Out of all the body compositions out there (besides the morbidly obese of course), I personally can’t stand the “Skinny Fat” look — and this is only because it’s what Ive had to deal with for many years.
I can speak from personal experience how hard it is to build bigger arms while having a belly that isn’t fun to look at.
With naturally small wrists and forearms, I was always looking for newer, better routines to pack some size onto my arms.
And the worst part? When you cut, your arms WILL get smaller. It’s just how it is if you’re natural and not on dat der gear nom’sayin?
You can’t grow your arms without being in a caloric surplus — you need the calories to add size.
But, this is also bad news because putting yourself into a bulk when you’re not in a lean state means you’re guaranteed to add more inches to your belly (usually many more).
For every 1 inch you add to your arms, you might add 3 or more to you waist. Not good, friend!
I’ve had arms in the 16 inche range, as well as in the 12 inch range. When I’m cutting for an extended period of time, my arms hover around the 14-15 inch range (where they currently are).
It sucks that they appear to lose size, but it’s actually only temporary during the cutting period.
The good news? As long as you’re maintaining your strength, your arms will grow quickly when you start to increase your calories after you’re done cutting weight.
However, you want to be lean enough so that when you do move into maintenance, you still got dat der chiseled look when you’re adding calories.
Anyway, let’s discuss what I’ve learned that has helped me to develop my triceps strength over the years.
Compound Exercises Are Great For Tricep Muscle Growth
While isolation exercises definitely have their place (such as a dedicated arm day), you would be a fool to leave out the compound exercises.
What’s a compound exercise you ask?
A compound exercise is any movement you do that involves more than one muscle group.
It’s why people tend to focus on bench pressing, deadlifts, military press, pull-ups and squats. These are the big compound movements.
Upper body compound exercises like the bench and military press use your triceps.
In fact, anytime you’re extending your elbows in an exercise, you’re most likely using your triceps.
This is good news because as long as you’re progressing in these compound lifts, your triceps are getting stronger as well.
This is why, as a true warrior, you goal as a lifter should focus on strength gains.
Body building routines have their place and all, but you will struggle to keep mass on your body as a natural if you don’t have a high level of strength.
Trust the guy (me huehuehue) that spent years doing body building routines while ignoring strength — you’ll lose your mass quickly when you don’t have actual strength.
Therefore, if you really want to guarantee growth in your triceps, spend most of your time getting stronger in the compound lifts.
Week after week. Month after month.
Feel free to directly target the arms afterwards if you want.
Or, you can add an additional arm day into your week if it doesn’t keep you from progressing in your strength goals.
If you’re currently on a mission to burn fat and get the lean warrior look, then I wouldn’t add in an arm day — it’s not really beneficial when the deficit will keep you from gains.
However, if you’re already lean and you’re ready to build up your arms, dedicating one day per week to your arms will give you great results.
The Three Heads of the Tricep
This isn’t necessary information since you’ll most likely be hitting all parts of the triceps in your workouts, but let’s take a look instead:
First of all, the triceps make up 2/3 of your arms. It’s really the part of the arm that makes you look bigger — not your biceps.
Keep this in mind before you’re about to do 4 sets of curls in the squat rack (please don’t be that type of bro).
The Lateral Head: This is the outer part of the tricep. It’s what pops and makes you look YUUUUUUGE.
The Long Head: This is actually the most important part of the tricep as it gives your arms the “thickness” that you want. Thick arms are good looking arms. This arms means your diet has too much soy. JK.
The Medial Head: While this head isn’t visible due to it lying underneath the other two heads, it’s incredibly important as it’s size pushes the other muscles outward — making your arm bigger. Cool!
While there are certain exercises that may target the different heads, you can’t truly isolate each head from each other — they all work together.
However, what I think you should do personally is focus on exercises that hit the long head the best. Afterall, it’s the part of the arm that gives you that thickness.
Most importantly, because this bears repeating, that getting stronger in your heavy presses will add long-term size to your triceps.
You can also perform Dips if you really want to focus on the lateral head. Dips, especially weighted dips, is an exercise that is well-worth getting very strong at.
As for the medial head, you can’t go wrong with Close-Grip Presses. You can do these with a barbell, a smith machine, or dumbbells.
As long as you’re getting progressing in these exercises and getting enough calories, your triceps will grow.
And, despite what you may been told otherwise, you can’t really isolate the different heads of the triceps.
However, you can definitely place more emphasis on the different heads, depending which ones you think are lacking in your development.
Sample Tricep Routine Hitting The Three Heads
Let’s take a look at of an example day where you’ve decided to hit the triceps hard.
Assuming you’re hitting enough calories to buid size, you’ll only need around 6-9 extra sets of arm work after your compound movements.
It’s important that you do all three of these exercises for 2-3 sets each.
Exercise 1: Cable Rope Pushdowns
This exercise is a very popular one, but I’ve noticed that most people perform it incorrectly.
This happens when you’re ego lifting and using too much weight.
The easiest way to know if you’re using too much weight is if you aren’t able to split the rope at full extension.
This means that when your arms are fully extended, the rope should be split as much as it can.
You should be able to hold this position for a solid one-count.
If you can’t split the rope, you’re using too much weight.
If you have to lean over the rope and activate other muscles of your upper body, you’re using too much weight.
If your elbows are flaring out and you can’t keep them at the side of your body, you’re using too much weight.
Get your ego in check — use just your triceps to split the rope at full extension.
Practice getting the correct form down with a lighter weight. Then, you can progress over the next several weeks and months to heavier and heavier weight.
Perform 8-12 reps keeping the weight the same each set and resting for around 60 seconds between each set.
When you’re able to perform 12 reps for all of your sets with perfect form and within the rest period, you are ready to add a little more weight the next time you hit your triceps.
This exercise also puts an emphasis on the lateral head of the tricep.
Exercise 2: Bodyweight Skullcrushers
I actually never see anybody performing this exercise at the gym I go to, but it’s one of the most effective exercises.
I’m actually a big fan of bodyweight training and have used programs such as THENX for several weeks at a time (another topic for another day).
I don’t like to perform the standard skullcrusher with barbells or EZ bar simply because it puts a lot of strain on the elbows.
Why not utilize your bodyweight (which is more weight than a barbell) and hit your triceps that way?
Here’s how I recommend you perform the Bodyweight Skullcrusher:
Find a smith machine and lower the bar to around the height of your dink (lol).
Grab the bar with your hands and straighten out your legs so that you’re at about a 40 degree angle to the bar.
Perform the exercise by lowering your body until your head is below the bar.
Is that confusing as hell to visualize? You bet! Thank god for Youtube because this video is a great 30-second demonstration:
You’ll want to work your way up to 2 sets of 12 reps each.
But, what makes this exercise so awesome is the fact that you can sloooow yourself down to make the reps harder.
So, when you find yourself able to complete 2 sets of 12 reps, take it slower on each rep the next time you perform this exercise.
You’ll get a sick burn and size to boot as well. I’ve always surprised at how much size I gain just from bodyweight exercises (which is why I’m a big fan).
Another reason why I like this exercise is because it’s better for your elbows.
Skullcrusher-type exercises are notorious for causing elbow pain due to the stress that weights place on the joints and tendons.
I don’t recommend heavy-weighted skullcrushers for this very reason. I’ve dealt with elbow pain in the past and it’s NOT fun.
Exercise 3: Bodyweight Dips
Last, but definitely not least, is another bodyweight exercise — the Dips.
Specifically, narrow-grip dips (some machines have a wide and narrow dip option. Go with the narrow options to hit the triceps hard).
Make sure you are keeping your elbows close to your body or else you’ll activate too much chest and upper body.
This is a killer exercise for the triceps and I always notice size increases when I add these into my routine.
My advice is to work your way up to 2 sets of 12. Once you’re able to hit this rep range, you’re ready for the next level:
The weight belt!
That’s right: grab a weight belt and throw on a 10-pound plate. Start light here. Don’t jump into heavy weight. Consistency is the key here.
When you can do 2 sets of 12 with an added 10 pounds, then you’re ready to add another 10 pounds to the weight belt.
Not bad, right?
You’re not going super heavy, but you’re actually getting much stronger by hitting this higher rep range with added weight.
Your arms will blow up with this exercise, and it’s a great finisher to an arm day. 2 sets is really all you need with this one.
Feel free to keep adding 5 to 10 pounds when you hit 2 sets of 12 reps. Your arms will thank you for this!