You can build big muscles with small movements. That’s a fact. While large, compound lifts should be your bread and butter as a bodybuilder, carving out the finest details of your physique requires equally-precise exercise choices.
If you’ve packed your arm workouts with exercises like dips, pressdowns, or heavy presses, you probably have well-developed triceps already. But are you neglecting your overhead game and missing out on gains as a result?
- How to Do the Single-Arm Overhead Triceps Extension
- Single-Arm Overhead Triceps Extension Sets and Reps
- Common Single-Arm Overhead Triceps Extension Mistakes
- Single-Arm Overhead Triceps Extension Variations
- Single-Arm Overhead Triceps Extension Alternatives
- Muscles Worked by the Single-Arm Overhead Triceps Extension
- Benefits of the Single-Arm Overhead Triceps Extension
- Who Should Do the Single-Arm Overhead Triceps Extension
- Frequently Asked Questions
You can use a variety of different implements for the single-arm triceps extension, but your best bet is probably to head for the cable station. Cables provide consistent tension to the muscle and allow you to customize your setup. Here’s how you should do your overhead triceps extensions with a cable.
Step 1 — Get Set Up
Set an adjustable cable station so the pulley is at around waist height. You can use a handle attachment, a single-arm rope, or grab onto the cable fixture itself. From here, grab the cable with your working arm and twist your body around.
You should be standing a foot or two away from the cable, facing away, with your working arm pulled behind your head as though you were unsheathing a sword. You should feel a substantial stretch in your triceps here.
Coach’s Tip: In order to engage the target muscle, your upper arm should be parallel to your torso.
Step 2 — Extend and Squeeze
Once you’ve adjusted yourself into a comfortable starting position, complete the overhead single-arm extension by squeezing your triceps to straighten your arm. Pause for a beat at the top with your elbow straight, and then slowly allow the cable to pull your forearm back to the starting position.
Coach’s Tip: Avoid moving your upper arm at any point during the exercise.
Like with any exercise, how you program the single-arm overhead extension will affect the results you glean from it. An exercise like this isn’t the most versatile out there from a programming perspective, but you can try these two set and rep schemes for yourself to see:
- For Muscle Growth: Go for 2 or 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps with a strong mind-muscle connection.
- To Pump Up: Do 5 sets of 10 reps with only 30 seconds of rest between sets.
Despite being a single-joint isolation movement, there are plenty of opportunities to mess up the single-arm overhead triceps extension. To get the most value out of each and every rep you perform, make sure you’re steering clear of these common errors.
Lifting Too Heavy
You’d be wise to leave your ego behind during this exercise. You can certainly load up heavy weights and go to town on certain triceps movements, but when it comes to the single-arm overhead extension, less is more.
You’d be surprised at how light you can go and still torch every single fiber in your triceps. Moreover, the position of your upper arm isn’t the most stable, and a heavy weight may distract you from contracting your triceps at the expense of your shoulders. Start lighter than you think you need and build up conservatively.
Moving Your Upper Arm
The single-arm overhead triceps extension is potent for muscle growth because of the posture you take during your set. Placing your shoulder into so much flexion (as in, holding your arm up behind your head) also stretches the triceps muscle. Applying load to that stretched position is key for quality hypertrophy.
So, if your upper arm moves during the set, you’re liable to lose some of that muscular tension along the way. It won’t diminish the value of the exercise altogether, but it will dampen your results to some degree. Focus hard on keeping your upper arm very still the whole time.
There’s more than one way to set up for the single-arm overhead extension if you use a cable tree, true enough. However, if you don’t set the cable fixture at the proper height, you won’t get a good contraction in your triceps.
It may take some trial and error, but you should make sure you check the following boxes before you perform your set:
- You can get your upper arm comfortably up and back, parallel with your torso.
- You feel a strong stretch in your triceps and lats in the starting position.
- You have stable footing and a secure core brace to prevent any unwanted movement.
The single-arm overhead triceps extension is, basically, a variation in and of itself. It’s derivative of the overhead triceps extension that you’d typically do bilaterally (with both arms at once). That said, the equipment you choose to work with does affect how you perform the movement and what benefits you can expect.
With a Dumbbell
If you opt to do the single-arm overhead triceps extension with dumbbells, you’ll alter the resistance curve of the exercise, which may be preferable in some cases.
Cables provide consistent mechanical tension to the target muscle, but free weights like dumbbells must obey the forces of gravity. As such, when you work with dumbbells, you’ll find that the movement is difficult in the middle of the range of motion and easy at the start and end.
With a Resistance Band
Resistance bands don’t offer as much hypertrophic potential as other implements, but that doesn’t make them useless. Not only do bands provide a unique form of tension to your triceps, they also make for an awesome warm-up tool.
Bands apply more and more tension to your triceps as you progress through the range of motion of the single-arm overhead extension. This can help you cue yourself to extend your elbows forcefully, which may carry over to heavy presses or other compound movements.
The single-arm overhead triceps extension provides a phenomenal arm-building stimulus, but it isn’t the only way to load up your guns with new muscle tissue. Any good triceps training routine should have at least one overhead movement; you can try any of these alternatives and get comparable results.
Single-Arm Skull Crusher
If your gym is packed to the brim and the cable stations are all occupied, you might want to stick to the free weights for your triceps training. An exercise like the single-arm skull crusher can do the trick in a pinch.
This movement closely mimics the single-arm overhead triceps extension that you’d normally perform with cables. It also happens to be pretty grab-and-go; all you need is a dumbbell and a flat bench to lie on.
Deficit Handstand Push-Up
This one may seem a bit “out there,” but the deficit handstand push-up does offer an opportunity to diversify how you train your arms. Specifically, an exercise like this not only thrashes your triceps, but helps you develop other valuable athletic qualities like balance and coordination.
During a handstand, you place your shoulder into the same sort of flexion that activates your triceps during an overhead extension. The deficit (as in, placing your hands on two elevated surfaces to give your head more room to travel through space) is what provides your triceps with sufficient range of motion.
This exercise isn’t a perfect replacement for the single-arm overhead triceps extension, but if you wanted to build up your gymnastics skills and train your arms at the same time, it’s a great starting point.
The French press isn’t a coffee maker (though it certainly sounds like one) — it’s a triceps-building exercise that hits all three heads of the muscle. Think of, basically, combining a close-grip press with a standard skull crusher.
The first half of the French press, when you allow the resistance to drift behind your head, will get the long head of your triceps into the game. Then, you follow it up with a standard press at the end to emphasize the rest of the muscle.
Spoiler alert: The single-arm overhead triceps extension is a triceps exercise. However, understanding the mechanics of the movement itself (as well as how your triceps respond to it) might motivate you to push a bit harder during your sets.
Your triceps, named for their three heads that insert on different parts of different bones, sit on the back of your upper arm. They’re the primary antagonist of the biceps brachii; your biceps bend your elbow, and your triceps straighten it back out again.
Any time you perform a bench press, push-up, dip, or any other movement that requires you to straighten your arm against resistance, you train your triceps. However, the angle of your arm can drastically affect which head of the triceps performs the most work.
The Long Head
The long head of the triceps actually makes up the bulk of the muscle itself. However, you can’t adequately target your triceps’ long head without performing overhead movements in most cases.
This is because that portion of the triceps attaches to your scapula as well. Therefore, the angle of your shoulder will apply more (or less) stretch to the long head of the triceps. (1) You’ll even feel your long head working on non-triceps exercises that require shoulder extension as well, such as straight-arm pulldowns or dumbbell pullovers.
The single-arm overhead extension may be an isolation exercise for your triceps, but there’s still some tension and load placed upon your shoulder. As such, the small muscles that control and stabilize your scapula (that’s your shoulder blade) must contract isometrically to help you perform the movement.
This doesn’t mean that the overhead extension will grow your upper back, but you do get a small amount of “free” stability training along the way.
Niche isolation exercises like the single-arm overhead triceps extension are exceptional at meeting one or two specific needs. In this case, you can use this exercise to blow up your arms without having to sling around heavy weights. However, there are a few other exclusive benefits on offer as well.
Targeted Muscle Growth
Certain studies have shown that overhead triceps exercises — when your shoulder is held in a flexed position beside your head rather than tucked against your torso — may build “substantially” more muscle. (2)
This may be due to the fact that your long head has better leverage to contract in this position, while the other two heads of your triceps can still contribute to elbow extension just fine. Your long head is somewhat pushed to the sidelines during arm-down triceps extensions, at least insofar as muscular activation goes.
Helps Correct Imbalances
Any single-arm (or single-leg) exercise has the potential to help you identify, attack, and remedy muscular imbalances. Bilateral, or two-limbed, movements can mask those imbalances by enabling your stronger side to compensate for weaknesses elsewhere.
Between using only one arm and the setup of the exercise itself, the single-arm overhead triceps exercise should put any discrepancies in triceps strength on full display almost immediately. If you notice you can’t use the same weight with both arms, you might have a problem to tackle.
Easy to Perform
The setup is the most intricate part of the single-arm overhead triceps extension. Once you get yourself in a good position, the movement itself is really quite simple: Keep your upper arm still and extend your elbow.
As such, the learning curve for this lift is quite front-loaded. Get the setup down pat and you can perform this movement any time with relative ease. Bear in mind that single-arm lifts do take more overall time to complete than if you worked bilaterally.
If you’re after supreme, high-quality muscle growth — or just want your arms to be a bit bigger and stronger — the single-arm overhead triceps extension is for you. Here’s why.
A proper resistance training program should rely mainly on multi-joint compound exercises. These movements engage a lot of muscle tissue at once and teach you how to use your body as a synchronized unit.
However, that doesn’t mean you need to shy away from the “small” exercises, either. Isolation movements like the single-arm extension teach you how to activate individual muscles and can bring up your weak points.
For the muscle-minded, movements like the overhead triceps extension are invaluable. Building a complete physique means bringing up every single muscle in your body. You need to look beyond push-ups and dips if you want triceps that really pop.
Overhead exercises are your best bet for hitting the long head of your triceps, so the single-arm overhead extension should probably be a mainstay movement during your arm workouts.
There’s something to be said for incorporating a few well-crafted “mirror muscle” movements if you train for strength. If you’re a powerlifter, strongman, or weightlifter, your triceps are an invaluable assistive tissue that help you push heavy weights.
You can use the single-arm overhead triceps extension as an accessory movement to shore up weaknesses in your arms, or as part of a warm-up circuit before a heavy pressing session.
Reach for Those Gains
Big things have small beginnings. This is doubly true for your muscular potential. If you want to build arms that turn heads and push crazy weight, you need to leave your ego at the door and be willing to work with isolation exercises like the single-arm overhead triceps extension.
Still scratching your head about the single-arm overhead triceps extension? These are some common questions about the exercise, plus the answers you seek.
Is the single-arm overhead triceps extension bad for my shoulders?
Not at all! There’s nothing intrinsically dangerous about holding your arm above your head unless your physician or physical therapist advises against loading that range of motion. Your upper back muscles contract to stabilize your shoulder blade so you can focus on training your triceps.
When should I use the single-arm overhead triceps extension instead of two arms?
You might want to work with one arm at a time if you have an imbalance between the strength or size of your triceps muscles. Using one arm also helps you focus on developing a good mind-muscle connection with the target tissue. If you have the extra time to spare, there aren’t any downsides to working your triceps unilaterally.
- Kholinne, E., Zulkarnain, R. F., Sun, Y. C., Lim, S., Chun, J. M., & Jeon, I. H. (2018). The different role of each head of the triceps brachii muscle in elbow extension. Acta orthopaedica et traumatologica turcica, 52(3), 201–205.
- 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. European journal of sport science, 1–11. Advance online publication.
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