Since the best ability is availability, injury prevention remains a primary goal for many sport teams. Lower extremity injuries to ACLs and hamstrings are frequent topics of discussion, and knowing the most susceptible areas and common injuries for one’s sport is an important step toward prevention. Before I create a program for my athletes, I create a needs analysis. In this need analysis, I always question how I can limit the amount of injury in their sport. The answer is teaching correct movement patterns, strengthening weaknesses, and perfecting strengths.
For overhead athletes, one of the most neglected areas is the triceps. Why is a muscle that small such a risk for overhead athletes? Baseball and softball players are constantly throwing overhead, volleyball players perform overhead spikes and serves, tennis has its serves and smashes, and the throws in track and field involve a range of motions. Any body part with constant stress and high volume is going to weaken over time unless you properly load it to make it stronger. In most of these sport movements, the triceps act as the antagonist muscles; meaning, it helps in slowing down the movement in order to protect the body. Think of it as a brake intended to have control and precision of the movement.Any body part with constant stress and high volume is going to weaken over time unless you properly load it to make it stronger, says @CoachKeemz. Click To Tweet
Training Arms Like Training Legs
Male athletes frequently like chasing the dream of having big arms, which fills their sleeves and builds their confidence, but there can be greater benefits than that. Ask yourself, what causes athletes to injure their hamstrings when running? Well, for most distance running, it’s usually repetition that causes stiffness and weakening of the associated muscles associated; but for sprinters, injury risk is usually due to overstriding to such a length that the hamstrings are maximally stretched and have no strength to absorb the landing properly.
The same concepts can be applied to overhead throwers—constant repetition of throwing or throwing so hard that your body cannot support the speed and extension will cause injuries to start occurring. Consequently, when considering strengthening the triceps, coaches must do it in a manner similar to how they would strengthen and increase the range of motion of the hamstrings.
Besides the goal of injury prevention, strengthening the triceps can have a carry over into helping other muscle growth. In order to have strong and powerful horizontal force production with the bench press, you must have strong enough triceps to support the load. The triceps also gets trained by various isometric strengthening exercises across different means such as loaded carries or deadlifts, concentric strengthening via pushups and dumbbell bench, and eccentrically in the descending phase of dumbbell rows or pullups. Even though the bench press might not be one of the most “functional” exercises, it sure helps strengthen the shoulder compartment—for the most part, once you strengthen up horizontal press strength, your vertical push strength and horizontal pulling strength can increase indirectly as well.Besides the goal of injury prevention, strengthening the triceps can have a carry over into helping other muscle growth, says @CoachKeemz. Click To Tweet
Exercises to Strengthen the Triceps
As mentioned, most movements that occur in the weight room include the triceps (but usually in the manner of an isometric hold). Some will then ask, is that enough strengthening? Well, do you believe a bent over row is enough hamstring work? Definitely not—you must attack it from different angles and train all three heads of the muscle (see below). Compound movements are the best for strengthening these types of muscles because you wouldn’t be able to load up as much weight if you tried to isolate it.
Some compound exercises I like to use to target the triceps are:
- Barbell Bench Press: Before you start, ensure that all five points of contact are made:1.) & 2.) Right & left foot underneath knees and pushed into ground; 3.) Glutes on bench; 4.) Shoulders retracted and pushed into the bench; 5.) Bar around eye level and head flat on bench.
- Grip on the bar should be about outside your shoulder-width and elbows should be at about a 45-degree angle. As you are pressing up (elbow extension), you should focus on driving both elbows together to contract the chest and triceps (concentric focus).
Video 1. Simplified keys for the bench press.
- Barbell Romanian Deadlift or Deadlift: Feet should be underneath hips with knees slightly bent and you should grip the bar outside your body with knuckles pointed toward the ground. As you push your feet through the ground, the chest and hip should rise at the same time while maintaining a neutral spine (isometric focus).
Video 2. Cues to perform an RDL.
- Loaded Pull-up / Chin-up: As you pull your chest/body towards the bar and slightly pause at the top, you should control your descent to the point where you are fully stretched at the bottom position (eccentric focus).
Video 3. Technique for a proper pull-up.
You can then add volume at the end of a workout to increase tissue size. How to properly train the muscle will depend on the origin and attachment on the muscle.
Even though any type of elbow extension is going to work the entire triceps, there are certain exercises that emphasize each head by manipulating the positioning. The long head connects to the lip of the glenoid fossa; the way to train this is to make sure it stretches out. A good way to do this is to do overhead triceps exercises, like an overhead cable triceps extension, french press, overhead TRX triceps extension, overhead barbell triceps extension, etc. Football defensive ends use it when they are trying to reach over to strip a ball, swimmers use it when they are breaking the water to accelerate, baseball players use it when they are throwing the ball, and so on.Even though any type of elbow extension is going to work the entire triceps, there are certain exercises that emphasize each head by manipulating the positioning, says @CoachKeemz. Click To Tweet
Another function of the long head is to extend the arm towards your backside, such as when doing dumbbell kickbacks or one of the best triceps exercises: dips. There are many variations on how to do these (on a bench, dip bars, or any elevated surface), but the most important cues to follow is to retract and depress the shoulder blades before you start and keep the elbows close together. This is needed because the long head not only acts as an elbow extensor but it is also an arm adductor at the shoulder joint, which facilitates movements that can be found in nearly every sport.
The lateral head can be trained in any manner where your hands are pronated (palms down), like triceps push-downs and a close-stance push-up: both of these exercises require you to keep your elbows close together to isolate the triceps and push through or to the ground. When our arms are extended, the lateral head is the portion that does the majority of the shock absorption, as seen in offensive linemen in football or any skill position where stiff arms are required.
The medial head has the opposite instructions: you want to supinate (palms up) the hands. Some great exercises for this are reverse grip triceps push-downs with a band or cable, or even a reverse grip barbell bench press. The dumbbell bench press is preferable because of the positioning and movement path (which is buried deep beneath the long head). While keeping the elbows together, you want to focus on driving the force into the ground in front of you to activate the triceps. The medial head acts as more of a precision tool when the elbow is extended as it lies deep within the muscle. Baseball pitchers, football quarterbacks, and track and field throwers rely on these decelerator muscles for protection and precision when throwing overhead. All the exercises are usually going to be moderate weight for higher volume, so programming them towards the end of your workout would be ideal to facilitate hypertrophy.All the exercises are usually going to be moderate weight for higher volume, so programming them towards the end of your workout would be ideal to facilitate hypertrophy, says @CoachKeemz. Click To Tweet
Anatomical Considerations for Injury Reduction
In terms of positioning, if we look at where the long head of the triceps attaches, we’ll see that it attaches directly on the scapula. Its main function is extension of the elbow joint, which is why when we throw anything overhead, it acts as an eccentric decelerator and opposes the action that the biceps brachii has made of flexing the elbow. Not only is the long head responsible for triceps extension, but because of its close proximity to the rotator cuff, it has some control of the glenohumeral joint, which just so happens to be the site of a very common injury with overhead athletes.
In a study by Robert Manske and Todd Ellenbecker on the shoulder examinations of overhead athletes, 34% of the rotator cuffs that have been listed as “painless shoulders” will demonstrate a rotator cuff tear on an MRI. In 79% of professional baseball pitchers that have no symptoms of pain, abnormalities of the glenoid labrum have been shown.1 This information tells you about the slow tearing away of the muscles and tendons that work in conjunction with the triceps, and the need for strengthening them.34% of the rotator cuffs that have been listed as “painless shoulders” will demonstrate a rotator cuff tear on an MRI, says @CoachKeemz. Click To Tweet
Figure 1. The three heads of the triceps muscle. Image by Powelle.
The long head could also be said to be responsible for the assistance of downward rotation, depression, and retraction of the scaps; which, in my opinion should be the correct positioning for most activities in the weight room. The triceps plays a great role in shoulder stabilization, as any muscle that is connected to the scapula does.
The posterior positioning that the triceps have is similar to what you would see in the hamstrings and pelvis, that assist with downward control to stabilize the femur. As I used this approach with my athletes, what I noticed from them was a direct correlation to fewer daily pains when playing their sport. When you can make an athlete feel as if there is no pain and they can buy into the training protocol, then the amount of effort and degree of performance will change quickly.When you can make an athlete feel as if there is no pain and they can buy into the training protocol, then the amount of effort and degree of performance will change quickly, says @CoachKeemz. Click To Tweet
There is a quick similarity, but not an exact replica, between the anatomy of the hamstrings and the triceps and their respective counterparts: the calves can be said to be the wrist extensors, tibialis anterior are the wrist flexor, quad are the biceps, and hamstrings are the triceps. The physiology isn’t too far off either, but the size of the muscles is really what makes the difference.
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1. Manske, R., & Ellenbecker, T. (2013). “Current concepts in shoulder examination of the overhead athlete.” International journal of sports physical therapy. 2013;8(5):554–578.