From bicep curls to push-ups, many go-to strength training exercises target the muscles on the front of your arms. But what about the other side? Enter tricep kickbacks, a simple but powerful exercise that will tone and strengthen the back half of your arms. To help you get started, we talked to certified trainer Emma Middlebrook and fitness instructor Rachel Warren about how to do a tricep kickback, modify the exercise to suit you, and the benefits of this arm-burning move.
Meet the Expert
- Emma Middlebrook is a certified personal trainer and owner of REP Movement in Portland, Oregon.
- Rachel Warren is a founding instructor and director of instructor training and development at FORWARD__Space dance fitness platform.
What Is a Tricep Kickback?
Tricep kickbacks are a simple motion that involves bending and unbending your elbows from a 90-degree angle to extend your hands or weights behind you. Making this exercise a regular part of your weight training rotation can help you tone your arms, build strength, and even improve your mobility, according to Warren. It's a staple move to strengthen your triceps, says Middlebrook, which is important to remember given many arm exercises' emphasis on bicep strength. Even better? You can modify this move to suit your fitness level and preferences, so tricep kickbacks are an accessible addition to your routine whether you're new to fitness or a regular athlete.
Benefits of Tricep Kickbacks
Besides the obvious strength-building perks, adding tricep kickbacks to your resistance training routine can help you reap other benefits, says Warren.
- Tricep strength: Kickbacks are a great way to isolate and tone your triceps brachii muscle, which is the muscle on the backside of your arm, says Middlebrook. And having stronger triceps can help you power through other arm-focused strength training exercises, like presses.
- Improved mobility: Since performing a kickback involves bending and unbending your elbow, this exercise helps promote mobility in that joint, says Warren. The same goes for your shoulders, which have to work to keep your upper arms engaged throughout the move.
- Better functionality: Bonus? Building strength in your triceps can help you execute everyday activities more easily than you might otherwise, says Middlebrook. Take putting luggage in the overhead bin or placing something on a tall shelf, for instance—the more tricep strength, the easier the task.
Proper Tricep Kickback Form
Form is key when it comes to getting the most out of this exercise and preventing injury, says Middlebrook. To help, follow these tips to master your tricep kickbacks and start soaking in all the move's benefits.
- Stand with your feet under your hips and a soft bend to your knees. Pitch your upper body forward to a 45-degree angle, keeping your shoulders back and spine flat.
- Bend your elbows 90 degrees, with your weights or hands directly under your elbows. Keep your elbows and upper arms tight to your body, holding your elbows a little higher than your ribcage.
- Squeeze your triceps to straighten your arms, extending your weights or hands back past your hips.
- Repeat for two or three sets of 10 to 15 reps.
Common Tricep Kickback Mistakes
Though tricep kickbacks may seem straightforward, there a still a few common mistakes to look out for as you try the exercise to keep your form in tip-top shape.
- Make sure to keep your back flat and core engaged, says Middlebrook. It's easy to round over, but that can put unnecessary stress on your spine.
- Keep your chin tucked, adds Warren. Though it may be tempting to look straight ahead, that can lead to a sharp angle in your upper spine that can do more harm than good. Instead, stare straight down at the ground to keep your back long and straight.
- Avoid locking out your elbow as you extend your arm, says Middlebrook. This can put undue stress on the joint rather than your tricep muscle. Leave a slight bend in your arm to prevent stressing out your joint.
- Make sure your elbows don't sag down, says Middlebrook. Pro tip? To keep your elbows high, try to bring your upper arms almost parallel to the ceiling.
- And don't forget to keep your elbows in close to your sides, Middlebrook adds. It's easy to let your upper arms wander away from your body, but keeping them locked in place will help target your triceps more effectively.
- Using overly heavy dumbbells can lead to poor form and injury, so stick with weights that feel challenging, but not impossible, for your entire set of reps, says Warren.
The Best Tricep Kickback Modifications
If using weights is too much, you can always opt for lighter weights or ditch your dumbbells entirely, says Warren. You can also do the exercise one arm at a time instead of both at once to give your triceps an extra moment to recover in between reps. And if weights aren't your thing, you can try these with a cable machine instead, adds Middlebrook.
Warren advises switching up your stance if you notice irritation in your low back while doing standing tricep kickbacks. Do your kickbacks in a wider, bent-knee squat or a lunge with your back knee resting on the ground.
Tricep kickbacks are a must when it comes to building strength on the back of your arm. Try them with or without weights to build them into your usual arm day rotation to start toning, strengthening, and improving your ability to move both in and out of the gym. Just remember to prioritize form to make the most of your kickbacks and avoid injury.