While the biceps are arguably the most popular and famous muscle in bodybuilding, there is a good argument for saying that the triceps are actually more important. Why? Because they make up roughly two-thirds of your total upper arm mass. If you are serious about building big arms, you need to prioritize your triceps.
You use your triceps in all pressing exercises, such as shoulder presses and bench presses. However, you need more than just basic compound exercises to build triceps you can be proud of.
Old-school bodybuilders put a lot of time and effort into building bigger triceps, using proven exercises and training methods that have stood the test of time. If your triceps development is lagging, use these best old-school triceps workouts to bring them up to par.
Triceps anatomy basics
The full name of the triceps is triceps brachii. This means three-headed arm muscle. Located on the back of your upper arm, your triceps has two main functions:
- Elbow extension – straightening your arm
- Shoulder extension – drawing your upper arm backward
As mentioned, the triceps have three heads. This is because the triceps have three separate origin sites, all of which come together at a common insertion point on the ulna. This is the smaller of the two forearm bones.
The three triceps heads are:
- The long head
- The medial head
- The lateral head
All three triceps heads work together, but the amount of force each one generates depends on the position of your upper arm. When your arms are by your side, the long head produces more force than the other two heads. With your arms at 90-degrees to your body, the medial head is more active. When your arms are vertical, the lateral head generates the most force (1). Because of this, it is possible to target specific areas of your triceps, and any workout should include a variety of exercises to ensure each head is worked equally.
The Best 3 Old-School Triceps Workouts
While most famous old-school bodybuilders had great arms, some were especially famous for their triceps development. Competitors and champions like Kevin Levrone, Lee Priest, Samir Bannout, and Sergio Oliva had massive, rock-hard, triceps that resembled horseshoes. The horseshoe shape is the result of training all three heads.
Here are three tried-and-tested triceps workouts that were either created by old-school champions or feature their favorite exercises. If you want to add mass to the back of your arms, these workouts will do it for you.
Before you start training, make sure you warm up your triceps and elbows to prevent injury and boost workout performance. All you need is a few minutes of easy cardio followed by some dynamic stretching and a couple of light sets of each exercise. Better still, train your triceps after chest or shoulders. That way, they’ll already be warm and ready to go.
#1. Old-School Triceps Workout
Kevin Levrone is arguably the greatest bodybuilder never to hold the Mr. Olympia title. Winner of 20 pro titles, Levrone came second in the Mr. O on four separate occasions. Like any professional bodybuilder, Kevin Levrone was the total package but was especially well known for his fantastic triceps. This was one of his favorite mass-building workouts.
Simple but effective, do this triceps workout once or twice a week.
- Close-grip bench press: 4 sets, 6-8 reps
- Supine triceps extensions: 4 sets, 6-8 reps
- Triceps cable pushdowns: 4 sets 20-25 reps
1.1 Close-grip bench press
Close grip bench presses are one of the best triceps mass builders around. They allow you to use lots of weight, putting your triceps under extreme stress. If you want to add size to your triceps, make sure you include this exercise in your workouts.
How to do it:
- Lie on your back on the bench press station. Reach up and grab the bar with an overhand, slightly narrower-than shoulder-width grip. Plant your feet firmly on the floor, lift your chest, and pull your shoulders down and back.
- Unrack the bar, bend your elbows and lower the bar to touch your sternum. Keep your arms tucked in close to your sides.
- Drive the bar back up and repeat.
- Do not put your hands too close together. Doing so puts a lot of stress on your wrists and could lead to injury.
- Use a thumbless or false grip for comfort.
- Only do this exercise if you have a spotter. A missed rep could result in serious injury.
1.2 Supine triceps extensions
Also known as skull crushers, this popular old-school triceps exercise is good for building arm size and shape. It can be hard on your elbows, so take it easy if you suffer from elbow pain. Also, because a failed rep could result in serious facial injury, make sure you do this exercise with a spotter.
How to do it:
- Grab a straight or EZ bar with an overhand, shoulder-width grip. Lie back on a flat bench and press the bar up to arms’ length.
- Keeping your upper arms vertical, bend your elbows, and lower the bar to your forehead.
- Extend your arms and repeat.
- You can also do this exercise with dumbbells.
- Finish your last set with a few reps of close grip bench press to fully fatigue your triceps.
1.3 Triceps cable pushdowns
After the heavyweights and low reps of the last two exercises, Levrone switched things up with some light, high-rep pushdowns to trigger a powerful pump. The pump, where blood is preferentially driven into your muscles, is thought to be essential for muscle growth (2).
How to do it:
- Using a high cable machine, grab a straight, V-shaped, or rope handle. Pull your elbows down and into your sides.
- Keeping your upper arms tucked in, extend your arms, and then bend them again.
- Maintain a constant tempo, and don’t pause between reps. Keep pumping!
- You can also do this exercise with an underhand, reverse grip.
- No high cable machine? Use a resistance band instead.
#2. Old-School Triceps Workout
Lee Priest had some of the best arms in bodybuilding, and his triceps were mind-blowing! A firm believer in working his tris from all the angles, Australian Priest often did 20-25 sets of triceps training per workout. You might not need as much volume as Lee Priest, but there is no denying the effectiveness of his hardcore approach to triceps training.
Do this workout once per week, or twice on non-consecutive days if you are trying to prioritise your triceps training.
- Seated overhead dumbbell extension: 5 sets of 6-8 reps
- EZ-bar close-grip bench press: 5 sets of 6-8 reps
- Supine triceps extensions: 5 sets of 6-8 reps
- Single-arm cable pushdowns: 5 sets of 6-8 reps
2.1 Seated overhead dumbbell extension
This was one of Lee Priest’s go-to exercises for bigger triceps. Emphasizing the lateral triceps head, which is what gives your arm thickness, this exercise requires excellent shoulder mobility, but, in return, it delivers a very powerful triceps workout.
How to do it:
- Sit on a bench with a low back support. Alternatively, sit the wrong-way-round on a preacher curl bench. Lift and hold a single dumbbell by the inside plates and press it over your head.
- Keeping your biceps next to your ears, bend your elbows, and lower the weight down behind your neck. Get a good stretch in your triceps.
- Extend your arms and repeat for the prescribed number of reps.
- Lean back against the bench for support and comfort
- You can also do this exercise with an EZ bar.
2.2 EZ bar close-grip bench press
As explained in workout #1.
2.3 Supine triceps extensions
As explained in workout #1.
2.4 Single-arm cable pushdowns
Working one arm at a time allows you to really focus and concentrate on the muscle you are trying to work. Use an underhand/reverse grip and squeeze your triceps hard at the bottom of each rep.
How to do it:
- Attach a single D-shaped handle to a high pulley machine. Grab the handle with one hand. Pull your upper arm down and into your side. Keep it there for the duration of your set.
- Extend your arm and push the handle down as far as you can. Slowly bend your arm and repeat.
- On completion of your set, switch arms and immediately start working on your other arm.
- You can also do this exercise with a rope handle.
#3. Old-School Triceps Workout
A lot of old-school lifters used to combine bodyweight exercises with barbell and dumbbell exercises. They didn’t have the strength training machines we have access to today. Our third old-school triceps workout pays homage to this style of training.
Do this workout once or twice per week.
- Dips: 3 sets of 6-8 reps
- Seated single-arm overhead triceps extensions: 3 sets of 8-10 reps per arm
- Dumbbell kickbacks: 3 sets of 10-12 reps
- Diamond push-ups: 3 sets of max reps
Like close grip bench presses, dips work all three heads of the triceps fairly evenly. It’s a great mass builder that also works the lower fibers of your pecs. Dips can be hard on your shoulders, so if you have a history of shoulder problems, take it easy with this exercise.
How to do it:
- Using shoulder-width bars, step up and grip the handles with your thumbs pointing forward. Support your weight on your hands and cross your ankles.
- Keeping your torso upright, bend your elbows and descend until your arms are bent to about 90 degrees.
- Press yourself back up and repeat.
- If you can do more than eight reps, wear a weighted chin/dip belt to make this exercise harder.
- Can’t do six reps? Use an assisted chin/dip machine or do bench dips instead.
3.2 Seated single-arm overhead triceps extensions
Working mainly the long head of your triceps, this exercise provides a deep stretch and pump. Still, it’s easier on your shoulders than the two-handed version in workout #2.
How to do it:
- Seated or standing, press and hold a single dumbbell overhead.
- Keeping your upper arm close to your head, bend your elbows, and lower the weight down behind your head.
- Extend your arm and repeat. Swap sides and do the same number of reps with your opposite arm.
- Do this exercise seated if you have a tendency to lean back and over-extend your spine.
- Use your free hand to support your working arm and feel your triceps contracting. Increased biofeedback can strengthen the mind-muscle connection and make this exercise more effective.
- This exercise can also be performed using a low cable machine.
3.3 Dumbbell kickbacks
This exercise creates a lot of tension in your triceps. It’s a great exercise for sculpting your horseshoes! Use a lightweight and focus on squeezing and not swinging your dumbbell up. If you go too heavy, you’ll end up using momentum and taking work away from the target muscle.
How to do it:
- Hold a dumbbell in one hand. Lean forward and place your other hand on a knee-high bench or dumbbell rack. Your upper body should be parallel to the floor. Bend your elbow and tuck your upper arm into your side.
- Keeping your upper arm stationary, extend your elbow and press the dumbbell back to your hip. Pause in this contracted position, bend your elbow, and repeat.
- Do the same number of reps on each arm.
- You can also do this exercise with a low cable machine.
Dumbbell Tricep Kickback
3.4 Diamond push-ups
The final exercise in our third old-school arm workout is a variation of push-ups that increases the amount of work done by your triceps. Just pump out as many reps as you can.
How to do it:
- Kneel down and place your hands on the floor, so your thumbs and first fingers form a diamond. Walk your feet back and into the classic push-up position.
- With your legs straight and abs braced, bend your arms and lower your chest to the back of your hands.
- Push back up and repeat.
- Bend your legs and drop to your knees to make this exercise easier.
- Elevate your feet to put more weight on your hands and make this exercise harder.
Important Triceps Training Tips
Use these handy tips to ensure that you get the best results from your old-school triceps building workouts.
1. Use a range of repetitions and weights
Triceps respond best to a mixture of low reps and heavy weights and higher reps with lighter weights. Try to include both of these things in your triceps workouts.
2. Respect your elbows.
Heavy triceps isolation exercises like skull crushers and overhead extensions can be hard on your elbows. Protect your joints by warming up properly, using proper exercise technique, and wearing neoprene elbow sleeves for extra support, warmth, and comfort.
3. Use biceps and triceps supersets to save time and get a great pump
While none of the old-school triceps exercises in this article use supersets, there is nothing to stop you from customizing them and adding in some biceps exercises. For example:
- Close grip bench presses
- Barbell curls
- Triceps pushdowns
- Dumbbell curls
- Overhead triceps extensions
- Preacher curls
This approach ensures that you do the same number of sets for your triceps as you do your biceps.
4. Experiment with different hand positions and grips
Moving your hands in or out can affect how an exercise feels. Try different hand positions to find out what works best for your triceps. For example, some people find underhand/reverse grip triceps pushdowns are more effective than regular grip pushdowns. Try all the available options to determine which works best for you.
5. Mix up your workouts by using different types of training equipment
A lot of triceps exercises can be done using dumbbells, barbells, or cables. Just because a workout calls for dumbbell kickbacks doesn’t mean that you can’t use cables instead. Experiment with your workouts to find the most effective way to train your triceps.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do you have questions? We’ve got answers! If you can’t find the answer you want, drop us a line in the comments section, and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.
How often should I train my triceps?
For most people, one triceps workout per week should be enough. That’s because your triceps are trained indirectly during most chest and shoulder exercises. Doing more direct triceps workouts than this could result in overtraining.
Can you build big triceps with just bodyweight exercises?
Sure, you can! Dips, diamond push-ups, and bodyweight triceps extensions are all superb triceps exercises that don’t require free weights or machines. Gymnasts have phenomenally well-developed triceps, and they hardly ever lift weights. Bodyweight training can be just as effective as weights for building muscle mass and strength.
Skull crushers hurt my elbows, is this normal?
Elbow pain is not uncommon with skull crushers and similar exercises. The long lever length and the relatively short muscle attachment means that these exercises can cause elbow joint pain and tendonitis.
The best way to avoid any problems is to always warm up properly and use light weights and high reps on the exercises that cause you any pain. You may also benefit from replacing the most painful free weight and machine exercises with resistance band exercises as they are usually much less taxing for your joints.
How do I make my triceps more defined?
Muscle definition is the combination of bigger muscles and less fat. Any of these old-school workouts will make your triceps bigger and combining cardio with a lower calorie diet will help make you leaner and your muscles easier to see.
Contrary to what a lot of people think, you cannot spot reduce fat from one part of your body. If you want defined arms, the rest of your body needs to become more defined too.
Are bench presses a good triceps exercise?
Yes, they are, but the primary target muscle in bench presses are the pecs. In this exercise, the triceps are a synergist or helper muscle. Exercises like bench presses and shoulder presses can help make your triceps bigger and stronger. But, for best results, you also need to include some specialist triceps exercises in your workouts, especially if you want horseshoes!
Big biceps are cool, but horseshoe-shaped triceps are much more impressive. Building great triceps takes time, effort, and smart exercise selection.
After all, you need to make sure you work all three heads. Neglect one of them and your big triceps won’t be as well-shaped. Use the best old-school triceps workouts to take the guesswork out of triceps training so you can build your best arms ever.
1- Kholinne, Erica; Zulkarnain, Rizki Fajar; Sun, Yu Cheng; Lim, SungJoon; Chun, Jae-Myeung; Jeon, In-Ho (May 1, 2018). “The different role of each head of the triceps brachii muscle in elbow extension”. Acta Orthopaedica et Traumatologica Turcica. 52 (3): 201–205. doi:10.1016/j.aott.2018.02.005. ISSN 1017-995X. https://www.sciencedirect.com/
2- Schoenfeld, Brad J.; Contreras, Bret (2013-12). “The Muscle Pump”. Strength and Conditioning Journal: 1. doi:10.1519/ssc.0000000000000021. ISSN 1524-1602. https://www.researchgate.net
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