If you’re like 99.9% of lifters, your initial approach to training arms was simple: Biceps curls, and lots of them! Early on, most newbies to the iron game took a pretty straightforward approach to hitting arms, as we figured biceps muscles (targeted by biceps curls) were the entire upper arms. As we learned more about the physiology of the human body, we unlocked the long-guarded secret that the biceps only comprise about 40% of the upper arm muscle. The other elusive 60% is actually a three-headed beast known as the triceps, and is trained with a whole new group of exercises, completely independent of the biceps curls we’ve grown to know and love!
Whether or not you know it, free weights are your best friend in the gym. All too many new lifters will discover the convenience and allure of the cable and machine movements, and build their baseline workouts upon these movements. While the simplicity of such exercises, with fixed arcs and self-explanatory movement, may be a draw to new lifters, they are often doing themselves a great disservice by ignoring the heavy compound movements for triceps which will build up the bulk of your beef. Adding the use of “stabilizer muscles” to control and balance the weights recruits a whole new batch of muscle fibers which will grow bigger and stronger thanks to their use. Your workouts should involve at least 60% of your work coming from heavy, cast iron lifting!
If you look at photos or videos of the top bodybuilders in the world, you will see their upper arms are a cluster of thick, wadded muscle mass. This doesn’t come from “pumping” the biceps with set after high volume set of cable curls for 10 to 20 to 30 repetitions. Rather, it is the fast-twitch fibers of the very low repetition work which will recruit and fire those thick sinewy muscle fibers, required for thick upper arm cuts.
Many of us tend to develop a natural comfort zones which match our personalities, body types and preferences when training. Naturally strong people usually train with very heavy weights, and tend to end up completing most of their sets in the 5 to 8 repetition range. They just go heavy all of the time. Naturally ripped people with plenty of stamina often end up using higher reps all of the time, because it’s what they’re good at, leaving them in the 12 to 20 rep range for most exercises. And the average lifter usually ends up with average sets, going for 8 to 10 most of the time. You should work to hit ALL of these repetition ranges with each workout, leaving no muscle fiber group unturned!
As you train, you should make an effort to take a long, hard look at each of the exercises you are completing. Is your form proper? Are you pausing at the point of contraction? Are your elbows and hands in the optimal position? Is there any way you could make this movement any harder, thus reaping more rewards from your training? Every repetition of every exercise is a terrific opportunity to become more self-aware of what you can change to engage in a more effective training program for your triceps.
Every triceps workout should end with a ‘burn out’ set in which you grab a light weight on a balanced, controlled cable or machine, and just rep out a few dozen repetitions to completely finish off the shoulders of the day. Slow, controlled safe reps, with breaths whenever needed, are most ideal. Just push yourself until the body is cooked. And when you can’t move the weight any more, drop it (carefully), but don’t stop yet. Spend another 3-5 minutes flexing the triceps. Really work to etch out detail and saturate those muscle fibers of the upper arm with as much nutrient-rich blood as humanly possible.
One of the biggest mistakes trainers can make – if they’re indeed serious about thrashing the triceps to the highest degree – is to try to “fit in” their triceps training after an excruciating chest or biceps training session. Placing any muscle group as a “follow up” to a high volume, major muscle group is essentially de-prioritizing it, which is not the way you are going to see new gains. For the brief time that you are truly making triceps a #1 focus, you should be giving triceps their own training day. Get creative with your other training sessions to compensate for the weekday splits. Combine back and biceps, back and chest, or even back and shoulders for a few weeks, in order to offset the training difference. Giving triceps one full hour of heavy training when you’re fresh and energized gives you the best possible chance at instilling some new and profound muscle and strength gains. Good luck!