When the average person thinks of big arms, the biceps is the first thing that comes to mind. In fact, many people train just the biceps in their quest for big guns. What they forget is that the triceps is the larger of the two muscles and actually accounts for 2/3 of your upper arm size. What many people also forget is that both biceps and triceps should be trained so that you have big, but balanced, arms. Lack of balance, or a focus on only biceps is one reason people have weak triceps. Weak triceps means weak arms, arms that are no where near their full size potential no matter how much you do for biceps. When it comes to triceps, I don't believe a lack of being able to feel the muscle working is a problem, as it can be for, say, the back. However, we have to look at the form you use in your exercises and your rep performance because this is where "feeling the muscle work" comes into play. I've seen a lot of guys do very fast, partial reps. The problem with that is it's mostly momentum doing the work instead of your triceps. You need to know your arm is actually working so you need to think full range of motion and use a rep tempo that allows for a slower speed. Triceps are actually a great muscle to hold and squeeze at the end of a rep, such as in the press down and it's variations. In extensions and close grip presses, it's harder to do that so it's better to use a continuous tension style rep, explosive up and slower down with no pausing. There's a right way and a wrong way to perform an exercise and the wrong way will not produce results.
Many times a muscle just won't respond as it should. This can have a lot to do with the dominant fiber type in that muscle,blood flow to the muscle and the various endurance components of the muscle. This is why is makes sense to use a variety of rep ranges and various intensity techniques. Using different rep ranges affect different aspects of the muscle cell. With a weak muscle, you must do lower rep strength work but you also should do higher rep work to hit all the fibers in that muscle. You also want to think about things like time under tension and getting a good pump in the muscle you're working. For me, the true test of an effective workout has always been the level of soreness I've had within a day or two of training. If I have a muscle that just does not get sore, I then experiment with different loads, rep schemes and intensity techniques until I begin to get sore. For me,soreness tells me two things: the muscles are not used to the stimulus you are giving them, and once soreness stops they have in fact adjusted to your current routine. Yet, so many things can affect growth: recovery, not only of the muscle you've trained but nervous system recovery, your nutrition, your overall set and rep totals, to name just a few things. My regular readers know how much I advocate recovery and that I design everything about the workout around that. If you adjust to my set, rep and training split suggestions you can be assured of adequate recovery. Bear in mind gthat what I design reflects a natural lifter. Bear in mind also that natural bodybuilders cannot do the work a "user" can do and cannot recover as fast. If you are natural, you have to think a little more and make the proper adjustments.
Now, those who read my articles know I review the anatomy of the muscle we are working, because it makes sense to know what the muscle is supposed to do, so here's the anatomy of the triceps:
The Triceps Brachii has three heads which connect the humerus and scapula to the forearm bone called the ulna. These heads are known as the Lateral, Medial, and Long heads. The Lateral head is located on the outer side of the humerus. This head is largely responsible for the horseshoe shape of the triceps. The Medial head originates on the back of the humerus. The Long head is located along the bottom side of the humerus and is the largest of the three heads.
The primary function of the Tricep is to extend the elbow (straightening the arm). The secondary function of the Tricep is acheived only by the Long head of the muscle, which is to bring the arm down towards the body (adduction). The triceps shares this function with the lats.
When putting together a triceps routine it's common to work them after chest, since they are involved in all chest exercises and are well warmed up. Some people include shoulders (push, pull split) in this group but I tend to think that's too much work in one session, so I suggest shoulders with traps on their own day. Why do so much in one workout? If you train chest, then shoulders, then triceps, how can you possibly have enough energy left to do justice to tris? Most likely, you can't, if you're training hard enough in the first place. You can train arms alone, especially if they are weak, but allow ample recovery time from training your other upper body parts and don't schedule them to close to upper body work. If you have weak triceps, after the discussion above, the first thing to do is to look at your current training schedule and move them to a place in your routine where they have more priority. The next thing we'd want to do is come up with some "shock" routines to get them in shape while keeping in mind our discussion on rep schemes and rep performance, not to mention recovery.
With that said, let's look first at what exercises best work each head of the triceps:
For overall size: close grip bench press, dips ( this can be normal dips or bench dips).
To develop the horseshoe/lateral head: pressdowns and pressdown variations. Much of the impressiveness of the triceps comes from the horseshoe shape. I can still remember seeing Frank Zane in a tight t-shirt back when he was Mr. O and the most noticeable thing about his arms was not the biceps or the size but the horseshoe. What is interesting to note was that his arms were only about 17 inches but you would never know by looking at him, as his arms seemed big and ripped.
Medial head: most exercises will hit the medial head to some degree.
Long head: extensions and extension variations.
Before I lay out the routines, let me introduce you to one of the best triceps exercises out there: the EZ bar extension/pullover/press. This is a variation to the more standard pullover and press. With the pullover/press, you actually press the weight, then do a pullover, then press, then do a pullover and so on. With my exercise, you will do 6-8 reps of skullcrushers, then go right into 6-8 reps of the pullover, keeping elbows close to your head and doing a pullover that is close to your face to more fully involve the triceps, then you go right into close grips. So, this is really a tri-set of three distinct exercises all done as one exercise.
A performance note:when doing a lying extension, there are two ways to perform this exercise: lower the bar close to your head, hence "skull crushers", and lower the bar out and back away from your head. In this exercise, do "skull crushers".
Routine # 1
Warm ups- the EZ extension/pullover/press using this rep scheme: 15, 12, 10
Work sets: 3 sets of 6-8 reps on each segment of this exercise. Use a challenging weight on this. By the time you get to the close grips, they should be near impossible to complete. In fact, use a spotter for some forced reps if you need to.
3 sets of press downs: 8-12 reps, stop at the half way point and hold for a 5 count, at the bottom of the movement hold and squeeze for a 2 count, lower back to the starting position slowly, taking full advantage of the negative. On this exercise, let the triceps do all the work.
Routine # 2
Warm ups- using a light dumbbell, do extensions for an easy 15 reps over 3 sets. For this routine, we will be doing tri-set drop sets with rest pause. Take 2 progressively heavier dumbbells and an EZ bar. Begin with the EZ bar, which should be set with the heaviest weight, do as many full range extensions as you can, put the bar down, count to 10 and do as many more as you can then instantly drop to the heaviest bell and repeat, then drop the the third dumbbell and repeat. If this is done right one series should be all you can handle.
Routine # 3
Warm ups – using a rep scheme of 15, 15, 12, use a light weight on close grips for your warm up.
Super set close grip bench presses with bench dips
Super set EZ extensions, seated with pressdowns using an elbows flared technique.
A performance note: always use a weight that will challenge you. You should train to that point where you can't complete one more rep on your own and in good form. Don't be afraid to step beyond that point, however. I am using techniques like forced reps, rest pause and drop set style sets. Take full advantage of this, don't stop just because you hit the prescribed number of reps. Knock out a couple more if you can. Also, add weight each workout, there is a direct correlation between strength and size.
Use shock routines like this only for about 3-4 weeks before changing up the routine to something more normal for a few weeks, then go on to the next shock routine and so on. Repeat this cycle for as long as you need to.
One final training aspect that has to be considered when you're talking about weak areas is the strength of that weak area. Are you increasing your poundages? Try to add weight to the bar every few workouts, even if it's just a few pounds. Exercises like close grip bench presses are a good power movement.
Any time you are trying to build muscle you need to remember that you have to take in more calories over and above maintenance requirements. Now, the timing and type of calories is critical to your success. Rather then just take in a bunch of excess calories, you want to time your intake of protein and carbohydrates. Protein, as I often say, should be at least 1 gram per pound of bodyweight evenly divided throughout the day, or you're taking in protein every 2.5-3 hours. In the hours leading up to your workout, you can take in small amounts of carbs, such as 20-30 grams at a time to give you energy when you train. How I do this is have a small carb based meal with some protein, usually powder. The carb source is typically a granola bar, which has a mix of simple/complex carbs, about 4-5 hours before your workout, have another one 2-3 hours before. A complete meal can take 24 hours or more to digest but small amounts of food can digest in a few hours. Doing this, you will find you have more energy to train. Another thing I often suggest is to use a during the workout drink of Gatorade with some BCAA/Glutamine powder mixed in, this provides energy and keeps you anabolic while you train. Of course, don't forget your post workout shake. Now, if you are trying to stay lean, you need to limit carbs at all other times of the day and on non training days because an excess of carbs over and above energy needs will be stored as fat. Feel free, however, to eat fibrous carbs because they aren't really digested by the body. Also have most of your starchy carbs early in the day, and other than around the workout only have simple carbs at breakfast. Of course you should limit fat intake as well. Now, you can add things like creatine and NO to your workout drink, and use this stack on it's own for solid size and strength increases. This is, in fact, my favorite natural stack. I always see great results anytime I use it.
So there you have it. Use these tips to bring up those tris and get arms everyone will admire!
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By: Jim Brewster
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