September 25, 2011

The Lazy Lateral Head Of The Tricep Which Refuses To Grow, Unless You Force It To

The head that refuses to grow

The lateral head of the triceps is commonly referred to as the “lazy” head of the triceps, because it is the last of the three heads to be recruited during arm extension. As a result, many have a hard time developing this muscle to a satisfactory level due to ineffective loading patterns, as in they just don’t lift heavy enough to force this muscle to be recruited enough to be fatigued/trained.

You have 2 options

When it comes to recruiting a muscle, there are 2 primary ways to go about it. One is to force the muscle into action by simply overloading it, which is best accomplished with compound movements that incorporate an assortment of muscles, and the other is to mechanically place the muscle in an advantageous position to take on the greatest percentage of the load.

Generally you can’t maximize both at the same time, although you can get as close to this as possible with the use of advanced methods like supersets, tri-sets, and giant sets by recruiting and then fatiguing the targeted musculature. In case there’s any question, this means that overload methods should be performed first, since that’s when you’ll be able to handle the greatest loads which are needed to ‘overload’, and followed by movements which place the targeted musculature in a position of mechanical advantage.


As it relates to the lateral head of the triceps, heavy barbell presses and dips offer the greatest opportunity to provide optimal overload. These movements can be performed in a traditional manner through a full range of motion, or through a partial range of motion in which the triceps take on the brunt of the load, which also permits the use of greater loads. Trying to move an immovable load by trying to lift a barbell that has more weight on it than you are capable of lifting, or by pressing an empty barbell into the pins of a power rack are two variations of isometrics, which are extremely effective at recruiting a lazy muscle like the lateral head of the triceps as well.

Case in point: Kevin Levrone

90’s bodybuilder Kevin Levrone, who many consider to be the best bodybuilder to never win the Mr. Olympia, is a perfect example of someone who had exceptionally developed triceps. So much so that Triple H, yes, the wrestler, referred to Kevin’s triceps as looking like ‘footballs’ during his commentary of the Mr. Olympia contest. While it is arguable that genetics played a huge part in his development, it would be inappropriate to ignore the training methods employed which undoubtedly contributed to the end result.

When a bodybuilder possesses a signature bodypart, like Kevin did with his triceps, major bodybuilding publications like magazines, and websites, jump all over it in attempt to profit of it in one way or another, usually by printing an article revealing the ‘secrets’ that lead to the exceptional development. Generally these aren’t really secrets at all, as the exercises and techniques used are often not much different than that in which everyone else is doing in the first place. Success does leave clues however, and in relation to Kevin’s triceps development, along with what we know about the lazy head of the triceps, it’s no secret that he credited his development to lots of heavy pressing (bench, incline, decline, military)!

Mechanical advantage

Often times you’ll have to sacrifice the amount of weight that can be used to place a muscle in position of mechanical advantage since major muscles that would heavily contribute to generating force are all but removed from the movement. There is one slight modification however that still allows for a great deal of weight to be used, while preferentially recruiting the lateral head of the triceps, and it is the close-grip press on a slight decline, with the elbows travelling under the bar. Not only is the lateral head appropriately named because of its placement on the lateral portion of the upper arm, it also plays a slightly larger role in extending the elbow laterally when the arm is internally rotated, as opposed to in front or behind the body. Therefore, by allowing the elbows to travel laterally, the forces placed upon the lateral head are relatively greater.

Traditionally when performing a close-grip press you keep the arms tucked to the sides. While this may be the most effective way for sharing the load to generate maximum power, it comes at the expense of the lateral head, as many other muscles receive a greater amount of stimulation. By letting your elbows flare out to the sides so that your entire forearm is completely aligned under the bar as it’s raised and lowered, the major muscles that would normally be in a position of advantage are put into a position of disadvantage, and by default the lateral head is left to take on more of the load.

The one caveat is that this movement is rather stressful on the shoulder joint, but this is addressed by performing the exercise on a slight decline. Doing so does two things to promote lateral head involvement. First, it places the long head in a pre-shortened position, which limits its involvement, along with limiting the range of motion in which the chest and shoulders are generally most active. Second, it reduces the degree to which the subacromial space is compromised, which contributes to shoulder impingement, at least in comparison to a flat bench angle, thus making it more ‘shoulder friendly’.

Position and range of motion

Where your arm/elbow is in relation to your body will determine which heads are most active during extension. Biomechanics suggest that the muscle that is stretched the most, is recruited the most. Therefore, the further the arm/elbow is from the body, as in, in front of the body, or overhead, the greater pre-stretch the long head receives, thus making it the main driver in elbow extension from these positions. As the arm/elbow are lowered from an overhead position to the front of the body, and then down to the side of the body, the long head is placed in a shorter and shorter position at the shoulder joint, thus reducing its capacity to generate force, and by default the other two heads (lateral and medial) of the triceps are left with handling the load, but to varying degrees depending on the range.

Due to the location of the medial head, it is the main driver in completing elbow extension, but when the elbow is fully flexed, it is the lateral head which is the main driver. Knowing this, along with all the other valuable information presented above, should provide you with the tools necessary to trash that stubborn lateral head of the triceps into newfound growth!

If you have any questions about the best exercises to develop the lateral head of the tricep, or just the triceps in general, feel free to contact me at I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design, as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

1 comment:

  1. One great exercise that was used by many top bodybuilders in the era before the various machines and equipment was the one arm dumbbell cross-face triceps extension . Keep the elbow pointed high at all times and lower using only the forearm letting the triceps do all the work. Use strict reps between 8-20.