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September 14, 2022
Hoping to fill out your t-shirts with well-developed muscular arms? While your inclination may be to grab the nearest dumbbell and start doing bicep curls like it's your job, we recommend shifting your attention to a different arm muscle: your triceps.
We realize that the biceps are often the star of the upper arm show, but as the triceps are larger and come with plenty of carryover to important athletic movements, they deserve equal, if not more, attention than your bis.
So, what do you do to grow your triceps? Well, the tricep kickback, of course! And we'll show you everything you need to know to master it, including:
Triceps kickbacks are an isolation exercise targeting the horseshoe-shaped muscle on the back of your arm. A strong mind-muscle connection is key here since you cannot load it very heavy or your form breaks down.
Positioning for this exercise is crucial for it to be effective. It can often turn into a momentum swing or an ego lift when people think more weight means more growth (more on this shortly).
Using this exercise to strengthen the triceps will assist with shoulder stability and the lockout portion of motions like the bench press or military press. It also will help with athletic movements that involve pushing or throwing.
If the bench press and dips are a hammer, the triceps kickback is a fine chisel used to carve out small details on eye-catching triceps. It's a great addition to your arm workout.
Like many muscles, it’s impossible to isolate a specific head of the triceps completely. So any exercise will hit each triceps muscle to a certain degree. Having said that, triceps exercises can emphasize a certain head of the tris differently and more effectively.
Let’s first look at the three heads and what they do.
Originating at the scapula and inserting into the humerus, this tricep muscle head and most long head tricep exercises are responsible for extending your elbow and assisting with shoulder stability when the arm is close to your side.
Originating on the humerus and inserting into the ulna, this is the biggest and strongest of the three triceps muscles. It’s the one people notice first, found on the outside of your shoulders. Its primary function, seen in lateral head exercises, is forearm extension at the elbow joint during supination (palms facing up) and pronation (palms facing down).
Originating on the humerus and inserting into the ulna, this head is more hidden between the two. It is vital for medial head exercises requiring elbow extension.
The kickback is going to target the long and lateral heads primarily. This is due to the positioning of your arms. Your elbows are fixed behind your body and close to your sides. Shifting your body position even slightly or changing your equipment may change the targeted tricep head.
A chest-supported kickback will allow you to be in a more stable position with your elbows at your sides, making it the best option to target the long head. A cable tricep kickback will better target the lateral head by keeping constant tension on that muscle throughout the movement.
Watching someone do a bench press vs. a triceps kickback will look completely different. It’s obvious which one seems more complex and more critical. (Hint: It's always going to be the compound lift.) But even though it’s an isolation move done with a lighter weight and doesn’t look overly complicated, it is still an effective exercise.
As we mentioned earlier, the triceps heads have profound benefits when they are strong and functioning correctly. If you can grow and strengthen them, which you will with this exercise, you will see a carryover to all your pressing and athletic movements. And as a bonus, you will see significant changes when you look in the mirror.
Strength, aesthetics, and feeling good - that’s what it’s all about, right?
This how-to covers the dumbbell triceps kickback. Add it to your arm workout, and your tris will be happy campers.
You can also hit one triceps at a time using the one-arm version. For the unilateral exercise, set up an incline bench in front of you so you can rest one hand on it while your other arm works.
How to perform Dumbbell Triceps Kickbacks:
Whether you have access to a cable machine, barbells, or kettlebells, you can still effectively hit your tris using the tricep kickbacks exercise. Here's a look at the different equipment you can use.
The cable machine or a resistance band will stimulate your muscles similarly. The difference between these and dumbbells is that they will create constant muscle tension. The dumbbell is very effective, but it only provides tension on the muscle while locked out. Cables and bands will keep it throughout the entire movement. Moving your feet into more of a split stance may provide more stability during this exercise.
The different weight positioning of kettlebells helps you better keep the tension throughout the movement, enabling you to feel the triceps more during this kickback variation.
Kettlebell Tricep Kickback Demo on Youtube
Get in the standard kickback position, holding a barbell behind your body with palms up or down instead of neutral. As you bend over into a bent-over row position, the barbell starts low, behind you, close to the backs of your knees. As you extend your elbows, you'll raise the barbell as high as you comfortably can.
If you can handle the weight and maintain the position, you can load the triceps more than dumbbells.
Barbell Tricep Kickback Demo on YouTube
This will still be with dumbbells, so it’s more that you are using a different piece of equipment to hold a better position. The flat bench will allow you to anchor your upper body and will help you hold the correct position, which will keep your arms close to your sides and prevent your shoulders from moving. This will likely be your best option for performing this exercise correctly and avoiding stress on your shoulder joint.
To get the most out of this dumbbell triceps exercise, avoid these 4 common mistakes.
Like almost every exercise, ego lifting with too much weight will cause your form to suffer. Remember, form is everything. So if you are using too much weight, you likely will begin losing momentum and lose the position of your upper arm. This will make it less effective, so check your ego at the door.
As mentioned above, keeping your hand and fist tight and engaged during this exercise is essential. If you feel the dumbbell slipping more toward your index finger and thumb (the strongest part of the hand), you will struggle to lock out your elbow at the end range of motion. Remember to think fist stacked over the wrist. That is the money-maker portion of this exercise, so keep your hand tight.
For this exercise, the elbows need to be close to your body. At most, in the cable machine version, they will be 30 degrees away from your body.
Your upper body will follow where your head goes. So to keep your upper arms parallel to the floor and a flat back, keep your head in a fixed, neutral position with a downward gaze.
Since this exercise is done with lighter weights, tension and tempo are your new best friend. That doesn’t mean you can't still progressive overload, but there will be somewhat of a ceiling to the weight you can do. You generally won’t see people using 25 pounds and up for this exercise. So think about starting in the 10-15 pound range and adjust accordingly based on how it feels for you.
Triceps kickbacks may not have as much bang for your buck as a close grip bench press, but as we discussed, it’s an essential tool for sculpting your triceps. Make sure to hit your tris with multiple variations and positions to see what works best for you.
Here are three tips to help with your programming.
While you can add this move to an arm workout, other options include adding it to your chest and triceps routine or a dumbbell upper body workout.
By now, you should understand the often misunderstood triceps kickback. When done correctly, it's an extremely effective move, especially for hitting the long and lateral heads of the muscle. Avoid making common form mistakes, and you will surely see tricep muscle growth.
Related: 8 Kettlebell Exercises to Build Horseshoe Triceps
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June 01, 2023
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