The Subtle But Essential Role of the Triceps Brachii in the Deadlift

By Dr. Michael Hartle, Chief SFL and Master SFG

Huh? Shouldn’t we be talking about posterior chain, glutes, hamstrings, lats, or erector spinae? Yes, we will in the future, but for this article, we will discuss the importance of the triceps brachii and what it has to do with improving your deadlift, both from a performance and injury preventative standpoint.

Obviously, the triceps is not what I consider to be a prime mover for the deadlift, unlike the hamstrings, glutes, lats, and erector spinae. However, maximally contracting your triceps prior to pulling the weight off the floor will improve your deadlift in the following ways:

  1. Decrease the chance of a biceps brachii tear
  2. Lengthen your upper extremity to the max, helping decrease the distance (albeit small) the bar travels from the floor to lockout
  3. Help lock down your lats prior to the start of the lift
  4. Increase your grip and contribute to the overall tension in the body and the “wedge” prior to liftoff through the principle of irradiation
  5. Look really cool in photographs of your deadlift

Let’s look at each one of the above points in more detail.

Deadlift Essentials StrongFirst

There’s an essential part of the deadlift you may be missing.

Decrease the Chance of a Biceps Brachii Tear

By maximally contracting the triceps, you also maximally lengthen the biceps prior to the start of the deadlift. Why is this important? A lot of lifters, whether in the gym or at a competition, leave a little slack in their arms, consciously or not, before they start the lift. This creates an automatic lengthening followed very quickly by a rapid straightening of the elbow, all under an extreme load while the weight is coming up.

Over time, this will create cumulative micro-trauma in the bicep, especially at the insertion on the forearm. This can lead to a weakening of the biceps and persisting pain, especially near the elbow joint. At some point, if left uncorrected, the lifter will suffer a partial or complete tear of the muscle, forcing him or her to take time away from the barbell to recover.

As we teach at the SFL Barbell Certification, starting the pull with a maximally contracted triceps, takes all the slack out of the upper extremity, preventing the micro-trauma from occurring at the start. This in turn will allow the biceps to adapt to the lengthened position under load, making it more resilient over time.

Lengthen Your Upper Extremity to the Max

I love physics and math. Everything we do at StrongFirst is influenced by these two disciplines, and the deadlift is a great example. Let’s take a look at the calculation for work: Work = Force x Distance

In our scenario:

  • Work is the amount of energy expended to move the loaded barbell a certain distance
  • Force is the weight involved
  • Distance the length of travel of the barbell

By maximally contracting your triceps, and achieving full extension of the elbow (0o degrees) before the barbell starts to move vertically, you actually decrease the distance the bar travels. This contraction of the triceps is similar to “pulling your kneecaps up” during the kettlebell swing, in which you are contracting your quads and achieving full extension of the knee. You also create a better wedge at the beginning in addition to preventing curling of the bar during the lockout phase by maintaining the contraction of the triceps.

Note: “Curling” refers to lifters’ bending their elbows to “assist” the lockout. Most of the time this is also associated with some sort of shrugging of the shoulders to “aid” in the completion at the top.

I tell the students at the SFL Barbell Certification that I want to see all three heads of the triceps as they set up for the deadlift. Seeing all three heads present ensures a proper lengthening of the upper extremity and decreases the stress to the bicep. Plus, the slack is taken out of the arms, helping ready the body for the lift.

Triceps Brachii in the Deadlift

All three heads of the triceps should be visible in the deadlift.

Again, by lengthening your arms (contracting your triceps) at the beginning of the movement, the distance the bar travels from start to finish will decrease, thereby lowering the amount of work you need to do to lift heavy weight.

Help Lock Down Your Lats Prior to the Start of the Lift

If you have attended an SFL, you undoubtedly heard me say, “Use your….” which by the end of the cert weekend, everyone finishes for me by shouting out the word, “Lats!” In the deadlift, we use the lats to help lock down the torso and contribute to its stiffness during the lift, helping make the deadlift a true hip hinge versus a many-body-parts-hinge that we see a lot of.

What does this have to do with this article? The triceps is made of three heads, hence the name. It has a long head, lateral head, and a medial head. When perusing an anatomy book, you will see the long head attaches to the scapula below the glenoid cavity. Just like the lats, it helps to extend and adduct the humerus. When you are setting the lats for the deadlift, contract your triceps hard and you will feel a further increase in the ability of your lats to “squeeze” and tighten.

Triceps Brachii in the DeadliftYou can test this on yourself right now. Shrug your shoulders hard, then reverse that and anti-shrug them even harder. Now, holding that position, and with your arms hanging straight down by your sides, watch what happens when you contract your triceps hard. I’ll wait… Did you feel that? Now do that right before you pull off the floor and not only will it help lock down your lats, it will also help keep your arms straight at lockout and help you finish at the top.

Increase Grip and the “Wedge” Through the Principle of Irradiation

In addition to helping lock down your lats before the lift starts, maximally contracting your triceps will raise the tension-o-meter needle in your body. Remember, the more tension you can develop before lifting heavy weight, the greater the chance you will be successful during your set and the lesser the chance you’ll be injured.

Crush the bar with your grip, maximally contract your triceps to lengthen your arms and help lock the lats down, anti-shrug as hard as you can (LATS!), and squeeze your abs—and guess what? You just generated more power and strength by creating a “wedge” to deadlift from.

Interesting to note is that most lifters don’t use the triceps properly when deadlifting. Go watch someone deadlift at the nearest gym. They may be crushing the bar, even using their lats and abs, but their triceps will be soft, creating a crack in the tension system while at the same time leaking energy and potentially setting themselves up for injury in the future. I see this all the time when I am refereeing powerlifting meets.

Look Really Cool in Photographs of Your Lift

Enough said! It’s awesome to see someone deadlifting heavy weight and see the three heads of the triceps working hard. You know at this point the athlete is generating a tremendous amount of tension and is serious about moving some weight.

Next time you are deadlifting, squeeze those triceps as hard as you can before the weight leaves the floor. Show all three heads of the triceps throughout the lift. You will generate more strength and power and reduce the incidence of injury to your biceps tremendously. Enjoy the increase in your deadlift!

Dr. Michael Hartle StrongFirstDr. Michael Hartle is a chiropractic physician, a board-certified Clinical Nutritionist (DACBN), a Certified Chiropractic Sports Physician (CCSP), a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), the Chief SFL Barbell Instructor and Master SFG (Kettlebell) Instructor with StrongFirst, and an Active Release Technique (ART) provider since 1995. He is also the co-developer of the StrongFirst SFL Barbell Certification.

Raised in the frozen tundra known as Minnesota, he once lived in Hawai’i while his father was stationed at Pearl Harbor during Vietnam. He has been practicing in Fort Wayne, Indiana for the last 21 years. A former nationally-ranked powerlifter, who has won several national titles with USA Powerlifting, Dr. Michael is also the former Chairman and founder of the Sports Medicine Committee of USA Powerlifting (USAPL). He was the Head Coach of the USAPL World Bench Press Team for eight years, with the team winning the 2004 World Championship Team Title.

His best competition lifts are 705lb squat, 535lb bench press, and 635lb deadlift with a best combined total of the three lifts of 1,840lbs in the 275lb weight class. For the last ten years, he has been playing semi-pro football, defensive tackle, and loving it! His football team, the Adams County Patriots, won the National AA Semi-Pro Football Championship in 2008!

He treats, trains and advises to all kinds of patients, from babies to the elderly, from youth athletes to NCAA student-athletes to professional athletes. He also coaches junior high football and track and field, volunteering his time for the last sixteen years. He has three sons and two grandchildren who keep him busy with their personal endeavors, including crawling, hockey, football, lacrosse, track and field, and of course, academics.

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8 Responses to The Subtle But Essential Role of the Triceps Brachii in the Deadlift

  1. Geoff Chafe Geoff Chafe says:

    Curling the bar is why powerlifters tear there bicep tendon mixed grip deadlifting.

  2. Travis Dirks Travis Dirks says:

    The Subtle is what makes Strongfirst great! Thanks Doc.

    • Travis Dirks Travis Dirks says:

      BTW I felt like my lat contraction doubled on that test, Holy crap! I noticed my biceps are getting undesired work on KB snatches. Looking forward to trying this out at the bottom of the snatch.

      • Travis Dirks Travis Dirks says:

        Whoa, tried this on snacked and it turns out contracting tri’s is connected with pushing in my head somewhere – as in oh we’re pushing now, let’s open the hand. I definitely need to work on contracting them while gripping hard as well.

  3. Franz says:

    Excellent article Doc. The part about preventing bicep tears is priceless. I think way too many people and bicep happy trainees pull the bar with their arms. This is such SOLID info. Thanks.

  4. Geoff Chafe Geoff Chafe says:

    Tricep involvement is one of the reasons I like heavy farmers carries also.

  5. Jakub says:

    Great article! Only one small mistake – at first sight irrelevant.
    I love physic and math too. That is why I need to say that: W = ∫ F ds.
    Take care! :)

  6. Joey Yang says:

    Great article Doc Hartle!!! I will translate it later to share with my friends here in Korea!

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