many cases, your own bodyweight may not provide enough resistance to make you hit temporary muscle failure by rep number 10.
4) Add Isolation Exercises Using Different Angles & Grips
Here's where you can choose exercises that really pump your triceps with relatively lighter weights. Examples include cable movements like pressdowns, kickbacks (dumbbell or cable) or various triceps extensions using the cable apparatus.
IFBB pro Darrem Charles stresses the importance of a slow and controlled motion when it comes to cable exercises. "If you're looking to get the absolute most out of each set, try holding your arms at the bottom of the movement in the straight and locked position for a full two seconds. It's not easy, but it's the difference between simply performing a rep and making every rep count."
Pressdowns work both the medial and lateral triceps heads, as do kickbacks. That's good to focus the work on this area of the triceps, especially if you've done a compound and arms-- overhead movement before it. The idea is to hit your triceps from a variety of angles, stimulating the muscle in a slightly different manner and working it more thoroughly.
With that in mind, your follow-up movements) should include different grips. Don't always do your pressdowns with an overhand grip; use a reverse grip on occasion for an entirely different feel. Even a rope pressdown, in which your hands start in the neutral position and you pronate them at the bottom, can be a good change of pace.
Single-arm movements like kickbacks, one-arm pressdowns and overhead extensions, in which you don't use very much weight, are all good choices for end-of-your-workout arm-- blasters. Keep good form, extend and hold the peak contraction at the bottom for a count, and just keep pumping out the reps till you're exhausted. Your arms will certainly swell to their maximum size as you complete these last few sets.
5) Tri New Things
As you can see, an effective triceps workout offers a whole gamut of options relative to movements, grips and variations. As you become more advanced in your training, be sure to learn and include many of these movements and variations. Dips can be performed in several positions, including a more advanced weighted version. Cable pressdowns offer roughly half a dozen handle options, each providing subtle variation. Exercise variety is the best way to ensure that your hard work will result in the development of balanced arms and continued muscle growth while relieving the boredom of following a stale routine well past its usefulness.
6) The Scheduling Riddle
Figuring out which day of the week to position your triceps workout can be a bit tricky. As you should know, your triceps are a major player during your chest and shoulder training, specifically in pressing movements. In turn, many of the chest and shoulder movements will play a significant role in your triceps training.
Any variation of the bench press or military press will generate a significant triceps response. IFBB pro King Kamali sends this warning: "Yes, it's true that the triceps will get plenty of work on chest and shoulder days, but don't be fooled into believing that it'll be enough to trigger maximum results. You simply must attack the triceps with maximum intensity."
Given that the tri's are an important secondary muscle group to your pec and delt training, you should never work them immediately before those muscle groups. Moreover, you don't even want your triceps to be sore from a previous workout when you train those other muscle groups. Schedule at least two full days of recovery after your last triceps workout and before your next chest or shoulder day.
One school of thought says you should work your tri's immediately following your chest or shoulder workout. The benefit here is that the triceps are nice and warm, having already been stimulated to some degree. The downside is that they may be low on gas after an all-out chest or shoulder routine and you can't give them the intense workout they need.
Another school of thought suggests that you train triceps on their own day or on a day designated for arms only. In this scenario, the triceps are fresh and ready for maximum overload. Remember, though, the importance of rest and recovery You don't want your tri's to be sore when your next chest or shoulder workout approaches.
While no single solution can solve the training dilemma, adjusting your split can give you the best of both worlds. Just make sure you follow a sensible recovery pattern.
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