Not happy with the way your upper arms look from the side? Then it's time to get serious about your outer tricep workout, giving the lateral head of this muscle more time under tension.
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Meet Your Triceps Brachii
Why bother thinking about which head of your triceps you're working? If you're not bodybuilding, you really don't need to; just make sure you occasionally switch up your triceps exercises, and you'll develop the muscular strength and endurance you want.
But if you are bodybuilding, and depending on your genetics and how you've been training, you might need to pay special attention to one or more parts of this three-headed muscle to see balanced development. And while the long head of the triceps provides the most mass, the lateral head is the most readily visible from the side.
Don't forget that even though the triceps are impressive arm muscles, you should be working all your major muscle groups at least twice a week — potentially three times, if you're really serious in the weight room.
If the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' say-so, isn't enough, remember that combining seriously pumped-up triceps with other, underdeveloped body parts can look pretty silly — even if those other body parts aren't as immediately obvious in the mirror.
Which Head Does What?
One of the most relevant studies for this topic was published in the May 2018 issue of Acta Orthopaedica et Traumatologica Turcica. Researchers used electromyography (EMG) to evaluate how different degrees of shoulder flexion affected the activity of the different triceps heads.
They found that the long head of the triceps — the one you want to de-emphasize if you're working the medial or lateral heads — was most involved with elbow extension when your arms are straight down at your sides. Due to the long head of your triceps being the only biarticulate (crossing two joints) part of this muscle, your choice of shoulder angle can be particularly helpful in de-emphasizing its activation. Introducing shoulder flexion helps shift the emphasis to your medial and lateral triceps.
The lateral head of the triceps showed a pattern of force similar to the medial head, but the lateral head exerted less force overall. Or to put it another way, no lateral head tricep exercises are going to completely isolate the lateral and medial heads from each other. But what you can do is choose exercises that de-emphasize the long head of the triceps, and that offer as much lateral head activity as possible.
Just to complicate things a little more, another EMG study — this one sponsored and published by the American Council on Exercise — took a closer look at activity in the lateral and long heads of the triceps muscle during some popular exercises, and found that some of the best lateral head tricep exercises also ranked high for the long head of the triceps muscle.
Lateral Head Tricep Exercises
As already mentioned, you can't entirely isolate one head of the triceps from the others. But you can choose exercises based on your current state of muscular development, and whether you'd rather give the long head or the medial head of your triceps a little more focus along with the lateral head.
And if you're not bodybuilding, any of these exercises are an excellent choice to work your triceps.
Read more: How to Fix a Sore Tricep
1. Overhead Triceps Extension
The Acta Orthopaedica et Traumatologica Turcica study found another piece of useful information: Although it's still not exerting as much force as the medial head, the lateral head of your triceps activates more at 180 degrees of shoulder flexion than at lesser degrees of shoulder flexion. So overhead exercises like the triceps extension are a good way to emphasize your outer tricep workout.
- Hold a dumbbell vertically in front of you with both hands, palms against the inner weight plate on one side, thumbs and fingers overlapping to surround the handle of the weight where it meets that inner plate.
- Press the dumbbell up over your head — this is the starting position of the exercise.
- Keep your elbows stable on either side of your head as you bend your arms, lowering the weight behind your head.
- Straighten your arms again, pressing the weight straight up overhead to complete the repetition.
2. Triangle Push-Ups
According to the aforementioned study from the American Council on Exercise, triangle push-ups (also called diamond push-ups) are among the best possible exercises for working the lateral head of your triceps. They're also very good for working the long head of your triceps.
- Position yourself on your hands and knees. Adjust your hands so that your thumbs and first fingers are touching, creating the shape of a triangle or diamond.
- Straighten your legs so that you're balanced on your hands and toes in a normal push-up position. Check your body position — you should be straight like a plank from head to heels. If doing the exercise from this position is too hard, you can put your knees back down on the ground and hold yourself straight from head to knees, in what's known as a modified push-up position.
- Squeeze your core muscles to stabilize your body as you bend your arms, lowering your chest toward the floor.
- Straighten your arms, pressing yourself back up to complete the repetition.
3. Triceps Push-Downs
Ask a dozen different bodybuilders, and you'll get a dozen different opinions about which triceps push-down handles are best for an outer tricep workout. At least they all agree that triceps push-downs are good for your arms!
- Attach a straight bar or rope handle to a high cable pulley.
- Stand facing the pulley, and take the handle in an overhand grip.
- Squeeze your core to stabilize your torso as you straighten your arms, pressing the handle down. If you're using the rope handle, draw the ends of the rope out to the side.
- Maintain that core stability as you bend your arms, allowing the handle to rise back up and complete the repetition.
It's OK to lean forward from the hips a bit during this exercise, giving you the freedom to move your arms slightly forward, away from that arms-at-the-sides position in which the long head of your triceps acts so powerfully on elbow extension.
But take care not to use your body weight to press the pulley handle down; don't let your elbows spread apart during the exercise, and don't swing them back toward the sides of your body, either.
- Acta Orthopaedica et Traumatologica Turcica: "The Different Role of Each Head of the Triceps Brachii Muscle in Elbow Extension"
- American Council on Exercise: "ACE-Sponsored Research: Best Triceps Exercises"
- ExRx.net: "Cable Pushdown"
- ExRx.net: "Dumbbell Triceps Extension"
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 1. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"