Have you considered using dumbbells to work your triceps as opposed to the cable station? You should – and our strength expert Ben Hardman explains why dumbbells can make a serious difference, as well as sharing the best tricep dumbbell exercises to feed this crucial muscle group.
Are you looking for the best tricep dumbbell exercises?
Good call, as training your triceps with dumbbells is underrated. Most specific tricep exercises take place at the cable station, but dumbbells can, and should, play an important role too.
The automatic advantage with dumbbells is that you’re always working the muscles in a unilateral way. For a more dominant side or arm to take over, there’s no place to hide – as can happen with barbell training and certain cable machine attachments. In the case of the triceps, each arm has to go through the same amount of work with dumbbells.
The dumbbell tricep moves explained below are some of my favourite exercises. They really zone in on the triceps, stretching and recruiting every muscle fibre for maximum growth and development.
Not only are they my favourite tricep dumbbell exercises, but they’re also exercises that are science-backed, with studies confirming excellent tricep activation. Let’s get to it.
4 Best Tricep Dumbbell Exercises
Close Grip Dumbbell Press
Exercise type: Compound
Reps: 6-8 reps, 3-4 working sets
When training most muscle groups, I like to start off with a compound move – once I’m fully warmed up, of course. It’s best to hit the heavy lifts at or near the start of your session when you are freshest.
Research tells us that the triceps are predominantly type 2 muscle fibre dominant. This means they respond best to heavy weight and low reps.
When training your triceps with dumbbells, the close grip dumbbell press is the best starting point.
This is very much like the standard dumbbell bench press for the chest. But by narrowing your grip from the standard bench press position to a much narrower pathway, you’ll move the emphasis away from the chest and onto the triceps.
Unlike the normal dumbbell bench press, with the close grip you’ll be holding the dumbbells in a neutral grip.
It’s also best to keep the bench flat, rather than inclined. Studies have shown a flat bench to elicit significantly more tricep activation when compared to an angled bench.
From the starting position with the dumbbells near your armpits, it’s a case of pressing the weight up until your arms are fully extended. This ensures you get a full range of motion to really work those tricep heads.
Incline Triceps Kickback
Exercise type: Isolation
Reps: 10-15 reps, 3-4 working sets
Resistance training studies tell us the incline triceps kickback is one of the most effective exercises for activating the back of your upper arm, particularly the long head triceps section.
It’s the combination of high elbow position and body angle that maximises the effect of the move. You’ll want to position the bench at an angle of 40-60o. The result of elbow position and angle is a much stronger contraction in the long head.
When performing the exercise, make sure you keep your arm close to your body too. At the top of the movement, your arm will be parallel to your body, creating a line from your shoulders down to your little finger. The top position is where the peak contraction occurs.
Although you can’t use heavy weights for the incline kickback, your triceps will get a good working over and it will give you a great pump!
Incline Dumbbell Overhead Tricep Extension
Exercise type: Isolation
Reps: 10-15 reps, 3-4 working sets
The incline dumbbell overhead extension is a great exercise to really target the long head triceps, which makes up the bulk of your triceps.
With the incline dumbbell overhead extension, you can use one or two dumbbells. I prefer two so you can train each arm unilaterally.
To perform the exercise, grab a light pair of dumbbells, lie back on an incline bench set to around 45o, and position your arms vertically above your head.
Now, move your shoulders and arms back slightly whilst still vertically above to create a wider angle from your body. This is the starting position. This extra shoulder flexion emphasises the stretch in your long head tricep even more. This is because your long head triceps attaches to your shoulder blade and becomes activated during this type of shoulder flexion.
Now, by just flexing your elbows, slowly lower the dumbbells behind your neck. Extend your elbows and bring the dumbbells back to the top position. By training in this full range of motion, you should feel a nice burn.
Exercise type: Isolation
Reps: 8-12 reps, 3 working sets
The skullcrusher is an old-school favourite with a bit of a hardcore name. But this exercise certainly isn’t just a good bro-science one, it’s a science-backed triceps burner.
The movement is similar to other exercises on this list. This is because almost all triceps exercises include elbow extension – this is their main anatomical function after all.
But with the dumbbell skullcrusher, we’re mixing up the angle once more.
I used to perform the triceps skullcrusher with an EZ bar, but it can be a bit awkward to get into position, so I’ve switched across to using a pair of dumbbells.
You only need a light pair of dumbbells for this. Grab them in a neutral grip in the same starting position as the close grip dumbbell press. Now, extend your arms straight up above your chest. This is the starting position.
Focusing on your triceps, flex your elbows and bring the dumbbells down towards your skull. Some people move their arms slightly further back, and drop the dumbbells behind their head, but I prefer going to the skull.
Once at the bottom, extend your elbows and bring the dumbbells back to the starting position.
Complete the reps and feel the burn!
Understanding Triceps Anatomy
To understand how to add genuine bulk to your triceps and work them best, we need to understand the anatomy of this important muscle group.
The main role of the triceps is to extend the elbow. The antagonistic muscle to the triceps is the biceps, whose role is to flex the elbow.
This tells us immediately that the triceps are in action during any pressing or pushing movements away from the body when the elbow is being extended.
The triceps brachii, as it’s officially named, consists of three heads, which is where the prefix ‘tri’ comes from.
Here’s a breakdown of the three triceps heads:
- Long head – The largest of the three heads. The long head starts at the elbow, traces the inside of your upper arm, and stretches up to the back of the shoulder blade.
- Lateral head – When viewed from the side, this is the most noticeable part, resembling a mini-shelf when well-defined. This gives good width to the triceps.
- Medial head – Even though it’s the least visible, it’s crucial for strength and the overall shape of the triceps.
By training and developing all three triceps heads, the hope is to see the coveted horseshoe come into shape. The extent to which the horseshoe is visible will depend on genetics and body fat percentages.
Sets and Reps: How To Train Triceps With Dumbbells
To grow your triceps, you’ll need to train them effectively. Knowing the anatomy (as discussed above) and muscle fibre types helps with this.
The triceps are largely composed of type 2 muscle fibres. Type 2 fibres are more receptive to heavy weight training. With this knowledge, we need to make sure we’re putting our triceps through some big load in the range of 6-10 reps.
As soon as I hear heavy weights, I immediately think about compound movements. This is why with the best tricep dumbbell exercise list above, we start off with a close grip dumbbell press performed with heavier weights for lower reps.
To train triceps effectively, we’re going to mix in heavy pressing compounds with isolation exercises to target the separate heads individually. With our isolation exercises, it’s best to drop the weight and increase reps in the range of 10-15. Our triceps still have type 1 muscle fibres, so this will ensure we’re hitting all fibre types.
A well-rounded dumbbell tricep session will incorporate plenty of different angles too. It’s beneficial to engage the muscle from multiple positions for full activation. This will make sure all tricep heads are stimulated within your workout.
Final Thoughts on the Best Tricep Dumbbell Exercises
Training your triceps with dumbbells is beneficial for both your muscle appearance and functional strength.
First and foremost, a good set of triceps contribute to well-sized, chiselled arms.
Beyond aesthetics, enhancing the overall strength of your triceps plays a crucial role in progressing in fundamental compound lifts, such as the bench press and shoulder press.
To train your triceps effectively with dumbbells, you’ll need to incorporate compound movements, isolations, and plenty of different angles.