Head to Head: Barbell vs Dumbbell Tricep Extension

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Last updated on February 7, 2023

The triceps are a three headed muscle group that has one sole function; to straighten the arm. To build the triceps, then, you have to do exercises that follow that biomechanical movement. That means doing a version of the tricep extension. This can be accomplished with either a barbell or a dumbbell. But which is better?

In this article we compare the barbell and the dumbbell version of the tricep extension to help you decide which one to include in your arm workout. We also consider alternative triceps exercises.

The Overhead Triceps Extension

The overhead tricep extension is done by extending your arms overhead and your elbows in at the side. This is not the most natural or convenient way to work the triceps but overhead extensions became popular in the belief that extending your arm overhead would allow you to focus on the long head of the tricep. This is based on the false assumption that pre-stretching a muscle will allow you to better develop strength and muscle mass. Yet, there is absolutely no evidence to support this contention.


Later in this article, we will discuss the best way to perform triceps extensions. For now, though let’s consider whether it is better to do any version of it with a barbell or a dumbbell.

The Barbell Triceps Extension

When you perform the triceps extension with a barbell, you need to firstly get the bar into the starting position. You can do the overhead triceps extension either seated or standing. When you do it seated you will have more control. Sit with the bar resting on your thighs and then clean it overhead. Your hands should be about six inches apart and your elbows should push in toward your head. Keep your upper arms perpendicular to the floor as you bend at the elbow to lower the bar as far as you can behind your head. Now, push through the triceps to return to the start position.


You will probably find this exercise uncomfortable to do with a barbell. It puts your shoulder joint in an unnatural position and then, because you are holding one bar with both arms, will lock you into that position. This will give you a detrimental shoulder workout as it hits your triceps.  It also locks your wrists into an unnatural position, which can result in long term damage to the wrist flexors.


The Dumbbell Triceps Extension

Dumbbell tricep extensions can be done with a single dumbbell held with both hands at the top of the base or with a separate dumbbell in each hand. We recommend having a separate weight in each hand. Doing so overcomes some of the problems associated with the barbell version. Because you are holding individual weights, you are not locked into a shoulder position. This provides you with the ability to move your shoulder joint more freely than if you were using a barbell.


Using dumbbells exercises also puts your wrists in a more natural position. You will be able to extend down lower than if you are holding a barbell. With dumbbells, you will also be able to keep your elbows in closer to your head.


Another advantage of using individual dumbbells rather than a single dumbbell or barbell is that you are able to work each side of the body unilaterally. Most of us have one side that is stronger than the other. When we use a barbell, we will tend to use the stronger side to compensate for the weaker side. This will only make the strength imbalance worse. However, when you use individual dumbbells, each side of the muscle is forced to carry its own load. This will, eventually, lead to a balancing of the strength between the two sides.


Using dumbbells also allows for a fuller range of motion.

Which Form of the Triceps Extension is Best?

The best exercise for the triceps is the pushdown using a cable set up that allows you to be facing away from the machine. That will provide you with early phase loading, keeps you elbows in their natural and strongest position and puts your body in its strongest alignment.


The second best exercise for your triceps is the triceps extension. However, the overhead version is not the best option. As we have mentioned, there is no evidence that a pre-stretched overhead position will better work the long head of the triceps. So there is no reason to compromise the shoulders and wrists while putting yourself through an unnatural movement.


A far better way to do the lying tricep extensions is to perform it on a decline bench. Having the weight directly above your chest is far more natural, putting both your shoulder and wrist joints in a far more favorable position. This position also puts your upper arm closer to your torso than the overhead version, which will allow you to far more effectively squeeze the triceps.


By doing the triceps extension on a decline bench that is set to about 40 degrees you will be in the most natural position to extend and flex your triceps. Perform the exercise with dumbbells bringing them down to a position above your forehead. Make sure that your upper arms do not move as you do this. Then push directly back to the start position but stopping just short of locking out the triceps in the top position.


The Best Rep System to Work the Triceps

In order to work all of the muscle fibers of your triceps muscles and develop total strength, you need to perform a variety of rep ranges. We recommend starting with a light weight that will allow you 30 reps and then working down to a heavy set of 6 reps as follows:


  • Set One – 30 reps
  • Set Two – 20 reps
  • Set Three – 15 reps
  • Set Four – 10 rep
  • Set Five – 8 reps
  • Set Six – 6 reps


Pair this with the biceps curl using an EZ curl bar for a great upper arm workout.


When it comes to the question of using a barbell or dumbbells when performing the triceps extension, there is no question; the dumbbell version is the best way to go. That is because it is more natural, does not compromise your shoulders and is easier on the wrists, provides for a fuller range of motion and allows you to work each side of the triceps muscles.


The best way to do the dumbbell triceps extension is lying down on a 40 degree decline bench. Follow out workout tips and give it a try, using the rep and set range described above and you will experience a burn and growth in your triceps like nothing you have seen before!


All our articles are written by certified trainers to provide you with great online coaching, please contact us if you want more qualified advice. We have articles to cover your fitness objectives from muscle growth to losing fat including how to articles (for example how to do military presses, the barbell bench press, the overhead press and the dumbbell pullover), to articles that compare exercises (for example the flat bench press vs incline chest press). Enjoy !

Steve Theunissen has qualified from the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) and is a certified Personal Trainer and Nutritionist. He has over 30 years experience in fitness and nutrition and currently working with famous fitness professionals. He is currently living in New Zealand with is wife and daughter.

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