Your triceps are an incredibly important muscle!
They’re so much more than just “glamor muscles”, despite the fact that they’re among the only muscles people see every day.
Triceps give your arms definition, and far more size than the biceps. In fact, between 55 and 65% of your arm size comes from the triceps muscles. Your biceps have a fraction of the growth potential that your triceps do. If you want bigger arms, you need to spend more time training your triceps.
But the muscles aren’t just for show. They’re the first muscles that are engaged with any “push” movement.
Your triceps are engaged in every single pushing movement—Shoulder Presses, Bench Presses, Push-Ups, Handstand Push-Ups. Whether the target is your chest (like Bench Presses) or your shoulders (like Shoulder Presses), your triceps have to work to aid the larger muscle groups in doing the pushing work.
Your triceps also play an important role in your upper body mobility. They help move your arms at the elbows, and improve your range of motion. They’re vital for any activity that utilizes upper body muscles (particularly swimming and boxing).
To put it succinctly: you need to spend time strengthening your triceps. Your ability to exercise and lift heavy depends on it!
Understanding Your Triceps Muscles
The triceps muscles on the backs of your arms are actually made up of three parts:
- The long head. This is the “inner” part of your upper triceps, the part closest to your body.
- The lateral head. This is the “outer” part of your upper triceps, the part farthest from your body.
- The medial head. This is the lower part of your triceps, which connects just behind your elbow. It’s also the smallest part.
The long head connects to your scapula (shoulder bone), the lateral head is connected to your humerus (upper arm), and the medial head is connected only to the lower part of your humerus with a tendon that stretches down to the ulna (one of your forearm bones).
Triceps serve the function of extending your forearm from the elbow, as well as helping to extend and adduct (move inward) the arms at the shoulder.
The medial head does most of the work of extending the arm, but it’s the two upper heads—long and lateral—that develop the serious pushing power. Hence, they also develop the greatest size.
Go stand in the mirror and flex the muscles on the back of your arm. You’ll notice that you naturally extend your arm downward, of which the upper two heads are flexed. Often, the long head (closer to your body) is larger than your lateral (outward) head. This is because of the two heads, the long head is more engaged in pushing activities.
What does this mean for your triceps training? It means that you need to incorporate exercises that focus more on the lateral head, to help you develop better overall strength. Expanding the lateral head also helps to build greater muscle definition and arm breadth. Your arm will get thicker and the lateral part of your triceps muscle will be more visible than the long head, when viewed from the front.
To improve the definition and strength of both long and lateral heads, it’s a good idea to train using dumbbells. Barbell triceps exercises engage both arms at once, which typically builds more strength in the long head (which does more of the “pushing” work). This isn’t at all a bad thing—it helps you to develop greater push power—but it does focus more on the long head, the larger of the two upper triceps heads.
Using dumbbells isolates your arms, forcing them to work one at a time and giving you greater focus on the specific part of the muscle you want to target.
We’ve collected our favorite dumbbell triceps exercises below, and you’ll find that incorporating them into your workout can help you build serious power while still allowing you to focus on the specific part of the triceps you want to strengthen and grow.
The 11 Best Dumbbell Triceps Exercises
1. Overhead One-Handed Dumbbell Extension
If you want a good “starter” movement that targets your triceps, the overhead dumbbell extension is your best choice. The one-handed variation allows you to rotate your arm to just the right angle to target both the lateral and medial triceps heads according to your specific musculature and joint mobility.
You’ll find that it’s very easy on your shoulder with great options for adapting posture and form according to any instabilities or limitations (caused by injuries), but because it’s all on one arm, you may find it has a higher risk of straining your elbow and overworking the medial muscle head. It’s always best to start light and work your way up to greater weight in order to perform this exercise safely.
2. Overhead Two-Handed Dumbbell Extension
There’s a trade-off when you switch from one-handed to two-handed: you get better stability and greater power in the two arms combined, but your potential range of motion is limited and you are unable to target specific parts of the muscle by adapting your form.
Still, for those who want to maximize gains, doing the overhead two-handed dumbbell extension is the way to go. You get both arms involved in the lift, which allows you to push together (push off each other, too) in order to lift more weight. You’ll often find that the combined force of your two arms is more than double the force of a single arm lifting alone.
3. Dumbbell Kickback
This movement is the crème de la crème for your triceps workout, one guaranteed to hit all three muscle heads. It’s an isolation movement that only allows movement at the elbow, and it requires you to keep your shoulder and torso perfectly still in order to maximize its effectiveness.
The beauty of this exercise: it’s incredibly easy to do and typically requires fairly light weight. It’s a great “finishing” move to maximize triceps muscle growth and strength.
4. Bent-Over Triceps Kickback
For those who want to maximize core strength while getting an excellent triceps workout, this kickback variation is the way to go. It’s the same as the regular kickback—isolated arm movement at the elbow—but instead of supporting your weight on a bench, you’re bent over and using your core muscles to keep yourself steady and your torso isolated.
Unlike the regular dumbbell kickback, you can perform this either one-handed or using both arms at the same time, depending on your preferences.
5. Close Grip Dumbbell Press
The Bench Press is a classic chest exercise, but by shifting your grip close together on a barbell, you emphasize the anterior delts and triceps more. Using dumbbells can simulate the close-grip barbell press, giving you a workout that hits your triceps and the shoulder muscles they help to stabilize—and, as a bonus, strengthens your chest even more.
The effort of keeping the two dumbbells close together while bench pressing them will maximize the effectiveness of this triceps workout, and you’ll find it does wonders for your triceps’ long head. Just make sure to keep your elbows tight by your side—if they flare out, the workout’s focus shifts away from your triceps to your chest.
Read also: Close Grip Dumbbell Press: Muscles Worked, How-To, Variations, and Tips
6. Close Grip Dumbbell Push-Ups
For bodyweight training, Push-Ups are among the “superstar” exercises! They engage every “push” muscle in your body, harness your core, even force you to squeeze your glutes and legs to keep your lower body stable as you work out.
While the focus of standard Push-Ups is on your chest, switching to a Close-Grip (hands just 2-4 inches apart) targets your triceps and shoulders much more effectively. Using a pair of dumbbells as a solid platform to grip elevates your body off the ground and allows for a much deeper Push-Up, and lets you adapt the posture of your hands and wrists to maximize the focus on your triceps.
Read also 13 Next Level Push-Up Variations For Mass, Strength, and Performance
7. Dumbbell Skull Crushers
Skull Crushers are an absolute beast, but don’t worry, no one ends up with a skull crushed! They’re simply given that name due to the way the weights are lowered toward your face/forehead, using the strength of your triceps to push the weight back up.
Using dumbbells for Skull Crushers delivers a two-handed workout, but isolates the weight in each hand to force both of your arms to work at maximum capacity. For those with strength imbalances (one arm stronger than the other), switching to dumbbells allows you to highlight the imbalance and pay extra attention to the weaker arm.
8. Tate Press
The Tate Press could also be called a “Chest Crusher”, because it’s like the Skull Crusher exercise, just with your arms shifted inward toward your body rather than up toward your head. It’s definitely an awkward-looking exercise, and it requires a great deal more control and muscular strength than most people realize. It’s definitely a movement for an experienced lifter, but it can maximize the targeting of your lateral triceps head to build definition on the outside of your arm.
Fair warning: this can be tough on your wrists, elbows, and shoulders. Start with very light weight until you master the proper form, then slowly increase as your joints adapt to the unfamiliar movement.
9. Incline Kickback
Using an incline bench adds an extra element of isolation to your Kickbacks, and allows you to target the muscles at a slightly different angle. You’re still going through the full 90-degree range of motion, but the focal point changes because your body is at a 45-degree angle rather than perfectly flat.
This shifts the focus from your upper triceps to your lower triceps, strengthening the medial head and increasing the power around your elbow. The medial head spends the most time under tension, making it the most effective option to grow your lower triceps in both size and power.
10. JM Press
The JM Press is a “hybrid” exercise, which combines two different exercises—the Skull Crusher and the Close Grip Dumbbell Press—to deliver a more well-rounded, harder-to-complete workout.
Simply put, you start with a Close-Grip Dumbbell Press, and at the top of the concentric phase, you shift into a Skull Crusher. Once you complete the Skull Crusher, you lower the weights to your chest for another Close-Grip Dumbbell Press. That counts as just ONE repetition! You’ll find after 6-8, your triceps are screaming.
11. Dumbbell Seated Triceps Dips
Dips are an amazing bodyweight movement that targets your triceps, with some focus on your shoulders, chest (all the “Push” muscles) and upper back muscles. Doing them using a pair of dumbbells allows you to work closer to the ground and reduce the weight on your arms.
You’ll need a pair of dumbbells that provide a sturdy, solid base of support, as you’ll be standing them on their sides. But the added effort of maintaining your balance despite an unstable weight can increase both triceps and core engagement overall.
Read more about triceps:
Your triceps are very important muscles for maximizing “pushing” power, and for giving your arms the definition and size you want. It’s always a good idea to spend time focusing on your triceps and building the strength that will keep your elbows and shoulders strong in whatever you do.
Use the list of exercises above to help you craft an effective, targeted training session to pay extra attention to your triceps. Test them out, find which feel best for your current fitness and mobility level, and work to increase your strength. As you grow stronger and more mobile, incorporate the other more difficult movements into your routine.
The time you spend working out these crucial push muscles is never wasted!