When it comes to building big arms everybody knows that the triceps are the most important. They cover 2/3’s of the upper arm and the long head of the triceps really gives the illusion of having huge pipes. I mentioned in my previous articles that if you are a beginner/novice lifter then you don’t really need to hit your triceps with direct work because they will already get enough stimulation from benching, dips and push-up variations. Long story short, after a while the stronger muscles tend to take over and your triceps may still be getting stronger from these movements, but the growth won’t be optimal and you will eventually need to hit your triceps with direct work.
On my journey to getting a big and strong back I also did a lot of research and experiments with triceps training. Aside from close grip benching and dips, I love behind the back overhead dumbbell extensions because you can go heavy and I get a good stretch from this movement. I started to notice that I would get some elbow pain from time to time but then I made some tweaks to my triceps training and haven’t had elbow pain ever since (let’s hope it stays like that). Here are 5 reasons why direct triceps work might be hurting your elbows.
1) YOU’RE PICKING TRICEP MOVEMENTS THAT YOU CAN’T DO PAIN-FREE.
First things first, you have to pick a direct triceps movement that you can do pain free. Experiment with different ones, I can personally do the one above pain free and I am getting good gains so I am sticking to it for now. There are some triceps exercises that cause minimal elbow stress such as:Tate Presses
• Tate Presses
• Rolling DB triceps extensions
2) YOU AREN’T UTILIZING BANDS IN YOUR TRAINING PROGRAM FOR DIRECT TRICEP WORK.
Bands are a very solid tool that you can utilize in your programs because when you do any kind of band extension it places all of the stress on your triceps during the lockout phase and the tension at the top position is reduced because of the bands (I’m referring to pushdowns here but there will also be less elbow pain if you do other forms of triceps extensions). As a bonus, the band triceps work tends to be easier on the wrists and shoulders too.
Honestly, if all of the free weight and cable exercises are hurting your elbows then I think you should just stick with band pushdowns and from time to time you could do band overhead triceps extensions but band pushdowns are definitely at the top when it comes to high benefit low risk direct triceps work. A lot of the guys at Westside Barbell club use these and even lifters like Dave Tate use them on a regular basis, in fact that is who I got the idea from. I know you may be thinking that band pushdowns are a sissy exercise and they can be but if you think that the exercise is too easy then get a stronger band! I have NEVER heard anybody complain about band pushdowns and I doubt I will ever hear any complaints in the future, it’s just too good to hate on.
As a bonus, since the bands tend to be very elbow friendly you can increase the volume and frequency which could contribute to some more gains.
3) YOU’RE GOING WAY TOO HEAVY AND EGO LIFTING.
Some people who weigh 200lb can do dumbbell or EZ-bar extensions with 200lb for reps but there are very few and it is risky. Even Jim Wendler mentioned in one of his articles:
“Triceps extensions killed my elbows. Dumbbells or barbells, the weight or the implement didn’t matter; extensions wrecked my elbows so bad that I could no longer untrack an empty barbell without incredible pain. With extensions, like the good morning, people get caught up in the weight they’re using. At a certain point, the extension starts to resemble some kind of extension/press hybrid. If you get to that point, just do close-grip bench presses and stop lying to yourself.” – Jim Wendler
So this means that you shouldn’t be ego lifting with direct triceps work, nobody cares how much weight you can do on triceps extensions!
4) YOUR REP RANGE IS WAY TOO LOW.
I personally wouldn’t go under 10 repetitions on direct triceps work and I wouldn’t go until failure either. Nice, smooth and controlled reps are the way to go for direct triceps work. This way you can reap all of the benefits with little to no risks.
5) YOU AREN’T DOING ALL OF YOUR HEAVY WORK FIRST AND DOING DIRECT TRICEP WORK AT THE END.
This tip is very important. I am a big advocate of doing all of the heavy work for the triceps first and then doing direct triceps work at the end. This will ensure that I did the following:
- Pre-exhausted my triceps so I can’t use as much weight.
- Got all of my heavy upper body training in first.
A good example of this would be:
- Heavy Close grip bench pressing 5×5
- Neutral Grip DB presses 4×8
- Weighted Dips (Upright withtricepsemphasis) 4×10
- Overhead DB Triceps Extensions 3×10-15
- Band Pushdowns 2×15-25
(Your triceps also get hit very hard on vertical pressing movements such as barbell and dumbbell shoulder presses so keep that in mind!)
With this program I made sure that I hit all of my heavy work and I hit all of the muscle fibers in the triceps (low rep, moderate rep and high rep) all to a certain degree. The good thing is that with all of the heavy presses and dips you won’t be able to use as much weight on the triceps extensions which is exactly what we want. Try to get more out of less weight when doing direct triceps work. You don’t need to do heavy triceps extensions because you already got all of the heavy work in with the presses and weighted dips. After that we are pretty much following bodybuilding parameters with high reps, low rest between sets and trying to get a good pump while getting a lot of blood in that area. This brings me to my next point.
6) YOU AREN’T INCORPORATING DUMBELL HAMMER CURLS IN YOUR PROGRAM, SUPERSETTING IT WITH TRICEP WORK AND GETTING A GOOD PUMP.
Hammer curls are one of the best exercises for preventing elbow pain. Think of the triceps as the front delt and the biceps as the rear delt, the rear delt helps keep the front delt healthy. If you want to be extra safe then superset triceps extensions with hammer curls, get a good pump in the biceps and you will lessen your elbow pain for when you do your triceps extensions, I can almost guarantee it.
7) YOUR DIRECT TRICEP VOLUME AND FREQUENCY IS WAY TOO HIGH.
I personally do direct triceps work twice per week at the end of my upper body program for 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps, that’s it. I notice that anything more than that affects my pull-ups which is not good. Of course, everybody’s connective tissue health and recovery abilities are different so you would have to justify what kind of volume and frequency is appropriate for your program. It also depends on how much of a priority it is for you to get bigger triceps. If building bigger triceps is at the top of the list for you then you can reduce some of the volume on some other lifts that involve the elbows a lot and dedicate it to more triceps work. At the end of the day, you are your best coach and you know your body better than anybody else so it is up to you to know what you can and can’t tolerate!
8) YOU’RE DOING MORE DIRECT TRICEP WORK THAN DIRECT BICEP WORK.
You have to have a balance between direct triceps work and direct bicep work and if you want to be safer then I would actually prefer that you do more direct bicep work. If you do 6 sets of triceps work, then you should do 8 sets of direct bicep work. These ratios obviously aren’t exact, but the point I am trying to make is that you should do a bit more direct bicep work than direct triceps work and if you had to pick a bicep exercise to do I would suggest Hammer Curls. Hammer curls are very wrist friendly, hit the forearms and do a great job at targeting the biceps as well.
I hope that you have enjoyed these tips. Remember that if all extensions are hurting your elbows then just do heavy close grip benching, neutral grip dumbbell presses, weighted dips (with triceps emphasis) and finish off with band pushdowns for high reps. Let me know what you think about these tips and how they are working for you!