Written by Stephen E. Alway, Ph.D., FACSM
Anatomy of Dumbbell Kickbacks
How to do them right
Maybe the triceps muscle cannot best a shredded biceps containing a pipe-like cephalic vein coursing towards the forearm. Yet, even an arm with the biceps peak of a Colorado Rocky-top would somehow be lacking if it were under-girded by a triceps that is as flat as a west Kansas highway. While functionally the triceps helps generate full elbow extension on a multimillion-dollar ballplayer who knocks the ball out of the park or a lineman that knocks a defensive opponent on his backside, it is this same triceps that will stretch the tape measure past 20 inches on a great bodybuilder’s arm.
Sure the triceps are recruited with pushing activities,1 but some different approachesare needed to activate the hard-to-recruit fibers in this muscle. Dumbbell kickbacks will activate (albeit by an almost painful draft) the fibers that have been unwilling to be engaged in other triceps exercises.
Muscle Structure and Function
The long head of the triceps brachii (“inner head”) muscle begins on the scapula (shoulder blade) just inferior to (below) the head of the humerus bone at the shoulder joint.2 The muscle belly of the long head of the triceps gradually forms the triceps tendon that crosses the elbow joint posteriorly and attaches on the ulna bone near the elbow.2
Dumbbell Triceps Kickbacks
Dumbbell kickbacks activate all three heads of the triceps but preferentially recruits the lateral head of the triceps brachii, in part because the arm is pulled into extension.3
1)Grab a dumbbell in your right hand. Lean forward and place your left hand (and if you have lower back problems, your left knee) on a flat bench for support. Your knees should be slightly bent to reduce the risk of back strain.
2)Keep your back straight and look up to make sure it stays straight and tight. Bring the upper arm holding the dumbbell up to the side of your rib cage so that it is parallel to the floor and in line with your spine. Your elbow should be pointing directly backwards. The forearm should be at 90 degrees to the upper arm and hanging towards the floor.
3)Keep your upper arm close to your body and push the dumbbell back and up by extending (straightening) the elbow joint.
4)Stop the dumbbell just short of having your elbow locked out straight. Without moving the elbow or arm, laterally flex the wrist so that the end of the dumbbell closest to your forearm moves closer to your wrist. Pause for a count of one at the top position (this should really bite into the deepest fibers of the triceps).4 Be sure to keep control of the weight, and keep your arm in the correct positions (this is not easy to do when you start to get tired).
5) Slowly reverse the movement by moving the wrist back to a neutral position, then flexing the elbow as the dumbbell is lowered to the starting position over a count of three.
6)Continue into the next repetition by straightening the elbow without pausing and repeat until your set is done. Use a medium-light weight but try to get through 10-12 repetitions.
7) Take a short break, then switch the dumbbell to the left arm, and position yourself with the right knee if needed, and the hand on the bench for support.
It is important to keep your upper arm and elbow close to your rib cage. The only movement should be from the elbow and wrist, but not the shoulder. To help you do the exercise properly, you can use the mirror to see that your elbow is stationary against your side and the extension of the elbow is complete. You should also be careful to use your triceps muscles to straighten your elbow. At all costs, you must avoid jerking the weight upwards with body momentum.
You should avoid forcibly and rapidly locking the elbow joint, as this could irritate the bursa in the elbow joint and over time, this could become inflamed and painful. Rather, it is preferable to stop the extension phase of the lift just short of fully locking out your elbow joint because this will ensure that you have placed constant tension on the triceps muscle throughout the entire set, and it will minimize any risk of bursa injury in your elbow.
It is not necessary to hoist super heavy weights for this exercise and in fact, you will find that medium light weights are best for maintaining exercise form and maintaining constant tension in triceps muscle throughout the set. The constant tension and the extra lateral wrist flexion at the end of the movement make it tough to grind out the reps, but this is needed if you truly want to awaken any sleeping fibers in your triceps. Dumbbell kickbacks have the potential to reach the deepest fibers in the triceps and turn a flat muscle into a thicker, fatigue-resistant,5cut-to-ribbons landscape through an eruption of striations across the back of your arms.