The bench press is undoubtedly a great exercise for targeting the chest, anterior deltoids, and triceps.
In another article, we’ve deeply evaluated the research exploring if the bench press alone could be sufficient for chest hypertrophy.
In this article, we’ll be taking a closer look at the triceps, and asking if the bench press alone is enough for triceps hypertrophy.
Bench Press for Triceps: The Research
A recent study by Brandao et al. gives us an interesting insight into this exact area.
They split 43 untrained men into four different groups:
- A multi-joint group who trained only the barbell bench press
- A single-joint group who trained only the triceps skull crusher (an isolation exercise for the triceps)
- A multi-joint + single-joint group who trained the bench press first in their training sessions followed by the triceps skull crusher
- A single-joint + multi-joint group who trained the triceps skull crusher first in their training sessions followed by the barbell bench press
All four groups trained twice per week for 10 weeks.
For the exercise (or exercises for the two groups performing both exercises), an 80% one-rep max load was used each set. 3 minutes of rest was given between sets.
From weeks 1 to 4, 3 sets were performed for each exercise.
From weeks 5 to 8, 4 sets were performed for each exercise.
From weeks 8 to 10, 5 sets were performed for each exercise.
Cross-sectional area of the whole triceps brachii was measured before and after the training period for all groups.
Additionally, cross-sectional area of each triceps head (long head, medial head, and lateral head) was measured before and after the training period for all groups.
For increases in whole triceps brachii cross-sectional area, despite it not being statistically significant (this could be a type 2 error), the groups that were performing triceps skull crushers (single-joint group, multi-joint + single-joint group, and single-joint + multi-joint group) experienced roughly double the growth compared to the group performing the barbell bench press only (multi-joint group).
From this data alone, it seems that the barbell bench press is not quite enough for triceps hypertrophy.
The results for each of the triceps brachii heads gives us further valuable details.
The barbell bench press seems to quite good at growing the lateral head. As the groups that were performing the bench press (multi-joint group, multi-joint + single-joint group, and single-joint + multi-joint group) displayed significantly greater growth of this head compared to the single joint group that only performed triceps skull crushers.
However, for the long head, the barbell bench press does not seem to be good. The groups that trained the triceps skull crushers (single-joint group, multi-joint + single-joint group, and single-joint + multi-joint group) experienced significantly greater growth of this head compared to the multi-joint group that trained the barbell bench press only.
For the medial head, all four groups experienced statistically similar increases. However, looking at the percentages, it’s evident that the groups performing the triceps skull crushers (single-joint group, multi-joint + single-joint group, and single-joint + multi-joint group) experienced meaningfully greater growth of this head compared to the group performing the barbell bench press only (multi-joint group).
To sum up, the bench press is good at growing the lateral head. But for the medial head, and especially the long head, the bench press isn’t great.
With regards to the long head, its anatomy can likely explain why the barbell bench press is ineffective.
The long head is the only head of the triceps that crosses the shoulder joint and elbow joint (the other two heads just cross the elbow joint).
Therefore, aside from elbow extension, it is also involved in shoulder extension (which is putting your arms behind your body) and adduction (which is putting your arms by your side).
As a result, during the eccentric phase of the bench press, as the shoulders are extending, the long head is partly shortened, meaning that in the upcoming concentric phase, the long head can not fully shorten and produce meaningful force.
With triceps skull crushers, the shoulders are maintained in a flexed position. This likely puts the long head in a better position to be able to produce force, thus explaining why the triceps skull crushers produced significant hypertrophy of this head.
Overall, if your aim is to maximize triceps growth, the bench press and triceps skull crushers seem to be two exercises together that will do a great job.
However, one important thing I should mention about the Brandao et al. study was that cross-sectional area was measured at mid-point of each of the triceps heads.
Consequently, we don’t really have any information on the upper or lower portions of the three triceps heads.
At the end of the day, it’s probably sensible to perform a few other triceps isolation exercises at various shoulder elevations.
Doing this will likely ensure that you target regions of the triceps some exercises may under-stimulate.
Bear in mind, the images above are just demonstrating one potential exercise at that shoulder elevation, there are many other triceps exercises out there.