The triceps are muscles that sometimes get neglected. That’s partially because we’re so focused on working the muscle we can see in the front of the arm – the biceps. Not surprising since these are the muscles we can see when we flex in front of a mirror. The triceps are a muscle group you don’t routinely see but anyone walking behind you can. So, your triceps are still on display!
Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to develop “bat wings,” weak, flabby triceps that flop around when you wave to someone. That’s why triceps training matters! Plus, working your triceps as much as your biceps also helps prevent muscle imbalances that can lead to injury or unequal muscle development.
What’s Your Favorite Triceps Exercise?
If you’re like most people, your “go to” triceps exercise is likely triceps kickbacks using dumbbells. This exercise effectively targets the triceps muscles and is on most people’s training list. Based on a study carried out by the American Council on Exercise, triceps kickbacks rank in the top three of most effective triceps exercises based on EMG studies. An EMG uses electrodes to measure how well they’re activated when doing a particular exercise.
What other exercises are effective? Based on this study, the “big three” for triceps development are triangle push-ups, kickbacks, and dips. You probably already do some form of push-up and kickbacks. Don’t stop doing them, but if you aren’t doing triceps dips, you’re missing out.
The beauty of dips is you can do them even if you don’t have weights handy since you’re using your own body weight. Plus, triceps dips are a compound exercise that burns more calories and works more muscle groups than isolation exercises, like kickbacks. When you dip, you force your triceps to lift your body weight upward and this is quite effective for building strength and muscle size. When you slightly boost the size of your triceps, they look more defined.
One problem with triceps dips is there’s a tendency to use momentum and bounce off the bottom of a dip. When you use momentum with dips, you decrease the tension on the muscle and this, in turn, limits your gains. How to do them properly? Place your hands on a bench and your feet on a bench leg distance away so you can lower your body between the two benches. Place your hands a few inches apart on the first bench with your fingers pointing toward your feet.
To do the move effectively, slowly lower your body down towards the floor without moving your elbows or allowing your shoulders to move forward. Descend as low as you can before raising your body up using your triceps until your arms are fully extended. Pause for less than a second and repeat the movement.
If triceps dips using two benches is too challenging, place your hands on the edge of one bench but keep your feet on the floor with your knees bent to 90 degrees. Slowly descend as you bend your elbows and lower your body until your elbows are at 90 degrees. Once your elbows are at 90 degrees, lift your body back up until your elbows are straight.
Doing the exercise with a bench and bent knees reduces the weight your triceps have to work against and makes the exercise easier. Once you’ve mastered this beginner triceps dip, try it with your legs extended out in front of you with one foot placed over the other. Once you’ve mastered this variation, try it with your feet on a bench level with your hands.
Make Dips More Challenging
Of course, you have to use progressive overload to continue to make gains. You can do this by increasing the number of reps you do over time or you can change the height of the bench to make the exercise more challenging. If you increase the height of the bench, it places more force on the triceps as you descend, so your triceps have to work harder.
Another way to alter the stress you place on your triceps is to put a weight on your lap as you descend into a dip. A weight plate works well for this. A dumbbell may be too unstable and will have a tendency to fall off your lap. Another variation is to make the concentric portion of the dip more explosive. Explosive movements activate fast-twitch muscle fibers, the strength and power fibers that help your triceps grow and become stronger.
To do this, assume the dip position. Slowly move your body toward the floor until your elbows are at 90 degrees. When you reach the bottom, explode upward until you reach the starting position. Then, slowly descend again. With this variation on the movement, you’re building more powerful triceps as well.
Beyond a Triceps Dip
It takes more than triceps dips to get triceps that don’t flop when you wave your arm. Be sure to include a variety of triceps moves in your workout, including kickbacks, close-grip or triangle push-ups, overhead triceps extensions, close-grip bench press, and bar or rope push-downs. Also, make sure you’re doing some high-intensity cardio to burn fat. One reason triceps flop is because there’s too much fat covering the muscle. Of course, nutrition is also part of the equation, so make sure you’re eating whole foods and getting enough calories and protein for the muscle to hypertrophy.
One word of caution – if you have a history of shoulder problems, approach this exercise with caution. Triceps dips place compression on the shoulder joint and increase the risk of injury. Always use good form and only do this exercise if you have healthy shoulders.
The Bottom Line
Triceps dips are an effective exercise for taking your triceps development to the next level. Don’t get into a rut. Change the height of the bench as you progress or place a weight on your lap for added resistance. You have to keep challenging yourself to continue to see change! Your muscles need a progressively increasing stimulus to grow and change. Make sure you’re giving it to them.
American Council on Exercise. “ACE-sponsored Research: Best Triceps Exercises”
Mcardle, W.D, Katch, F.J, Katch, V.L Exercise Physiology: Energy, Nutrition & Human Performance. 6th edition, 2006.
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