Take a glance around at your fellow gym-goers next time you visit the weights room and it’s almost certain that you’ll see one or two of them doing biceps curls or some other laser-focused biceps exercise. It’s far rarer that you’ll spot someone paying similarly specific attention to their triceps, which is a shame – because if you’re chasing sleeve-bursting upper arms, you need titanic triceps just as much as, if not more than, bulging biceps.
Many exercises such as press-ups or bench presses work the triceps as a secondary muscle, but the triceps extension puts them firmly in the limelight. As a result of this extra focus, you should find that your triceps get stronger in rapid fashion.
You can do the triceps extension standing, sitting or lying down, and either flat or on an incline/decline. You can also do it with different types of weight, like barbells or an EZ-bar, but the advantage of doing it with a dumbbell in each hand is that you will be able to spot and work on any arm strength imbalances. Just be sure you don’t overdo it with the weight, because it’s vital to go through the full range of movement with the exercise to work the triceps correctly and struggling with a dumbbell that’s too heavy will hamper your form.
If you only have one set of dumbbells at home or your gym is limited in its range and most pairs are too heavy, you’ll need to avoid this move. News flash: Holding too-heavy weights above your head is never a good idea. What’s more, this exercise requires you to move your triceps through a full range of motion to work them properly, and going too heavy makes this difficult and increases your risk of a muscle injury.
Start standing with your feet shoulder width apart and dumbbells held in front of you. Raise the dumbbells above your head until your arms are stretched out straight. Slowly lower the weights back behind your head, being careful not to flare your elbows out too much. Once your forearms move beyond parallel to the floor bring the weight back up to the starting position. Your upper arms should remain in place throughout the movement.
Aim for four sets of eight to 12 reps.
You can superset this move with standard or diamond press-ups to work your triceps more thoroughly, as well as strengthening your chest and shoulders. Just remember to focus on moving your triceps through a full range of motion with every rep to ensure you activate more muscle fibres. Because the more fibres that get called into action, the bigger and faster your muscles will grow.
By using dumbbells instead of a EZ-bar for the overhead extension you work each arm separately and ensure one stronger side isn’t carrying the weaker one, but it’s also worth doing the exercise with one arm at a time. This lets you focus on perfect form in that one arm, and also allows for a greater range of motion so you can be sure you’re working every part of the triceps with the move. As with all forms of the exercise, make sure you don’t overdo it with the weight you use and ideally you want to be able to rest the weight evenly in both palms.
If you use a cable machine instead of dumbbells to perform the exercise, the main benefit is a consistent level of resistance throughout the movement. Attach a handle to the low pulley on the machine and hold it in both hands above your head with your arms fully extended. Lower the rope behind you, keeping your upper arms stationary, then flex your triceps to return to the starting position.
If you fancy a lie-down during your workout, move your triceps extensions to a bench. This can help you focus on the movement of your arms better than the standing variation, and both exercises produce the same benefits – namely bulkier upper arms.
Lie on a flat bench, holding the dumbbells above you with your arms extended and your palms facing each other. Bend at your elbows to lower the weights on either side of your head, keeping your upper arms stationary and making sure you don’t flare your elbows out to the sides. Slowly take the dumbbells back up to the starting position.
If you take to the lying version of the triceps extension you can increase the difficulty of the move by doing it while lying on a gym ball rather than a bench. The unstable surface of the ball means that your core has to work to maintain good form while you perform the exercise, adding a whole new benefit to what is otherwise an isolation move that targets the triceps. Make sure to use especially light weights when doing your triceps extensions on a gym ball, because otherwise it’s more than likely you’ll fall off.
Written by Nick Harris-Fry for Coach and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.