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It’s interesting how we equate strength and muscle with the size of someone’s biceps when the triceps brachii is a substantially larger arm muscle, taking up two-thirds of your arm. These bad boys are crucial for extending the elbow joint, performing pushing movements in everyday life, and succeeding on lifts that feature a strong lockout, like the bench press or shoulder press.

You can strengthen your triceps muscles with compound exercises and full-body workouts, but you’ll get the most bang for your buck by sprinkling a few triceps isolation exercises like the triceps kickback into your arm day routine.

Kate Meier, NASM-CPT, USAW-L1, CF-L1, and GGR director of fitness content, shares step-by-step instructions for how to do it with proper form, as well as variations, alternatives, benefits, and more. Read on for why you should add this exercise to your triceps workouts today!

How To Do the Triceps Kickback

You can perform triceps kickbacks standing, seated, or with your body supported by a weight bench. You can also do them using a pair of the best dumbbells or a cable machine. Our expert guide will focus on the standing dumbbell triceps kickback.

How to do it:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, back straight, while holding a dumbbell in your left and right hands with a neutral (palms facing each other) grip.
  2. Push your hips back and hinge forward until your chest is nearly parallel with the floor.
  3. Bend your elbows so they form 90-degree angles and raise your upper arms so that they’re alongside your torso. Bend your knees slightly as well.
  4. Extend your elbows, “kicking” the dumbbells back as your arms extend.
  5. Continue until your elbows are fully extended.
  6. Squeeze your triceps at the top of the movement, then slowly return to the starting position.
  7. Repeat for reps.
Woman doing tricep kickbacks

Modifications

  • Dial it back: The triceps kickback may feel more challenging than other arm exercises because of how far you hold weights from your body. For this reason, going light or performing the kickback motion without weights and focusing on the triceps squeeze is recommended for beginners.
  • Make it harder: Going heavier, slowing down the movement, or pausing for longer in the top position are all great ways to increase the challenge of the triceps kickback.

How To Do Triceps Kickbacks At Home

You can easily incorporate triceps kickbacks into your weighted arm workouts at home. You can use a pair of dumbbells, resistance bands, or even some heavy household objects like canned goods, bags of rice, or jugs of laundry detergent.

Triceps Kickbacks Variations

  • Banded triceps kickback: Using a resistance band instead of free weights provides constant tension throughout the movement, which, according to SAGE Open Medicine1, is just as effective as using free weights. Anchor your resistance band to something at waist height, get into your starting position, and perform kickbacks as usual.
  • Cable triceps kickback: The cable machine is another way of getting in your kickbacks. Similar to the banded version, you want your pulley set to waist height. Then, get into a split stance, grip the attachment (we like the rope attachment for this), and bust out your reps!
  • Single-arm triceps kickback: Doing double kickbacks cuts your gym time in half, which is ideal for busy gym-goers, but sticking to one arm at a time ensures you fully exhaust each side. So, it’s worth doing single-arm triceps kickbacks when it fits your schedule.
kettlebell-tricep-kickback

RELATED: Unilateral Exercises

Triceps Kickbacks Alternatives

The triceps kickback exercise is excellent if you’re looking to build muscle and strength in your triceps, but it’s not the only move you should be doing if you’re looking to build bigger arms. 

Don’t worry; we’ve got you covered with some of the best alternatives to help you really flesh out your triceps workout!

Diamond Push-Up

Why do it: According to the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research2, you’ll get more activation in your pectoral and triceps muscles when performing push-up variations that use a narrower hand placement. So, diamond push-ups make an intuitive alternative (or addition) to triceps strength training programs.

How to do it: 

  1. Get into the standard push-up position.
  2. Move your hands close together and, if possible, create a diamond by touching your index fingers and thumbs on each hand together.
  3. Bend your elbows, keeping them tucked in, to lower your body toward the floor.
  4. Continue until your chest lightly touches the floor.
  5. Push yourself back up to the starting position by extending your elbows.
  6. Repeat for reps.
Woman doing close grip pushups

Straight-Arm Pushdown

Why do it: “Straight-arm triceps pushdowns are one of the best ways to target the triceps while minimizing stress on your elbow joints,” says Kate Meier, NASM-CPT, USAW-L1, CF-L1. “They also require shoulder stabilization, so you may improve shoulder stability from performing triceps pushdowns regularly.”

How to do it: 

  1. Set your cable machine to a high position and attach the straight-bar attachment.
  2. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and grab the bar with an overhand grip.
  3. Push the bar down, keeping your shoulders still and your elbows extended, until it’s roughly at waist height.
  4. Pause, then slowly return the bar to the starting position by reversing the movement.
  5. Repeat for reps.

Dumbbell Triceps Extension

Why do it: The dumbbell triceps extension, also known as the overhead extension, is similar to the kickback in that it uses elbow extension to target the triceps muscles, but, in some ways, it may be more effective. According to the European Journal of Sport Science4, using an overhead position for the triceps extension may result in greater muscle growth compared to movements using a neutral arm position.

How to do it: 

  1. Hold a heavy dumbbell by the top using both hands.
  2. Hoist the dumbbell overhead until both arms are locked out.
  3. Bend your elbows, keeping your upper arms still, to lower the weight behind your head.
  4. Continue until your elbows are fully bent.
  5. Extend your elbows to bring the dumbbell back to the starting position.
  6. Repeat for reps.

RELATED: 3 Dumbbell Triceps Workouts

Dumbbell overhead tricep extension

Skull Crusher

Why do it: “The skull crusher workout may sound foreboding, but it’s basically just a lying triceps extension,” says Kate. “They’re great for targeting the triceps while minimizing stress on the shoulder joint due to the supine positioning.”

How to do it: 

  1. Lie face up on a flat bench holding a barbell or EZ-curl bar with locked-out arms.
  2. Bend your elbows to lower the barbell toward your head.
  3. Continue until the bar is just above your forehead.
  4. Extend your elbows to push the barbell back to the top position.
  5. Repeat for reps.
Woman doing skullcrushers

Triceps Dips

Why do it: The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health3 states that bench, bar, and ring dip exercises are among the most effective for targeting your triceps, proving that you don’t need a ton of weight or fancy machines to get a great triceps workout. This is a more advanced alternative, so you may want to start closer to the ground with bench dips to build up strength before attempting this exercise. 

How to do it: 

  1. Grab the bars or rings with a neutral grip.
  2. Jump so that you are holding yourself between the bars or rings in midair and your arms are fully locked out. You may bend your knees and cross your ankles behind you so that your feet don’t touch the floor on each repetition.
  3. Bend your elbows, keeping them tucked in, to lower your body toward the floor.
  4. Continue until your elbows form 90-degree angles.
  5. Pause, then extend your elbows to push yourself back up.
  6. Repeat for reps.

RELATED: How To Do The Triceps Dips Exercise

Benefits of the Triceps Kickbacks

Working out your triceps is important for bigger arms and more all-around upper body strength, but why the triceps kickback as opposed to any other triceps exercise?

Provides Targeted Triceps Isolation

Compound exercises are great for activating various muscle groups, but, as they say, “Jack of all trades, master of none.” 

“If you’re trying to maximize your gains, you want to really isolate your triceps brachii and fully exhaust that muscle,” says Kate. “Because it’s a single-joint exercise with a relatively small range of motion, the triceps kickback is perfect for that.”

For maximum hypertrophy, start your strength training with big lifts like the bench press or shoulder press, then cash out using the kickback as a finisher. So, by the end of your session, your triceps will be screaming, and we mean that in the best way possible!

Woman using the Rogue HR-2 Half Rack to do overhead presses

May Enhance Your Shoulder Stability

The long head of the triceps brachii attaches to the scapula, meaning it facilitates some arm movements, specifically extension and adduction, at the shoulder joint. Because of this, your triceps strength and shoulder stability go hand in hand.

“Triceps kickbacks feature a neutral shoulder positioning when performed with proper form,” says Kate. “So, they’re a great way to strengthen your triceps and support shoulder health without putting extra stress on your shoulders.”

May Improve Your Weightlifting Performance

Personal trainers often categorize exercises as main lifts or accessory lifts. Whereas your main lifts are the meat and potatoes of your workout—think bench press, deadlift, back squat—your accessory lifts help build the muscle groups and movement mechanics required to excel at your main lifts.

The Tib Bar Guy Nordic Weight Bench using press

Triceps kickbacks fall into the accessory lift category—because they’re single-joint—translating to greater strength and power when extending the elbow and performing pushing movements. But that’s not all. While most triceps exercises target the long head of the triceps, the kickback emphasizes the tricep’s medial and lateral heads, which often helps lifters improve their lockout strength.

So, if you’re into bodybuilding or weight training, don’t be surprised if you’re breaking plateaus and taking your weightlifting game to the next level after adding the triceps kickback into your workout routine.

Common Triceps Kickback Mistakes

The triceps kickback is an effective exercise for building triceps strength and size when performed correctly, but there are a few things you should try to avoid. Here are some of the most common mistakes associated with the triceps kickback.

Rounding Your Back

Performing the triceps kickback starts with hinging forward so that your chest is nearly parallel with the floor. That means you’re maintaining a straight back, a neutral spine and neck, and a braced core. Rounding your back puts excess stress on your lower back muscles and could contribute to or cause an injury.

Targeting your triceps doesn’t mean you can totally relax your upper body. To prevent rounding, maintain a strong, rigid posture and brace your core while doing your triceps kickbacks.

RELATED: 13 Posterior Chain Exercises

Using Too Much Momentum (or Any)

With the triceps kickback, one joint should do all the movement during this exercise. That joint, of course, is your elbow, which essentially functions like a hinge moving from fully bent to fully extended with each rep.

If you’re swinging the dumbbells, you may inadvertently move your shoulder forward and back to accommodate the rocking motion, taking away activation from your target muscle—the triceps—and placing more stress on the sensitive shoulder joint.

Woman lifting with CAP Barbell dumbbell weight set

“To avoid using too much momentum, be sure to keep your shoulders and upper arms completely still during the exercise,” says Kate Meier, NASM-CPT, USAW-L1, CF-L1. “Extend your elbows, squeeze your triceps muscles, and bend your elbows to return to the starting position.”

Going Too Heavy

Swinging your arms around to do kickbacks usually indicates you’ve gone too light or are rushing, but going too heavy can cause you to recruit other muscle groups or rely on momentum all the same.

“Your triceps are powerful, but it’s harder to generate power due to the positioning involved in the triceps kickback,” says Kate. “The dumbbells are held far from the body, making it harder to move weights that you may already be accustomed to lifting with other exercises, like the biceps curl or triceps extension.”

So, check your ego at the door and start with light dumbbells to ensure you’re doing the exercise properly and minimizing your risk of injury.

Muscles Worked by Triceps Kickbacks

As an isolation exercise, the triceps kickback works, well, the triceps muscle or triceps brachii5 to be more scientific. You can further divide the triceps brachii into three heads:

triceps highlighted on muscular system
  • The long head: This head attaches to the scapula and humerus, keeping the upper arm positioned within the shoulder joint. It assists with arm movements that occur within the shoulder joint, namely extension and adduction, while also facilitating elbow extension.
  • The medial head: Unlike the long head, the medial head has no role in shoulder stability or arm movement within the shoulder joint. Its primary function is to assist in extending the elbow.
  • The lateral head: Considered the strongest head of the triceps muscle, the lateral head plays a major role in elbow extension. Strengthening the lateral head helps maximize lockout strength and enhance power during pushing exercises.

Whereas many exercises primarily target the long head of the triceps brachii, the triceps kickback emphasizes the medial and lateral head, making it integral for well-rounded muscle growth in your triceps.

Triceps Kickbacks: Final Thoughts

We’re pretty sure biceps curls will never fall out of fashion, but prioritizing the triceps is the best way to build bigger arms since they take up literally two-thirds of your arm’s real estate. Using exercises like the triceps kickback may help you succeed in that goal because:

  • They isolate the triceps brachii, allowing you to fully exhaust the muscle
  • They help improve arm lockout strength and pushing power
  • They contribute to greater shoulder stability and mobility
  • They’re easy to learn and require minimal equipment

So, when we say “kick-back,” we don’t mean relax. We mean grab those dumbbells and kick it into high gear with the triceps kickback!

Triceps Kickbacks: FAQs

Are kickbacks good for triceps?

Triceps kickbacks are good for the triceps exclusively. As an isolation exercise, the movement should not target other surrounding muscle groups and, thanks to the exercise’s relatively small range of motion, allows for a strong contraction at the peak position of each rep.

If performed properly and programmed wisely, the triceps kickback makes an excellent addition to most upper-body strength training programs.

RELATED: 20-Minute Upper-Body Workout

What’s a good weight for triceps kickbacks?

“Beginners often believe they need to go heavy when doing kickbacks to get the best results, but that’s not the case,” says Kate Meier, NASM-CPT, USAW-L1, CF-L1, and GGR director of fitness content. “Because the dumbbell is far from the body, most people lift much less when doing kickbacks than they do on other dumbbell exercises like the biceps curl or shoulder press.”

If you’re new to kickbacks, start light, five or 10 pounds, and feel it out. Keep your movement strict, your form tight, and really squeeze that contraction at the end. If you can do that with light weights, then (and only then) should you start increasing your weight.

What is the most effective triceps exercise?

We all have our strengths and weaknesses, meaning it’s difficult to identify one objective “best triceps exercise” that will be the most effective for everyone. 

That said, a study conducted by the American Council of Exercise6 determined that the three best triceps exercises were the diamond push-up, the triceps kickback, and the dip.

References

  1. Lopes JSS, Machado AF, Micheletti JK, de Almeida AC, Cavina AP, Pastre CM. Effects of training with elastic resistance versus conventional resistance on muscular strength: A systematic review and meta-analysis [published correction appears in SAGE Open Med. 2020 Sep 9;8:2050312120961220]. SAGE Open Med. 2019;7:2050312119831116. Published 2019 Feb 19. doi:10.1177/2050312119831116
  2. Cogley RM, Archambault TA, Fibeger JF, Koverman MM, Youdas JW, Hollman JH. Comparison of muscle activation using various hand positions during the push-up exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2005;19(3):628-633. doi:10.1519/15094.1
  3. McKenzie A, Crowley-McHattan Z, Meir R, Whitting J, Volschenk W. Bench, Bar, and Ring Dips: Do Kinematics and Muscle Activity Differ?. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022;19(20):13211. Published 2022 Oct 14. doi:10.3390/ijerph192013211
  4. Maeo S, Wu Y, Huang M, et al. Triceps brachii hypertrophy is substantially greater after elbow extension training performed in the overhead versus neutral arm position. Eur J Sport Sci. 2023;23(7):1240-1250. doi:10.1080/17461391.2022.2100279
  5. Tiwana MS, Sinkler MA, Bordoni B. Anatomy, Shoulder and Upper Limb, Triceps Muscle. [Updated 2023 Aug 28]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan-.
  6. Boehler, B.S., B., Porcari, Ph.D., J. P., Kline, M.S., D., Hendrix, Ph.D., C.R., Foster, Ph.D., C. ACE Study Identifies Best Triceps Exercises. ACE.

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