Forget endless sets of push downs and dumbbell kick backs. Forget French presses and skull crushers. If you want to build up a set of strong, large, functionally useful triceps that work perfectly in concert with the other muscles of your body involved in upper body pressing, you need to be doing triceps push ups.
All push ups are good for building triceps, and for working pressing strength, stamina and motor control in general. So too are dips – they will help you to build the backs of your arms into absolute powerhouses. Triceps push ups are a bit of a reconciliation between the two.
They work every part of your triceps through one of their main functions – pushing objects away from your body and pushing your body away from objects. You may struggle at first – this is OK. It can be an unfamiliar motion. However, once you master the triceps push up, and several of its variations as detailed below, you will quickly see your triceps and pushing power grow.
Push up variations for your triceps
Before we look at triceps push ups specifically, however, we need to ensure good push up form. Master this for a strong, controlled upper body and pushing ability.
To perform push ups, simply:
- Assume a plank position, with your shoulders stacked above your elbows and your hands stacked below your elbows. Palms should be flat on the floor, though, as we see below, they can also be braced against various implements
- Keep your feet together if you can. If you need more support, widen your stance, but aim to progress to keeping them together
- Your neck and spine should be neutral, your back straight, your core tight and engaged, and your hips in line with your shoulders
- Lower yourself down, flaring your elbows out to a forty five degree angle
- Come down as far as you can, or until your chest is hovering an inch off the floor, and hold for a moment before reversing the motion, using your arms and chest to push yourself back upwards
- If you struggle with this, or if your back or core start to sag, consider practicing push ups on your knees until you feel more comfortable with the movement.
How to target your triceps
Lots of triceps exercises work them in isolation. That is definitely not your aim with triceps push ups. You want to use them in conjunction with the chest, anterior deltoids and core. The benefit to this kind of compound is that it works a lot of muscle mass all at once whilst teaching disparate muscle groups to better work in concert with one another.
This being said, triceps push ups naturally place more of the stimulation into the triceps than conventional push ups do. This means that your triceps will likely fatigue before the larger, more mechanically stable, less stimulated muscles of the chest and shoulders. Embrace this – it is your aim.
To perform triceps push ups:
Get into the above push up position, in a high plank
Brace your core, keep your spine and neck neutral, all as above
The main difference is in hand placement and elbow movement. You will begin with your hands slightly within shoulder width – by a cm or so. We are not performing diamond push ups here
As you drop down, keep your elbows pinned to your sides. Your arms should brush past your ribs, rather than flaring out at 45 degrees. This is the main change that will emphasise the triceps. In fact, you needn’t change hand position at all – simply changing elbow direction will pull the pressure into your arms
Pause at the bottom and then push yourself up to the start
As with conventional push ups, this will be tough at first. Feel free to begin on your knees, working up to full triceps push ups. Also, as with conventional push ups, you may want to begin with your feet wider apart, aiming to bring them together over time as your confidence and ability both grow.
This is all you need to get going – no equipment, just yourself and a little practice. However, you can bring in some equipment to further emphasise the triceps, to make the whole process easier on your wrists, or simply to add some variety to your training.
Two main ways of doing this include:
Close-stance dumbbell push ups
You can increase your range of motion whilst taking pressure out of your wrists by using a set of dumbbells or push up handles. This will bring about deeper engagement, will work a fuller range of muscle mass – particularly through the chest – and will stop your wrists from fatiguing and aching.
Perform push ups as above. However, grip either a set of dumbbells or push up handles in your fists. Position them under your chest, grinding into the ground as you perform each rep. Try to bring your chest down slightly beneath your knuckles.
Medicine ball push ups
This is a safer, more wrist friendly, less core-stable version of the diamond push up. Use a medicine ball with your hands on as your contact with the ground. Place it under your chest, with your hands on it, thumbs and forefingers together in a diamond position. From your high plank, bring your chest down as far as you can, before pushing up again.
This will give you a pretty intense burn into your triceps, whilst bringing much of your chest strength out of the equation. It is one of the best triceps mass and strength gainer movements going.