The overhead triceps extension is an isolation exercise that trains your triceps.
It’s held in high regard by bodybuilders and strength athletes because it’s particularly effective at training the long head of the triceps—the meatiest muscle on the back of your upper arm that balances your aesthetics and helps you press heavy weights.
In this article, you’ll learn what the overhead triceps extension is, why it’s beneficial, how to perform it with proper form, the best overhead triceps extension alternatives, and more.
The overhead triceps extension (sometimes referred to as the seated overhead triceps extension or seated triceps press) is a triceps exercise that involves holding a dumbbell above your head with your arms outstretched, then lowering the dumbbell behind your head by bending your elbows.
The overhead triceps extension is an isolation exercise, which means it only trains one muscle group (the triceps). This differs from compound exercises like the bench press, overhead press, and dip, which train the triceps, but also train other muscle groups such as the pecs and shoulders.
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The triceps has three heads: The lateral head, medial head, and long head. The long head is the largest of the three and thus contributes most to the overall size of your triceps.
Unlike most compound exercises that train the triceps, the overhead triceps extension emphasizes the long head over the medial and lateral heads. This means it’s particularly well suited to helping you add size to your upper arms.
(Notice I said “emphasize” and not “isolate.” That’s because although the overhead triceps extension trains the long head more than most other triceps exercises, it also trains the medial and lateral heads to a high degree, too.)
Another benefit of the overhead triceps extension is that it places the arms overhead, which fully stretches the triceps. This is important because research shows that training a muscle in a stretched position is generally better for muscle growth.
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The overhead triceps extension trains all three heads of the triceps. Here’s how they look when viewed from behind:
The best way to learn how to do the overhead triceps extension is to split the exercise into three parts: set up, descend, extend.
Sit up straight on a flat bench or with your back pressed against an upright bench with a low backrest. Grip one end of a dumbbell using both hands and lift it overhead so that your arms are straight. Maneuver your palms so that they’re flat against the end of the dumbbell and facing toward the ceiling.
While keeping your upper arms as close to perpendicular to the floor as possible, lower the dumbbell behind your head by bending your elbows. Go as far as your flexibility allows or until you feel a deep stretch in your triceps.
Push the dumbbell toward the ceiling by straightening your elbows and return to the starting position. This is a mirror image of what you did during the descent.
Try to minimize your upper-arm movement as you lift the weight, as shifting your arms increases the chances of knocking your noggin with the dumbbell.
Here’s how it should look when you put it all together:
The single-arm overhead triceps extension (or one-arm triceps extension) is the same as the regular triceps extension, except instead of training your arms bilaterally (both together), you train each unilaterally (one at a time).
This is beneficial because it . . .
- May enable you to lift more total weight than you can with some bilateral exercises, which may help you gain more muscle over time
- Helps you develop a greater mind-muscle connection with your triceps, because you only need to focus on one side of your body at a time
- Helps you correct muscle imbalances, because both sides of your body are forced to lift the same amount of weight (one side can’t “take over” from the other)
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The main benefit of the cable overhead triceps extension is that by using a cable, there’s constant tension on your triceps throughout each rep. This taxes your triceps slightly differently to the dumbbell overhead triceps extension.
To perform the cable overhead triceps extension, adjust the pulley on a cable machine to chest height and attach the rope handle. Grip one end of the rope in each hand and step away from the cable machine so there’s tension in the cable, then turn your back to the pulley, bringing your hands to either side of your head. Lean forward slightly and stagger your stance for added stability. Press the weight above your head by extending your elbows, then lower the weight and return to the starting position.
The band overhead triceps extension is a good variation if you like to work out at home or while traveling and have limited space and equipment.
However, because a resistance band offers almost no resistance when it’s slack, there’s little tension on your triceps when they’re stretched. This makes the band overhead triceps extension less effective for building muscle than the cable or dumbbell overhead triceps extension, which is why you should only use it when you don’t have access to gym equipment.
To perform the band overhead triceps extension, place your left foot on an exercise band so that it lies under the middle of your foot. Bend over and grab the loose end of the exercise band in your left hand and lift it so that your hand is behind your head and your upper arm is beside your left ear, perpendicular to the floor. Press the band above your head by extending your elbow, then lower your hand and return to the starting position. Once you’ve completed the desired number of reps, switch sides and repeat the process with your right arm.
+ Scientific References
- Maeo, S., Wu, Y., Huang, M., Sakurai, H., Kusagawa, Y., Sugiyama, T., Kanehisa, H., & Isaka, T. (2022). Triceps brachii hypertrophy is substantially greater after elbow extension training performed in the overhead versus neutral arm position. Https://Doi.Org/10.1080/17461391.2022.2100279, 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1080/17461391.2022.2100279
- Landin, D., & Thompson, M. (2011). The shoulder extension function of the triceps brachii. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology, 21(1), 161–165. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.JELEKIN.2010.09.005
- Oranchuk, D. J., Storey, A. G., Nelson, A. R., & Cronin, J. B. (2019). Isometric training and long-term adaptations: Effects of muscle length, intensity, and intent: A systematic review. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 29(4), 484–503. https://doi.org/10.1111/SMS.13375
- Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857–2872. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0B013E3181E840F3
- Mcmahon, G., Morse, C. I., Burden, A., Winwood, K., & Onambélé, G. L. (2014). Muscular adaptations and insulin-like growth factor-1 responses to resistance training are stretch-mediated. Muscle & Nerve, 49(1), 108–119. https://doi.org/10.1002/MUS.23884
- Jakobi, J. M., & Chilibeck, P. D. (2001). Bilateral and unilateral contractions: possible differences in maximal voluntary force. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology = Revue Canadienne de Physiologie Appliquee, 26(1), 12–33. https://doi.org/10.1139/H01-002
- Janzen, C. L., Chilibeck, P. D., & Davison, K. S. (2006). The effect of unilateral and bilateral strength training on the bilateral deficit and lean tissue mass in post-menopausal women. European Journal of Applied Physiology 2006 97:3, 97(3), 253–260. https://doi.org/10.1007/S00421-006-0165-1
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