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December 16, 2021 6 min read

Strong triceps are essential for shoulder stability and the lockout in exercises like the overhead press and bench press, and there are plenty of tricep exercises to help build the muscles in your arm, each with different advantages. 

When done properly, any tricep exercise can contribute to upper body strength, but the overhead tricep extension helps target all three heads of the tricep, making it one of the most effective. Add a barbell and lose the bench to reap even more benefits.

Muscles Worked

The barbell tricep extension is an isolation exercise, meaning it is a single-joint movement that works one muscle group. One muscle is targeted, but there are other stabilizer muscles recruited to help with posture and core stability.


The three heads of the tricep, the long, medial, and lateral head, are located in the back of the upper arm. They all contribute to upper body strength and are responsible for elbow extension and shoulder stability. In this exercise specifically, the long head of the triceps, known as the triceps brachii, is worked. If your triceps are weak, you can put yourself at risk for injuries, shoulder pain, limited range of motion, and poor athletic performance.

Isolate the Triceps

Isolating the tricep muscle is important because only performing compound exercises like the bench press or rows could leave muscles as the triceps overlooked. By isolating this muscle, you can improve your lifts that incorporate the triceps and help improve your shoulder stability.

Studies suggest that single-joint movements may be just as effective for muscle strength and hypertrophy as multi-joint movements.

Isolation exercises are also beneficial for bodybuilders whose popular fitness goal is to build the muscles to their greatest potential.

Improved Shoulder Stability

Strong triceps can help increase shoulder stability. In fact, studies suggest that the long head of the triceps contributes significantly to shoulder stability.

The overhead position requires shoulder strength and mobility, and practicing the tricep extension this way can help the shoulder function in and outside the gym.

Improved Core Stability

Although the core is not directly worked in this movement, you are standing, so it acts as a stabilizer. A strong core helps with posture and keeps you upright. Doing this exercise standing can be beneficial to building core stability since you are relying on it to stop your back from arching. Increased core stability can transfer to other lifts like the deadlift and helps improve posture.

Increased Hypertrophy

Because it is an isolation exercise, the tricep extension has the ability to build more muscle in that specific area. Despite popular belief, doing endless bicep curls won't necessarily make your arms bigger. It's triceps that are larger muscles that help the mass of the arm. This exercise has the ability to make larger arms and help them look sculpted in a tank top.

How to Do the Standing Barbell Tricep Extension

Like with any exercise, form is key for safety and results. Performing this exercise incorrectly can put you at risk for a shoulder, elbow, or back injury. Follow the steps below to maximize your tricep extension performance.

Standing Tricep Extensions

Here's how to do it:

1. Stand with your feet about hip-width apart and grab a barbell with an overhead grip. Your hands should be about shoulder-width apart.

2. Squeeze your core and glutes so your back does not arch, then press the barbell straight overhead until your arms are fully extended.

3. Without flexing your spine, slowly flex your elbows until they make a 90-degree angle.

4. Press all the way back up to the starting position and go right into your next rep.

Common Mistakes

The standing barbell tricep extension may look easy, but there are plenty of small adjustments that could make or break this exercise. Below are some of the more common mistakes to avoid.

Arched Back

If you don't engage your core enough, your back may arch, putting you at risk for back pain and potential back or shoulder injury. This may be caused by too much weight or inexperience. There are a few ways to help fix this mistake. One way to help is to imagine pushing your belly button into your spine. This can help activate your core and keep your spine neutral. Another way is to squeeze your glutes. This can help push your pelvis forward and keep your hips in line with your back. You can also try staggering your stance, which can help take pressure off the low back or lighten your weight.

Flared Elbows

This is one of the more common mistakes made when performing this exercise. You want to keep your elbows close to your head because if you flare your elbows out, it can decrease the effectiveness. If you're putting the work in, you want to get the results right? Flared elbows could be caused by fatigue or too heavy of a weight. Try lightening the weight or taking a longer break in between sets.

Not Enough Range of Motion

Getting enough range of motion is important in order to help engage as many muscle fibers as possible. Only getting a partial range of motion may not allow you to build the strength and muscle you could be getting otherwise. This mistake is typically caused by trying to lift too much weight. Put your ego to the side and lower the weight for more effective repetitions.

Too Much Range of Motion

Just as you can do too little, you can also do too much. Too much range of motion may cause elbow or shoulder pain by putting unnecessary stress on your joints. This mistake can be caused by inexperience and luckily, is a fairly easy fix. You can watch yourself in the gym mirror to make sure your elbows are not bending past 90 degrees. If you don't have a mirror, you can ask a knowledgeable spotter or a personal trainer for advice.

Standing Barbell Tricep Extension Variations

Maybe the overhead position causes shoulder pain, or you're just tired of doing the same tricep exercise. Try the variations below to get the most out of your arm day.

Skull Crushers

Skull Crushers

This variation may sound scary, but it's really just a lying tricep extension.

A skull crusher can be performed on a bench or on the ground using a barbell or dumbbells. It is similar to the overhead tricep extension because it works all three heads of the tricep.

Lie on a bench with weights in your hands and arms fully extended towards the ceiling. Without hinging at your shoulders, bend the elbows while keeping them pointed towards the ceiling. Press the weight back up to the starting position.

Triceps Kickback

If going overhead is not an option due to an injury or shoulder pain, the triceps kickback is a lower impact option. Still working all three heads of the triceps, you'll still be able to build upper body strength. This variation is usually done with dumbbells.

Keep your back flat, hinge at your hips, and keep your elbows tight towards your sides. Your elbows will start off flexed and dumbbells by your chest. Without moving your elbows from your sides, extend your elbows behind you until your arms are fully straightened. Flex your elbows back to the starting position.

Dumbbell Overhead Triceps Extension

You'll still go overhead for the dumbbell overhead triceps extension, but instead of using a barbell, you'll use dumbbells. Using dumbbells helps to put your wrists in a more comfortable position because your palms will be facing inward.

You'll perform the dumbbell triceps extension the same as you do with a barbell and follow the same cues. You can hold the dumbbell in a diamond grip and flex and extend the same way.

Single-Arm Triceps Extension

You'll definitely use a dumbbell for the single-arm triceps extension. Imagine performing the dumbbell triceps extension but with one arm. You'll perform the same motion, but since you're using one arm, you'll get some unilateral work in. Unilateral exercises can provide benefits of their own, like improving muscle imbalances, since you're working both arms equally.

Final Thoughts

The standing barbell triceps extension might just be the isolation exercise you've been missing. If you're looking to improve a lockout or get bigger and better arms, tricep work is where it's at.

Don't forget that exercise is just one way to reach your goals, but it's your nutrition and lifestyle outside of the gym that will help your arm muscles get sculpted.

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