Big, beefy, horseshoe-looking triceps are built by working them through a full range of motion with an appropriate amount of resistance. It's really that simple. Unfortunately, this leaves two places where people can mess this up. And believe me, people mess this up.
How about that triceps ROM?
First, for maximum efficiency triceps need worked through their full range of motion (ROM) each time you train them. For simplicity we will call these ranges fully shortened, mid range, and fully lengthened.
What do close grip bench press, skull crushers, diamond pushups, straight-bar pull downs, and dip have in common? Well, they all work the triceps in the mid range, or 1/3 of the overall ROM. In other words, they are basically all the same movement from a different angle. If your tricep workout is made entirely from these exercises and you have tiny triceps... boom shakalaka. You are working your triceps where they are strongest, but missing out the extremes.
Working at the extremes can spark rapid new growth, especially for those that have never done it. Adding the remaining 2/3 ROM to the workout is usually the difference maker that finally fills out the sleeves.
Exercises that work the triceps in a fully shortened position include dumbbell kickbacks, bench dips, and rope pull downs. Pretty much any exercise that applies resistance to the triceps while the hands are behind your back and the elbows are fully extended.
"... boom shakalaka. (NBA Jam anyone?)
Movements that work the triceps in the fully lengthened position include seated dumbbell or EZ-bar french press and low-to-high cable tricep extensions.
An outstanding idea would be choosing one exercise from each different range and add them all into a single workout. I almost always choose to start with mid range or fully lengthened movement and end my sets with a fully shortened movement. It's personal preference, but I've also got horseshoe triceps... maybe I'm onto something.
Related: It starts with little changes. Healthier Living Made Simple for [Car] Guys.
About that resistance...
Inappropriate resistance is the root of all tricep training evil. Most men either use WAY too much resistance and turn all exercises into mid-range movements, or use WAY too little resistance and do speed reps until their elbows explode.
The most common example of using WAY too much resistance is Macho Man Randy Savage doing cable press downs with the V-grip attachment. With his head beside to the cable and his entire upper body bent over the attachment to help move all 180 pounds, he has effectively taken a very good movement and turned it into something as useful as the elliptical (junk). Another example is using too much weight on skull crushers or french press and initiating the movement with the lats instead of the triceps. Again, not what you want to do.
Want a good idea to fix both of the above examples? Use a long rope attachment on the cables, decrease the weight, and instead of doing PRESS downs, step away from the cable stack and do PULL downs by extending your elbows and bringing your hands to your sides (see the pictured exercise below or watch the video). For skull crushers and french press, use a weight light enough that you can initiate the movement with your triceps.
"lighten the load... or live with small triceps.
I'm not a fan of the light weight speed reps, especially when it involves more than 15 reps or locking out a joint under high speed/acceleration. If you want sustainability and plan on enjoying the gym for more than 10 years with your elbows intact, slow down and use controlled movements. If you can do more than 15 reps without approaching failure, increase the weight. If you are sabotaging your form before the 6th rep, lighten the load... or live with small triceps.
Smarter or harder
Tricep training is simple. I haven't met anyone who's triceps didn't respond by training through a full range of motion and using appropriate resistance. Most men blast triceps for 45 minutes straight (punishing them to the brink of tendon rupture with massive amounts of weight), work nothing but the mid range, and see minimal results. Tricep training is one instance where training smarter is much more efficient than training harder.
I prefer using strict form and lighter weight when the triceps are fully lengthened: a more vulnerable position for injury. Seven to ten reps with perfect form should be your target. The mid range is where you can really start to load up the weight because the triceps are very strong here. When using bodyweight exercises like diamond pushups or medicine ball pushups (pictured below), I shoot for eight to ten reps. When using loaded exercises like close grip bench press, weighted dips, and skull crushers, I aim for six to eight reps. Again, I lighten the load a bit for working fully shortened. If the resistance is too high you will not be able to achieve full elbow extension without using momentum. Shoot for nine to twelve reps and focus on form and rock hard contractions.
Balls and then Goat Balls
I'm no stranger to pump induced pain in the gym; I'm the one that tests and creates these 5-minute supersets. It takes balls to push through the pain, hit the recommended reps, and stay within the rest periods. But these are tried and true and I have never had the results disappoint.
I propose a challenge
Now I know there are a few men out there that complete multiple 5-minute supersets at the end of the same workout. This is a task that requires real testicular fortitude: balls the size of those found between the hind legs of a full grown goat. I'm talking big balls.
If you want to get on the level of goat balls, complete this triceps superset, the 5 Minute Deltoid Dominator, and the 5-Minute Bicep Pumper, in under 16 Minutes. If you prevail, share your results with me... and the world. Good luck.
Use this time efficient superset to tackle the entire range-of-motion and strength curve of the triceps to stimulate new growth.
Complete the entire superset 3 times, resting only 45 seconds in between each superset. One-superset includes: Low-to-high tricep extensions, medicine ball pushups, and rope pulldowns, with no rest period. Use of proper form and the desired rep range will determine the weight used for each exercise. Do not reach failure during any set unless indicated. Short of Failure (SOF) means stopping one-rep prior to Total Failure. Total Failure (TF) is the inability to do anymore complete reps with proper form. Time Check: 4:36.
Low-to-High Tricep Extensions (SOF 3rd set only)
8 - 10
Medicine Ball Pushups (TF 3rd set only)
8 - 10
Rope Pull Downs (TF 3rd set only)
9 - 12
Repeat for 3 sets
45 Seconds Rest between sets
Standing Low-to-High Cable Tricep Extensions (lengthened)
Medicine Ball Pushups (mid range)
Rope Pull Downs (shortened)
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