Lateral Head Tricep Exercises

Trainer’s Tips for Working Your Outer Triceps

By: Jeremy Fox, CNC, CPTPublished: August 20, 2022

The triceps are the largest muscles on your arms. And it makes sense to optimize your tricep workouts if you want bigger guns.

Also, the tricep consists of multiple parts that give it a horseshoe shape. So you need to understand how to target each part to build tricep shape and proportion.

The lateral head of the tricep is the easiest to see because of its position on the outer part of your arm. So building this head can really make your triceps pop.

For this reason, you should read this article and understand how the tricep functions. Plus, you’ll see 13 of the best lateral head tricep exercises.

Lateral Head Tricep Exercises

Triceps Muscle Anatomy & Physiology

The “tri” triceps means this muscle comprises three distinct heads. These heads are called the long head, medial head, and lateral head of the triceps.

Together, the tricep muscles’ primary function is elbow extension. So you use these muscles any time you straighten your arm or push against an object.

All three heads insert into the upper ulna bone of the forearm near the elbow. However, each one has different origins near the shoulder joint.

Lateral Head Tricep Exercises Anatomy

Long Head of Triceps

The long head is the largest of the three tricep muscles on the inner part of your rear upper arm. It originates on the scapula bone near the back of your shoulder.

As a result, the long head also works to stabilize the shoulder joint. And it is most active during elbow extension with your arm down by your side.

Medial Head of Triceps

The medial triceps head originates on the upper humerus bone and lies mostly beneath the long and lateral heads, so it’s not as visible.

Since it is not connected to the scapula, the medial head does not work to stabilize the shoulder. Instead, it is purely involved in elbow extension.

Lateral Head of Triceps

The lateral head also originates on the back of the humerus bone in your upper arm. It’s located on the outer part of your rear upper arm and is considered the strongest of the three tricep heads.

In terms of function, the lateral head serves to extend the elbow. And it is most active when your arm is elevated at or above shoulder level.

How To Work the Lateral Head of the Tricep

It’s important to realize that all three heads of the tricep are involved any time you extend your arm. And there is no way to isolate one or two heads while eliminating the others.

That said, your arm angle, hand position, range of motion, and load/rep range all affect the extent to which each tricep head is activated. And there are several ways to target the lateral head during tricep exercises.

Arm Elevation

Probably the most critical factor in tricep head activation is arm elevation. In other words, the position of your upper arm relative to your shoulder.

Arm position is measured in degrees where 0o is down at your side and 180o is directly overhead. So 90o would be your arm straight out in front of your body.

Lateral Head Tricep Exercises Arm Elevation

Studies show that the lateral triceps head is more active at arm elevations of 90o and above1. Therefore, you work the lateral head more with exercises where your arms are at shoulder level or higher.

Remember that this is an angle relative to your body, not the floor. So this rule applies when standing perfectly upright, leaning forward, or lying on a bench.

Long Head Tricep Exercise Activation
Medial Head Tricep Exercise Activation
Lateral Head Tricep Exercise Activation

Range of Motion

We can also use degrees to measure the range of motion used during exercises. The range of motion of a tricep exercise is from approximately 0o (arm straight) to around 150o (arm fully bent).

Lateral Head Tricep Exercises Range of Motion

Studies show that the long head is most active at around 45o in the elbow’s range of motion. In comparison, the lateral and medial heads are more active at about 90o in the range of motion1.

Therefore, it makes sense to choose exercises where the loading is maximized with the elbow at 90o to work the lateral head the most. That is when your forearm and upper arm form a right angle.

Long Head Activation
Medial Head Activation
Lateral Head Activation

Hand Position

Another factor determining which tricep heads get involved is your hand position specifically, whether you use an overhand or underhand grip on exercises.

The technical term for hand position is supination vs pronation. Supination is where your palm faces up, while pronation is palm down.

While the triceps has no mechanical role in rotating the forearm or hand, studies suggest that it may be more active when the hand is supinated2. That means it might be better to use an underhand grip for targeting all the tricep heads, including the lateral head.

Lateral Head Tricep Exercises Supination

Load & Rep Range

Lastly, it’s essential to know that muscle fibers are categorized as either type I or II. Type I fibers are generally used during light, high repetition movements. In contrast, type II fibers get used during low repetition explosive movements with heavy loads.

Furthermore, each tricep head comprises a different ratio of type I and type II fibers. So it makes sense to use different loads and rep ranges when targeting a specific head.

For instance, studies reveal that the lateral head has the highest ratio of type II fibers. On the other hand, the medial head has the most type I fibers. And the long head has a balanced mixture of both types3.

Therefore, the lateral head should respond better to high load and low repetition movements. In other words, working with weights over 70% of your 1RM for sets with 5-12 reps.

In addition, another study suggests the long and lateral heads fatigue at around 45 seconds, while the medial head goes strong for 65 seconds. This finding means that sets targeting the lateral head should not exceed 45 seconds.

Lateral Head Tricep Exercises Duration

To recap, here are the best ways to target the lateral head:

  1. Elevate your upper arm 90-180o to your body (straight out to overhead)
  2. Choose exercises where the load is highest when your elbow is bent 90o
  3. Use an underhand (supinated) grip to further isolate the triceps
  4. Include some exercises with higher loads and lower reps
  5. Keep sets shorter than 45 seconds

Best Lateral Head Tricep Exercises

Now that you know the targeting techniques, let’s look at some specific lateral head tricep exercises. Again, I’ve divided this list into barbell, dumbbell, cable, and machine exercises.

Barbell Lateral Head Tricep Exercises

First, let’s look at exercises you can do using various barbells.

1. Flat Bench Skull Crushers

Skull crushers are a fundamental tricep exercise where you lay on a bench and lower the bar to your forehead. The proximity of the weight to your head is how this exercise got its name. But don’t worry, it’s relatively safe!

Start with your feet on the floor and lean back with your upper body lying flat on the bench. At first, your arms will extend straight out in front of you, 90o to your body.

Before you begin, tilt your arms a few degrees back towards your head. This angle keeps tension on your triceps through the whole range of motion.

Next, lower the weight by bending your elbows. Once the bar reaches the top of your head, extend your forearms back up to the starting position.

Also, keep your upper arms fixed during the exercise to reduce the involvement of the long head while targeting the lateral head.

Skull Crusher Alternative Without a Bench

2. Incline Skull Crushers

Performing skull crushers on an incline bench is an easy way to increase activation of the lateral tricep head because it creates a larger angle between your body and upper arm.

For example, when you set the bench at a 30o incline, the angle between your upper arm and body increases from 90o to 120o to keep your arms below the weight. And that angle is better for targeting the lateral head.

Related: Incline Bench Press vs Flat Bench Press for Chest

Start with your feet on the floor and lean back on the bench like a typical skull crusher exercise. Then scoot up the backrest, so the bar doesn’t hit the top of the bench when you lower it.

Now hold your arms straight over your head and lower the weight by bending at the elbows until the bar reaches the top of your head. Then extend your arms back to the starting position.

Lateral Head Tricep Exercises Arm Elevation

3. Barbell French Press

The French press is essentially a skull crusher performed in the upright position. You can do this standing or seated on a bench with a vertical backrest.

Again, the idea is to increase the arm angle compared to your body. Your upper arm should be roughly 180o around your shoulder for this variation.

In addition, the upright body position puts more loading on the tricep when your arm is bent 90o at the bottom of the movement. This loading is also ideal for hitting the lateral head.

Start by raising the bar to shoulder level and then pressing it to arm’s length overhead. Now bend your elbows and lower the bar behind your head while keeping your upper arms stationary.

Extend your arms to push the bar back up to the starting position. Repeat for the desired number of reps.

Dumbbell Lateral Head Tricep Exercises

You can also do these lateral head tricep exercises with dumbbells. Again, the individual weights force each arm to work and stabilize independently.

In addition, dumbbells make it easier to change your grip and hand position to target the lateral head.

4. Single Dumbbell French Press

The dumbbell French press is the same general exercise as the barbell version, except you use a single dumbbell. This variation is essentially a closer grip with more internal arm rotation.

First, grab a dumbbell with both palms on the inside of one end. Then lift the dumbbell to shoulder level and extend it straight overhead.

Now lower the dumbbell behind your head by bending at the elbows while keeping your upper arms stationary. Next, extend your arms to return the dumbbell to the overhead position and squeeze your triceps.

5. Neutral Grip Dumbbell Skull Crushers

The neutral grip dumbbell skull crusher is more like a traditional barbell skull crusher, except your palms face each other throughout the movement.

Begin by grabbing a dumbbell in each hand and sitting on a bench. Now lay back and press the dumbbells to arm’s length. Tilt your arms slightly up towards your head.

Next, lower the dumbbells on either side of your head by bending at the elbows. Then extend your arms and squeeze your triceps to return to the starting position.

6. Incline Dumbbell Skull Crushers

One way you can further target the medial head is by performing incline dumbbell skull crushers. Again, the increased arm elevation reduces the involvement of the long head.

7. Reverse Grip Dumbbell Skull Crushers

Another way to work the lateral head is using a reverse grip on any dumbbell skull crusher variation. This hand position means your palms face your head throughout the exercise.

Cable Lateral Head Tricep Exercises

Next up, let’s look at some cable lateral head tricep exercises. This apparatus allows for added variety and more constant tension throughout the movements.

8. Cable Tricep Pressdown

The cable triceps pressdown is another staple exercise you can include in any arm workout. However, most people do this exercise all wrong, especially for targeting the lateral head!

For starters, you don’t want to stand right up close to the cable. This stance reduces the arm angle to nearly 0o, which takes tension off the tricep for most of the range of motion.

Instead, step back and lean forward until your arm is closer to 90o to your body. This position keeps tension on the tricep throughout the range of motion and works the lateral head more.

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9. Rope Tricep Pressdown

Another option for the cable tricep pressdown involves the rope attachment. This handle places your hands in a neutral position and incorporates all parts, including the lateral head.

Again, focus on using the proper form, as illustrated in the video above, to keep more tension on the triceps instead of using momentum or other muscle groups.

10. Reverse Grip Pushdown

The reverse grip tricep pushdown is an excellent exercise for targeting the lateral head of the tricep. In addition, the supinated grip makes cheating harder and prevents using the shoulders/chest.

I recommend using a lighter weight for 10-12 repetitions while focusing on squeezing the triceps. This hand position and loading help you hone in on the lateral head.

11. Cable Overhead Extension

You can also hit the lateral tricep head using an overhead cable extension. This is similar to the French press exercise, except you can adjust your body and arm position.

For example, you can change the height of the pulley to put more tension on your triceps in the stretched position, which works more lateral head.

12. Cross Body Extension

The cross-body extension is a single-arm tricep exercise on the cable machine. This exercise offers tremendous versatility, and you can set it up to hit the lateral head.

Start by setting the pulley at shoulder height or slightly higher. Then attach a single handle or grab the cable with one hand.

Now step away from the pulley and allow your arm to bend across your body with your hand at shoulder height. Next, extend your arm at the elbow while keeping your upper arms stationary.

You can use a neutral grip on this exercise where your palm faces the floor. However, I like to use a single handle with a reverse grip to feel a better squeeze in the lateral head.

Machine Lateral Head Tricep Exercises

Lastly is a lateral head tricep exercise you can do on a machine.

13. Machine Tricep Extension

Some gyms have a tricep extension machine consisting of a seat, armrest, and pivoting handles. The handles attach to a belt or cable which connects to a weight stack.

Generally, these machines use a natural grip that’s good for targeting all three heads of the triceps. I recommend lowering the seat to target the lateral head with your upper arms about 90o from your torso.

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Lateral Head Tricep Workout

Most of your tricep workouts should include exercises, loads, and rep ranges that target all three heads of your triceps. This approach is the best way to maximize arm strength and size increases.

Still, there may be times when you want to blast your lateral head into new gains. That’s when you could consider a lateral head-focused tricep workout.

You’ll want to utilize the abovementioned techniques and exercises to increase lateral head activation. Such as overhead arm angles and greater loading when the elbow is bent.

In addition, make sure to include some sets with heavier weights and lower rep ranges. Here is an idea of what a lateral head tricep workout would look like.

  • Incline Skull Crusher – 5 sets, 5-8 reps
  • Dumbbell French Press – 5 sets, 8-12 reps
  • Machine Tricep Extensions – 5 sets, 8-12 reps
  • Reverse Grip Tricep Pushdown – 3 sets, 8-12 reps (superset)
  • Cross Body Cable Extensions – 3 sets, 10-15 reps
Lateral Head Tricep Workout

More Bodybuilding Exercises

Building your best body takes more than just a nice pair of triceps. You need exercises tailored to every muscle group and every muscle within each group!

Here are some additional body part-specific exercises:

Long Head Tricep Exercises

Medial Head Tricep Exercises

Short Head Bicep Exercises

Long Head Bicep Exercises

Brachialis Exercises

Rear Delt Exercises

Front Delt Exercises

Side Delt Exercises

I also have more content related to nutrition and supplements. Check out these other great articles.

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By |August 30, 2022|Workouts|0 Comments
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