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Whether you’re trying to build arms that would be considered weapons of mass destruction or just want to ‘tone’ your triceps and reduce that arm jiggle, training your triceps is going to be key!

The triceps have much more growth potential than the biceps. This is because the triceps are made up of three heads (long, medial, and lateral), whereas the biceps are just made up of two heads (short & long). It’s important to not only understand how the triceps function, but also what makes the three heads different so you won’t have any gaps within your training regimen.  

Ask a random meathead how to target the long head of the triceps, and I guarantee you they shout out some sort of overhead extension variation in pure confidence… Well I want you guys to get an understand on why that’s not really correct.

All three heads of the tricep are responsible for elbow extension. That’s the primary function of the tricep brachii. However, the long head of the tricep actually crosses the shoulder joint, and is also responsible for extending the shoulder.  So when training your triceps, your shoulder position is going to influence how the tension is distributed across the muscle, and which heads of the tricep will be forced to do the majority of the work.  


@nycsuperman – Haras Karimi – WNBF Pro

The problem is, you’ve been lied to in the past…

Everything you’ve once been told about targeting the long head of the tricep is most likely heavily misunderstood.  I’ve heard it multiple times in the past, “if you want to target the long head of the triceps, you have to do ‘overhead’ variations”. So although ‘overhead’ variations do put the long head of the tricep in an extreme stretch (lengthened) position and it can put a lot of stress and tension on the muscle, this position actually inhibits the long head from concentrically contracting.  This means when you’re doing overhead tricep extensions, the medial and lateral head are actually doing the majority of the work!

This is due to the length-tension relationship.  

Every muscle follows this law!

All muscles are strongest and can produce the greatest amount of force when they’re in the middle of its range. However, when a muscle is in a shortened position or lengthened position (as the long head is in an overhead position), it’s ability to create force is significantly inhibited and the muscle is weak in these extreme ends of the range.

Utilizing the electromyography (EMG) technology in the Human Performance Lab at the University of Tampa, I am able to demonstrate how different variations of tricep extension effect the muscle.  

As you can see, the long head of the triceps get greater activation when I’m performing cable triceps pushdowns with essentially two distinct movements.  I initiate the movement by just extending at my elbow joint, but I then finish the concentric portion of the rep by extending my shoulder joint. As you can see from the EMG signal, the long head gets significantly greater activation as I’m getting it in a shorter position.

Another variation I highly recommend for targeting the long head is tricep kickbacks.  This is most commonly performed with dumbbells, but I suggest utilizing a cable column or a resistance band.  The dumbbell kickback is a good exercise, however, the strength profile of that exercise is very uneven. It’s only really challenging at the end of the range when your triceps are fully extended, while it’s essentially effortless and doesn’t stress the triceps in the beginning of the range.  

Utilizing a cable or resistance band eliminates this issue, as there is constant tension throughout the entire range of motion.

So, although the long head of the triceps isn’t getting a lot of activation when performing the overhead triceps variation, I still recommend you include this variation into your training regimen. Since it does put your long head in such an extreme stretched position, it’s potential to create a significant amount of muscle damage during the eccentric contractions is actually very high. Muscle damage is one key mechanism for muscle hypertrophy, so this variation serves it’s purpose. Moreover, this variation is a great way to force the medial and lateral heads to do a lot of the concentric work!

When it comes to training arms, you don’t need a ton of variation in your programming, but you should consider using 2-3 exercises that provide different stimuli from one another.  

For triceps I would suggest:

  • 1 exercise with your shoulder extended (i.e. tricep kickbacks)
  • 1 exercise with your shoulder neutral (i.e. cable tricep pushdowns)
  • 1 exercise with your shoulder flexed (i.e. overhead tricep extension)

A very similar approach is best when training biceps – check out my previous article utilizing the EMG in the lab to optimize your spider curl technique!

  • 1 exercise with your shoulder extended (i.e. incline dumbbell curl)
  • 1 exercise with your shoulder neutral (i.e. standing curl of choice)
  • 1 exercise with your shoulder flexed (i.e. spider curl)   

Give these exercises a shot, and let the triceps gains begin!


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