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Cable Tricep Kickbacks: Exercise Overview and How-To Guide

cable tricep kickback exercise overview

Cable tricep kickbacks are performed for building the mass and strength of the triceps brachii in isolation. When programmed, this is usually done as a high volume accessory exercise performed unilaterally.

In particular, the cable tricep kickback is most effective as a tool for inducing hypertrophy of the lateral tricep head, especially for those that find the dumbbell kickback’s emphasis on concentric contraction excessive.

Cable Tricep Kickbacks at a Glance

Equipment Requirements

Cable Machine and single-hand attachment

Main Muscles Targeted

Triceps Brachii

Difficulty

Novice

Sets, Reps, and Load Recommendations

Moderate weight for 2-3 sets of 8-16 repetitions

How to Do Cable Tricep Kickbacks

Cable Tricep Kickback
  1. To begin, the lifter must adjust the cable pulley so that it is slightly above the level of the torso as the lifter hinges forwards, their other hand leaning on a nearby object for support. 
  2. Gripping the handle and drawing it down until the elbow and upper arm are around parallel with the sides of the torso, the lifter then contracts their triceps and extends at the elbow. 
  3. The upper arm and elbow must remain stationary as this occurs, with the sole moving portion being the forearm itself.
  4. Once the arm is fully extended at the elbow and the triceps are fully contracted, the lifter allows the resistance of the cable to slowly pull their forearm back the way it came – ensuring tension is maintained in their triceps as they do so.
  5. Elbow now bent with the forearm back in its original position, the repetition may then be considered complete.

Additional Tips

Although the cable tricep kickback suffers from far fewer of the disadvantages inherent to kickbacks, that doesn’t mean range of motion and a slow, controlled eccentric shouldn’t be prioritized. 

Aim to begin and end each repetition with the forearms at a 90 degree angle to the forearms at the least.

Another great tip to try out is experimenting with different attachments and grip orientations. Though the traditional kickback is done with a neutral grip, some lifters may prefer a pronated one – or even somewhere in between.

What Muscles are Worked by Cable Tricep Kickbacks?

Cable tricep kickbacks are an isolation exercise, meaning that only one muscle group is actually contracted dynamically. This muscle group, of course, is the triceps brachii located along the sides and back of the upper arm.

anatomy of triceps brachii

In particular is the lateral or side-facing head of the three triceps brachii heads. If the cable tricep kickback is performed with the standard stance and grip orientation, the lateral head will be emphasized to the greatest degree.

Common Cable Tricep Kickback Mistakes to Avoid

While considered quite a safe exercise, the cable tricep kickback is best performed without the following mistakes, as they can easily lead to injury or generally poor triceps development.

Poor Range of Motion

As mentioned previously, an insufficient range of motion can cause poor development of the triceps and issues relating to sub-optimal mobility, sticking points or repetitive strain of the elbows.

cable tricep kickback

Begin and end each repetition with the forearms at least 90 degrees to the elbow, and ensure the apex of the movement features full extension at the elbow joint.

Failing to Control Eccentric

To take full advantage of the benefits inherent to cable machine exercises, the tricep kickback should be performed with a slow and controlled eccentric – even slower than the concentric phase. 

Aim to stretch out the latter half of each repetition up to 2 seconds, if possible. This will ensure the triceps are worked to the fullest extent while in a lengthening position, further aiding with hypertrophy and stability development.

Detaching the Elbow

Throughout the entire set, the elbow should be kept close to the side of the torso for optimal triceps contraction and reduced strain on the joint itself. 

Detaching the elbow away from the side of the body can lead to a more askew angle of extension at the elbow – if not contraction of entirely unrelated muscles like the lats or posterior deltoids.

Lifters having difficulty keeping their upper arm or elbow stationary during cable tricep kickbacks can try performing the exercise with the pulley set closer to the ground, creating a more downward angle of resistance.

Incorrect Torso Angle

Another highly common mistake is lifters failing to adequately (or correctly) hinge at the hips, leading to a torso that is too upright or increased back strain as a result of poor spine curvature.

cable tricep kickback muscles recruited

Not only should the torso be bent forwards by pushing the hips back, but the angle to which the torso is oriented should be at a 45 degree angle at the least. Lower may make maintaining proper form too difficult, whereas a more upright angle will shorten range of motion.

Are Cable Tricep Kickbacks the Right Exercise for You?

Cable tricep kickbacks are an absolutely effective exercise for building triceps mass and strength. 

Outside of advanced levels of training or sports-specific needs, they are perfect as a finisher move in practically any upper body workout.

If the cable machine at your gym isn’t available to use, you can always try out the resistance band tricep kickback – of which is quite similar in terms of benefits.

References

1. Kholinne E, Zulkarnain RF, Sun YC, Lim S, Chun JM, Jeon IH. The different role of each head of the triceps brachii muscle in elbow extension. Acta Orthop Traumatol Turc. 2018 May;52(3):201-205. doi: 10.1016/j.aott.2018.02.005. Epub 2018 Mar 2. PMID: 29503079; PMCID: PMC6136322.