8 Effective Moves for Strong, Toned Triceps

Spice up your triceps routine with these 8 exercises.

Photo: Getty Images

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It’s arm day at the gym — but when was the last time you really thought about the functional importance of focusing on your triceps? They may often play second fiddle to the biceps and even chest, but they’re more important than you might think.  

“Triceps are responsible for extension at the elbow joint and for holding the humerus bone into the shoulder joint,” explains ACE-certified personal trainer Meghan Mulholland, founder of Coast 2 Crest Fitness & Yoga. “They oppose the biceps, so you don’t walk around all day with robot arms. Triceps also play a huge part in your arm mobility. Strengthening and stretching your triceps can help you make sure you can always zip your own dress!”

Read on to discover the eight most effective triceps moves you should consider adding into your routine — and if you balance this workout with these three biceps-blasting exercises, you’ll have discovered the complete key to getting toned, fit arms. 

8 Effective Moves for Strong, Toned Triceps

1. Skullcrusher

(Photo: Ian Travis Barnard)

Don’t be intimidated by its name – the skullcrusher actually has a low danger factor and is a great move for targeting the lateral and long heads of your triceps. Start with a barbell or dumbbells extended above your chest, then bend your elbows, making sure that your triceps stay perpendicular to the floor; stop when the bar is an inch or two from your forehead, then reverse. “Remember to keep your elbows stationary and pointed toward your knees — not outward,” says Mulholland.

Try: Three sets of 10 to 12 reps.

Tip: Get the hang of this motion by first using an unloaded bar.

2. Triceps Pressdown

Triceps Pushdown
(Photo: Getty Images)

This move is a staple of nearly every triceps routine for one simple reason: it works. One of its merits is its versatility — a simple handle or hand position change will give you a completely new exercise. The main things to remember as you do this move are to keep your shoulder blades back and your upper arms tight to your sides as you extend from your elbows. “Get as much extension as you can, don’t cut the movement short,” advises Mulholland.

Try: Three sets of 12 reps.

Tip: Here’s a speedy superset idea: Perform 12 reps of overhand straight-bar pressdowns (lateral head emphasis), then follow up immediately with 12 reps of underhand straight-bar pressdowns (medial head emphasis). Rest; repeat twice.

3. Seated Overhead Barbell or Dumbbell Extension

Triceps Extension
(Photo: Robert Reiff)

The seated overhead extension can be done with dumbbells or a barbell, but we chose the barbell version for our list because women often shy away from it. Although the same general motion is used as in a skullcrusher (bending the weight behind the head instead of toward the forehead), your core is engaged more with this extension because of the upright position. One minor warning: watch that your elbows don’t flare out too much as you lower the bar. “Let your elbows point forward and not drift out to the sides,” says Mulholland. “Stabilize the core.”

Try: Two to three sets of 10 to 12 reps.

Tip: Using an EZ-bar will help keep your grip narrow to better exert your tris. Also, if you have back problems, sit at a low-backed seat for support.

4. Parallel Dip

(Photo: Getty Images)

We won’t lie: this body-weight move can be tough at first. Do it early in your workout when your muscles are fresh, and try to find an apparatus with narrow bars — your hands should be about shoulder-width apart. Bend your arms to lower your body, then focus on the contraction in your triceps as you straighten your arms to return to the start. Don’t lean forward too much; this will focus the effort on your pecs, not your triceps. (Bonus: check out the next slide for an easier — but still effective — version of this move.)

Try: Two sets of 10 to 15 reps. (Or more – we dare you!)

Tip: “If you aren’t quite ready to lift your body weight, add a chair under your feet and ever so slightly allow the top of your feet to push you off of the chair while you focus at the triceps,” suggests Mulholland. “The ability to stabilize your shoulder throughout the movement is a prerequisite to using full bodyweight. To increase the challenge, you can attach weight to your body.”

5. Bench or Chair Dip

Triceps Dip
(Photo: Robert Reiff)

As one of the 10 best-ever bodyweight moves, chair dips are great for those new to triceps training and can be done off of any sturdy piece of furniture. “Bring your bottom right to the edge of the bench or chair to start,” says Mulholland, “because if you’re too far away, you’ll reduce your range of motion.” Hold on to the edge of a bench, with your legs extended and heels touching the ground. Bend your arms until your triceps are parallel to the ground, then extend to return to the start. “Elbows should move straight back, not out to the sides,” she concludes.

Try: Two to three sets of 10 to 15 reps. (But don’t stop there if it’s too easy!)

Tip: Beginners can bend their knees and bring their feet closer to their body. For a real challenge, try placing your heels on another bench in front of you.

6. Alternating Triceps Kickback

(Photo: Cory Sorensen)

Stand with your feet together and hold a set of dumbbells with your palms facing inward. Hinge at your hips and incline your torso forward about 45 degrees, then drive your elbows rearward to pull your upper arms alongside your rib cage, elbows bent. Alternately extend one arm completely as you bend the other arm to the start.

Try: Two to three sets of 12 to 15 reps.

Tip: Don’t strain your neck by tucking your chin to your chest, and slowly extend your elbows to move the weights behind you. “Use this as an opportunity to combat smartphone neck by keeping your neck in line with the rest of your spine and not sagging,” urges Mulholland. “Just like the Pressdown, don’t get your move short by not fully extending.” 

7. Triceps Push-Up

(Photo: Peter Leuders)

Although this exercise still targets your chest and shoulders, bringing your hands closer together helps to hone in on the lateral head of your triceps. Get into a push-up position with your hands less than a foot apart, or place your index fingers and thumbs together on the floor as shown. Bend your arms to lower, and contract your triceps as you rise.

Try: Two to three sets of 12 to 15 reps. (If you can do more, go for it!)

Tip: “A pushup is only as good as its alignment,” says Mulholland. “Try taking a video of yourself to make sure your spinal alignment (including your neck) does not change throughout the movement. If you find you sag in the low back, or anywhere in this move, try putting your knees on the ground until you’ve mastered the alignment.” For an added challenge, perform this move with both hands on a medicine ball. And if you aren’t ready to hit the floor, try these close-grip wall push-ups instead.

8. Close-Grip Chest Press

(Photo: Ian Travis Barnard)

Here’s another pectoral move that does double-duty as a triceps builder. (We sense a theme here!) Keeping your hands narrower than shoulder-width apart and your elbows close to your sides will reinvent this classic chest move as an exercise for your tris.

Try: Three sets of 12 reps.

Tip: The path of your barbell should be straight up and down. Do this move beside a mirror and watch your form during your first couple of reps. “Be mindful of the extension at your wrists and use a spotter if you plan to attempt a PR,” advises Mulholland.