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Triceps Brachii Muscle: Basic Anatomy



Why do we need such a powerful extensor of the elbow? Is gravity not sufficient? When in daily life do we need to powerfully extend our elbows? The answer is: not very often. The reason we have such a powerful muscle in the extensor compartment of the elbow is due to our evolutionary ancestors who needed powerful extensor to climb trees and hang from branches. In this article we will discuss the gross and functional anatomy of the triceps brachii. We will also discuss the clinical relevance of the structure, and provide a summary of key points at the end of the article. We will finally conclude with some review questions to test the reader’s understanding of the article content.

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The triceps brachii forms the posterior compartments of our arms. They act to extend the elbow and also extend the shoulder in part. The muscle has a close relationship with the humerus and with the radial nerve. It is differentiated from the triceps surae of the leg, which consists of the two heads of gastrocnemius, and the soleus muscle. The other muscle that is present in the extensor compartment of the arm is anconeus (abducts the ulna during pronation).

The triceps brachii muscle is so named, as it is a muscle with three heads. The triceps brachii forms the bulk of the posterior or extensor compartment of the arm. The triceps is an extensor of the elbow, as well the long head acting as an extensor of the shoulder. Histological studies of the triceps muscle heads have shown that the three heads of triceps brachii consist of different types of muscle fibers. The long head arises from the infraglenoid tubercle of the scapula, a small bony projection from the lower part of the rim of the glenoid fossa. It consists of type IIa fibers, and is therefore at maximal function when sustained contraction is required. The lateral head arises from the posterior lateral surface of the humeral shaft, above the radial sulcus. It consists of largely type IIb fibers, and is therefore at maximal function when short intensity high power contraction is required. The medial head arises from the posterior medial surface of the humeral shaft, below the radial sulcus. It consists of type I fibers, and is therefore required for continuous long-term contraction. It lies close to the radial sulcus and if it is overused, may compress the radial nerve as it descends. The radial sulcus is where the radial nerve and profunda brachii artery run in the arm. The three heads of triceps brachii converge into a single tendon that inserts onto the olecranon process. The quadrangular space is bordered superiorly by teres minor, inferiorly by teres major, medially by the long head of triceps and laterally by humerus. The axillary nerve and posterior circumflex humeral artery pass through this space. The triangular space is inferior to the quadrangular space, and has the same medial and lateral borders. It is however bordered superiorly by the teres minor muscle, inferiorly by teres major and laterally by long head of triceps. It allows the radial nerve to enter the arm, as well as the profunda brachii artery.

The radial nerve (ventral rami of C5 - T1) is a branch of the posterior cord of the brachial plexus. Triceps is innervated by C6,7 and 8 component of radial nerve, separate branch for each head. It passes through the triangular space accompanied by the profunda brachii branch of the brachial artery, and the circumflex scapular artery. Here it supplies long head of triceps. The nerve then passes into the radial/spiral groove of the humerus, and runs between the medial and lateral head of the triceps brachii and supplies them. It emerges by passing between brachialis and brachioradialis, and emerges anterior to the lateral epicondyle. The nerve continues to descend into the extensor compartment of the forearm, which it innervates via its branch, the posterior interosseus nerve. The radial sulcus is also known as the spiral groove or radial groove.

The blood supply to the triceps comes from the profunda brachii artery along with the superior ulnar collateral and posterior circumflex humeral arteries. Anatomically the upper limb is divided into the arm and the forearm. The profunda brachii artery supplies all of the muscles of the flexor and extensor compartment of the arm. The venous drainage is via the brachial vein that runs with the profunda brachii artery. The triceps acts as an elbow extensor and the long head acts as a shoulder extensor, as it arises above the shoulder joint i.e. from the infraglenoid tubercle of the scapula. It also supports the lower part of the capsule.

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Show references


  • Frank H.Netter MD: Atlas of Human Anatomy, 5th Edition, Elsevier Saunders.
  • Chummy S.Sinnatamby: Last’s Anatomy Regional and Applied, 12th Edition, Churchill Livingstone Elsevier.
  • Richard L. Drake, A. Wayne Vogl, Adam. W.M. Mitchell: Gray’s Anatomy for Students, 2nd Edition, Churchill Livingstone Elsevier. 
  • Knipe H. MD et al: Triceps brachii. (accessed 19/03/2016). 
  • Skalski M. MD and Knipe H. MD et al: Radial nerve. (accessed 19/03/2016). 

Author, Review and Layout:

  • Shahab Shahid
  • Uruj Zehra
  • Catarina Chaves


  • Triceps brachii muscle - dorsal view - Yousun Koh
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