If your arm day training session is stuck in the same old slog of biceps curls to triceps pressdowns—then wash, rinse, repeat—it's far past time that you introduce some variety into your workout. Take on some other exercises that target your big arm muscles, like the triceps kickback.
This workout staple has long been a favorite of bodybuilders looking to isolate the biggest muscle in their upper arms, so you've probably encountered it before. But most gymgoers are going about the exercise the wrong way. They do the kickback much too lazily, or they use weights they can't handle and depend too much on swinging their arms to create momentum to power their movements once they move past the first rep. If you're not paying attention to the small details when you're performing the triceps kickback, you might be missing out on the valuable gains you're hoping to achieve.
The triceps kickback gives you the ability to work on carving some detail into your arm muscle, according to Men's Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S. The exercise can "really help us focus on that ultimate squeeze," he says. He's referring to the muscle contraction at the top of the kickback, which is when you'll be fighting to hold the weight at its most challenging point of the exercise for the best possible effect. Check out this video to learn how to do the exercise the right way, with instruction from Samuel and MH fitness editor Brett Williams, NASM-CPT.
Benefits of Triceps Kickbacks
As Samuel says, one of the best parts about the triceps kickback is that it's a pure isolation movement. Other exercises that aim to isolate the triceps are easy to slip into bad form that gets other muscles involved, or depend on excessive body lean, like the pressdown, that takes away some of the focus (and therefore, effectiveness). During the kickback, you'll put yourself in a position in which your triceps muscle is alone without support from other muscle groups. Once you get into the right position, all you can do is extend your elbow (the key function of the triceps), which makes the move all the more effective for building muscle.
How to Do Triceps Kickbacks
Follow these form cues to learn how to do the triceps kickback the right way. Once you've read the step-by-step directions, follow along for some higher-level tips from Samuel to dive deeper into the exercise. You'll need a light set of dumbbells and an adjustable bench.
●Set the bench so that you can prop yourself into position with one arm against it, hinging at the waist. Squeeze your glutes and core to create tension.
●Look down at the floor, keeping your neck in a neutral position. Pick up the dumbbell off the floor.
●Row the dumbbell up until your upper arm is parallel with the ground. You'll work from this position. Keep your whole body rigid by maintaining full-body tension, squeezing your glutes and core.
●Extend your elbow to kick back, moving only at the joint. At the top of the position with your arm straight, hold the weight still for a count and squeeze your triceps.
●Close your elbow to come back to the starting position, keeping your upper arm in that parallel position.
●To start, program the triceps kickback late in your arm day workout, with 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps for each arm.
Upper Arm Parallel
Eb says: Keep your upper arm parallel to the ground throughout your entire set of triceps kickbacks. Two of the most common errors during kickbacks occur when you don't think about this. Sometimes people over-focus on keeping their upper arm high, and they wind up with their elbow being the highest point during the kickback; then they don't face the full force of gravity in the straight-arm position. Don't do that.
The more common error is even worse: If you start with your elbow below your shoulder, then you have to swing your upper arm upwards, a motion that recruits the lats, not the triceps (a.k.a. the muscle you're trying to train). Avoid these issues and really focus on maintaining an upper arm angle with both elbow and shoulder on the same level. Use a mirror if you can, at least at the start of your set.
Own the Position
Eb says: Your triceps' responsibility is to straighten your arm at the elbow, and that's when it's at peak contraction. So, just as we'd squeeze our biceps at the top of a good biceps curl to get more out of that moment, take a moment to squeeze your tris when your arm is fully straight during a kickback. Don't just rush back down; instead, hold your arm straight for a one-count.
It's here that having your upper arm fully parallel to the ground yields its greatest benefit, too, because the forearm lever is at its longest. Don't hike your upper arm once you get here either; battle for a straight arm and you'll feel it in your tris.
Eb says: The triceps kickback isn't a move that's going to let you move a massive amount of weight. When you use it that way, you're destined to cheat with your form.
So bury your pride and operate with a lighter weight, but prove to yourself that you can own that straight-arm position and get a great triceps squeeze. You'll get a lot more from a 12.5-pound kickback set done properly than you will from a 40-pound kickback set done with a ton of swing and sloppiness.
Want to master even more moves? Check out our entire Form Check series.
Brett Williams, a fitness editor at Men's Health, is a NASM-CPT certified trainer and former pro football player and tech reporter who splits his workout time between strength and conditioning training, martial arts, and running. You can find his work elsewhere at Mashable, Thrillist, and other outlets.
Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., is the fitness director of Men's Health and a certified trainer with more than 10 years of training experience. He's logged training time with NFL athletes and track athletes and his current training regimen includes weight training, HIIT conditioning, and yoga. Before joining Men's Health in 2017, he served as a sports columnist and tech columnist for the New York Daily News.