Illustration of a muscular bodybuilder doing the bench press to work his triceps.

Does the Bench Press Work Your Triceps? Yes, But Only Sort Of

The bench press does work your triceps, but it only works two of the three muscle heads, and not always very well. The third head (the long head) crosses the shoulder joint, interfering with pressing movements. This cuts your triceps growth in half.

The other issue is that your triceps aren’t usually the limiting factor, meaning they aren’t always worked hard enough to stimulate much muscle growth. That’s especially true with the dumbbell bench press.

We’ll quickly cover the biomechanics, then go over the main study, and then give you some better exercises to train your triceps. There are two triceps exercises that pair perfectly with the bench press.

Before and after illustration of an overweight man building muscle and losing fat.

Simple Triceps Biomechanics

Your triceps have three muscle heads, all of which open your arms. Your biceps flex your arms closed, and your triceps extend your arms open. Things get trickier with the long head, though.

Diagram showing the long head, medial head, and lateral heads of the triceps along with the best exercises for stimulating them.

The long head is the big muscle that sweeps out underneath your arm. It’s what makes your arms look bigger when you flex your biceps. And it doesn’t just open your arms; it also crosses the shoulder joint, pulling your arms backwards:

Diagram showing how the triceps muscles move.

That means that when you flex the long head of your triceps, it pulls your arms open and back (left). To fully stretch them, you’d need to flex your arms and lift them overhead (right).

You don’t need to fully contract your triceps to stimulate muscle growth, so you don’t need to worry too much about the image on the left. But you do benefit from fully stretching your triceps, so it pays to consider the image on the right (full explanation). More on that in a moment.

How Well Does the Bench Press Work the Triceps?

Brandão and colleagues had some participants do only the bench press, and some do a combination of bench presses and skull crushers (study). The participants who only did the bench press only gained half as much muscle in their triceps.

Study graph showing the benefit of combining the bench press with triceps extensions.

But it isn’t quite as simple as that. The lateral and medial heads of your triceps activate just fine during bench presses and grow quite well. It’s the long head that lags behind. So, ideally, we’d pair the bench press with triceps exercises that biase the long head. We’ll talk about the two best ones in a second.

The Problem With Dumbbell Bench Presses

Dumbbell bench presses have another problem. If you flex your triceps while lifting the weight up, you’ll throw the weight off to the sides. Your triceps can still help to stabilize the weight, but that won’t work them very hard.

Diagram showing that the dumbbell bench press doesn't do a very good job of working the triceps muscles.

With a barbell bench press, the barbell holds the weight plates together, allowing you to pull to the sides as much as you like. This makes the triceps work much harder, making it a much better triceps exercise. This is especially true when lifting heavier (8 or fewer reps) and when using a narrower grip (such as a close-grip bench press).

The Best Triceps Exercises

Close-grip barbell bench presses, push-ups, and dips can be good for the lateral and medial heads of your triceps, but you already work those with the bench press. What you need is an exercise for the long head of your triceps. Two exercises are perfect for that.

Skull Crushers

Skull crushers are similar to the bench press, but you press the weight up with your triceps instead of your chest. Your shoulders shouldn’t move very much, but even if they do, they’ll pull your elbows toward your body, which is perfect.

Diagram showing the skull crusher triceps exercise.

By bringing your elbows in front of your body like this, you’re stretching the long head of your triceps, working it through a deeper range of motion, thus stimulating around twice as much muscle growth as the bench press (according to the Brandão study we covered earlier).

Skull crushers are stable, allowing you to work your triceps quite hard with fairly heavy weights. They’re also relatively easy on your elbow joints, especially if you do them after your pressing exercises. And they’re somewhat similar to the bench press, so the strength carries over quite well. I credit skull crushers for helping me bench press 315 pounds for the first time.

Overhead Triceps Extensions

The overhead triceps extension is often hailed as being the best triceps exercise, especially among bodybuilders. That’s because it stretches the long head all the way, working it through the deepest possible range of motion.

Illustration showing the overhead triceps extension exercise.

The overhead triceps extension has a study supporting it, too. Maeo and colleagues found that the overhead triceps extension stimulated 40% more triceps growth than triceps pushdowns (study). That extra growth is in the long head, and it comes from challenging the long head under a deeper stretch. This is all great.

Both skull crushers and overhead extensions stretch the long head, but the overhead extension stretches it more, likely stimulating at least a little more muscle growth. However, not everyone can do overhead extensions without elbow pain.

Doing your pressing exercises before your triceps exercises can help. That way, your elbow joints will be nice and warmed up. Your triceps will also be a little bit tired, allowing you to challenge them with slightly lighter weights. That combination of warm joints and light weights tends to help. If it doesn’t, stick with skull crushers.

Alright, I think that about does it. For more, we have a full article on how to build bigger triceps. We also have an article about how to build bigger arms.

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Shane Duquette is the co-founder of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell. He's a certified conditioning coach with a degree in design from York University in Toronto, Canada. He's personally gained 70 pounds and has over a decade of experience helping over 10,000 skinny people bulk up.

Marco Walker-Ng is the co-founder and strength coach of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and is a certified trainer (PTS) with a Bachelor's degree in Health Sciences (BHSc) from the University of Ottawa. His specialty is helping people build muscle to improve their strength and general health, with clients including college, professional, and Olympic athletes.

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