Best TWO Exercises for Arms


Nov 18

BEST Two Triceps Exercises

Posted on November 18, 2019 at 7:56 PM by Colin Keedy

The best two activities for activating the triceps according to EMG are the bench press and incline dumbbell kickbacks with shoulder retroversion. Anatomy, research, and intensity is what this article is predicated on. Each consideration mattered so much for this group. The anatomy of the tricep is complicated and multivariate. The research is conflicting. And intensity truly dictates the research results of this group. 


Understanding the anatomy and function of the triceps brachii group is integral for planning a protocol to develop the group. The long head is connected to the shoulder and elbow joint. Therefore, muscle activity of the long head increases as shoulder flexion or extension increases. Two examples that exemplify this are the overhead tricep extension and the incline bench dumbbell kickbacks [1, 2, 5, 6, 11]. The shoulder is rotated into opposite planes during the two activities but the long head becomes the dominant contributor because of the shoulder rotation [5]. On the other hand, the lateral and medial heads are not connected to the shoulder joint, thereby only contribute to elbow extension. Based on their anatomy, the lateral and medial head are more activated in shoulder angles of 75-100 degrees – think during a horizontal press [5].


Intensity determines the level of muscle activation – easy activities have less activation. If the push up is not easy for you then it is likely developing the whole upper body region: chest, triceps, and shoulders. If you can rep out 20 push-ups no problem, you will need to start benching to achieve an appropriate level of intensity. This is the main reason the bench press was chosen over the diamond push-ups and other body weight variants. While they are completely acceptable activities, tracking their intensity across different populations is difficult. Push-ups are technically a beginner exercise, but for beginners who are overweight, the push-up is an unrealistic expectation. The bench press fixes this problem by not factoring in body weight. And, it also fixes the problem of being too easy for advanced lifters.


What I can confidently say I’ve learned about tricep brachii EMG from the research is that there is one definitive exercise for long head development. The exercise that is above all else in long head development is the incline dumbbell kickback with shoulder retroversion – quite a mouthful. The exercise actually appeared in multiple studies with different populations and had similarly promising results [1, 2, 5]. The key here is the anatomy, when the shoulder is placed into full extension and the elbow joint is forced to extend under external resistance, it creates the perfect condition to force the long head to do its anatomical job. If anatomy isn’t convincing enough, let the data speak for itself. 

The data collected by Boeckh-Behrens & Buskies was adapted by the “Suppversity” blog found the long head to be the best activated by DB kickbacks on an incline bench with shoulders fully extended [2].

Triceps may be more responsive to heavy training and, in turn, the EMG results are affected by load percentage. The most difficult part of a heavy bench press for most people is the middle of the concentric portion. The phenomenon of the so called “sticking point” is reflected in the research, triceps activity increases as the percentage of 1RM increases [10, 12, 13]. This phenomenon is not seen as drastically in the pec and may have an opposite effect – training with lighter weight during the bench may be more beneficial for developing the pec region. Triceps being responsive to heavy loading is likely due to the fact that they are mainly comprised of fast twitch muscle fibers [14]. What better way to take intensity and progression into account than utilizing the horizontal bench press.

The bench press is one of the three pillars of powerlifting – congrats powerlifting, you’ve taken a spot on every appropriate “Best of” list so far. It can be loaded progressively, with multiple variations, to properly overload the tricep and anterior deltoid. To properly overload the tricep, one must bench at the heavy end of the spectrum. The research on competitive powerlifters had them lifting at 90% of their 6RM and another study had them benching at 80% of their 1RM, both of which having the anterior deltoid and triceps as the dominant muscle groups [12, 13]. Another study had participants benching at 95% of their 1RM, the lateral head had extremely high activation, peaking out at 120% of MVIC [10]. Training anywhere from 2 reps (95% of 1RM) to 5 reps (87% of 1RM) would likely be optimal for tricep focused bench pressing. 

Data collected by Petr Stastny et. al displays the lateral head of the triceps brachii to be highly activated during heavy bench press repetitions [10]. 


The triceps group was an interesting one to research. It was surprisingly difficult to find quality research on the group. Either the research didn’t include more than one of the heads of the tricep or the results conflicted with a different study. I believe some of the conflicts came from the populations in the studies – some were only female, some were only male, some were trained, some were untrained, some came from a random book in German that I could only find on Amazon. I feel like the only person I can trust is Contreras [9], but again he only tested himself and he only tested the long head. At least in his study, he compared multiple exercises and had contrasting levels of resistance. One research study had the close grip bench press as the least effective tricep activity and had the diamond push up as the top exercise [1]. In contrast, a different study said that the standard bench press at 95% of 1RM activated the tricep as much as the chest [10]. Either the bench press is a poor activator of the chest – the data says otherwise, or poor research was conducted. Another problem with Boehler et. a [1], is she chose 24 collegiate female lacrosse players. Considering EMG is directly related to exercise intensity, I surmise diamond pushups were particularly difficult for that population. On the other hand, when elite powerlifters were analysed during bench press, the triceps group was ahead of the anterior deltoid. Considering the horizontal press is the single best activator of the anterior deltoid – check my article out on shoulders for more information, I’d say that the bench press is good activator of the tricep.



  2. EMG Series - M. Triceps Brachii: The Best Exercises to Get That Horseshoe Look on Your Triceps

  3. Muscle Fatigue in the Three Heads of the Triceps Brachii During a Controlled Forceful Hand Grip Task with Full Elbow Extension 

  4. Using Surface Electromyography

  5. The different role of each head of the triceps brachii muscle in elbow extension

  6. Effect of shoulder position on triceps brachii heads activity in dumbbell elbow extension exercises

  7. ACE Study Identifies Best Triceps Exercises

  8. A systematic review of surface electromyography analyses of the bench press movement task

  9. Inside the Muscles: Best Chest and Triceps Exercises

  10. Effects of Pre-exhaustion on the Patterns of Muscular Activity in the Flat Bench Press

  11. Differences in Muscle Activity During Cable Resistance Training Are Influenced by Variations in Handle Types

  12. The Effects of Bench Press Variations in Competitive Athletes on Muscle Activity and Performance

  13. Effects of Variations of the Bench Press Exercise

  14. A Comparison Of Muscle Activity Between A Free Weight and Machine Bench Press

  15. Whole-muscle and single-fibre contractile properties and myosin heavy chain isoforms in humans