The tricep extension is an isolation exercise which can be performed either with free weights or a machine.
With free weights, you lower and raise a dumbbell behind your head by bending and straightening your arm. Tricep extensions can also be performed lying down using a barbell.
If you want to work out your triceps using a machine, your can choose either the tricep high pulley cable machine or the seated tricep press machine.
What muscles does the tricep extension use?
The tricep extension uses the tricep muscle. When performed correctly, this lift should target only the tricep muscle, without help from the shoulder (deltoid) or upper back (trapezius).
The tricep is the opposite muscle to the bicep, these two muscles work together as a pair to straighten and flex the arm.
So when you bend your arm upwards towards your chest you use the bicep; when you push the arm down and straighten it, you use the tricep.
The position of the tricep extension is achieved by by placing your arm over your head so your elbow is in line with your eyes.
Your upper arm should be straight and your lower arm bent back behind you down your back.
With this position, the extension pushes your arm to work the tricep muscle on the upward movement when using a dumbbell or barbell.
When using a high pulley machine or a tricep press machine, the tricep muscle is engaged on the push down.
Benefits of the tricep extension
The tricep extension is a great workout for the backs of your upper arms, the tricep muscle. This exercise will strengthen and tone the upper arm.
The tricep extension is a great exercise to do to alongside the bicep curl, to balance out the muscle development of the biceps and create a stronger arm.
Many people neglect the tricep muscle, focusing much more on the bicep muscle, but this will result in an uneven muscle development and raise the risk of injury as well as promote an unbalanced physique.
Tricep exercise for ‘bingo wings’
The back of the upper arm is a notorious area that many women are concerned about. The triceps tend to be under-used in everyday life and so can develop a sagging appearance as we age.
Tricep extensions can prevent this sagging from happening and, when performed regularly, can banish any signs of ‘bingo wings’.
Tricep extension position
Good tricep extension technique starts with the right positioning and preparation. To prepare for the tricep extension using a dumbbell, position one dumbbell overhead with both hands grasping the bar beside the inner plate. This is called the heart shaped grip.
The barbell should be pointing straight down the back of your head to start.
When performing the tricep extension with a dumbbell, it can also be helpful to use a seat with a low back to help to isolate the tricep muscle and minimise back involvement. This will help to improve your tricep extension technique.
You may find it easiest to get into position by lifting the dumbbell onto your thigh. You can then raise your thigh, bringing the weight up, using your arms to hoist the weight up onto your shoulder.
Once the weight is up on your shoulder, use both arms to bring it up behind your head.
Performing the tricep extension
When performing the tricep extension using a dumbbell, bend your elbows and lower your forearms behind your head. The dumbbell will lower in a vertical position straight down behind the centre of your neck and upper back (trapezius).
When you reach full bend, use the tricep muscles to pull the dumbbell back up.
Keep a steady and controlled motion throughout with upper arms vertical and still. You should move only the lower arms to target the tricep. This stillness of the upper arm is vital to achieving a good tricep extension technique
Be careful not to hit the back of you neck or head when you raise the barbell. You can avoid this by moving your head slightly forward. Raise the dumbbell high over the head by straightening out elbows.
Tricep extension technique
When you have finished your set, bring the dumbbell back to your shoulder then onto the thigh and down – in the opposite movement used to get into position for the lift.
The tricep extension can also be performed one arm at a time using a unilateral lift. This lets you focus on one arm at a time.
It is often a good idea for beginners to use only one arm at a time when first starting to perform this exercise, before moving on to use both arms together in a bilateral lift motion.
Variations on the tricep extension
There are quite a few different types of tricep extension. The exercise can be performed lying down with a barbell as another free weight movement.
There are also machines to help you perform the tricep extesion – the tricep extension high pulley and the tricep press.
When lying down this is called a ‘skull crusher’ as the barbell is brought close to your forehead when you flex your elbow, then back up again when you extend.
You can read more below about performing skull crushers and how to use the tricep press and tricep extension high pulley. Good tricep extension technique is necessary to achieve an effective workout using any of these types of exercise.
Read about other types of tricep extension
Explore the bicep curl as the ideal complementary exercise for balanced muscle development.