Q: Are dumbbell exercises effective for triceps mass, or should I focus exclusively on lying triceps extensions, pulldowns and close-grip bench presses?
A: In every triceps workout, I include one to three dumbbell exercises, their unique benefit being that you can isolate the three individual heads of the triceps to a degree unmatched by a straight bar or cables.
A straight bar is best for overall mass, but since it prevents your wrists from rotating, contractions cannot be isolated in the triceps. Cables, which maximize isolation, compromise power contractions through the mechanical advantage of their pulley system.
Dumbbells, however, combine versatility for isolation and the natural gravity forces of free weights for mass.
My rule of thumb for triceps workouts is to use four exercises: two with my elbows overhead (seated French curls and behind-the-neck extensions) and two to the front or downward (close-grip benches, lying French curls, dips, pushdowns or dumbbell pressbacks).
The sequence of these movements is always random. I'm not wedded to the heavy-first, definition-later philosophy. Sometimes I start with a deep-burning isolation exercise, such as one-arm dumbbell extensions, and end with close-grip benches or dips; at other times, it will be just the opposite. What matters is building a severe burn with my first exercise, then keeping it going through the others. In any case, dumbbell movements, especially the following three, are essential to all of my triceps workouts.
Two-Arm Dumbbell Extensions This one ranks right up there with close-grip benches, French curls (lying and seated) and dips for pure mass-building efficiency. It's that rarest of movements: a power isolator that allows you to direct maximum strength into the upper part of all three triceps heads. Because of the restricted position of your arms, cheating is virtually impossible.
Sit on either a bench or, preferably, with your back braced against an upright. Cup your hands inside one end of the dumbbell. Raise the dumbbell to arms' length above your head. Keep your elbows pointed vertically throughout the movement as you lower the dumbbell behind your neck.
Get a full stretch in your triceps at the bottom, then press the dumbbell all the way to arms' length overhead, getting a peak contraction. As you approach failure and are no longer able to peak-contract, feed in the power with more explosive presses, but make sure you get a full range of motion with every rep.
Pyramid through four sets. Start with a set of 15 reps, but don't go any lower than 10.
One-Arm Dumbbell Extensions The form and position of this exercise is similar to two-arm dumbbell extensions, but its purpose is quite different. Two-arm extensions are for power and mass in the triceps bellies; this exercise is for building the inner head and separating it from the rest of the triceps complex.
Extend your arm as high as possible, and go for a hard peak contraction with every rep. Get a full range of motion every time. Pyramid through a range of 15 reps down to 10, four sets per arm.
Dumbbell pressbacks Despite the other common name for this exercise, "kickbacks," don't ever "kick" the dumbbells back; that's tantamount to swinging the dumbbell via momentum. Instead, bend at the waist about 90 degrees, bracing yourself with your nonworking arm on a piece of equipment or a dumbbell rack.
With your free hand, grasp a dumbbell and stabilize that upper arm against the side of your torso. Keep it pressed into your side. Bending only at your elbow, pull the dumbbell forward until your arm is completely contracted, then press it backward to full extension. Apply tension during both extension and contraction.
Remember: Think in terms of "pull and press," not "kick and swing." Do four sets per arm, 10-15 reps per set, and the value of adding dumbbells to your triceps routine will become abundantly clear.