When you're dealing with shoulder mobility limitations or muscle imbalances, try these variations and alternatives to the overhead triceps extension to build strong arms.
Welcome to Modify This Move, the ongoing series where you'll find everything you need to amend a standard exercise to meet your goals, your body, and your mood. Each story breaks down how to perform a foundational fitness move, then offers various modifications based on your current fitness or energy level, present or prior injuries, or the muscles you want to target most. So check your ego at that door and ensure every workout meets you where you're at today.
When you’re exercising in a fitness space that's practically wrapped with mirrors, it’s easy to overlook the muscles you can’t see in your reflection (think: calves, hamstrings, lats). But training the muscles along the backside of your body, known as your posterior chain, is just as important as building those on your front, says Jill Goodtree, an NASM-certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor and RRCA-certified run coach.
One muscle group that’s often skipped over: the triceps, which run along the back of your upper arm, oppose the biceps, and are called upon to extend the elbow joint. “If you think about your everyday movements, you don’t just bend your arm up to your shoulder,” says Goodtree. “You need strength to force your arm all the way open too — and that's what your triceps do.” Translation: Building strong triceps is key to moving with ease, whether you're lowering a heavy box to the floor or reaching behind you to grab your keys off the counter. And incorporating the overhead triceps extension exercise, which involves pressing and lowering one or two dumbbells behind your head, into your fitness program can help you get the job done.
But like any exercise, the classic triceps extension may not match your fitness level, abilities, or goals. The good news? You can use triceps extension variations to get exactly what you want and need out of the move. Fitness newbies and folks with balance issues, for example, can take a seat while performing the exercise to focus on their form and stay stable. People with limited shoulder mobility can try a triceps extension variation that allows them to score the exercise’s benefits without compromising their joints. And individuals dealing with muscle imbalances can tweak the move so it helps correct their strength discrepancies. Simply put, triceps extension variations will help you build your upper-body strength no matter your limitations or aspirations.
Ready to put your triceps to the test? Follow the instructions below to nail down the traditional overhead triceps extension. Then, watch as Goodtree demonstrates how to switch up the exercise with six different triceps extension variations that can work for all abilities and fitness goals.
How to Do an Overhead Triceps Extension
A. Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell vertically in each hand with arms fully extended over head, palms facing one another. Draw shoulders down and back and engage core. Allow the dumbbells to rest against one another.
B. Keeping elbows pointed forward, core engaged, back flat, and neck neutral, bend elbows to a 90-degree angle to lower the dumbbells behind head.
C. Pause, then press the dumbbells up toward the ceiling to fully extend arms and return to the starting position.
6 Triceps Extension Variations
If you try the traditional triceps extension and it leaves you feeling unsatisfied or uncomfortable, don’t force yourself to stick with it. Instead, try a variation of the move or an alternative that works best for your body and goals.
Here, you'll find triceps extension variations that scale the exercise up or down, including options that challenge your stability and also build up core strength. Plus, Goodtree demonstrates triceps extension variations that help correct muscle imbalances and are suitable if you’re lacking shoulder mobility.
No matter which option you choose, continue checking in with your body as you power through your reps and try a different exercise if it doesn't feel right. With any overhead triceps extension variation, remember to avoid tucking your chin down to your chest, which can increase tension throughout your neck and spine, and flaring your elbows out wide, which puts additional pressure on your shoulders, says Goodtree.
Triceps Extension Variation to Scale Down: Seated Triceps Extension
Sitting on a bench while performing the classic overhead triceps extension gives you more stability as you press the weights, says Goodtree. In turn, it’s a great option for folks who are new to the exercise, struggle with balance, or are recovering from an injury and want to focus on their form, she adds.
A. Sit on a bench with feet planted on the floor on either side, holding a dumbbell vertically with both hands, arms fully extended over head. Draw shoulders down and back and engage core.
B. Keeping elbows pointed forward, core engaged, back flat, and neck neutral, bend elbows to a 90-degree angle to lower the dumbbell behind head.
C. Pause, then press the dumbbell up toward the ceiling to fully extend arms and return to the starting position.
Triceps Extension Variation to Level Up: Skull Crusher
The skull crusher progression not only reduces the work required of your shoulders (which typically engage to stabilize during an overhead extension), but it also forces more of the weight into the triceps, says Goodtree. To amp up the triceps burn, perform the variation with two dumbbells, keeping them separated so each arm has to work independently and without the stability of the other, she suggests.
A. Lie faceup on the floor with feet flat and knees bent at a 45-degree angle, holding a dumbbell vertically in each hand at chest.
B. Extend arms toward the ceiling above chest, palms facing each other. Engage glutes and core and pull the rib cage down to prevent low back from arching. This is the starting position.
C. Tucking elbows in and pressing shoulders down, slowly bend elbows to lower the dumbbells until they hover an inch above head or on either side of head. Avoid moving upper arms and anchor shoulders down to engage the lats, isolating the triceps as the dumbbells lower.
D. With control, straighten elbows to extend arms back over chest.
Triceps Extension Variation for Limited Shoulder Mobility: Bent-Over Triceps Kickback
Struggling with shoulder mobility? Try this triceps extension alternative, which involves hinging at the hips and pressing the weights behind your body, so you don’t need to raise your arms overhead, says Goodtree. “You can still work the back of your arms without putting the shoulder in a position where it takes on a lot of force,” she adds. Throughout your set, remember to keep your back flat and hinge at your hips to at least 45 degrees, she suggests.
A. Stand with feet hip-width apart and arms at sides, holding a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing each other. Draw shoulders down and back, then hinge forward at hips to lower torso to the floor until body is bent at 45 to 90 degrees. Bend knees softly.
B. Bend elbows to a 90-degree angle at sides, bringing the dumbbells close to stomach and elbows close to ribs. This is the starting position.
C. Keeping core engaged, shoulders drawn down and back, and knees softly bent, straighten arms, driving the dumbbells back behind hips. Keep elbows tucked at sides.
D. Squeeze triceps at the top of the movement, then slowly flex elbows to return to the starting position.
Triceps Extension Variation to Correct Muscle Imbalances: Single-Arm Triceps Extension
This triceps extension variation involves working just one arm’s triceps at a time, so it can help you pinpoint and fix any strength discrepancies you have between limbs, says Goodtree. And restoring significant muscle imbalances is important, as these disparities can lead to movement compensations that may ultimately cause injury on both the weaker and stronger side of your body.
A. Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell vertically in right hand with right arm fully extended over head. Rest left hand on stomach. Draw shoulders down and back and engage core.
B. Keeping elbow pointed forward, core engaged, back flat, and neck neutral, bend right elbow to a 90-degree angle to lower the dumbbell behind head.
C. Pause, then press the dumbbell up toward the ceiling to fully extend right arm and return to the starting position.
Triceps Extension Variation for Core Strength: Triceps Kickback In Modified Plank
This two-in-one move gives you the strength-building benefits of the triceps kickback while challenging your core, which has to engage and stabilize to prevent you from rotating your trunk toward the working side. “When you execute the kickback, make sure both of your hips are pointing toward the ground and try not to let one hip open up to the side,” advises Goodtree.
A. Start in a table-top position on the floor with hands directly under shoulders, knees under hips, and a dumbbell placed on the floor next to left hand. Walk knees back until body forms a straight line from head to knees, then rest shins on the floor.
A. Pick up the dumbbell with left hand, then bend left elbow to a 90-degree angle at side, bringing the dumbbell close to stomach and left elbow close to ribs. Draw shoulder down and back and engage core. This is the starting position.
C. Keeping core engaged, right shoulder stacked over right hand, and hips square with the floor, straighten left arm, driving the dumbbell back behind hips. Keep left elbow tucked at side.
D. Squeeze triceps at the top of the movement, then slowly flex left elbow to return to the starting position.
Triceps Extension Variation to Challenge Stability: Mini Loop Triceps Push-Down
When you’re short on gym equipment, try the triceps push-down with a mini loop resistance band. “It’s great to increase the strength in your triceps without needing to use a dumbbell,” says Goodtree. “Anytime you add a rubber resistance band, it introduces instability and requires extra strength from the muscle you're working."
A. Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a mini loop resistance band with both hands in front trunk. Left arm is tucked at side, left elbow bent so left hand is holding one end of the resistance band in front of center of chest. Right arm is bent at a 90-degree angle, right elbow pointing straight out to side, and right hand gripping the opposite end of the resistance band in front of belly button. This is the starting position.
B. Draw shoulders down and back and engage core. Keeping back flat and neck neutral, press right hand down to the floor in front of body to straighten right arm.
C. Pause, then slowly bend right elbow to return to the starting position, maintaining tension in the resistance band throughout the movement.
Photography and art Jena Cumbo
Model and fitness expert Jill Goodtree
Activewear Girlfriend Collective