In this new dumbbell only workout series, we’ll be covering the best workouts to increase the growth of each muscle group, starting today with triceps.
Now you may be thinking, how can I build big triceps by only using dumbbell tricep exercises?
Although your exercise selection does become more limited, this does not mean that your gains will suffer as a result.
Through picking the right dumbbell tricep exercises, using proper form, and integrating them appropriately into your workout routine, you can use them to build muscle just as effectively as you would with any other exercise.
Training Triceps Is Underrated
Most people tend to focus on the biceps to grow big arms. The truth is that the biceps constitute only one-third of total upper arm mass, while the triceps constitute two-thirds of upper arm mass.
Putting greater emphasis on training your triceps is the best way to increase your overall upper arm mass.
What Helps To Build Mass In Your Triceps?
According to Brad J. Schoenfeld Ph.D, current research suggests maximum muscle hypertrophy occurs through workouts which produce significant metabolic stress while also maintaining a moderate degree of muscle tension (study).
There Are Three Key Factors Which Stimulate Muscle Hypertrophy:
1. Progressive overload refers to an increase in the total amount of tension on your muscle fibers. This is achieved by increasing the total amount of weight you lift over time.
2. Metabolic stress refers to the repetition of an exercise until muscle failure is achieved. It’s important to note that reaching muscle failure each time can be counterproductive.
If you reach failure on every set, you will exhaust yourself too early and decrease your performance on subsequent exercises. It’s better to come close to muscle failure, and completely fatigue your muscles occasionally.
3. Muscle damage refers to the microtears which occur while lifting weights. Microtears are repaired through proper nutrition (e.g adequate protein intake), and enough rest.
Given appropriate rest and nutrition, your muscles will adapt over time and become more resilient (and therefore larger and stronger).
All of these key variables of muscle hypertrophy are achievable using dumbbell tricep exercises, and so there’s no reason you can’t use these exercises to gain mass in your triceps.
The Anatomy Of The Triceps
The triceps exist in order to extend the elbow. Triceps are also important for stabilizing the shoulder and scapula during upper body movements such as the pull-up or push up.
When most people think of a big tricep, they’re referring to a developed long head, one of three tricep heads. The long head is what people tend to see when looking at a person’s arm.
To get the complete look, it’s essential to focus on a wide range of exercises which target all three heads. This is achieved by using heavy weight, and by focusing on specific exercises which place emphasis on individual heads.
The Tricep Is Comprised Of Three Distinct Heads.
1. The long head (the largest head) – located towards the back of the arm
2. The lateral head – located further on the outside of the arm
3. The medial head – the smallest of the three heads
When training your triceps, you’ll want to use triceps exercises which enable you to adequately hit all three heads.
By ensuring you’re activating all three heads, you will experience more significant growth and improved symmetry over time.
In this workout, I’ll be showing four of the best dumbbell tricep exercises which will help you build more mass in your triceps.
1) Neutral Grip Close Grip DB Press
The first movement of this workout is going to be the close grip dumbbell press.
The close grip dumbbell press works the all three tricep heads. This movement primarily emphasizes the lateral and medial heads, as well as the chest to some degree.
This exercise was chosen for several reasons:
By starting the workout with an exercise that can be loaded with heavy weight this will improve tricep growth. Research has shown that triceps are mostly comprised of type II muscle fibers. Type II muscle fibers respond best to heavier loads (study, study, study).
This exercise is both safe and convenient to go heavy with. Because we’re are using heavier weight, it makes sense to begin the workout with this exercise when we’re most energized.
Dumbbell movements also ensure that both triceps experience the same amount of tension. Dumbbells prevent one dominant arm doing most of the work, and thereby prevents the exacerbation of muscle imbalances.
Furthermore, based on an EMG analysis done on the barbell bench press, moving the hands closer together shifts more of the tension to the triceps as a result (study).
We can apply the same concept to dumbbells. This can be achieved by using a close grip press.
A close grip press allows the elbows to remain tucked close to the body, as shown in the photo above. A traditional wide grip press activates more of the chest taking tension off the triceps.
Optimal pressing angle:
A 1994 EMG analysis by Barnett and colleagues found that a flat bench angle produced significantly higher triceps activation than an incline, decline, or vertical angle during pressing movements (study).
This means that sticking with a flat bench is ideal to ensure a greater full range of motion.
Be sure to use a full range of motion in this movement and then focus on locking out at the top to maximize the contraction of the triceps.
2) Incline Dumbbell Kickbacks
Next, we’ll want to move onto incline dumbbell kickbacks set at about a 45 to 60-degree incline.
Incline dumbbell kickbacks will primarily be used to target the long head of the triceps.
The long head of the triceps is located at the back of your arm. This exercise effectively hits this region as it places your long head in a state of maximal contraction, relative to the other two tricep heads.
Illustrating this is an EMG study by Boehren’s and Buskies, which found that incline dumbbell kickbacks elicited the highest long head activation when compared to other common triceps exercises (study).
As you can see in the EMG graph, incline dumbbell kickbacks activate the long head to a significantly higher degree than the other two triceps heads.
It’s simply a great choice when it comes to emphasizing the long head.
It’s important to note that the researchers also concluded that to best utilize this exercise for long head development, it’s vital that you keep the upper arm parallel with the body and make a straight line between the shoulders and your pinky. By doing so, you will experience a greater peak contraction of the long head.
I’d recommend starting with lighter weights for this to avoid letting your arms drop as they fatigue. As you master the exercise, you can gradually begin increasing the weight over time.
It’s better to start with a lighter weight and focus on mastering the movement itself before increasing the weights, rather than having to correct this in the future.
3) Incline Dumbbell Overhead Extensions
Next, we’re going to use incline dumbbell extensions to focus on the long head. The long head is often neglected, which it shouldn’t be, considering it makes up most of the mass of the triceps.
Incline dumbbell extensions are the exercise of choice here as they place the shoulders in a flexed position. The flexed position will emphasize the long head of the triceps to a greater degree.
By doing these extensions on an incline set to roughly 45 degrees, you will experience an even greater stretch on the long head. The increased stretch is caused by a greater shoulder flexion than what occurs on a flat bench angle.
Remember that when performing this movement, you’ll want to refrain from starting and ending each rep with your arms directly overhead.
At the top position, there’s virtually no tension placed on the triceps.
Instead, move the arms back slightly, lock them here, and then proceed to perform your reps. This is a subtle, but important change to make.
By doing this, you will now provide adequate tension to the long head of the triceps throughout the entire range of motion of the exercise. More tension in the long head will eventually lead to better development of the triceps over the long run.
4) Close Grip Dumbbell Push-Ups
Close grip dumbbell push-ups are the perfect finishing exercise for this workout. This exercise will hit the entire triceps muscle evenly, as well as involving some activation of the chest and front delts too.
By placing your hands on dumbbells, as opposed to the ground, this enables a better range of motion and elbow extension. A greater range of motion and elbow extension will lead to better growth of the triceps over time.
Another reason why placing your hands on the dumbbells is a good idea is for safety, especially if you frequently experience pain in your wrists. The typical push-up position places an excessive force on your wrists, which are fragile joints.
What’s the best hand placement for the close grip dumbbell push up?
In this 2016 paper published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science (study), the researchers compared triceps activation during shoulder-width, wide and narrow grip diamond push-ups.
The results of the study concluded that diamond push-ups elicited the greatest triceps activation compared to other grip widths.
All variations of the push-up will activate the triceps to some degree. But in order to maximize the activation of the triceps based on the results of this study, I recommend placing your hands on the dumbbells as if you were going to do a diamond push up.
While you perform this exercise, I would recommend aiming for higher reps and aim closer to failure. It’s important to focus on metabolic stress while performing bodyweight exercises as you don’t have the added resistance of weights.
As you get stronger you can continue to increase the total amount of reps as one form of progressive overload. You can also add weight to your back to ensure consistent progression.
Sample Dumbbell Tricep Workout
Here’s a dumbbell only triceps workout you can perform based on the dumbbell tricep exercises in this article.
You can complete this workout by itself or in combination with my upcoming dumbbell only biceps workout. You can also split these exercises into various workouts throughout the week depending on your current split.
In addition to this, I’ve also made a free downloadable PDF of the workout with reps, sets, and tutorials included for every exercise just so you have something to refer to when you’re at the gym doing the workout.
To get this PDF you can simply click below to download it:
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