The triceps — the forgotten halves of the upper arms. You might hear “welcome to the gun show” after a bicep pump, but rarely do you hear a clever quip about the triceps. Nevertheless, they’re important muscles for controlling the elbows.

Share on Pinterest
South Agency/Getty Images

The triceps brachii is a three-headed muscle that’s involved in two primary actions.

The first is extending, or straightening, the elbow. The second is helping pull the arm down from an overhead or front-of-body position (shoulder extension). Additionally, the triceps are important stabilizers in the shoulder joints. in a new tab)

The muscle originates at the back of the scapula and on the back of the upper arm bone, which is known as the humerus. It runs the length of the back of the upper arm to attach to the tip of the elbow, which is called the olecranon process of the ulna (1).

There are 3 heads to the triceps: the medial, lateral, and long heads. During overhead tricep presses, the long head tends to be most active during the entire movement (2).

Still, overhead tricep extensions are an excellent way to target all three heads, and a great exercise to add to your fitness routine.


The triceps extend, or straighten, the elbow, as well as aid the shoulder muscles to extend the arm. The overhead tricep extension is an excellent exercise to work this muscle.

The most common way to perform this exercise is using a dumbbell (or kettlebell) while standing or sitting. Hold the weight overhead by grasping the inside dumbbell plate surface with both hands, or by grasping both handles of the kettlebell.

Slowly bend your elbows and lower the weight behind your head as far as you can. Remember to keep your trunk upright and your core engaged. The weight should follow the path of your spine.

Then, at the lowest point, straighten your elbows and extend the weight back overhead. Hold the fully extended position for a moment, then repeat. Keep the movement slow and controlled.

Choose a weight that’s challenging but allows you to use good form. Keep the speed of the movement slow and steady.


Stand with a weight grasped overhead. Keep your core and shoulders stable. Slowly lower the weight behind your back, then return and repeat.

The overhead tricep extension is comparable to performing a tricep pulldown with your elbows at your sides.

One recent study compared the two exercises and found similar activation of the tricep muscles during the raising and lowering phases (the concentric and eccentric motions, respectively) (3).

Yet, the overhead tricep extension works the triceps at their most lengthened position.

The tricep muscles attach above the shoulder joint and below the elbow joint. Thus, in the overhead tricep exercise, when the weight is at its lowest point, your triceps are stretched to their greatest length.

In addition, your shoulder and core muscles work as stabilizers during this movement. Because your arms are lifted overhead, more stabilization against gravity is required than in other exercises. This may make the exercise feel more challenging than performing tricep pulldowns.

This exercise differs from the dip and bench press exercises, which are compound movements. This means they involve multiple muscles at more than one joint. The tricep extension is an isolation exercise that allows you to work the triceps specifically at the elbow joint.


The overhead tricep extension is an isolation exercise that works the triceps just as effectively as the tricep pulldown.

Depending on what type of resistance you use (dumbbell, kettlebell, band, etc.), sometimes the most difficult part is getting the weight into position. Use a weight that allows you to get to the starting position safely.

Keep the speed of movement relatively slow, and avoid momentum to focus on your form.

Finally, keep your trunk stable as you lower the weight behind your back and down your spine. If the weight is too heavy or you’re fatigued, you may be tempted to arch your back, which can increase the strain on your back and shoulder joints.


Use a weight that’s light enough to get into the starting position. Keep the movement slow and controlled, as well as your trunk and shoulders stable during the movement.

As mentioned before, you can do this exercise sitting.

It can also be done using a dumbbell in one hand only. The weight will travel at a slightly different angle in this case. You can also use the opposite hand to hold the upper arm stable as you perform the movement.

You can likewise perform this exercise by substituting bands for the resistance. You can stand on the band if it’s long enough, or anchor it to something like a door handle. Note that doing this changes the angle slightly, so it will feel different.

The exercise can also be done by substituting a cable machine. Be sure to adjust the height of the cable pulley so it doesn’t have to travel as far to get to the overhead position.

For instance, adjusting the pulley height to half or three-fourths of your height (instead of being in a lower position) makes it easier to get the weight overhead to the starting position.


Variations of the overhead tricep press include single-arm, overhead dumbbell extensions, sitting down, or using a resistance band or pulley.

The overhead tricep extension is a great exercise to work the triceps. It’s comparable to performing tricep extensions with your elbows at your sides. Both versions are excellent for isolating the triceps.

It’s also a great way to work on stability at the shoulders and core. This helps minimize your risk of injury.

If you typically do either tricep pulldowns or tricep kickbacks, tricep extensions are a great alternative to add variety to your routine. Enjoy — and if you can, try to come up with a clever quip for the triceps while you’re at it.