How to Do a Triceps Extension: Techniques, Benefits, Variations

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

Also known as: Aerial triceps extension

Target: Triceps (back of upper arms), shoulders, core

Necessary equipment: Dumbbell

Level: Intermediary

How to do the triceps extension

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Start standing with your feet slightly apart, with your left foot just slightly behind your right and your feet hip-width apart. The weight should be evenly distributed between both feet. Soften your knees and make sure your center of gravity is engaged so you maintain good posture throughout the movement.

You can do this exercise with a dumbbell, holding your hands with your palms facing the ceiling, or holding a dumbbell in each hand. Alternatively, you can use the bumper by standing at one end and holding the other two ends in your hands behind your back.

  1. Lift the dumbbell directly over your head. Make sure that the head remains aligned on the chest, the center of gravity continues and the shoulders are relaxed.
  2. Fully extend your arms, then exhale and slowly lower the dumbbells, bringing the dumbbells behind your head by bending at the elbows. Make sure your chest is in line with your hips and that your back is not arched.
  3. Inhale and reverse the movement when you reach a 90-degree bend at the elbow or slightly farther, lifting the weight back to the starting position. The weight should not touch the back of the head when it is in the lowest position.

Performing a triceps stretch while standing challenges you to focus on the center of gravity to stabilize the lower and mid-body while you simultaneously move both arms overhead.

Benefits of triceps extension

Building muscle in the triceps (back of the upper arm) and biceps (front of the upper arm) helps increase arm strength and improves arm shape. Various exercises, such as pushups or chest presses, work the triceps along with other major upper body muscles.

But spending at least a little time focusing on the triceps separately can effectively help you strengthen that area, because you won’t be constrained by weakness in other muscles. .

Strong triceps help stabilize the shoulder and elbow joints. Stable arm joints keep you moving throughout the day. Lifting heavy objects overhead or pushing objects (such as doors or moving furniture) requires strong triceps.

Strong triceps can help you perform athletic activities like swimming, hitting tennis balls, passing in basketball, or pitching in baseball. The triceps are also important for stabilizing the arm for fine motor activities like writing.

Finally, developing triceps can help improve the look of your biceps. Without regular strength training, this area becomes looser with age. Developing bigger, stronger triceps, with exercises like triceps extension, can help shape this area better.

Other variations of triceps extension

You can do the triceps stretch in many different positions. The most basic version is a standing triceps extension, but you can also complete the move sitting or lying on a weight bench or floor (known as a skull crusher). You can also choose to work one arm at a time or both arms together.

Increase or decrease the weight you use to make the exercise more or less difficult. If you don’t have weights, you can use a resistance band or lift household objects like water bottles or pitchers.

Seated Triceps Extension

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

The seated triceps extension is done the same way as the standing variant, except you’re sitting on a chair, bench, or balance ball while bending over and stretching the dumbbells overhead.

Maintaining good posture in a sitting position is easier to control because your hips are firmly grounded and your lower body is at rest. But you still have to focus on your core to keep your torso aligned — you’ll find it easier to stabilize the upper body.

You can do this variation with a dumbbell in both hands or holding a dumbbell in each hand. Alternatively, hold a medicine ball or kettlebell with both hands.

Start sitting on a ball or bench with your feet flat on the floor shoulder-width apart. Make sure that the core is attached so that you maintain proper posture throughout the movement. Lifting and extending the weight is the same as in the standing version.

Extension of lying triceps

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

This variation, known as the skull crusher, is usually performed while lying on a weight bench. Technically, this is a different exercise from the triceps extension. However, it’s similar enough to be used as a modification if your upper body mobility limits your ability to do the overhead version with good form.

You can do this variation with a dumbbell in both hands or holding a dumbbell in each hand.

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

  1. Holding the dumbbell with both hands, embrace the dumbbell the same way you would with a triceps extension, but keep it higher than your chest.
  2. Bend your elbows to lower the weight, so that it starts behind your head. Keep your upper arm still and perpendicular to your body.
  3. Continue to lower the dumbbell behind your head until the barbell is level with the head.
  4. Reverse the movement until the weight returns to the original position.

Common mistake

Watch for common mistakes when doing triceps stretches so you can perform the exercise safely and effectively.

Head movement

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

Try to keep your head and body still and isolate the movement to the elbow joint. Keep your head in line with the midline of your chest and your chest in line with your hips. Keep your center of gravity forward and your chin away from your chest. If you still find yourself moving your head, consider doing the lying down exercise.

Insufficient range of motion

If you don’t exercise your triceps regularly, you may notice that they are weaker than some other muscles in your body. Therefore, you can try to make the range of motion smaller than necessary. That is, you drop the dumbbell just a few inches and then raise it back to the starting position. Often this is accompanied by an over-emphasis on the lifting phase and a quick but ineffective lowering phase.

Ask a friend or trainer to watch you when you first try this move to make sure you get at least a 90-degree bend in your elbow as you lower the weight. Further is okay as long as you don’t hit the back of your head. The descent should be slow and controlled and the lift should be as long as the descent. If reaching that 90-degree angle is too difficult, reduce the weight you’re lifting.

Elbow position forward

Perhaps the most common mistake when doing a triceps stretch is letting the elbows float forward. This is more common if your chest and shoulder muscles are tight. But it reduces the workload of the triceps and makes the exercise less effective. You want your arms directly overhead so that your biceps are close to your ears.

If you notice that your arms keep reaching forward, try doing a few upper body stretches before doing the triceps stretch. Doing the skull crusher variation can also be helpful as gravity will help pull the arm into position.

Flared elbows

Another elbow problem occurs when the elbow points out to the side. As the elbows move away from the ears, it allows you to enlist your biceps and shoulders to aid in bending and stretching. The exercise will no longer isolate the triceps.

Make sure to keep the elbows in to eliminate this problem. Reduce your weight as needed to maintain proper elbow position.

Safety and Precautions

If you’re new to exercise or a strength training routine, check with your healthcare provider to make sure you shouldn’t be following any special modifications. If you are sedentary or are returning to exercise after pregnancy or an injury, consult your doctor first.

During the triceps extension, since you are lifting a dumbbell overhead, you should be careful not to lift more than you can safely control. Dropping it can be harmful. If you’re challenging yourself with a new weight gain and aren’t sure how to handle it, get someone else to help you.

Complete two to three sets of 10 to 12 repetitions each. Try to remember to switch legs in front and hands on top of dumbbells.


Incorporate this and similar moves into one of these popular exercises:

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