People often associate biceps with “big gun” arms, but in reality the triceps are far more important for sports performance—and arm size overall.
“Every time we push, we use the triceps,” says Ben Boudro, owner of Xceleration Sports. The same holds true for throwing a block, swinging a bat and passing a ball. All of those actions rely significantly on the triceps. In contrast, the biceps’ main function is elbow flexion, essentially the same movement you make when you perform a Bicep Curl. It’s a helpful motion if you’re trying to secure a football to your torso, but otherwise the biceps play a critical role in relatively few sports movements.
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Aaron Bonaccorsy, a coach at STACK Velocity Sports Performance in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, says, “The triceps generally play a much bigger role in performance than the biceps. The majority of sports focus on elbow extension rather than flexion. Since the triceps are a group of extensors, it makes sense to train them over the biceps.”
The triceps also are important for stabilizing the shoulder joints, and a well-trained triceps can help prevent certain types of shoulder injuries.
You Can’t Get Big Guns without Training your Triceps
Quick anatomy lesson: your triceps consist of three heads, long, medial and lateral. The biceps consist of two heads, long and short. The word “ceps” comes from the latin “caput,” which means head. Thus, a “tri-cep” is a muscle with three heads and a “bi-cep” is a muscle with two heads. The three heads of the triceps make up significantly more upper arm mass than the two heads of the biceps.
“For bigger arms, triceps are crucial. It’s definitely safe to say that if you want bigger arms, do triceps work,” Bonaccorsy says.
In fact, the triceps make up roughly two-thirds of the upper arm, which means no matter how big your biceps are, your arms will never reach their full size potential if you do not train your triceps.
“It’s true that the triceps compose more mass on the upper arm than the biceps, so in terms of pure arm size, it’s more advantageous to spend more time training the triceps,” says Kasey Esser, CSCS.
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Arm Training for Performance and Mass
Although throwing in a few sets of Curls now and again won’t hurt you, Bonaccorsy, Esser and Boudro prefer their athletes to work their biceps with non-isolation exercises. “When it comes to athletes, I rarely isolate the biceps,” Boudro says.
Instead, these expert trainers suggest performing pulling exercises—such as Rows—which work the biceps but hit other muscle groups as well. If you’re doing enough pulling exercises in your routine (Bonaccorsy recommends two pulls for every push in a workout), you’re probably getting all the biceps training you need. “All back work indirectly uses the biceps, and that should be more than enough biceps stimulation for athletes,” Bonaccorsy says.
For training the triceps, variations of pushing exercises give you the most bang for your buck.
Bonaccorsy recommends Close-Grip Bench Presses, Dips and Close-Grip Push-Ups as his top three tricep-dominant exercises for increasing strength and improving performance. A study conducted by the American Council on Exercise found that those three exercises effectively engage the triceps. The Close-Grip Push-Up (also known as the Triangle Push-Up) is especially effective, ranking first among the exercises tested in triceps EMG activity elicited.
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Bonaccorsy says these and other multi-joint exercises are generally more advantageous for athletes than isolation exercises. They should therefore make up the majority of your triceps work. “There’s nothing wrong with doing tricep-isolation exercises like Rope Press Downs or Overhead Barbell Extensions, but there’s a time and a place for them,” Bonaccorsy says. Chin-Ups and Pull-Ups also hit both your triceps and biceps while simultaneously strengthening other muscle groups.
As odd as it might sound, bigger arms can also be built by regularly performing Squats. “One of the best ways to grow the arms is to Squat. They increase overall growth hormone and testosterone,” Esser says.