Triceps kickbacks are notorious for being an arm exercise that everyone gets wrong. To a beginner's eyes, they're as simple as extending your arm behind you with the weight in your hand, but the devil is in the details.
Sculpting the triceps requires precision and careful attention to form, and one minor change in position can mean you're enlisting a whole other muscle group and not giving your triceps the spotlight they deserve, says Anthony Crouchelli, CPT, a founding trainer at Grit Bxing in New York City.
Proper Triceps Kickback Form
There are many different ways to set up triceps kickbacks — standing, split stance, quadruped (hands and knees) or in a bent-over position with a chair or bench. But no matter which one you chose, there's only one way to execute the move.
The biggest thing to remember is that triceps kickbacks from the extension of the elbow joint, and nothing else moves. Here's how to do triceps kickbacks correctly:
- With a dumbbell in each hand, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hinge your hips back, maintaining a straight spine. Your upper body should be at a 45-degree angle to the floor.
- Bring your arms to your sides, pretending your elbows are glued to your body. This is the starting position.
- Extend your arms straight back with control and squeeze your triceps at the top.
- Bend your elbows and slowly lower your arms back to the starting position.
The 6 Worst Triceps Kickback Mistakes
1. Using Your Shoulders
The great thing about triceps kickbacks? They isolate your triceps.
"One of the biggest mistakes I discover when looking at triceps kickback form is the over-activation of the shoulders instead of the triceps," Crouchelli says.
"People often tend to either flare their shoulders out or at the top of the pattern, they use their shoulders to drive the weight back," he says. This usually happens when people are fatigued or using weights that are too heavy.
To best engage your triceps, Crouchelli recommends tucking your elbows into your rib cage. Anchoring your elbows to your sides will help you think about using your elbow joint as levers, which takes your shoulders out of the equation, so the triceps initiate the movement.
"This prevents the elbows from flaring out to the sides, which can cause stress on the shoulders," he says.
Keeping your shoulders relaxed (not raising them up toward your ears) and maintaining a neutral spine throughout the movement can also help you focus on extending through the elbow.
Another common mistake is moving your arms past extension, Crouchelli says. One easy way you can tell that you're overextending is if your shoulders are rocking back and forth.
Throughout the movement, your upper arm should be parallel to the ground, not allowing your elbow to drop. This helps you engage your triceps to move against the pull of gravity as you extend your arm behind you. Be sure to keep your shoulders still and relaxed. Your entire arm should be in a straight line when you tighten your triceps at the top of the exercise.
Consciously squeeze your elbows at the top of the movement, Crouchelli says. If you sense that your elbow is dropping, activate your triceps to keep the weight up. A straight arm means contracted triceps.
3. Bending Your Wrist
It's crucial to use the correct grip when performing kickbacks. If you're bending your wrists as you extend your arms behind you, you're not using your triceps to their full potential. It can also make you vulnerable to injury.
"I often cue my clients to focus on maintaining a neutral [handshake] grip throughout kickbacks. Think of the same hand mechanics that you would use while performing a hammer curl, with the focus of the hold being in the middle of the dumbbell handle," Crouchelli says.
4. Hyperextending Your Neck
Although it's tempting to look up at a mirror in front of you to check your form, doing so requires hyperextending your neck, which can lead to pain and irritation, Crouchelli says.
"Keep your eye focused toward the floor with your chin in a neutral position," Crouchelli says. Think about drawing a straight line from the top of your head to your tailbone. You want to think about good posture, stacking your head above your shoulders and in line with your back.
5. Rounding or Arching Your Back
Lower-back tension or discomfort usually stems from the inability to maintain a neutral spine throughout the movement, Crouchelli says.
"This can come from the load of the weight being too heavy and not tucking the navel into the spine to maintain core stability," he explains.
The best way to correct this mistake is to try the exercise with just your body weight, Crouchelli says. Practice the movement with your elbows pinned to your rib cage and your pelvis tucked.
"Continue to monitor if the lumbar spine [lower back] curves or hyperextends, and once in a neutral spine, build the weight gradually," he says.
With triceps kickbacks, you want to use light to moderate weights. Because these muscles are small, it doesn't take much load to work them. So if you're committing this form mistake, it's a sign that your body is compensating and that you should scale back the load.
Crouchelli also suggests making the exercise a unilateral movement through a split stance or simply using one dumbbell. "This movement is great if you don't feel comfortable working with two dumbbells and loading weight with both arms, or if you have lower-back injuries," he says.
6. Rushing the Movement
People tend to rush through triceps kickbacks, causing them to throw form and technique out the window. But this can lead to pain, injuries and lack of triceps activation, which should be your main focus with this exercise.
One quick solution is implementing a tempo, Crouchelli says. For example, try extending your arms over the count of 1, pausing at the top for 1 and then lowering back down over the count of 2. You can even count aloud if it helps.