Jessica Matthews by Jessica Matthews

Sporting strong, well-defined arms is a fitness aspiration of many of us, male and female alike. To effectively target the triceps—the muscles in the back of the upper arms—many people find themselves torn between two common moves: body-weight bench dips and dumbbell triceps kickbacks. To get insight on both of these exercises and to evaluate the benefits and the potential risks of each move, four top personal trainers share what you should consider before making your exercise selection.

Body-weight Bench Dips

A no-equipment exercise that can be done just about anytime, anywhere—from the edge of your living room sofa to the bench at the gym—body-weight bench dips offer many benefits. An ACE research study found this exercise to be one of the most effective moves for eliciting a high level of muscle activity in the triceps, but that’s not the only muscle it challenges. Don Bahneman, M.S., C.P.T., C.S.C.S., R.K.C., general manager at VIDA Fitness Renaissance in Washington, D.C., explains that this closed-chain movement also provides stimulus to many synergistic muscles, including the pectoralis major, trapezius and serratus anterior.

However, this functional exercise, which mimics pushing movements we do in everyday life—like lifting ourselves out of a chair—does come with some considerations, shares Chris McGrath, M.S., ACE Senior Fitness Consultant and founder of Movement First in NYC.  “The position of the hands and the motion in the arms makes bench dips a shoulder and triceps exercise; unfortunately, the shoulder position, especially with the hands propped behind the back, can put a great deal of stress on the anterior shoulder—the most vulnerable and most often injured part of the shoulder.”  

The movement itself increases shear forces in the shoulder joint and can add the potential for impingement of nerve endings. Because it requires both shoulder flexibility as well as stability within the scapulothoracic region to be performed safely and effectively, McGrath adds that those with a history of shoulder issues as well as those with poor shoulder flexibility proceed with caution if considering adding body-weight bench dips to their workout routine. Taking time to first learn shoulder stabilization techniques can provide the foundation needed to execute this movement with proper form.

Dumbbell Triceps Kickbacks

Dumbbell Triceps Kickbacks

A commonly performed exercise that also ranked as one of the top three most effective moves based on the findings of the study, triceps kickbacks simply require a pair of dumbbells. It’s also somewhat less challenging exercise in terms of shoulder and core stabilization, making it a good choice for learning how to target the triceps, says Sabrena Merrill, M.S., exercise scientist and ACE spokesperson, based in Kansas City, Mo. However, as is the case with dips, good form is imperative for reaping the benefits that this single joint exercise provides, and the positioning of the body needed for this move may prove challenging for some. “Many people have limited shoulder range of motion, especially if they work at a computer, so holding the shoulders at the end ranges of extension as required for the kickback can present a problem,” explains Merrill. McGrath adds that many exercisers fail to lift their arm high enough during this movement (the upper arm should be parallel with the floor), and many have the tendency to round the back even though the spine should remain extended. “For bent-over kickbacks, practice the hip hinge to ensure good posture. If you find that you struggle to get in a good position, you may not be ready for this exercise,” suggests McGrath.

Things to Keep in Mind

Overall, says Merrill, both exercises offer a great deal of benefits to those who have healthy, pain-free shoulders with good mobility. If you are curious how your shoulder flexibility fairs, try this simple test from fitness expert Keli Roberts, ACE-certified Personal Trainer and owner of Keli’s Real Fitness. Stand in front of a mirror facing forward and hold your arms out to your sides. Extend one arm overhead and then bend the elbow, bringing the hand behind the shoulder blades. With the other arm bring the opposite hand up the back toward the shoulder blades. If the hands are positioned more than a hands-distance apart, Roberts recommends reconsidering both of these moves. Other upper-body exercises that can be explored include overhead triceps extension, says Merrill, because it allows all three heads of the triceps muscle to be targeted. “Overhead exercises place the long head of the triceps in a more mechanically advantageous position; however, these exercises also do require a healthy, mobile shoulder.”

If choosing to break a sweat in the gym, Bahneman suggests considering cable triceps extensions and lying triceps extensions—commonly known as skull crushers—as these movements can allow for protection against the momentum factor of an improperly performed body-weight dip or kickback. Also keep in mind that any type of pushing exercise—such as push-ups and bench presses—will work the triceps. “Placing more focus on pushing movements not only allows you to use your triceps, but it will also positively affect more muscle groups, burn more calories and lead to better overall functional strength and development,” says McGrath, who recommends adding a few triceps-specific exercises toward the end of your sweat session to round out your workout.