All right, another post for the ladies!
As I mentioned in my post, Constructing a Fitness Femme Fatale, there are few tweaks in training that I make when working with female clients. Sure, 90% of what I do is the same for men and women, but for that 10% I take a different approach.
Today, I want to talk you about a body part that I get a lot of questions about from my female readers and clients—the back of the upper arms, those tricky, tricky triceps.
The triceps are an interesting training conundrum for women (and for those who train women); as you know, you need to do some weight training to develop the musculature and give it shape and form.
However, too much training (or improper training) and the muscles will grow. Generally, that’s a good thing—after all, it’s a good part of why we train with weights. However, in the case of many of my female clients, developing bigger arms isn’t really high on the priority list.
In fact, many women tell me that the last thing they want is “bulky” arms.
There are a few things we need to address here.
- “Bulky” is their word, not mine. I’m of the belief that muscle gives you shape. Muscles have definitive forms and curves. If you look “bulky” it’s because you have fat on top of your muscle, and that needs to be addressed.
- In general, women cannot gain huge amounts of muscle. You just CAN’T. Women don’t have the testosterone to build very large muscles. Or, even a significant amount of muscle in a short time.
Which means, DO NOT worry about getting “too big, too quickly.”
The goal of this post is not to reinforce crazy fallacies about female training and encourage fear of weights.
The goal is to shed some new light on triceps anatomy, and therefore give you some new ideas, and possibly a different way to train your triceps.
Okay—you’re going to be surprised by a lot of this. One of the sources that I pull a lot of my inspiration from for female triceps training is a book that is intended for none other than bodybuilders.
In fact, the name of the book is Target Bodybuilding.
I know, I know…but, seriously, don’t write it off just yet. I get it: Target Bodybuilding, doesn’t exactly sound (or look) female friendly, but this book has been a huge help to me when designing programs for women.
It’s a really great resource with a lot of interesting information that we can learn from.
The author, a PhD named Per Tesch, is a professor of physiology and an expert in human performance in strength training. And his book takes a really unique look at your muscles. And by that, I mean, a look INSIDE your muscles.
You’ve obviously heard of MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging. In the medical context, MRI is used to take a look inside and determine the existence of or severity of injury, and from which appropriate treatment will be selected.
Well, Tesch decided this could be used to better understand the human body in terms of training. You see, using MRI, Dr. Tesch conducted hundreds of experiments on multiple trainees to determine how muscles—and parts of muscles—worked during various exercises.
Before I get too far off topic, let’s look at the triceps. (We’ll come back to MRI stuff in a bit).
(Very) Basic Anatomy
I assume some of you know this, but a few don’t, so let’s cover the basics. The muscle in question is actually called “triceps brachii” – and that translates to “three-headed arm muscle.”
Not overly creative, perhaps, but the important thing: as the name implies, there are three separate parts or “heads” of the triceps
- Medial head
- Lateral lateral
- Long head
As you can see from this awesome photo I was clever enough to grab from Google Images, the positions are the reasons for the name. When in anatomical position, the medial head is closest to the midline body, the lateral is further to the outside, and the long head is simply the longest.
For those who want to dig a little deeper, I figure we should briefly go over anatomy; not only will this give you some idea of relevancy, but also clue you in that I either know what I’m talking about or that I know how to copy from my anatomy textbook.
I’ve bolded the parts are important for our discussion.
The medial head arises distally from the groove of the radial nerve; from the back of the humerus; from the medial intermuscular septum; and its distal part also arises from the lateral intermuscular septum. The medial head is mostly covered by the lateral and long heads, and is only visible distally on the humerus.
The lateral head arises from the back surface of the humerus, lateral and proximal to the groove of the radial nerve, from the greater tubercle down to the region of the lateral intermuscular septum.
TRANSLATION: the lateral head is on the outside of the arm, lying over the medial head.
The long head arises from the infraglenoid tubercle of the scapula. It extends distally anterior to the teres minor and posterior to the teres major. 
TRANSLATION: the long head attaches the highest up on the arm, at the shoulder blade.
Each of the three fascicles has its own motorneuron subnucleus in the motor column in the spinal cord. The medial head is formed predominantly by small type I fibers and motor units, the lateral head of large type IIb fibers and motor units and the long head of a mixture of fiber types and motor units.
How Fiber Make Up Affects Triceps Training
This is an important point—there are multiple types of muscle fibers, and a complete discussion of each would be a bit beyond the scope of our discussion here.
Suffice it to say that there are slow twitch and fast twitch fibers. Slow twitch fibers (type I) make up the medial head, and are recruited primarily through higher rep training.
Type IIb fibers are fast twitch, and make up the lateral head. These fibers are the densest and have the greatest capacity for muscular growth. Type IIB fibers fatigue quickly but are very powerful, and respond very well to training with heavier weight and low reps.
Which means that the lateral head of the triceps has the greatest potential for growth, especially when trained with heavy weight.
MRI and Triceps Recruitment
As I mentioned earlier in the post, Dr. Per Tesch used magnetic resonance imaging to look at how different exercises worked your muscles; and more specifically which part.
You see, what Tesch was able to do with MRI technology was determine which triceps exercise worked which head of the triceps. Pretty cool, huh?
For bodybuilders looking to develop a certain look, this is certainly important information; as it would help them ascertain which exercises they should rely on to prioritize a particular part of the muscle.
However, for women who want to develop a sexy, shapely arm without getting too much size, it can be equally important, in the sense that it can help us figure out which exercises to modify and how to modify them, as well as which to avoid.
Now, Tesch covered 20 exercises in the book, from kickbacks to overhead presses, detailing to what extent each exercise relies on each head of the triceps. And there are some interesting findings.
I’m going to give you a breakdown of my thoughts, but the really important factor is the triceps involvement changes dramatically based on two things:
1) The position of the humerus relative to the torso
- When the humerus is parallel to the torso and below the shoulder, all three heads of the triceps tend to get involved, with emphasis being on the lateral head in nearly all exercises. (Cable press downs are a good example.)
- When the humerus is parallel to the torso and above the shoulder, the long head of the triceps becomes involved more so than in any other variation. Overhead triceps exercises fall into this category.
- When the humerus is perpendicular to the torso, the long head can be isolated further (depending on weight and hand position).
2) Rotation of the hand
- When the hand is rotated to a pronated (palms-down) grip, involvement of the medial and lateral heads increases.
- When the hand is rotated to a neutral grip, the lateral head takes over a quite a bit
- When the hand is rotated to a supinated (palms up) grip, the involvement of the long head increases.
To a muscle nerd like me, that’s all incredibly interesting and really useful to know. And, again, we can leverage this information to help you, where you’re trying to shape sexy arms or get “hyoooooge effin’ gunz.”
Now, this post is for the ladies, so we’ll have to leave hyoooge gunz for another time.
Looking at the information I listed, it can get confusing; so let me explain what I think the goal should be.
If you want strong triceps that don’t jiggle, you have to address the long head of the triceps. As I mentioned earlier, it attaches the highest up on the arm, and for women, the “turkey wing” phenomenon happens pretty much where the arm flows out of the armpit. The more we can work the long head and make it strong, the better we are.
Secondly, one of the other things we want to consider is the “look” of a sexy arm; an arm that is well developed and fit without being over-developed.
Take a look at Jamie Eason’s arm in this picture. Her arms clearly indicate that she works out, but they are not over developed or overly muscular.
To hit this look, I recommend that women attempt to develop the lateral head of the triceps while minimizing involvement of the medial head. In fact, ideally you’ll work the medial head just enough to prevent any negative muscular imbalances.
Well, firstly, you can’t SEE the damn thing! Remember, the medial head lies UNDERNEATH the lateral head—which means that if we make it grow, it will “pop” the lateral head out and make the arm look bigger.
Now, this is great for guys who arm looking to increase the circumference of their upper arms (take note, fellas), but for a woman, increase the girth of the arm possibly might look okay in a tank top…but once you put a sweater on or a long sleeve shirt, how’s it gonna look? If I may borrow from my readers, “bulky.”
Still with me?
All right, awesome.
Okay, so far we want to hit long head and keep the long head involved without getting too much of the medial head.
EXERCISES FOR THE LONG HEAD OF THE TRICEPS
For the long head, pretty much any overhead movement will suffice…BUT some are better than others. Sure, overhead extensions are okay, but we can make them better.
As I mentioned, hand positioning will also affect which head is recruited. In this instance, we’re trying to hit the long head of the triceps, and so turning the palm into a supine grip is the way to go.
Which means that an overhead extension with a reverse grip is one of the best exercises that women can do to develop sexy arms.
My favorite way to have clients do these is with a cable, as shown in this video.
Of course, you can also do them with dumbbells.
Interestingly, you don’t have to train exclusively with overhead movements to train the long head; it’s also worked very well with the classic movement, the French press, also known as the barbell skull-crusher. And, since we know that taking a reverse grip increases the involvement of the long head, if you’re brave enough and trust yourself not to drop the barbell on your dome, you can try a reverse grip skull-crusher. It’s killer.
Note – I don’t have a video of this but I’ll shoot one for you.
As mentioned, the long head is made up of mixed fibers, so you should do a mixed range of weight, reps, and sets. We don’t have too much in over development.
EXERCISES FOR THE LATERAL HEAD OF THE TRICEPS
The lateral head and the medial head try to work as a team, so we have to pick exercises that really focus on the lateral and minimize the medial. Harder than it sounds. Thankfully, there are a few.
A key factor here is, again, hand position. Using a neutral grip (palms facing each other) puts a bit more onus on the lateral head.
The supine triceps extension with neutral grip is a great example. Now, that’s kind of just a fancy name for a skull crusher/French press done with dumbbells.
Please, forgive the cheesy video intro. I need to just shoot one for you, but this gives you an idea.
As I said, it’s very similar to a regular skull crusher. The interesting thing is that by making two simple tweaks—changing a barbell to dumbbells, and shifting from a reverse grip to a neutral grip—and you take the emphasis off the long head and put it on the lateral head. Pretty cool.
Here’s something else that’s interesting. While it’s true that generally speaking overhead extension movements prioritize the long head, sometimes hand positioning is more important. For example, and overhead triceps extension done with a rope attachment showed great recruitment of the lateral head, and only mild long head involvement.
RANDOM PRESSDOWN STUFF
As expected, nearly all variations of the cable triceps pressdown showed equal involvement of all three heads of the triceps. However, one stood out: the triceps pressdown performed with a straight bar and a narrow grip hit the long and lateral heads while minimizing the medial head. If you’re going with a pressdown movement, pick this one.
EXERCISES TO AVOID
Here’s a brief list of exercises I think a woman can do without, at least for a while. Are they evil? NO. Do they have some benefit? YES, of course. However, if you’re training specifically for aesthetics, you should minimizethese in your program.
- Kickback – honestly, just not really a great exercise over all. It’s good with very light weight as a pre-activation exercise, but that’s it.
- Close Grip Bench – fantasic for guys looking to build big triceps and a strong bench. Ladies, unless you’re trying to build maximum pressing strength, you can skip this.
- One-arm Triceps Pressdown – too much medial head involvement; if you’re going to do these, use a reverse grip.
- Standing French Press (cable stack) – too much medial head involvement; plus it just works better as a barbell movement.
And now, without further delay, I’ve got a workout for you!
Roman’s Tricky Triceps Training Session for Sexy Arms
1a) Push-Ups – 1 set of 8 reps (on knees if you need to)
1b) Push-Up Hold – 1 set, hold for 30 seconds at the top of the push-up movement.
2) Overhead Extension with Reverse Grip – 2 sets of 12-15
(rest 60 seconds between)
3a) Supine Triceps Extension with Neutral Grip – 3 sets of 6
3b) Triceps Pressdowns with Straight Bar and Narrow Grip – 3 sets of 10
(Perform a set of extensions, rest for 30 seconds, then perform the presdowns. Rest 75 seconds and repeat. Perform a total of 3 alternations.)
4) Skullcrusher with Reverse Grip – 1 set of 12 reps
- Platzer, Werner (2004). Color Atlas of Human Anatomy, Vol. 1: Locomotor System (5th ed.).
- Lucas-Osma, AM; Collazos-Castro, JE. (2009). “Compartmentalization in the triceps brachii motoneuron nucleus and its relation to muscle architecture”. J Comp Neurol 516 (3): 226–39.
Ladies: did you learn something here? Did I trash one of your favorite exercises, or maybe teach you a new one? Let me know in the comments!
And don’t forget, if you’re looking for a program designed specifically for women, there’s still time to pick up Flavia’s program, CURVALICIOUS during the half price sale, and get some extra bonuses. Including the soon-to-be-filmed video of me getting trained on camera but the lady herself!