The man who wants bigger triceps cannot live on pressdowns alone.
Too often, we see guys in the gym—and maybe you’re one of them—working their triceps to death at the cable pressdown station. Ten sets, 15 sets… whatever it takes to get them sore. But the pressdown-happy masses don’t seem to realize that pressdowns only emphasize the lateral (outer) head of the triceps. So if that’s all you do, you’ll fail to develop the other two heads of your triceps muscles, and you’ll never get the kind of growth you’re hoping for.
There are other versions of this favorite you can use (plus a few exercises and techniques you’re probably neglecting) that will help your cause. Here, you’ll find a comprehensive plan—boiled down into five tips—that can help you build balanced, thick triceps in no time flat.
1. Push it
If you must do pressdowns, at least do them properly. Too many guys hold the bar like motorcycle handlebars. This causes you to push with your fingers, which not only places stress on your hands and wrist (as the wrists often extend back) but also reduces the amount of force you can apply to the bar.
The key: Push with the heels of your palms. You’ll know you have this technique down when you don’t even have to wrap your fingers around the bar. You’ll also realize how much more weight you can do on pressdowns, and greater overload equals—yep—more triceps growth.
2. Pull it
The flipside to the above advice is to literally do just that—flip your grip and take an underhand grip to pull the weight down when doing triceps pressdowns. While the overhand version places the greatest stress on the lateral triceps head, the underhand version better stresses the oft-neglected medial head. Since the only way to maximize overall triceps mass is to maximize the mass of all three triceps heads, you need to devote time to the medial head as well. Try the reverse-grip pressdown using an EZ-bar attachment with a rotating collar, which will remove the stress form your wrists.
3. Angle it
Every guy that’s put in any effort to build up his tris is familiar with the lying triceps extension, or what is known to hardcore bodybuilders as skullcrushers. Most guys probably just grab the bar and head over to the flat bench. But when’s the last time you did them on an incline—or, even crazier, on a decline? Changing the angle of this exercise effectively changes the triceps head that’s stressed.
The more the arms are placed in front of the body and overhead, the more the long head is emphasized. When you do skullcrushers on a flat bench, the arms are perpendicular to the body, and so both the long head and lateral head are fairly equally involved, with even a good bit of involvement from the medial head. When you do them on an incline bench, the arms move more overhead, which places greater emphasis on the long head. And when you do them on a decline bench, the arms move down more towards the sides of the body, similar to a triceps pressdown. This places more stress on the lateral head than the long head, with some help from the medial head at the top of the rep.
4. Band it
You probably know that using bands or chains is a great way to increase muscle strength and power. They’re great workout tools because of what is known as linear variable resistance, which means the resistance increases as does the range of motion of the exercise. So why not put them to work in your quest for bigger triceps? Using bands or chains on the close-grip bench press is a fantastic way to maximize triceps involvement.
Since the close-grip bench press is a multi-joint exercise, you are able to maximize the amount of stress you place on the triceps (more weight = more growth). When you press the bar off your chest during the close-grip bench press the triceps involvement increases the higher the bar moves. Since bands and chains increase the resistance as the range of motion increases, using them on the close-grip bench press places maximal stress on the triceps, while minimizing the stress on the chest and delts, which are used in the lower half of the range of motion.
5. Drop it
The Weider Principle known as drop sets is an intensity technique that can be applied to any of the exercises above to push your triceps growth beyond that possible with straight sets. To do a drop set, you simply take a set to failure, and then immediately reduce the weight and continue the set to failure again. This can be done one, two, three, or as many times as you want to punish your triceps.
Research performed by the Weider Research Group discovered that the optimal weight to drop on each drop set is 20—30% of the original weight. We suggest you only do drop sets on the last set or two of each exercise to prevent overtraining. Drop sets work to boost muscle growth by taking the muscle to the point beyond muscle failure. This can help to increase growth hormone release, which stimulates muscle growth.