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Training the triceps

For a stronger press

If you're looking to cash in on your pressing potential, just performing the big barbell movements won't cut it. Simply because there is always that one lagging muscle in the pressing chain that is holding the rest back, and that needs extra training volume. Today's victim: the triceps. While there are tons of isolation ('single joint') exercises to train this muscle group with, not all of them do as much for improving your bench or strict press. I'll explain how to identify the right triceps exercises for this purpose, and also provide you with some of my own favorites. Programming tips included.

photo by @wearebru

(If you're wondering how to identify lagging triceps in your press, I suggest you read this article first.)

Choosing the right triceps exercises

Important to keep in mind when selecting triceps exercises in support of major pressing movements is that strength gains are quite joint angle specific. If you analyze those presses, then you'll find that the triceps generally contribute most at the top portion of the lift - during the last 45 or so degrees of elbow extension. So that is the range of motion which you want to be targeting with your accessory work. A proper press-building triceps extension is therefore one that tends to require most force development at the top of the movement.

There are a million ways to go about doing this: using bands, chains, barbells, or all kinds of exotic positions. I have however decided to stick to dumbbell exercises for my examples, because they tend to be less abusive on the joints and therefore better serve their purpose as coming secondary to the barbell movements.

Let's get to my 3 personal favorite press-boosting triceps builders:

Incline elbows out extension

This exercise can be done on both a flat or minor incline bench, but I prefer the incline version due to the slightly larger range of motion. A point of focus here is to keep the dumbbells close together at all times in order to keep the strain on the triceps.

Rolling extensions

This is basically a cheated version of the regular dumbbell triceps extension, in which you create momentum with the shoulder in order to catapult the weight up. This allows for more weight to be lifted, which nicely overloads those last degrees of elbow extension. Be mindful not to rock the elbows forward towards the stomach too much on the way up though, because then you will end up using your chest and shoulders too much.

JM press

While this exercise is usually performed with a barbell, I found it to work very well with dumbbells. The best way to imagine this exercise is to view it as a hybrid between a close grip bench press and a regular dumbbell triceps extension. Keep the elbows tucked to the sides all throughout the movement, and stop the dumbbells at 5 to 10cm above the shoulders in order to stay in the relevant range of motion.

Programming tips

I think it's important to treat these exercises like any strength building movement, so breaking PR's is paramount. Personally I perform one of these exercises at least once a week, making sure to switch between them when progress stalls. My preference goes towards doing them for relatively low (6-10) reps, for 4 to 6 sets, right after lighter barbell pressing. Days on which I do heavy pressing I typically opt for lighter triceps extensions with cables or bands (10-30 reps) in order to manage training stress and ensure all round arm development, but that is a personal choice.

Just keep in mind: strength is a specialization, so you better be accentuating the right joint angles if you're serious about breaking records.

Enjoy the soreness!

Bryan Wolters

MSc. Human Movement Sciences, former powerlifter, and current trainer at Vondelgym Amsterdam.

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