When I first read that the triceps are naturally bigger and stronger than the biceps, my first thought was, “What the hell are the triceps?” (this was some time ago, you understand, when the internet was a pup). Since then, I’ve paid as much attention in workouts to my triceps as I do to my biceps because there is little point in focusing on one and ignoring the other. If you want to develop and maintain strong arms, you need to work on your triceps. And if the aesthetic thing is important to you, you really need to work on them.
The triceps (triceps brachii) is a three-headed muscle that lies on the underside of your upper arm, which probably explains why many people ignore it: you have to make an effort just to see the triceps, whereas the biceps muscle is right there, sitting on top of the arm, getting all the attention. The main function of the triceps is extending the forearm at the elbow joint. It also helps to stabilize and extend the shoulder.
Because the shoulder is such a supremely mobile joint, it is relatively unstable — shoulder pain is common in adults — so strong triceps muscles play an important role in protecting it. The triceps also helps to stabilize your elbow when you are writing or performing other fine movements.
But are triceps extensions the secret to stronger triceps? Read on to find out what happened when I tried them for a week. Looking for more workout inspiration? Here's what happened I did 30 bicep curls a day for a week, plus when I did 30 supermans a day for a week to strengthen my lower back.
How to do a triceps extension
The triceps extension is an isolation exercise that can be done with a single dumbbell. Some people use one hand, but it’s best to use two if you are just starting out, or have concerns about putting too much pressure on your shoulder joint.
Begin by standing with your feet about shoulder-width apart, one foot slightly ahead of the other, for balance. Don’t lock out your knees and make sure your core is engaged, which will help you maintain good posture and form. Grab one of the best adjustable dumbbells by the handle with both hands, inhale and raise it over your head as high and straight as you comfortably can.
Choose a weight that challenges you but is not so heavy that it’s pulling you back. If you feel tension through your shoulders, lower your arms a little. Your flexibility will improve. With your arms by your head, and looking straight ahead, exhale and slowly bend your elbows to lower the dumbbell behind you. When your elbows are at a 90-degree angle, slowly raise your arms and return to the start position. That’s one rep. Aim for three sets of 10.
I did triceps extensions every day for a week — here’s what happened
You can do this exercise by sitting down or standing up. I chose to stand, which meant I’d be giving my core something to do as well. I started off with a 17.5lb weight. On day one, I learned I wasn’t as flexible as I assumed I was. I found myself arching my back a little and my arms tended to flare out as I lowered the dumbbell. To ensure I developed better form, I decided a 14lb weight was a smarter bet.
Keep your arms close to the sides of your head as your lower and raise, to maintain focus on your triceps and avoid putting pressure on your shoulder joint. Perhaps it was that same lack of flexibility, but I also felt the move in my trapezius muscles, across my upper back. These muscles support the arms, so perhaps this wasn’t so strange. I found the movement unnatural and though I completed the three sets of 10, it was much harder than I’d expected, even with the lighter weight.
I was surprised to feel some soreness at the point where the triceps joined my elbows. I decided to do the move while facing a mirror, which helped me to keep my arms close to my head but did nothing for my dignity. (Don’t perform this move when wearing a T-shirt that normally skims your waist. The flash of — in my case — very pale belly was distracting.)
I felt I was raising the weight a little higher, but I was still unhappy with my form. I was inclined to push up into my shoulders as I lifted. The key to this exercise is to concentrate on moving only your forearms. Everything else should remain stationary.
On day three, I decided to try the one-handed variation. This is a different movement because your elbow will be out to the side, rather than facing forward, as you lower the weight behind your head, and you will have less shoulder stability. Oddly, I found I got a better workout with the two-handed version. It forced me to concentrate more on getting the movement right. Try both – the one-handed version may suit you better.
Back to the two-handed version, I could feel my confidence growing. The movement was easier, I was raising higher, and my upper arms were glued to the sides of my head. You may feel the urge to tuck in your chin as you lower the weight behind your head. Resist! It puts pressure on your neck and it looks truly terrible. The movement was beginning to feel smooth and, once again, I marveled at the body’s ability to quickly adapt and learn. I managed three sets of 15.
I picked up the 17.5lb weight, as I felt I had nailed the form aspect. Naturally, it was more of a challenge, but I finished the three sets (back down to 10) and felt I had made considerable progress.
I slowed down the movement on day six, noting my stance, core, shoulder position and breathing. I recommend this to anyone doing this exercise, or any other. When you slow down and focus solely on what you are doing, you realize that the body is an extraordinary piece of machinery and that even when you’re doing an isolation exercise, your other muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, and joints are quietly working away to allow you to get on with it.
On day seven, I added five more reps to each set without too much difficulty. This was down to correct form and confidence, as it takes many weeks to develop strength. But you can be sure that if you persist with this move, you will become stronger and you will notice bigger triceps.
During this series of challenges, I’ve done a few moves that worked my upper arms and I feel they are better defined than they were. I just asked my girlfriend if this was the case and she said, “I dunno, I haven’t really looked. Probably.” Good enough for me.
Looking for more arm workout inspiration? Here's what happened when our fitness editor did 100 single-arm clean and presses, plus, try this kettlebell full-body workout.