The triceps have an important role in the bench press. If your triceps are weak, then you’ll struggle to lock the weight out. I always say to my athletes: “you should never fail a bench press rep at lock-out”. Therefore, strong triceps are necessary in order to maximize your strength on the bench press.
So what are the best tricep exercises to increase bench press strength?
- Close Grip Bench Press
- 2-Board Bench Press
- 3-2-1 Board Bench Press
- Bench Rack Starts (1/4 Range)
- Barbell Floor Press
- Banded Bench Press
- Push Press
- Barbell Chin Crusher
- Dumbbell Tate Press
- Floor Lying EZ Bar Skull Crusher
- Dumbell California Press
- Weighted Vertical Dips
- Straight Bar Tricep Pressdown
- Single-Arm Overhead Rope Tricep Extension (Slow Eccentric)
- Supinated Single Arm Cable Tricep Extension (Myo Reps)
- Narrow Grip Medicine Ball Push-Up
This article will cover all of these exercises in greater detail, which if implemented correctly, will directly impact your tricep strength for bench press. Let’s first take a closer look at the role of the triceps for bench press, the different types of tricep exercises, and how to best structure your program.
If you enjoy this article, you’ll probably also like our guide on the 10 BEST BENCH PRESS ACCESSORIES TO INCREASE STRENGTH AND TECHNIQUE.
Role of The Triceps In The Bench Press
The bench press uses the chest, shoulder, and tricep muscles.
At various stages of the bench press more or less of these muscle groups are used. As you lower the barbell to your chest, the pec muscles are highly activated, especially the closer the barbell gets to your chest. As you drive off the chest into the mid-range, the anterior deltoid (shoulders) are most activated. When you transition the barbell from the mid-range to the lock-out, the loading demand increases more for the elbow extensors and tricep muscles.
Since the triceps are responsible for locking the weight out, it doesn’t matter how strong your chest or shoulders are throughout the range of motion, your triceps will make or break the lift at the final stages of the movement.
The triceps are comprised of three muscles: lateral head, medial head, and long head.
The lateral and medial head of the tricep are the muscles responsible for locking the weight out in the bench press (Duffey, 2008).
The long head of the tricep doesn’t have much of a role in the bench press. This is important to understand especially when we start looking at tricep exercises that can directly improve bench press strength.
See our full guide on muscles used in the bench press HERE
How Important is Tricep Strength For Elite Powerlifters?
Every world level bench pressor believes that strong triceps are the key to a successful max attempt.
Owen Hubbard: World Record Bench Presser
Own Hubbard broke the World Record bench press at the 2019 World Powerlifting Championships by pressing 215.5kg /474lbs in the 83kg/183lb division.
I asked Owen what his opinion was on the role of the triceps for bench press and he said:
Targeting triceps as an area of weakness can be effective for bench press, but it has its time and place. I’m always going to do that sort of focus in the most specific way possible. For example board press and close grip work is always going to be king.Owen Hubbard
Jennifer Thompson: 10X World Powerlifting Champion
Jen Thompson is a 10-time world powerlifting champion and has bench pressed 145kg / 319lbs, which at the time was the strongest bench press of any man or woman in the world based on the Wilks formula.
When asking Jen about the importance of tricep strength in the bench press, she said:
I think of triceps as the last few inches of the lift, aka the lockout. It is important because it is the part of the lift where the chest is done and the speed of the bar has slowed down. I work on triceps on my accessory day to work on what we call the ‘top end’ of the lift. We do this via close grip and decline bench press, board presses, and pin presses.Jennifer Thompson
We’re going to talk about these movements later in the article, but first, let’s discuss the two different categories of tricep exercises and how to implement them into your training program.
How To Implement Tricep Exercises Into Your Training Program
The triceps can be trained using both compound and isolation movements. The best training programs will incorporate both types of tricep movements. The below recommendations will provide you with a structure for how to program the 16 tricep exercises that are listed in this article.
Compound variations are more specific tricep exercises that closely mimic the bench press. These are exercises like the close grip bench, board press, and pin press.
These exercises look very much like a bench press but incorporate slight modifications to either the bar path, grip, or range of motion in order to emphasize the triceps. These variations are compound in nature, which means that in addition to targeting the triceps, you’ll also get some shoulder and chest activation (albeit to a lesser extent).
When programming compounded variations, you can either choose to do it after a regular bench press, or you can replace the regular bench press with one of these variations entirely. For example, instead of the regular bench press, you could choose a close grip bench press if you really wanted to prioritize a tricep-dominate variation.
Compound variations can be done using a lower rep range (3-6) with heavier weights if you want to build strength. The number of sets will vary based on goal, phase of training, and training age, but will range between 3-6. They are usually programmed first or second in the exercise order given their compounded nature and how heavy you will be expected to lift.
Isolation variations include any exercise that strictly focuses on the tricep muscle. These are exercises that use dumbells, cables, or body-weight, such as skull crushers or straight bar tricep pressdowns
These tricep variations are isolation movements, which means that they are single-joint exercises, strictly focused on activating the tricep muscle and nothing else. They also don’t mimic the bench press range of motion, like the compound variations. As a result, they are not used as a substitute for bench press, but rather, in addition to the bench press. You would never replace the regular bench press with a skull crusher. You would perform the skull crusher after the regular bench press.
Isolation tricep exercises can be done using a higher rep range (8-15) with moderate weights to stimulate muscle growth. You can typically handle a higher number of sets for isolation tricep variations, somewhere between 4-8 sets, because it’s not as strenuous on the body. They are usually programmed near the end of the exercise order after the compound movements.
16 Tricep Exercise To Improve Your Bench Press
The following is a list of the best tricep exercises that will improve your bench press.
Don’t expect to have magic results after a single workout though. You need to expose yourself to these movements over a long period of time (6-12 weeks) and work to increase both the volume and intensity.
The first 8 exercises are compound” tricep variations to be used at the beginning of the workout with low to moderate reps.
The last 8 exercises are isolation tricep variations to be used at the end of the workout with moderate to high reps.
For optimal results, select at least 1 compound exercise and 2-3 isolation exercises to include your training program.
1. Close Grip Bench Press
The close grip bench press is set up exactly like a normal bench press, but you will take a grip that is 1-2 fist lengths inside your normal grip. The triceps are most activated in a shoulder-width grip, showing to be two times more activated in this grip compared with one that is twice the distance (Lehman, 2005).
When you take a narrower grip on the bar your touchpoint on the chest will likely change as a result (slightly lower). Therefore, don’t worry about having a different touchpoint, just try and make the range of motion feel comfortable.
2. Board Bench Press (2-Board Protocol)
The board bench press is a variation that is used specifically to work the top end range of motion. Therefore, the tricep strength you’re developing with the board press is specific to the exact range of motion that you’re trying to get stronger.
The exercise is a bit awkward to set-up because you’ll need a training partner to hold boards on your chest while you bench press. Notwithstanding, not all gyms have 2X4 boards lying around. With that said, the 2-board bench press is my number one choice for building tricep strength on the bench press.
If you train alone or don’t have access to boards, I would highly recommend picking up a pair of Bench Blokz (click to see picture and price on Amazon). This is a piece of equipment that attaches to the bar and mimics the use of boards.
3. Board Bench Press (2-1-Chest Protocol)
The 2-1-chest board bench press is exactly like the 2-board press, but instead of benching to one board height, you’re benching to different board heights over the course of a single set. An example of this would be: two reps to the 2-board, two reps to the 1-board, and then doing two full reps to your chest.
This method will pre-fatigue the tricep muscles before the full-range reps, which will make it more difficult for the triceps to lock the weight out. This method requires a training partner to switch out the boards throughout the set, as the goal is not to re-rack the bar in between your 2-1-chest protocol.
4. Bench Rack Starts (1/4 Range)
The bench rack start is where you start with the barbell on the safety pins inside a power rack. From a dead stop on the safety pins, you’ll drive off the pins until your arms are locked. You’ll then return the barbell to the pins and come to a dead stop again before cycling through the rest of your reps.
You’ll set up the safety pins so that the barbell is only traveling the top 1/4 range of motion. In this way, your chest and shoulders will only be minimally activated, while your triceps will take most of the loading demand. Because you’re only pressing the bar 1/4 of the range of motion, you should be able to use a load that far exceeds what you’d normally be able to handle for full reps.
Some people have said that it’s hard to keep their wrists neutral in this variation, which is where wrist wraps can provide assistance (Click HERE to see my favorite ones on Amazon).
5. Barbell Floor Press
The barbell floor press is where you position your body on the floor and perform a bench press. As you bring the barbell to your chest, your elbows will likely hit the ground before completing the full range of motion. When your elbows touch the floor, pause for 1-2 seconds and then drive your elbows to lock-out as fast as possible.
Much like the previous variations, this movement targets the top half range of motion, which is focused on building strength in your triceps. Some people find laying on the floor a bit awkward, so if that’s you, there are plenty of other compound tricep exercises to choose from.
6. Banded Bench Press
I wrote an entire article on the banded bench press, which covers the benefits of using bands for bench press.
One of the main reasons discussed for using bands was that they place more emphasis on your triceps compared with the regular bench press. This is because your triceps are responsible for extending the arm in the lock-out, and the band produces greater resistance at the top-end range of motion. Therefore, by loading your triceps at the lock-out using bands, you’re producing strength adaptations specific to the mechanics of the movement.
Essentially, the bands force you to drive hard and fast into the lock-out, which requires your triceps to be maximally recruited. If you’re looking for bands, check out these ones on Amazon (it’s a kit of bands that can be used for more or less resistance).
7. Push Press
The push press can be categorized as a shoulder accessory movement. However, when you implement the push press variation it is equally a tricep accessory. Just like the bench press, the top half range of the push press is largely a tricep movement as the arms extend to lock.
In the push press, the knees bend to initiate the movement, which is followed by a powerful hip drive to launch the barbell from shoulders to overhead. Because the lower body is assisting with the first half of the range of motion, the shoulders are not as activated as they normally would when compared with a regular overhead press. As such, the triceps are required to take the barbell from halfway over the head (when the initial power from the legs start to fade) to a completed lock-out position.
8. Barbell Chin Crusher
The barbell chin crusher is where you grab the barbell in your bench press grip, and then instead of bringing the barbell to your chest, you bring it to your chin instead.
This exercise forces your elbows to be in front of the barbell. The greater the distance of your elbows in front of the barbell, the harder your tricep needs to work to extend the elbow. By taking a grip that mimics your bench press grip, the chin crusher becomes a more specific tricep variation that should lead to greater strength at lock-out.
9. Dumbbell Tate Press
The Tate Press is named after veteran powerlifter, Dave Tate. Start by lying on a flat bench with a pair of dumbbells over your shoulders. Bring the inside part of the dumbbell toward the centre of your chest — don’t let the upper arm or dumbbells rest on your chest in the bottom range. To lock-out, reverse the range of motion, but try to keep the dumbbells together until your arms are locked.
The Tate Press can either be done with both arms at the same time (as I just described) or single arm. I prefer the single-arm variation as I feel like I can isolate the tricep to a greater extent and work on any imbalances between the right and left side.
10. Floor Lying EZ Bar Skull Crusher
The floor lying EZ bar skull crusher is a slightly different take on the classic skull crusher exercise for triceps. It’s performed on the floor so that the plates rest on the ground in between each rep behind your head. As a result, you’ll need to drive the bar off the floor from a dead stop, which will limit any momentum gained by swinging the bar overhead. This will make the movement much harder to complete.
Some people prefer this movement over the barbell chin crusher (described previously) because it is a safer movement. This is because if you fail the floor lying EZ bar skull crusher, the weight simply returns to the floor behind your head, rather than falling on your chin. If you’re going heavy without a spot this might be a consideration for you.
11. Dumbell California Press
The dumbbell California press is a two-part movement. The first part of the movement is a slow eccentric skull crusher. You’ll take dumbbells with straight arms in a neutral grip, and then slowly bring the weights to your forehead using a 3-4 second count. Once the dumbbells are on either side of your head, you’ll initiate the second part of the movement, which is quickly rolling your elbows down and forward. At this point, the dumbbells should be on either side of your chest, and you’ll explosively drive the arms to lock-out. The triceps become strongly activated during the slow eccentric phase, so you’ll want to ensure the load you select allows you to keep the proper tempo on the way down.
12. Weighted Vertical Dips
The weighted vertical is a pressing movement that still largely involves the chest and shoulders, but can be modified to work more of the triceps as well. If you want to activate the triceps more, you should aim to maintain a vertical torso as you lower yourself.
You’ll only want to lower yourself using a range of motion that feels comfortable on the shoulder joint since many people find it uncomfortable to maintain a vertical torso. If that’s the case for you, a slightly forward lean can alleviate any shoulder discomfort, but just know you’ll be using more chest and shoulders at that point to assist the movement.
You can load this movement with a dumbbell or by using a band (as shown above). If using a band, it will provide greater resistance for the triceps as you extend your elbow at the top range of motion.
13. Straight Bar Tricep Pressdown
The straight bar tricep pressdown can be used at the end of the workout after you bench press and can drive significant hypertrophy adaptations. To make this exercise more specific to bench press, grab the longest straight bar cable attachment you can find and use a bench press grip to perform the tricep extensions. The wider grip will make the movement slightly more difficult, but the tricep strength developed with this technique will transfer better to your bench press.
This variation is easy to set up so if you’re running out of time at the end of a workout, you’ll get a lot of added tricep work by doing a few sets.
14. Single-Arm Overhead Rope Tricep Extension (Slow Eccentric)
The single-arm overhead rope tricep extension with a slow eccentric focus is a great option for people who have maxed out other cable or dumbbell tricep isolation exercises and need to keep progressing.
Start by setting up a tricep rope attachment high on the cable machine. Then take both hands to press the rope over your head. Take one hand off the rope, and proceed to lower the rope back to the cable machine using a 5-sec eccentric tempo. Once you’ve completed the slow portion, grab the rope with both hands again and press it overhead to repeat the process.
Because you’ll be getting a lot of time under tension using the slow tempo, you can use a rep ranges as low as 6, even though isolation exercises are usually between 8-15 reps. Your triceps will definitely be sore after the first few times trying this exercise.
15. Supinated Single Arm Cable Tricep Extension (Myo Reps)
The supinated single arm cable tricep extension is performed with your palm up using a single handle on the cable machine. This exercise is fairly straight forward in its execution, simply take your hand from a flexed position and extend your elbow to straighten your arm — the upper arm should not move throughout the movement.
To drive hypertrophy adaptations even further using this exercise, implement a special method called “myo reps”. Myo reps are a method of taking short breaks in between mini-sets with the goal of performing a lot of work in a short amount of time and taking the muscle to fatigue (click HERE to read more about myo rep protocols that you can use).
16. Narrow Grip Medicine Ball Push-Up
The narrow grip medicine ball push-up is a variation of the push-up that targets the triceps more than the chest and shoulders. In a narrow grip, you’ll place more loading demand on the elbow extensors, which requires the triceps to work a lot harder to extend the arm through the full range of motion.
When performing this movement, do 2-3 sets of as many reps as possible in order to take the tricep muscles to full exhaustion. If you’re getting over 30 reps for multiple sets, you might want to consider adding a band resistance around your body to increase the intensity of the movement.
The triceps have an important role in the bench press. They are responsible for the final range of motion to extend the arms to lockout. With weak triceps, your bench press will most certainly suffer. Therefore, it’s important to implement bench press variations that target the triceps more, as well as isolation movements that build volume and hypertrophy.
What To Read Next
Duffey, M. A Biomechanical Analysis of The Bench Press. A Dissertation in Kinesiology, Pennsylvania State University. 2008. https://etda.libraries.psu.edu/files/final_submissions/4136
Lehman, G. The Influencer of Grip Width and Forearm Pronation/Supination on Upper-Body MyoElectric Activity During The Flat Bench Press. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2005;19(3):587-591) [Semantic Scholar]