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December 12, 2021 9 min read

Tricep extensions focus on the primary action of your triceps while also targeting the area of the muscle where additional mass is most visible. Weightlifters and bodybuilders around the world use this exercise to get that horseshoe-shaped tricep we’re all striving for.

We’ve written this workout guide to help our readers understand how triceps extensions work and highlight the reverse grip tricep extension as a particularly effective exercise for any arm day routine.

How To Do Cable Tricep Extensions


To clear up some confusion: although many people call tricep pushdowns tricep extensions, we’re focusing on the overhead tricep extension for this guide. The overhead extension runs through the same range of motion at the elbow with the arm elevated above the shoulder.

Before we dive deeper into the details and explain how a reverse grip changes the dynamics of the tricep extension, let’s take a look at what the exercise is in the first place. 

You can use a dumbbell or a  pulley/cable machine.

We’re going to run through the process with a cable machine and straight bar attachment and then we’ll explain the dumbbell variation.

Follow these steps to execute a flawless overhead triceps extension:

  1. Set the pin in the weight plates. We always recommend starting out with less weight than your maximum if you’re learning this exercise for the first time. Typically, about half the weight is good because it still gives enough resistance to get a feeling for the exercise.
  1. Stand under the handle with your back to the machine. Reach up and grab hold of it with an overhand grip - that means your palms are facing the ground. Take a big step forward away from the machine.
  1. You should have your arms above your head with your elbows bent at a 90-degree angle holding onto the bar and pointed directly forward for the whole move. 
  1. Lift the bar by straightening out your arms. It’s vital not to lean into the weight with your shoulders or try to bend your back to accommodate the weight. 
  1. Let the weight return to the starting position to complete one repetition. Complete 10 or so for a complete set. 

How To Do Dumbbell Tricep Extensions

This variation of the exercise can be done seated on a flat bench or standing up. If you stand up, you can give your core a bit of a workout as well. Some weightlifters do single-arm reps holding the dumbbell in one hand while others hold the dumbbell with both hands. Sometimes people with a wider frame find it hard to keep both elbows pointed forward and so they opt for the single-arm version instead. 

Whichever way you choose, the most important thing to remember is to be careful moving the weight around - everyone has hit themselves in the head with a dumbbell attempting this move and that’s not the kind of skullcrusher you want to have in your tricep routine.

Follow these steps to do a dumbbell tricep extension:

  1. Start with a more lightweight dumbbell than you think for the same reasons mentioned earlier: better control and the ability to move through the steps slowly will be much more helpful as you learn how to execute the move. 
  1. If you’re standing, take a wide shoulder-width foot stance so you can maintain your balance.
  1. Hold the dumbbell in either hand with a neutral grip. Your palms should face the midline of your body. Lift the dumbbell over your shoulder and hold it right behind your head. Just like in the cable version, you want to have your elbow bent to 90 degrees and make sure it stays pointing forward throughout the entire exercise. 
  1. Engage your core, breathe in, and raise the weight until your arm is straight. Hold that top position for a second before you return to the starting position.

Why Tricep Extensions Work

The  triceps brachii extends the forearm at the elbow joint - if you were to take a headphone out of your ear and hand it to someone standing right in front of you, you would be moving through the entire range of motion that triceps power. Your elbow joint is a hinge joint, which means it only allows motion on a single plane of movement. The knees are another good example of a hinge joint. They don’t allow you to rotate the way a ball-and-socket joint like the hips or shoulders do.

Combine these two bits of information and you have the key reason tricep extensions are such a highly effective exercise.

The triceps work to move your elbow joint in one of the two directions it ‘s able to move. When you’re raising the weight over your head toward the full extension of the forearm, the tricep is passing through its entire range of motion. Most lifters claim these overhead extensions target the long head of the triceps but that may not be the case.

Research has shown that while the long head does play the main role in elbow extension when the arm is at shoulder height and below, the  medial head of the triceps is the major force when the arm is raised above the shoulder. In case you didn’t know, the tricep has three heads. That’s where it gets its name (in Latin, tri = three, ceps = head). The long head makes up most of the mass of the muscle while the medial head is mostly covered by the long head and the lateral head, which is the one that creates the horseshoe tricep shape.

So does that mean overhead tricep extensions target the least visible part of the tricep?

It depends on how you hold the weight. The research tells us that the medial head powers elbow extension when the arm is raised above shoulder height. But that tells us more about what arm placement should be based on our fitness goals. It really demonstrates how versatile the overhead triceps press is more than anything else.  

For example, in the exercise guides we went through earlier, the weight started behind the head.

This places the arm at 180° shoulder elevation, almost like it would be if you were to just raise your hand as high up as you could. That means the medial head is going to be the main mover of elbow extension. But if you were to point your elbow out to the side, perpendicular to your head so the weight was next to your head rather than behind it, the arm would be raised to 90° shoulder elevation.

Anything there or lower will cause the long head to be the main power source.  With that small change, you can make this exercise target two different heads of the tricep muscle. Pair that with the  MASS STACK and your triceps will be perfectly primed for growth.

How To Do Reverse Grip Cable Tricep Extensions

If weight placement can have such a big effect on your tricep extensions, what can an alternate grip style do? First, let’s take a look at the variation itself.

Follow these steps to complete reverse grip cable tricep extensions: 

  1. Stand with the cable machine to one side of your body. You’ll be working the arm that is on the opposite side of your body from the machine. 
  1. To get an underhand grip, you’re going to take an overhand grip with the far hand and then move that arm so your bicep is touching your far ear and your forearm is over the top of your head. 
  1. Your elbow should be at 90 degrees. From here, you extend the elbow until your arm is straight, then slowly return to the starting position to complete one repetition.

Banded Reverse Grip Tricep Extensions

One drawback of the reverse grip in this exercise is that attempting it with a dumbbell creates a lack of space between the dumbbell and your head which is both awkward and dangerous. Luckily, it’s easy to replicate this tricep exercise if you have a resistance band and a strong anchor point. The best type for a home workout is a door anchor that you can close in a door and loop your band through. 

You’ll also need the right kind of resistance band. We recommend a tube band with sturdy handle attachments at each end. You can also use ankle straps to achieve the same functionality.

Once you have those items, you can follow these steps to execute a banded reverse grip tricep extension:

  1. Attach your anchor point at door height if you aren’t using a door frame directly. 
  1. Stand in front of your anchor point with your back to it. Grab onto the handles of your resistance band. If you’re using ankle straps, you can put them against the side of your hand to avoid having to grip them the whole time. 
  1. Take a big step forward with one leg and hold that position. The band should be taut and the top part of both your arms should be parallel with the floor with your hands shoulder-width apart.
  1. Keep your back straight and lean forward to get the most resistance out of the bands. Next, extend the forearm until the elbow joint is straight. Return the elbow to a 90-degree angle to complete one rep. 

Benefits of Reverse Grip Tricep Extensions

We already know that reverse-grip tricep extensions target the medial head based on arm height. Alternating your grip won’t change that. However, it will stretch out the tricep more, leading to a better workout in the long run. Let’s explain using the first tricep extension we went through at the beginning of this workout guide. We explained it with an overhand grip.

When you stand in front of a pulley machine and grab the horizontal bar with an underhand grip so your palms are facing the ceiling, the first thing you’ll notice is that your wrist feels a lot more natural going through the exercise. This supinated grip allows your tricep to progress to the end of its range of motion.

Most lifters opt for the single-arm version of this exercise so they can concentrate on a  full tricep workout on one side of their body at a time.

You’ll start to feel the burn on the outside of your arm where the long head of the triceps attaches to the shoulder, very near your lats. The long head will get a bit more of a workout compared to the overhand grip version and the medial head will also work harder since the lift is slightly longer. Overall, the entire triceps works harder in this move.

It’s already difficult for other muscle groups to take over if you’re doing overhand grip tricep extensions and with the underhand grip it’s all but impossible because there is no temptation to lean forward away from the machine. Another fantastic benefit is the variation this exercise offers for your workouts. It’s an easy alternative for tricep extensions that are already part of your program and fits in well with similar upper arm exercises.

Supersetting with cable reverse-grip tricep pushdowns is easy because all you have to do is turn around and get into position to start doing reverse grip tricep extensions.

Research shows that the triceps are activated more during extensions  following the barbell bench press than after Smith machine or dumbbell bench presses, so keep that in mind as you’re programming your arm day routine.

Use other exercises like the close grip bench press, pressdowns, pull-ups, tricep dips, kickbacks, and diamond push-ups and make sure you supplement with a strength booster like the ones in the RIPPED STACK to maximize the effectiveness of your workout to get busted horseshoe triceps.

Common Form Errors in Tricep Extensions

No matter which variation you choose to use, there are a few things you need to keep in mind if you want to ensure your tricep extensions are productive.

    • Leaning & Drifting: Elbow drifting and leaning forward at the torso are natural responses to resistance. The position of the cable extensions makes this less likely, especially if you’re using the reverse grip stance and pulling from the side. 
    • Foot Placement: In some of these variations, keeping your feet too close together can lead to unwanted bending. Your feet don’t need to be too far apart but consider bracing yourself against a wall or a pulley machine to stay in place. 
    • Non-tricep Recruitment: Leaning and improper elbow placement can cause your lats, pecs, core, shoulders, or biceps to enter into the picture and rob your triceps of gains. Think of this as an isolation exercise for your triceps even though there is some secondary recruitment in these other muscles. Remember, the triceps only power the hinge motion of the elbow joint. Focus on making that movement to give the triceps and challenging targeted workout.

    Reverse Grip Tricep Extensions For Ripped Arms

    You have to hit your triceps if you want full sculpted arms. When it’s included with other tricep isolation exercises like diamond push-ups and close grip bench presses, the reverse grip tricep extension is a perfect exercise for your  arm day routine because it moves through the entire range of motion of the elbow joint, which is exactly what your triceps provide power for.

    Use the form notes and variations in this tricep extension guide to make the most of this exercise in your routine. Change it up from time to time to prevent your triceps from adapting to the same repeated movement and encourage muscle growth via hypertrophy. The variations in this guide are the perfect way to do that.