November 06, 2021
Although several muscles are engaged in the process of performing dumbbell tricep extensions, this versatile isolation exercise is perfect for strengthening, building, and toning the triceps, which is located on the back of the upper arm. Today, we’ll break down how to do a dumbbell tricep extension properly (and in various ways), the benefits of using dumbbells for this movement, different training variables that can be incorporated into programming, and how to maximize your reps and sets for various training goals.
A tricep extension is a movement in which the back of the arm is targeted for strength and hypertrophy through extension of the elbow. It can be done using one arm at a time or both arms simultaneously, and you can utilize dumbbells, a barbell, a resistance band, or a cable machine in order to complete the tricep extension.
For the purpose of this article, we’ll be focusing specifically on tricep extensions with dumbbell(s).
Essentially, a tricep extension is done from a seated or standing position (although there are other variations as well, which we’ll go over). With hands holding onto a dumbbell, the weight is placed behind the head, with elbows pointing up toward the ceiling. From here, the triceps contract and the elbow joints extend in order to bring the dumbbell up toward the ceiling, ending in a position with the weight behind the head at the top. The elbow joints then flex to bring the weight back down.
There are definitely ways that this movement can be tweaked, and also several ways that it can be done incorrectly – and we’re going to learn the right way today!
You can undoubtedly work your triceps with other exercises, such as dips, pushups, and even a shoulder press. However, the tricep extension targets the back of the arm specifically and it is very effective in developing strength and stability within the tricep, which can be helpful in day-to-day activities. Aside from strength and functionality, tricep extensions will bring definition and firmness to the back of the arm (horseshoe triceps, anyone?) to improve aesthetics. This is particularly important as you age, as the back of the arms tends to get loose and flabby.
We are going to discuss how to execute a tricep extension properly with a dumbbell!
As previously stated, you can do tricep extensions in several different ways, but using the dumbbell changes up the dynamic of the movement a bit.
As opposed to fitness accessories like resistance bands or cable machines, dumbbells will increase coordination and stability better since it’s free weight. There’s no machine to aid in control of the movement, and you have complete control in regards to the range of motion used for the movement. Dumbbells can also tend to help point out imbalances, so you will quickly notice if one side of the body is stronger or more stable than another.
Although there are several different ways to do a tricep extension, the most popular version with dumbbells is done standing (using two hands on one dumbbell).
A standing dumbbell tricep extension is going to challenge you a bit more in regards to core stability and strength.
Typically, you will see the dumbbell tricep extension being done with one dumbbell, although some people like to do it with two; for this discussion, we will describe the process with one dumbbell.
It should be noted that how your core and stabilizer muscles are worked also changes when using two hands on one dumbbell to single arm dumbbell tricep extensions. The single arm tricep extension is a great unilateral option to add to your wheelhouse, but for now, let's focus on two handed dumbbell tricep extensions:
The standing dumbbell tricep extension might not seem like a complicated movement, but there are some common mistakes to avoid.
Elbows winging: Elbows winging out to the sides during the flexion and extension portions of the movement is a big one! When this happens, the focus isn’t on the triceps as much as it would be if the elbows were kept in closer; instead, the biceps tend to have more engagement, and thus reducing the effectiveness of the overall exercise.
This is where a mirror can come in handy – if needed, check your form while facing forward in the mirror when you do the dumbbell tricep extension. This will allow you to see if any elbow winging occurs, and can teach you to tuck the elbows in as needed. Dropping down in weight can also be of assistance, since winging of the elbows can happen more often if the dumbbell weight is too much.
Forward head: Another common mistake that is seen with a dumbbell tricep extension is having the head come forward during the movement. It can be an awkward exercise, especially if your neck and upper back are tight – in which case, range of motion can certainly be affected!
If you are noticing that your head is moving forward (and subsequently, moving out of a neutral position, with ears in line with shoulders), then switching positions is an option. If normal range of motion is noted within the upper body and it seems to be more a case of learning a different exercise, then practice is key! With a light dumbbell, work on keeping your core engaged while you move the dumbbell back behind your head; once here, think about all the movement coming just from your elbow, as opposed to your neck. Imagine an apple between your chin and your chest, so that tucking the chin is decreased. The dumbbell tricep extension can definitely feel like a strange movement, especially with a weight behind your head; keep practicing, and try different positions if needed!
Partial reps: Lastly, another mistake that is often seen while doing dumbbell tricep extensions is doing partial reps. While this is a mistake that can often be made with just about any exercise, it can be a potent one for tricep extensions, especially if the weight gets just a bit too heavy for full completion. Not only will you be thinking that you can lift heavier with a partial rep, but the muscle doesn’t get the chance to go through the complete range of motion (think eccentric and concentric movements), and therefore lowering your ability to actually build muscle appropriately along the backs of your arms.
Use a mirror again if necessary, or have a gym friend let you know when you’ve actually reached your full range of motion within the tricep extension – you might be able to lower the weight more than you realize! Dropping down to a lower weight can also be helpful in this scenario as well, if needed.
As mentioned above, there are other body positions that you can use for tricep extensions. The second most popular position for this movement is a seated dumbbell tricep extension.
The only difference between the seated and standing position for this exercise is that you are seated, whether on a stability ball, bench, plyometric box, chair, or even on the floor.
Be that as it may, this does change up the dynamics of the exercise a bit.
With that, you might be wondering what the benefit of being seated is, over the alternative of standing. The main difference between the two positions is that there will be less demand on your core and it's harder to cheat on reps when seated.
A seated dumbbell tricep extension can be performed with either one or two dumbbells, just like the standing version.
Dumbbell tricep extensions are a wonderful exercise for targeting the triceps, since most upper body movements engage the tricep in some way, but don’t fully focus on the back of the arm. Here are some benefits of using dumbbells for your tricep extensions!
On top of that, dumbbells allow for full range of motion movements and they demand more stability, which enables you to effectively strengthen stabilizer muscles.
During a dumbbell tricep extension, the main muscle group worked is just that – the triceps! Based off the name of this muscle (“tri”), there are three distinct heads that compose the entire muscle group; that includes the long head, lateral head, and medial head. The actual movement of the overhead extension from the elbow during the tricep extension movement engages all three heads of the muscle group, but the long head is acutely targeted – and this is the muscle that you typically see popping out of the back of someone’s arm, when they have been working on strengthening and toning the upper body!
Secondary muscle groups that are engaged during a tricep extension are the shoulders, otherwise known as the deltoids. Similarly, you’ll also notice that the lats and the pecs also play a part in the movement, as does the trapezius. There are different ways that you can adjust your training variables in order to stress these muscle groups in alternate ways, which is helpful in order to decrease adaptation and prevent injuries that could be caused by overuse.
Body Positioning: With a movement like the dumbbell tricep extension, there are several different ways that you can position yourself in order to alter the training platform. While we have discussed both the standing and seated positions for this exercise, you are also able to perform the movement while lying down flat on a bench or stability ball (these are typically called skull crushers), or even at a slight incline or decline. Whichever version you choose, the tricep will still be the main muscle group engaged; however, it will challenge those secondary muscles a bit more in regards to stability!
Grip: While this might seem like an unimportant training variable, switching up your grip during a tricep extension can definitely change the way surrounding muscles are stabilizing and strengthening during the movement, and can help improve imbalances at the same time. By switching up between a neutral grip, a pronated grip, and a supinated grip (palms facing inward, palms facing posteriorly, and palms facing anteriorly) you’re able to engage the triceps differently, as well as secondary musculature.
Single vs Double Dumbbells: Briefly mentioned above, the dumbbell tricep extension can be done with one or two dumbbells; with that being said, two might make it much more challenging, especially for your core! However, this is an excellent way to alter the stress placed on the muscle group, which can decrease the chances of plateauing and improve strength and stability. When switching back and forth between one or two dumbbells, just aim to start with a lighter weight if needed until you know that form and technique are correct.
Here are 5 different variations of dumbbell triceps extensions that play with the different training variables above. It's good to switch up these variables over the course of your training to keep your muscles "guessing".
This movement, also known as a skull crusher, is an excellent variation of the dumbbell tricep extension. One of the main factors to note while lying down during the exercise is to keep the back neutral and core engaged as the weight goes up and down. Keeping the feet flat on the floor can help with this as well! Grip can be varied in the lying tricep extension, so play around with it and see what position feels best.
This particular variation of the dumbbell tricep extension works the skill of isolation; this requires a bit more stability and overall coordination, more so than if you were doing the tricep extension using both arms. However, the seated position does give you some assistance in regards to keeping your core properly engaged, and allowing you to see if your back begins to arch as you press upward. Start light with this if needed, and work your way up from there.
Similar to the lying tricep extension, the incline tricep extensions are done with a bench raised to approximately 45 degrees. The movement will be the same as the lying version with the pronated grip, but the incline will allow you to drop the weight even farther behind your head (if your mobility is there) - making this a harder movement to do, especially if you using a heavier weight without a spotter. If you think the dumbbell might get away from you during this exercise, find a spotter or trainer and have them let you know when you’ve reached the proper stopping point on the lowering phase of the movement!
The level of resistance that is experienced by your triceps during a decline extension is more than what you would experience with lying flat – and that’s why some people think that decline tricep extensions are more challenging. Your shoulders definitely have to stabilize in this movement, and the degree of decline lets you lower your dumbbells a bit further than in the lying flat position. Because of this, you might notice the medial head of the tricep being engaged more!
If you’re trying the lying crossbody tricep extension for the first time, start with a light weight! It can be easy to bring the dumbbell to your opposite shoulder quickly, and maintaining proper form during this movement is key. This exercise is fantastic for promoting symmetry and focusing on unilateral movement; you just want to ensure that form is correct, and that your core stays engaged, especially as you lower the weighted arm toward the opposite shoulder.
The different training variables listed above - the grip variability as well as one versus two dumbbells – are able to be incorporated into the programming for these different positions…so don’t think you are stuck training your triceps in one particular way! Mix and match as needed in order to feel comfortable and to hit your goals appropriately.
While the ideal range of reps, sets, and overall volume will be different for everyone (and is highly dependent on goals, current fitness level, health history, injury status, etc.), there are some general guidelines you can follow in regards to appropriate training protocol.
Sets, Reps, and Load: Most tricep exercises are done in 3-5 sets, with reps ranging anywhere from a 1RM (smaller sets for strength and power) all the way up to 15-20 reps (larger sets for endurance training), with rest times ranging between 1-2 minutes. As the triceps are primarily a fast twitch muscle, they will respond best to low-to-moderate reps with heavy-to-moderate loads (i.e., 6-12 rep range). However, to work them in their entirety and for all aspects of fitness, it's important to also do some high rep ranges with lighter weight. Even a 5-pound dumbbell can make the triceps sore, if the exercise is new and the triceps are getting conditioned. Work your way up in weight slowly. Also, try to implement some sets to failure. Sometimes you can leave a bit left in the tank, but you can also try things like training to failure, dropsets, and supersets.
Volume and Progression: Training that is specifically done for the triceps, such as the dumbbell tricep extension, is something that can be worked into a lifting routine around twice a week. Aim for around 8-12 sets for the triceps specifically each week. Remember, the triceps are targeted in other movements, such as diamond pushups, dips, overhead press, and bench press, so they will be getting plenty more volume than just the 8-12 isolation sets. As for progression, read our guide to progressive overload so you know how to implement it into your training. You need to employ progressive overload to make your triceps bigger and stronger.
If you haven’t introduced dumbbell tricep extensions into your strength training routine (and would like to improve the strength and appearance of the backs of your arms) then add a few sets into your programming! Not only will you see an improvement in your posture and overall core engagement, but you will notice stronger arms in general – which will then make other exercises – such as pushups and dips – seem a bit easier!
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