Chest and triceps is a muscle pairing as old as the bench press itself, and for good reason. The pecs might be the prime movers in most pressing exercises, but the triceps are crucial synergists, or secondary movers. Hence, your progress on bench—as well as the growth of your pecs—can only go as far as your triceps will allow. That’s why you’ll never see a powerlifter with a big bench press or a bodybuilder with a huge chest that doesn’t have triceps to match.
But if you’re following an old-school bodybuilding split rife with supersets for these two muscle groups, well, you’re doing it wrong. You won’t just hinder your progress, you’ll open yourself up to injury. And, as you may have suspected, it’s hard to get big with your arms in a sling. With a properly structured chest and triceps workout, however, you can reap big benefits in strength and size. Here’s how to do it right.
Why Work Out Chest and Triceps Together?
The triceps work hard during all press variations, so it makes perfect sense from an efficiency standpoint to hit them in the same workout, maximize the pump, and keep your triceps progressing at the same rate as your pecs.
However, John Rusin, D.P.T., C.S.C.S. (creator of the Functional Power Training system), says you can’t pair these two muscle groups haphazardly. Specifically, lifters must be careful about using supersets—working two exercises back to back without rest—because fatiguing your triceps too early in the workout will only limit your pressing power.
“The golden rule of supersets is that they should make both movements better,” says Rusin, “not work to the detriment of both moves.” The problem is that a lot of guys will superset a lift like the dumbbell bench press with a triceps pressdown, which fatigues both the pecs and tri’s to the point where neither muscle group gets worked optimally. “In a pairing of five supersets like that,” says Rusin (which is typical in a bro split), “they’re shot after two. So they end up doing garbage volume”—sets that have no real training effect. “They have to use less weight, and their form goes bad.”
In short, if you’re going to train the chest and triceps together, the path to victory lies through straight sets of both chest and triceps exercises. That is, do all your chest work, and then your triceps exercises. Still, limited use of supersets—particularly late in the workout—does have a place for advanced lifters, which you’ll see in the workouts below.
Training the triceps ahead of chest is also out of the question.
“Every workout should be built around a KPI, or Key Performance Indicator,” Rusin says. “That’s true whether you’re training for the Olympics or general fitness.” In the case of a chest and triceps workout, the KPI would be a bench press or a pushup—a lift that you really need to get stronger on over time in order to see progress. Working triceps first would only limit your ability to do those lifts with your best effort and focus, and with maximum weight. (Side note here: you might be more concerned with getting bigger muscles than with the amount of load you can lift, but do remember that gaining muscle is based on progressive overload—you need to get stronger over time to drive muscle gains.) Choosing to start the workout with an exercise like heavy skull-crushers, for example, would not only be limiting to your chest training, but could also aggravate your shoulders and elbows.
Moreover, getting your pressing done first allows the triceps to ease into the workout, getting warmed up as an assistance muscle in your chest training and then ramping up to a finale where you hit the triceps with higher reps and leave the gym with a monster arm pump.
“From a sequencing standpoint, triceps training is very well tolerated late in a chest and triceps workout,” Rusin says. “The triceps have gotten maximal blood flow by that point,” and even though they’re a bit fatigued from locking out your elbows on pressing exercises, “you can use less weight to get the training effect.” According to Rusin, the main stimulus for growth in the triceps in a chest and tris session is the pump you get, not the mechanical stress of lifting heavy weights.
In short: By the time you’re done pressing, it won’t take much to push your triceps to the max, and that’s good news for your shoulders and elbows.
Chest and Triceps Anatomy
Here’s what’s under your skin in these two muscle areas.
– Pectoralis major. The largest muscle of the chest, pecs provide most of your pressing strength by drawing the arms forward and across your chest. The pec major has three portions that are sometimes thought of as being separate regions—the upper, middle, and lower pec—but they’re all one muscle. That said, certain exercises will stress one area over another to influence the pecs’ development.
– Pectoralis minor. Though it doesn’t have the visual impact of the pec major because it lies beneath the bigger pec muscle, it serves a stabilizing function and assists in scapular movement. It is best trained with dip variations.
– Serratus anterior. Located just below the pec major, these stabilizing muscles get their name from the fact that—on a lean, well-developed physique—they look like the edge of serrated knife.
– Triceps brachii. As the name would imply, the triceps brachii is composed of three parts (but all are part of the same muscle): the long head, lateral head, and medial head. The long head and medial heads lie on the side of the arm that’s closest to the body, while the lateral head is on the outer side of the arm. All three heads work synergistically to extend the elbow and stabilize the shoulder joints, but the long head also helps to draw the upper arm down toward the body. As with chest, some exercises are better suited to work one head over the other, so you need variety in your triceps training.
The Best Chest and Triceps Exercises
Below are Rusin’s picks for the most effective movements for each muscle group (all of which he demonstrates in the workouts further down).
Best Chest Exercises
“One thing that gets forgotten about, especially in old-school bodybuilding circles, is the pushup,” Rusin says. It may be unglamorous and old-fashioned, but Rusin says it’s “unbelievable for not only chest strength, but full-body functional strength.”
Unlike the barbell bench press, the pushup allows the shoulder blades to move freely, since they’re not pinned down by a bench. This adds a component of dynamic stability to the posterior (back) side of the body—something that can’t be done through pure isolation moves like flyes and cable crossovers, and helps build a more functional chest and upper back. Most guys treat pushups as a finisher, doing them for high reps at the end of a workout to burn out their chests, but Rusin prefers to make them a priority. You’ll get more out of the pushup, he says, if you load it with chains, sandbags, or a weight plate, and do sets of 5–15.
2. Dumbbell Bench Press
This go-to favorite for lifters of all stripes allows a full range of motion at the shoulders for a maximum stretch of the pecs. This is great for building muscle, but the fact that dumbbell pressing also allows natural rotation at the wrist is key for long-term growth and staving off injuries. Unlike pressing with a barbell, your joints can move through a path that’s right for them, rather than the one pre-determined by the bar your hands are fixed to. “They’re also great for making the mind-muscle connection,” says Rusin. That is, your ability to concentrate on the muscles you’re working to best activate them.
You can reap these benefits whether you’re pressing on a flat bench, at a slight decline of 10–20 degrees (tuck one or two plates under the foot of the bench), or at an incline of up to 45 degrees.
3. Barbell Bench Press
It’s a cliché, but Rusin says this time-honored measuring stick of upper-body strength should be a mainstay of any advanced lifter’s program, assuming you make a couple of tweaks (and can perform it without shoulder pain).
“The mistake that people make is that they bench with the same grip on the same bar on the same flat bench every time,” Rusin says. You need some variety with your barbell benching to keep your chest growing and avoid overuse injuries. Modest incline and decline angles work wonders to accentuate stress on the upper and lower sections of the pecs.
Change your grip every so often. “Most people will do well with a slightly narrow grip,” says Rusin. “Think of where your grip is strongest, and move it in an inch on each hand.” For most guys, this would be with your index fingers on the spot where the knurling (the jagged, criss-cross pattern on the bar) meets the smooth part of the bar.
Rusin says beginners should change up the way they bench every month. Advanced lifters can change it up as often as every week.
Best Triceps Exercises
1. Rope Pressdown
It’s the most popular triceps exercise, and also highly effective. However, too many people lean over the weight and rock into it as they’re extending their elbows. This uses the mass of the upper body to force the handle down and lift the weight up, which reduces activation of the triceps. This is why Rusin suggests doing pressdowns from a kneeling position. “There’s no hip involvement and no momentum,” he says. “Kneeling pressdowns isolate the triceps much more effectively.” Another tip: don’t just push down. “Drive your fists apart to get a little bit of shoulder extension,” says Rusin, “which targets the long head of the triceps.”
2. Overhead Triceps Extension
This move, done from a cable pulley set to head height, or with a band tethered to a power rack, places a maximum stretch on the long head of the triceps, which crosses both the shoulder and elbow, making it a key stabilizer for both joints.
3. Bench Dips
When done on a typical dip station with the body hanging between two bars and only supported by the arms, it’s natural to lean forward, placing most of the emphasis on the pecs and front deltoids. Dipping on a single bench is also a poor choice because of the stress placed on the shoulders. Instead, Rusin recommends setting up two flat benches parallel to each other—just far enough apart to fit your butt between them—and performing dips with a hand on each bench, feet on the floor, and your spine perfectly vertical (see the advanced workout below).
“Other dip variations can really piss off your shoulders,” Rusin says, “and it’s very hard to control spinal position between dip bars because there is no ground contact. But good things happen when the hands and feet are in constant contact.” Meaning: all the tension stays directly on the triceps. If you need external load to increase the difficulty, it’s easy enough to set a weight plate right on your lap.
How Many Chest and Triceps Exercises Should I Do?
It takes volume to grow, but total volume should be more of a function of frequency, or how many times you train in a week, than how many exercises, sets, and reps you can cram into a single training session.
“This is where bodybuilding splits fail,” says Rusin. “Because if you’re only hitting chest and tri’s once a week, I can almost guarantee you that you’re never going to optimally grow. Training once a week does little more than maintain.”
Training chest and triceps twice per week is a standard to which both beginners and advanced lifters should adhere. So if you train chest and triceps on a Monday, plan on hitting them again on Thursday or Friday. You can use the same exact routine, or employ some variables in grip, angle, and exercise selection each session.
Conversely, training chest and triceps more than twice per week—as some guys do to get ready for “beach season”—is just begging for a joint injury. You don’t need to do 20 different exercises for a muscle or hit it from every possible angle. Rather, says Rusin, “You need to get stronger at the KPI lift and you need to build in intelligent accessory volume.”
To that end, beginners should plan on doing four total chest and triceps exercises per session. Advanced lifters can aim for six to seven. Due to the triceps being active on pressing lifts (and the fact that they’re smaller muscle groups), you should generally do more chest work than triceps exercises.
How Many Sets and Reps Should I Do?
For just about every exercise of chest or triceps, Rusin likes 3–4 work sets (the real work you do, not warmup sets). But rep ranges fluctuate. You can go as low as 5 reps on heavy presses, and up to 15–30 reps for accessory work and isolation exercises—and possibly as high as 50 reps if you’re on your last set of the day.
As you approach your working sets on heavier lifts, Rusin prefers that ramp-up sets be in the same low-rep range you’ll use during the work set. He urges guys to resist the temptation to do more just because the weight is light. For instance, if you plan on using 90- or 100-pound dumbbells for work sets of 5 reps on the incline dumbbell bench press, you should warm up to it by doing a set using a pair of 30s for 5, and then a set with 65s for 5 (do two warm-up sets, bare minimum). The goal isn’t to engorge the muscle with blood before a heavy lift; it’s to train the movement pattern and prime your muscle fibers so that you can perform that pattern perfectly when exposed to a challenging weight. Strength coaches will typically refer to this as a “groove”—and you want to find the best one you can. Conversely, high-rep warmup sets will fatigue you and can reduce the amount of weight or reps you can handle on your main set of the day.
How To Stretch Your Chest and Pecs
Every workout should begin with a thorough mobility warmup that prepares your joints, tissues, and nervous system for the kind of training you’re about to do. Onnit Durability Coach Cristian Plascencia (@cristian_thedurableathlete) offers the following movements for prepping the chest and triceps.
How To Stretch Your Triceps
Beginner Chest and Triceps Workout Routine
Rusin likes to begin any chest session with an exercise that warms up the shoulders and upper back. The face pull will help set your shoulders for strong, safe pressing, so don’t skip it. After that, you’ll train the chest with low and high reps to recruit the widest range of muscle fibers, and finish off with a grueling triceps hit.
1. High-Angle Face Pull
Sets: 4 Reps: 15 Rest: 60 sec.
Step 1. Set a cable pulley to head height or tether a resistance band to a power rack at the same height. If using a cable, attach the rope handle to the pulley.
Step 2. Stand straight and, holding the rope attachment or band with both hands, pull toward your face. Squeeze for a second in the fully contracted position, and then return to the starting position.
2. Dumbbell Bench Press
Sets: 3 Reps: 5–8 Rest: 60 sec.
Step 1. Lie on a flat bench holding a pair of dumbbells at your shoulders. Your palms can face toward your feet, or in toward your sides, if that feels better for your shoulders.
Step 2. Press up to a full extension of your elbows, squeezing your pecs as you lift. Make sure that, when you lower the weight to the bottom position, you feel a stretch on your pecs at the bottom.
3. Loaded Pushup
Sets: 3–4 Reps: 10–15 Rest: 30–45 sec.
Step 1. Get into pushup position with your hands shoulder-width apart and legs extended straight behind you at hip-width. Tuck your pelvis slightly so it’s perpendicular to the floor and brace your glutes and abs. Have a partner place a weight plate, chain, or sandbag on your back for added resistance.
Step 2. Lower your body toward the floor, tucking your elbows close to your sides as you descend.
Step 3. When your chest is an inch above the floor, press back up, spreading your shoulder blades apart at the top.
4. Kneeling Rope Pressdown
Sets: 3–4 Reps: 15–30 Rest: 20–30 sec.
Step 1. Attach a rope handle to the pulley of a cable station. Grasp the ends of the rope and kneel on the floor facing the station.
Step 2. Keeping your elbows close to your sides, extend your elbows and drive your fists apart at the bottom of the rep as you squeeze your triceps hard. Hold for a moment, and then lower the weight. Allow your elbows to drift forward a bit at the top of the movement to put a stretch on your triceps.
Advanced Chest and Triceps Workout Routine
More experienced lifters need to warm up even more thoroughly than beginners, so Rusin prescribes a three-exercise shoulder blast first thing in the session to prep your pressing muscles. Then it’s on to some heavy benching and triceps supersets to flood the back-arms with blood.
1. Rusin Banded Shoulder Tri-set
Sets: 3 Reps: 10, 10, 10 Rest: 30–45 sec. (after the third exercise)
A tri-set is a series of three exercises. Do one set of 10 reps for each in sequence before resting.
Step 1. Hold the ends of a resistance band in each hand. Move your hands away from each other so there is no slack in the band.
Step 2. Keeping your elbows extended, lift your arms overhead and behind your body so that the band touches your lower back. Then bring the band back in front of you. That’s one rep.
B) Face Pull
See the beginner’s workout above.
C) Band Pull-Apart
Step 1. Hold a resistance band straight out in front of you with your hands shoulder-width apart.
Step 2. Keeping your elbows straight, stretch the band by moving your fists out 90 degrees to the sides of your body; the band should stretch across your chest.
2. Incline Barbell Bench Press
Sets: 3–4 Reps: 5 Rest: 60–75 sec.
Step 1. Set an adjustable bench to a 30- to 45-degree angle and lie back on it. (Set up in a power rack if you’re training alone, so you can set the spotter bars to just below your chest to catch the barbell if you can’t press it up.) Place your hands about shoulder-width apart on the bar.
Step 2. Lower the bar to the upper half of your chest, tucking your elbows 45-degrees on the descent.
Step 3. Press the bar to lockout.
3. Decline Dumbbell Bench Press
Sets: 3–4 Reps: 12–15 Rest: 45–60 sec.
Step 1. Create a slight decline by resting the foot of the bench on one or two weight plates. Lie back on the bench holding dumbbells at your shoulders.
Step 2. Press the weights to full extension of your elbows. Lower them back down until you feel a stretch in your pecs. Though the video above doesn’t depict it, Rusin suggests putting your feet on the bench to avoid an extreme arch in your spine. This can be dangerous if you’re a taller individual and place your feet on the floor.
Perform a set of the overhead triceps extension and then the loaded pushup before resting 45 seconds. Repeat for four total supersets.
A) Overhead Triceps Extension
Reps: 15–20 Rest: 0 sec.
Step 1. Attach a rope handle to a cable pulley set to head height, or use a resistance band set to the same height. Hold the rope or band with both hands and face away from the anchor point. Step one foot forward and bend your hips slightly, angling your torso forward and allowing your arms to raise over your head with your elbows pointing forward.
Step 2. Without moving your upper arms, extend your elbows to full lockout. Lower the weight, getting a stretch on your triceps in the bottom position.
B) Loaded Pushup
Reps: 15–20 Rest: 45 sec.
See the beginner’s workout above.
5. Dip Between Benches
Sets: 3–4 Reps: 15–20 Rest: 45 sec.
Step 1. Set two flat benches just far enough apart so that your butt can fit between them. Sit between the benches so that your hands can hold the edge of each bench without reaching backward, which would cause undue stress on your shoulders. Bend your knees and plant your feet flat on the floor.
Step 2. Lower your body between the benches until you feel a stretch on your triceps. Press up to a full lockout. For a greater challenge, you can load the exercise with a weight plate, sand bag, or chains on your lap.
See the companion piece to this article, “5 Killer Back and Biceps Workouts for Building Muscle,” for complete upper-body muscle gains.