Watch most people training their triceps, and you’ll probably see them doing things like pushdowns, skull crushers, kickbacks, and other isolation exercises. That makes a lot of sense because isolation exercises allow you really zero in on the muscle you want to work.
Isolation exercises involve movement at just one joint, allowing you to train your muscles from particular angles. In the case of the triceps, that means you can specifically target and emphasize the long, middle, or short heads, sculpting the upper arms of your dreams.
However, isolation exercises have some disadvantages too. For starters, they can be hard on your elbow joints. Elbow joint pain can be very debilitating, affecting your ability to train your upper body as hard as you might otherwise like. You may even need to take a break from training while your elbows heal.
Also, isolation exercises often mean that you can’t lift heavy weights, especially if you use good form. While you can definitely build massive muscles with light to moderate weights, if you want stronger triceps, heavy loads are what is required. Invariably, compound exercises let you lift heavier loads, exposing your muscles to more strength and muscle-building tension.
Finally, triceps isolation exercises can be time-consuming. After all, they only involve one small muscle. If you are short on training time, adding triceps exercises to your workout could be impractical.
The good news is that there are compound exercises that you can use to build bigger, stronger triceps, many of which are much more elbow-friendly.
Triceps Anatomy Basics
The triceps brachii, or triceps for short, is a crucial muscle in bodybuilding and powerlifting. Located on the back of your upper arm, the triceps give your arms a lot of their size. In fact, they make up about two-thirds of your upper arm mass. Beefing up your triceps will give you the sleeve-busting arms you’ve always dreamed of!
Triceps brachii has three different heads:
- The lateral head
- The medial head
- The long head
The triceps are not just a good-looking muscle; they’re also responsible for extending your elbow joint. They’re heavily involved in all pressing exercises, including the bench press and overhead press.
As well as elbow extension, the triceps also play a part in the extension of your shoulder joint, working with your lats and posterior deltoid. However, this is a relatively weak muscle action compared to elbow extension.
The 8 Best Compound Triceps Exercises
Build your arm workouts around these tried-and-tested compound exercises to build triceps that are both BIG and STRONG!
1. Parallel Bar Dips
Parallel bar dips are a classic bodyweight exercise that a lot of lifters use to train their lower pecs but, done with a more upright torso, they’re also a very effective move for overloading your triceps. Some of the best triceps in bodybuilding were built using dips!
If you can 10 or more reps, you are probably ready for weighted dips. Just strap on a weighted vest, a backpack, or use a chin/dip belt. You can also hold a dumbbell between your legs. Start off with about 10% of your body weight and increase after that.
Dips can be hard on your shoulders, so make sure you do them correctly for maximum benefit and minimal joint pain.
Check out our guide to dips to find out how to do them the right way.
2. Bench Dips
If you aren’t quite strong enough to do full parallel bar dips, this exercise is a viable alternative. With your feet on the floor or a bench, you only have to lift about 50-60% of your body weight, making them better for beginners and helpful if you want to do some high-rep triceps training.
On the downside, bench dips are potentially even harder on your shoulders than regular dips. That’s especially true if you let your hips drift forward, increasing joint stress. If you’ve already got bad shoulders, this exercise may be one to avoid.
Learn how to do bench dips here.
3. Diamond Push-ups
According to a study done by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), the diamond push-up is one of the best exercises for triceps activation (1). Placing your hands together turns chest-dominant push-ups into a triceps builder you can do almost anywhere and anytime.
Do diamond push-ups on your knees to make them easier, or raise your feet on a step or bench to put more weight on your arms and make them harder. You can also place your hands on a medicine ball for an even more intense triceps workout.
Find out more about this simple but effective triceps exercise here.
4. Close Grip Bench Press
A lot of people risk their wrists, elbows, and shoulders by doing close grip bench presses with their thumbs touching. Don’t be one of them! Such a narrow grip puts a lot of stress on your joints and limits the amount of weight you can use, making the close grip bench press exercise less effective.
Instead, place your hands just slightly narrower than shoulder-width so you can lift more weight and avoid unnecessary joint wear and tear.
Learn how to do close grip bench presses for bigger triceps here.
5. Close Grip Floor Press
No bench? No problem! You can still add bulk and power to your triceps with nothing but some weights and somewhere to lie down. Powerlifters use floor presses to increase triceps strength, and they’re an excellent bodybuilding exercise too.
You can do floor presses with a barbell, dumbbells, or kettlebells. As well as being great for triceps development, the floor press is also pretty easy on your shoulders.
How to do it:
- Lie on the floor and hold your weight over your chest. If using a barbell, use an overhand, slightly narrower than shoulder-width grip. Your legs can be straight or bent as preferred. Pull your shoulders down and back and brace your core.
- Bend your arms and lower the weight(s) down until your upper arms lightly touch the floor. Keep your elbows close to your sides.
- Drive the weight back up and repeat.
Read more about floor presses here.
6. Behind The Neck Press
No, you haven’t opened a shoulder workout article by mistake! Studies show that the overhead press is a moderately effective exercise for the triceps, especially when done behind the neck style (2).
In fact, this was one of Robby Robinson’s favorite triceps builders. Robinson, also known as the Black Prince, had some of the best triceps in the golden era of bodybuilding.
This exercise is ideal for time-pressed lifters who want bigger shoulders and triceps but don’t have time to train these muscle groups separately.
Of course, behind the neck pressing is controversial and could lead to shoulder pain and injuries, especially if you have poor posture or lack the necessary shoulder mobility to do them correctly. Regular overhead barbell presses may be similarly effective while being more shoulder-friendly.
How to do it:
- Seated or standing, hold a barbell across your upper back. Use a shoulder-width or slightly narrower grip to maximize triceps recruitment. Pull your shoulders down and back, brace your abs and lift your chest.
- Press the weight up and overhead to arms’ length. Fully extend your elbows but don’t lock them.
- Carefully lower the weight back to your neck and repeat.
- Do not stick your head forward. Instead, work on pulling your arms and shoulders backward.
7. JM Press
The JM press is named after JM Blakely, one of the best bench pressers in history. In fact, this was the only triceps exercise he used to bench 300kg (660lbs) at a bodyweight of 140kg (308lbs) to win the WPC world champs back in 1998.
This exercise is part skull crusher and part close grip bench press. If you want triceps that are bodybuilder big and powerlifter strong, this is the exercise you should use!
Read more about this popular powerlifting assistance exercise here.
8. Tate Dumbbell Press
The Tate press was invented by powerlifting coach Dave Tate. One of the founders of Westside Barbell, arguably the most successful powerlifting gym in the world, the Tate press is an unusual exercise that’s part chest press and part triceps extension. If you’ve never done this exercise before, start with light weights as it’s much harder than it looks!
How to do it:
- Lie on a bench with a dumbbell in each hand. Press the weights up and over your chest, thumbs pointing inward.
- Bend your arms and lower the dumbbells inward and down to your chest. Push your elbows outward and point your little finger up toward the ceiling.
- Press the weights back up to the starting position and repeat.
- You can do this exercise on a flat or incline bench and also lying on the floor.
Find out more about the Tate press here.
More Triceps Exercises:
While there is nothing wrong with training your triceps with isolation exercises, you will probably make better progress if you combine things like pushdowns and kickbacks with some well-chosen compound triceps exercises.
Compound exercises allow you to lift heavier weights, so they’ll help you build size and strength simultaneously. Also, some compound triceps exercises are easier on your elbows than their isolation counterparts.
Either way, if you want thick, strong, rock-hard triceps, make sure you include at least a couple of compound triceps exercises in your arm workouts.
1 – ACE: ACE Study Identifies Best Triceps Exercises https://www.acefitness.org
2 – PubMed: Effects of Body Position and Loading Modality on Muscle Activity and Strength in Shoulder Presses https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23096062/