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WHEN YOU THINK about training triceps, the dumbbell triceps kickback is probably one of the first exercises that comes to mind. The move is a classic, the type of simple motion that’s been repeated by muscle heads since the dawn of strength training’s iron age. The problem is, the most common way to do the exercise isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
“When we do the triceps kickback with dumbbells, for 90 percent of the motion, our triceps aren’t actually getting a ton of work,” says Men’s Health fitness director, Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S. We’re only really working in the “very last moment” of the movement when the elbow is fully extended—making this an ineffective exercise.
The solution? Swap out your implement to extend the range of motion your muscles will be under tension. Here, Samuel and MH senior fitness editor, Brett Williams, C.P.T., show give the low down on how to utilize the the tricep cable kickback for optimal muscle building.
Benefits of the Cable Triceps Kickback
Swapping the dumbbells out for the cable machine will immediately make it a more effective exercise for building strength and size, since you’ll be applying tension to the muscle for more than the brief endpoint of the movement.
The cable triceps kickback also provides much-needed variety in your arm day training, since the exercise gives you something that other commonly performed triceps exercises (like the skull crusher or the triceps pressdown) don’t. “On most of our triceps exercises, we’re challenging that stretched position,” says Samuel. The problem is, once your arms straighten out, the joints stack, and the tension on your muscles is reduced.
The opposite happens in the kickback. The lengthened position doesn’t provide as much tension for this exercise—but once the arm is straightened, the load (and gravity) will challenge the triceps muscles to maintain that position. “We’re training the triceps in the shortened position most aggressively when we’re doing the cable kickback,” says Samuel.
How to Do the Cable Triceps Kickback
Follow these steps to get yourself ready for the cable triceps kickback: Before you start, take the handle off the cable. Most machines will have some kind of mechanism that connects the handle to the cable. Grip this instead. Next, lower the level of the cable anchor all the way down to its lowest setting.
How to Do It:
- Start by taking a staggered stance. Do whatever you need to find a stable position here: use the track on the cable machine if yours has one, or grab onto the upper portion of the handle track, or keep your elbow on your thigh. Whichever you choose, ensure that your shoulders stay higher then your hips to protect the lower back.
- Grab onto the handle, and pull your elbow up and back slightly above your torso. Keep your upper arm to be parallel to the ground for the duration of the set.
- Straighten out the elbow without rocking or moving the upper arm. Squeeze at the top.
- Slowly lower the weight down, preferably for a two count negative, to complete the rep.
Common Cable Triceps Kickback Mistakes
Breaking at the Wrist
When you bend your wrist backward too far, the tension on your triceps is cut. By maintaining a neutral wrist, you can ensure that the load is place through the triceps. Remember: the greater the time under tension, the more muscle growth. Breaking the wrist cheats you out of that tension.
Rocking at the Elbow
Maintaining the same arm level during the cable triceps kickback is tough, especially later in a set when you start to fatigue. A common mistake is rocking the elbow forward and back, which recruits different muscles, including the lats and shoulders, to help move the load. That takes away from the tension on the triceps, so you want to avoid that as much as possible.
How to Incorporate the Tricep Kickback Into Your Workout Routine
This exercise is great for “filling in the blanks” in your triceps workout, Samuel says. You’ll challenge your triceps using a broader range of motion with much less weight than other exercises, so use the cable triceps kickback at the end of your arm day sessions.
One other point of focus: Keep the load light but the reps high for this movement. Aim for 3 to 4 sets of 12 to 15 repetitions, Samuel says.
Cori Ritchey, NASM-CPT is an Associate Health & Fitness Editor at Men’s Health and a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor. You can find more of her work in HealthCentral, Livestrong, Self, and others.
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.