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

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
Dr. Michael Hartle is not only a chiropractic physician, but he is also a StrongFirst Certified Master Instructor, a board-certified Clinical Nutritionist (DACBN), a Certified Chiropractic Sports Physician (CCSP), a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), and an Active Release Technique (ART) provider since 1995. Dr. Hartle is also in the second year of studying for his Ph.D. in Exercise Science.

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 26 years.

A nationally-ranked powerlifter, who has won several national titles with USA Powerlifting (USAPL), Dr. Michael is also the former Vice President of USAPL and Chairman of the Sports Medicine Committee. He was the Head Coach of the USAPL World Bench Press Team for eight years, 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.

After Dr. Hartle retired from competing in powerlifting for 20 years, he started playing semi-pro football as a defensive tackle. He played for 10 years and loved it. His football team, the Adams County Patriots, won the National AA Semi-Pro Football Championship in 2008. He treats, trains, and advises all kinds of patients: babies, the elderly, youth athletes, NCAA student-athletes, and professional athletes. He has coached junior high football and track and field, volunteering his time, for 16 years. He has three sons and three grandchildren who keep him busy with their personal endeavors, including hockey, baseball, football, lacrosse, track, field and, of course, academics.

20 thoughts on “The Subtle But Essential Role of the Triceps Brachii in the Deadlift

  • Certainly will try this next training session! I’ve known the cue “think long arms” but your tips teach me how to actually do it. Thanks!

  • Deadlifts is one of the best exercice to train your back muscles and hamstrings infact it increases our core body strength So one must include this workout in their workout plans no matter they are men or women.

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

    • 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.

      • 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.

  • 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.

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

    • Exactly. However some people still flex their arm slightly during farmers carries. Make long arms!

  • 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! 🙂

    • Thank you sir!

      If the force is always directed along this line, and the magnitude of the force is F, then this integral simplifies to

      W = ∫ F ds = Fs = Fd, where d = distance.

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

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