Revealed: The Best Triceps Exercises According to Science

Science Based Tricep Exercises


Bodybuilding is a time-consuming activity. Not only do you have to find time to train 4-6 times a week, but you also need to eat right, get plenty of rest, do your rehab and prehab exercises, practice your posing, post progress pics on social media, and fit in some cardio into your schedule.

For some guys, just keeping their body hair trimmed is almost a full-time job!

Because your time is so valuable, it makes sense to try and make your workouts as effective as possible. After all, who has time for to waste on unproductive training?

Good news; a study by the American Council on Exercise has revealed what they believe are the best triceps building exercises.

Using wireless electromyography (EMG), The American Council on Exercise (ACE) and scientists at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse measured the activity of the triceps brachii during eight popular triceps exercises to determine which one was best.

The ACE study was done using 15 participants, all of whom had some strength training experience. While this was not a particularly large cohort of subjects, the results may still help you choose which exercises to prioritize when lack-of training time is an issue. 

In this article, we reveal the results of the study and how to use this information to build your best triceps ever!  

The Best Triceps Exercises According to Science

Not sure which exercises are best for building tremendous triceps? Here, in reverse order, are the eight best triceps exercises according to science. Including any of these exercises in your arm workouts will help you sculpt the triceps of your dreams.  

No Triceps Exercise Combined Means Long Head Lateral Head
1 Close grip bench press 62 ± 15.88 61 ± 16.9 63 ± 15.5
2 Lying barbell triceps extensions 62 ± 16.25 70 ± 20.9 55 ± 14.1
3 Triceps pushdowns (straight bar) 67 ± 20.48 75 ± 29.3 59 ± 14.3
4 Triceps pushdowns (rope handle) 74 ± 22.64 81 ± 32.3 67 ± 15.7
5 Overhead triceps extensions 76 ± 16.09 81 ± 21.4 72 ± 16.5
6 Dips 87 ± 19.87 87 ± 21.3 88 ± 20.0
7 Dumbbell kickbacks 87 ± 26.58 88 ± 33.0 87 ± 23.7
8 Triangle push-ups 100 100 100

8 – Close grip bench press

All types of bench press work your triceps. However, when you move your hands closer together, this usually chest-dominant pressing exercise becomes much more triceps-dominant.

The close grip bench press allows you to lift heavy weights to really overload your triceps, so it’s good for building muscle and strength simultaneously.

For safety and comfort, do not do this exercise with your hands too close together. That puts a whole lot of unwanted stress on your wrists, elbows, and shoulders. Instead, just a slightly narrower-than shoulder-width grip.

Learn how to do close grip bench presses here.

7 – Lying barbell triceps extensions (skull crushers)

This exercise is so-called because it involves lowering a weight to your forehead. Lower the weight too fast or fail completely, and you could crack yourself on the noggin! Safety issues aside, the skull crusher is a very effective triceps exercise. You can do it with a barbell, EZ bar, or dumbbells.

The dumbbell variation is arguably safer and may even be more effective as you can move your arms through a greater range of motion. You will also get a better triceps workout if you do this exercise on a declined bench as you’ll need to increase triceps engagement to keep your arms vertical.

Read more about lying barbell triceps extensions here.

6 – Triceps pushdowns (straight bar)

Triceps pushdowns are near the top of most bodybuilders’ list of must-do triceps exercises. They’re easy to perform and ideal for pump-inducing drop sets. Cable pushdowns also keep your muscles under constant tension, which helps explain why they’re such an effective muscle builder.

However, many lifters lean forward too much when they do this exercise, turning pushdowns into something like a decline bench press. This might mean you can lift more weight or do more reps, but it takes some of the tension off the target muscles.

So, get more from triceps pushdowns by keeping your torso upright and your upper arms pinned to your sides.

Read more about triceps pushdowns (straight bar) here.

5 – Triceps pushdowns (rope handle)

According to the ACE study, doing triceps pushdowns with a rope is slightly more effective than using a straight bar. This is probably because using a rope allows for a larger range of motion, and you can squeeze your triceps harder at the end of each rep. Some lifters also find that rope pushdowns are more comfortable and elbow-friendly than the straight bar variation.

Ultimately, straight bar and rope handle triceps pushdowns are pretty interchangeable, but rope pushdowns may be marginally more beneficial.

However, as before, the key to getting the most from this exercise is keeping your torso upright and your upper arms close to your sides. Or, you can get the best of both worlds by using a V-bar, but that wasn’t included in the ACE study to find the best triceps exercise.

Learn how to do triceps pushdown (rope handle) here.

4 – Overhead triceps extensions

While the ACE study doesn’t specify if this exercise was done seated or standing or using a barbell, dumbbell, or cable, all variations of overhead triceps extensions, also known as the French press, are effective triceps exercises.

Done with your upper arms next to your ears, this exercise requires good shoulder and thoracic spine mobility, which may help explain why such an effective exercise is not as popular as it should be.

But, whether you use freeweights or a cable machine, and providing you can do it comfortably and safely, the overhead triceps extension is an excellent upper arm exercise.

Follow the links to learn more about barbell overhead extensions, dumbbell overhead extensions, and cable overhead extensions. Try all three variations to determine which one is best for you.

3 – Dips

Somewhat controversially, the ACE study analyzed the effect of bench dips rather than regular parallel bar dips. Maybe the participants weren’t very strong?!

Regardless, both types of dips, when done with an upright torso, are very effective exercises for building bigger, more powerful triceps. However, the bench variation can be hard on the shoulders, so parallel dips are arguably your best option and the one we’d typically recommend. Whichever one you do, keep your body as upright as you can to maximize triceps recruitment.

Read more about triceps dips here.

2 – Dumbbell kickbacks

Let’s be honest here, most bodybuilders avoid this exercise, and those that do it use too much weight and end up swinging their dumbbells instead of using their triceps. However, done correctly, and according to ACE, the much-maligned dumbbell kickback is one of the best triceps exercises around!

Triceps kickbacks involve shoulder extension AND elbow extension, both of which are functions of the triceps. This combination of movements produces a very intense contraction, which explains why this exercise rates so highly.

For best results, do kickbacks using a cable instead of dumbbells. The dumbbell variation is fine, but it’s too easy to cheat. Using a cable means your triceps are under tension for the entire range of motion, and it’s much harder to swing the weight up.

However, it’s important to note that the study measured the effect of dumbbell kickbacks and not the cable version. But, the chances are that the cable version is even better.

Learn how to do cable kickbacks here.

1 – Triangle push-ups

Triangle push-ups are also known as diamond push-ups because that’s the shape your hands make when you do this exercise. The great thing about triangle push-ups is that you don’t need any equipment to do them, so they’re ideal for home workouts.

Strangely, triangle push-ups involve a very similar movement to close grip bench presses. Yet, these exercises are at opposite ends of this list of best triceps exercises.

This may be due to the magnitude of the load used during testing. It makes sense that light to moderate weight close grip bench presses would engage the triceps less than triangle push-ups if the participants were not especially strong.

Regardless, there is no denying that the triangle or diamond push-up is an excellent triceps exercise that deserves a place in your workouts. Even if you only use it as a finisher after some heavier arm exercises.

Read more about triangle (diamond) push-ups here.

More Triceps Exercises:

Wrapping Up

Any of the eight exercises included in the ACE study will help you build bigger, more muscular triceps. There are also several other exercises that may be similarly effective but didn’t make it into the study, such as reverse grip pushdowns, single-arm overhead triceps extensions, and bodyweight skull crushers.

However, it seems that, in terms of bang for your buck, triangle push-ups, dumbbell kickbacks, and dips are the best triceps builders, with overhead triceps extensions and pushdowns coming in close behind.

Building your triceps workouts around these exercises should ensure that you get the results you want from your training. However, even though they came out on top, don’t just do these exercises and forget the rest.

Studies have shown that exercise variety is essential for building muscle (2). So, make sure you include several different triceps exercises in your workouts and change movements from one training cycle to the next to avoid boredom and progress plateaus.  

Related: Best Triceps Exercises For Building Bigger and Stronger Arms

References:

1– American Council on Exercise (ACE): ACE Study Identifies the Best Triceps Exercises https://www.acefitness.org

2– PubMed: The Effects of Exercise Variation in Muscle Thickness, Maximal Strength and Motivation in Resistance Trained Men https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

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