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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.