How to Do a Triceps Extension

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Weight lifting

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Also Known As: Overhead triceps extension

Targets: Triceps (back of the upper arm), shoulders, core

Equipment Needed: Dumbbell

Level: Intermediate

The triceps extension is an isolation exercise that works the muscle on the back of the upper arm. This muscle, called the triceps, has three heads: the long head, the lateral head, and the medial head. The three heads work together to extend the forearm at the elbow joint. The triceps extension exercise is called an isolation exercise because it involves movement in only one joint, the elbow joint.

The triceps extension is a versatile movement. You can use one dumbbell or two to perform this exercise. It can also be performed with one arm at a time or using both arms together. If you don't have a dumbbell, you can use a resistance band or even lift home objects such as a water bottle or jug. Building muscle in the triceps (back of the upper arm) and biceps (front of the upper arm) helps to increase arm strength and improve the shape of the arms.

Benefits

There are many different exercises that work the triceps muscle along with other major muscles in the upper body, such as the push-up or the chest press. But dedicating at least some time to targeting the triceps can help you to build strength in that are effectively because you won't be limited by weakness in other muscles.

A strong triceps muscle helps to stabilize the shoulder and elbow joints. Stable arms joints help you to move comfortably through your day. Lifting heavy items over your head or pushing things (such as a door or moving furniture) requires strong triceps. Strong triceps can help you to perform athletic activities like swimming, hitting a tennis ball, passing a ball in basketball, or throwing a ball in baseball. The triceps are also important for stabilizing the arm for fine motor activities like writing.

Lastly, developing the triceps muscle can help to improve the look of the upper arm. Without regular strength training, it is common for this area to become looser with age. Developing larger, stronger triceps muscles, with exercises like the triceps extension, can help to give this area better definition.

Step-By-Step Instructions

If you are new to exercise or to a strength training routine, you should check with a healthcare provider to make sure that there are no special modifications that you should follow. If you have been sedentary, injured, or returning to exercise after pregnancy, get clearance from your doctor first.

You can perform the triceps extension in several different positions. The most basic version is the standing triceps extension, but you can also perform the move in a seated position or laying on a weight bench or the floor (called a skull crusher). You can also choose to work one arm at a time or both arms together.

Standing Triceps Extension

This variation challenges you to engage the core to stabilize the lower and mid-body while you move both arms simultaneously over your head.

Begin standing with your feet in a slight split stance, with the left foot just slightly behind the right and the legs about hips-distance apart. Weight should be evenly distributed between both feet. Soften the knees and be sure that the core is engaged so that you maintain good posture throughout the move.

  1. Take one dumbbell in both hands and lift it directly overhead. It's easiest to "cup" the end of the dumbbell so the palms face the ceiling and weight hangs in a vertical position behind the top of the head. Be sure that the head stays aligned over the chest, the core stays engaged, and the shoulders stay relaxed.
  2. Begin with both arms fully extended, then exhale and slowly lower the weight down, bringing the weight behind the head by bending at the elbows. Be sure the chest stays aligned over the hips and the back does not arch.
  3. Once you reach a 90-degree bend at the elbow or slightly further, inhale and reverse the movement, lifting the weight back to the starting position. The weight should not touch the back of the head when it is in its lowest position.

Complete two to three sets of 10–12 repetitions each. Try to remember to change the leg that is in front and the hand that is on top holding the weight.

Common Mistakes

Watch for these common form blunders when performing the triceps extension.

Moving the Head

Lifting and lowering a weight behind your head may feel awkward at first. If you don't have a lot of mobility in the upper back and shoulders, you may find that you move your head to accommodate the lifting and lowering process.

Try to keep the head and the body still and simply isolate the movement to the elbow joint. Keep the head aligned over the midline of the chest and the chest aligned over the hips. Keep your focus forward and chin off the chest. If you still find that you are moving your head, consider doing the exercise lying down.

Incomplete Range of Motion

If you haven't worked the triceps often, you may notice that they are weaker than some other muscles in the body. As a result, you might try to "cheat" through this exercise by making the range of motion smaller than it should be. That is, you drop the weight just a few inches and then lift back to the starting position. Often this is accompanied by an over-emphasis on the lifting phase and a quick but ineffective lowering phase.

Have a friend or a trainer watch you when you first try this move to make sure you achieve at least a 90-degree bend at the elbow when you lower the weight. Further is okay as long as you don't hit the back of your head. The lowering phase should be slow and controlled and the lifting phase should take just as long as the lowering phase. If reaching that 90-degree angle is too challenging, decrease the amount of weight that you are lifting.

Forward Elbow Placement

Probably the most common error when performing the triceps extension is letting the elbows float forward towards the front of the face. This is more common if your chest and shoulder muscles are tight. But it decreases the workload of the triceps and renders the exercise less effective. You want the arms directly overhead so that the biceps are close to the ears.

If you notice that your arms keep moving forward, try doing a few upper body stretches before doing the triceps extension. Doing the skull crusher variation might also help because gravity will help to pull the arms into position.

Flaring the Elbows

Another elbow issue occurs when the elbows flare out to the side. When the elbows move out away from the ears, it allows you to enlist the biceps and shoulders to assist the flexion and extension. The exercise will no longer isolate the triceps. Be sure to keep the elbows tucked in to eliminate this problem. Reduce your weight as necessary to maintain the proper elbow placement.

Modifications and Variations

There are several different ways to modify the barbell high row or to add challenges to make it harder

Need a Modification?

The easiest way to make this exercise easier is to use less weight or to change the body position so that core engagement is not involved. While it's usually smart to use your core muscles, you don't want to compromise form.

Seated Triceps Extension

The seated triceps extension is performed just like the standing variation, except for the fact that you are seated on a chair, a weight bench, or on a balance ball while flexing and extending a weight over your head. In a seated position, it is easier to maintain good posture because your hips are firmly grounded and the lower body is at rest. But you still have to engage the core to keep the torso in alignment—you'll just find that it is easier to stabilize the upper body.

Lying Triceps Extension

This variation, called a skull crusher, is usually performed while lying on a weight bench. Technically, this is a different exercise than the triceps extension, but it is similar enough that it can be used as a modification if your upper body mobility limits your ability to perform the overhead version with good form.

Begin by laying on a flat surface such as a weight bench or a mat on the floor.

  1. Hold the dumbbell with both hands, cupping it just like you would with the triceps extension, but hold it above your chest.
  2. Bend at the elbows to bring the weight down so it starts to come behind your head. Keep the upper arms still and perpendicular to the body.
  3. Continue lowering the weight behind the head until the dumbbell head is at the same level as the weight bench.
  4. Reverse the movement until the weight returns to the starting position again.

Equipment Modifications

If you don't have a dumbbell, this exercise can be performed seated or standing with other equipment. A medicine ball or kettlebell can be held in both hands while you lift or lower. Or if you are working out at home with no equipment, grab a water bottle or another container that has a handle or that you can hold in your hands.

You can also use a resistance band to perform the triceps extension. To use a band standing, place one end of the band under the heel of your back foot. Place the other end in your hands over your head. Make sure there is no slack in the band and perform the exercise just as you would with a weight. If you are seated, secure the bands under your hips or under your weight bench.

Up For a Challenge?

Of course, adding more weight will make this exercise harder. But these challenges force your arms to stabilize independently, which makes it a bit harder.

Triceps Extension with Two Weights

This variation can be performed seated or standing. Instead of holding one weight with both hands, you'll hold one weight in each hand. When you prepare for the exercise and bring the weights up over your head, the wrists should be rotated so that the palms face each other. You'll keep the wrists stabilized like this throughout the full range of motion.

Just like with a regular triceps extension, you'll bend at the elbow to lower the weights to a 90-degree angle and then extend back to the starting position. Some exercisers allow the weights to rest against each other during the lifting and lowering phases, but to increase the challenge, you want to maintain space between the weights so that the wrists stay in line over the shoulders.

One Arm Triceps Extension

This variation is sometimes easier for those with a tight upper body because you only have to lift one arm over the head at a time. But stabilizing that one arm with a single weight makes it harder.

You'll perform it the same way you perform the triceps extension with two weights, but simply exercise one arm at a time. When performing this variation, you can drop the weight slightly in towards the midline of the body when the elbow flexes. So at the bottom of the movement, the weight will be behind your head or neck (with the palm facing the back of the neck). At the fully extended position over your head, the palm faces slightly forward.

Safety and Precautions

Because you are lifting a dumbbell over your head, you should be careful not to lift more weight than you can safely control. Dropping it could cause harm. If you are challenging yourself with a new weight increment and are unsure of your ability to handle it, have someone spot you.

Try It Out

Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

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Article Sources
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