How to Do Kickbacks

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

woman doing an exercise with a dumbbell
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Also Known As: Triceps kickback

Targets: Back of the upper arm (triceps brachii)

Equipment Needed: Dumbbell, weight bench or steady knee-height platform (optional)

Level: Beginner

The triceps kickback is one of the most common exercises used to strengthen and tone the back of the upper arm. Both men and women often complain about having "batwings" or flaps of fat in this area. Some people do triceps exercises to get rid of the fat.

Performing exercises like the kickback will help you to add muscle and define this area. However, it is important to note that having some fat on the arms is normal and no exercise will eliminate it completely. A healthy diet is also important for reducing fat all over the body. But there are other good reasons to do the kickback and other arm exercises to build strength in the upper body.

Benefits

The triceps or triceps brachii is an extensor muscle—it is responsible for extending (or lengthening) the forearm. The triceps is also responsible for shoulder adduction and extension. It is the only muscle that runs along the back of the humerus and it has three "heads" or sections. While physiologists traditionally believed that the three heads worked together to extend the arm at the elbow joint, they now know that they don't always work as a single unit.

In everyday life, strong triceps muscles help you to perform certain lifting or pulling movements, especially those that are over your head. These muscles often work together with the muscles in your back and help you to perform activities like vacuuming, putting your luggage in the overhead compartment on a plane, or closing the trunk of your car.

The triceps kickback is just one way to build a stronger triceps muscle. Other popular triceps exercises include the triceps extension, triceps push-ups, or tricep press downs.

Step-By-Step Instructions

Before you try this or any exercise, you should be in good health. Always seek the guidance of your healthcare provider if you are new to exercise or if you are coming back to exercise after an injury. You can also work with a fitness trainer to get tips and advice.

Always try the exercise with very little weight to get comfortable with the movement. If you don't have a dumbbell handy, consider using a water bottle or soup can. New exercisers may also gain a benefit when using no weight at all.

To prepare for the exercise, place one knee on the weight bench or platform. Lean forward and place your hand on the bench as well. If your right knee is on the bench, your right hand will be on the bench. Your left foot remains on the floor. Your body will naturally tilt forward from the hips. Maintain a long, strong back and keep your head in line with your spine.

  1. Place a dumbbell in your left hand (assuming that your right hand is on the bench). Start with your left arm extended below the shoulder. Palm should be facing towards the weight bench
  2. Lift the left elbow so that it is in line with your torso (parallel to the floor). There should be a 90-degree bend at the elbow.
  3. Keeping the elbow in a fixed position, extend the lower arm with the weight. At full extension, it will feel like the weight is reaching toward your hip behind you.
  4. Keep the elbow fixed (arm parallel to the floor) and return the weight to the starting position (with a 90-degree bend at the elbow).
  5. Repeat, keeping the shoulders relaxed and spine long and strong.

When first starting out, you may want to try two sets of 7–10 reps each. As you get stronger and more flexible, add repetitions first. Then add more weight.

Common Mistakes

There are a few common blunders that are often seen when performing the kickback exercise.

Dropping the Elbow

It's important to keep the elbow elevated so that the upper arm remains parallel to the floor. This helps you to work against gravity and strengthen the triceps. It is common to drop the elbow when the triceps get tired.

Try to perform the exercise in front of a mirror so that you can watch the placement of the elbow. If you still have a hard time keeping the elbow lifted, decrease the weight.

Sagging Back

While focusing on the movement of the arm, it's easy to relax the back and let your torso sag during this exercise. But it is important to engage through the core and keep the back strong. A strong spine will help you to maintain proper alignment in the shoulder area and through the hips.

Modifications and Variations

Need a Modification?

Generally, this exercise is performed using a weight bench or platform with the body tipped forward so that the shoulders are at the same level as the hips. But if you don't have a weight bench or if a full forward tilt is too challenging, try this exercise without the bench.

Start in a split stance position with the right foot slightly in front of the left. Knees should be slightly bent. Tilt forward from the hips and place your right hand on the right thigh for stability. With the weight in your left hand, lift the elbow so that there is a 90-degree bend at the elbow. Contract the triceps and extend the left arm, then slowly return to the starting position with a 90-degree bend at the elbow. Repeat several times before switching sides.

Up for a Challenge?

You can also ditch the bench to make this exercise harder. But this variation challenges you to work both arms at once. So it's important that you've mastered good form before moving to this exercise.

Start with one weight in each hand. Stand up straight with shoulders relaxed and knees slightly bent. Now tilt the body forward from the hips keeping the back strong. Bring the elbows up and into the 90-degree starting position. Extend and bend both arms at the same time.

Safety and Precautions

This exercise is safe for most people, including beginning exercisers (with less weight). However, those with shoulder injuries should seek the guidance of a qualified fitness trainer to be sure that they are not aggravating their condition by using poor form. Also, those with wrist conditions (like carpal tunnel) may have a hard time leaning on a bench and may find the standing positions more comfortable.

Try It Out

Incorporate this move into one of these strength training workouts. Use the hammer curl in addition to or instead of a traditional biceps curl.

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  1. Landin D, Thompson M, Jackson M. Functions of the triceps brachii in humans: A reviewJ Clin Med Res. 2018;10(4):290–293. doi:10.14740/jocmr3340w