Dumbbell kickbacks are an old-school bodybuilding exercise that’s perhaps lost some of its allure in recent years.
These days, we can pick from numerous types of training equipment for our tricep training, which has made more basic exercises less interesting.
But, as you’ll see in just a bit, the dumbbell kickback is a valuable exercise that still has a place in good workout programs. Let’s explore what makes the activity good.
Table of Contents
What Are Dumbbell Kickbacks?
Dumbbell kickbacks are a beginner-friendly isolation exercise that targets the triceps. The objective is to bend over, as you would for a barbell row, hold a dumbbell in each hand, and repeatedly extend your arms while keeping your elbows to your sides.
Despite its simplicity, the movement effectively trains the triceps through a significant range of motion and allows for decent overload in the long run. We’ll talk about that below.
According to research, dumbbell kickbacks primarily target the lateral deltoid head, which makes up the outer portion of the muscle and contributes to the ‘horseshoe’ appearance bodybuilders and enthusiasts want. (1)
That said, the long and medial tricep heads also receive a fair amount of stimulation, given their role in tricep extension.
Primary Muscles Worked 💪
- Triceps – All (3) Heads
Secondary Muscles Worked 💪
How to Perform Dumbbell Kickbacks (Step-By-Step)
Things to keep in mind:
- Keep your back straight
- Position your elbows to your sides
- Do reps slowly and with great control
Performing Dumbbell Kickbacks
- Grab a pair of dumbbells and stand tall.
- Lean your torso forward and push your butt back, as you would during a Romanian deadlift. The goal is to maintain a neutral spine; lower back rounding could lead to discomfort or aggravate an old injury.
- Lift your elbows at your sides, bring your shoulders back, take a deep breath, and engage your abs.
- Slowly extend your arms and squeeze your triceps. To increase tricep activation, elevate your arms slightly by moving your arms at the shoulder joints. Doing so will shorten the triceps even more, leading to a stronger contraction.
- Slowly bend your arms while keeping your elbows at your sides and exhale.
- Take another breath and repeat.
The Benefits of Dumbbell Kickbacks
The primary benefit of dumbbell kickbacks is that the activity doesn’t require any special equipment––all you need is a pair of dumbbells (or a single dumbbell, if that’s all you have).
You can do the exercise at home and train your triceps at the gym without having to wait for cable machines to free up. This can be particularly beneficial when working out in a small gym.
Additionally, the movement is simple to learn. Trainees generally don’t need more than a few sets to master the activity. Plus, even if some technique breakdown occurs, the injury risk is negligible because trainees can’t use that much weight.
That said, despite the simplicity, the movement is quite effective and could work quite well as part of a structured workout program. Trainees can also do it as part of a superset (where the kickback is paired with another movement, typically done back-to-back) or drop set.
Another benefit is that there are plenty of tweaks and variations trainees can try. Let’s explore some of them now.
Tweaks and Variations of the Dumbbell Kickback
1. Cable Kickback
Set the cable pulley to a low position, select the load, grab the round plastic piece at the end of the cable, set yourself in position, and train your arms one at a time.
Using a cable is a nice way to provide constant tension for your muscles.
2. Band Kickback
Secure a resistance band in a low position (e.g., by using a door anchor at home) and do the exercise like on a cable machine.
Bands lengthen and provide more tension at the peak of each repetition, which can improve muscle activation.
3. One-Arm Dumbbell Kickback
Instead of training both arms simultaneously, grab a single dumbbell and train one arm at a time. Doing so can be a nice way to monitor for side-to-side muscle imbalances and focus on each tricep individually, improving the mind-muscle connection.
Safety Tips and Final Considerations
As an isolation exercise, dumbbell kickbacks are pretty safe. The motion is controlled, and trainees can’t use that much weight, which means the injury risk is quite low.
That said, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, warm up well before training and pay special attention to your shoulders and elbows. Warm up these joints through some dynamic stretching and lighter sets for fewer reps. (2)
Second, maintain a neutral spine throughout each set. Rounding the lower back isn’t necessarily dangerous during this exercise, but it could strain the area and aggravate an old injury.
Finally, do each repetition slowly and with great body control. Avoid swinging the weight back and forth, as that can put unnecessary stress on your elbows, leading to nagging aches. Slowly extend your arms, pause briefly, and lower the dumbbells as you exhale.
Additional Triceps Exercises
And if you’re looking to work the lateral head of the 3-headed triceps muscle, consider adding diamond push-ups to triceps workout. The diamond push-up, also known as the triceps push-up, is one of the best exercises to work the lateral head.
- WebMD. (n.d.-c). How to tone and strengthen the arms with triceps kickbacks. WebMD.
- Elizabeth Quinn, M. S. (2020, March 13). Prevent injuries. Verywell Fit.