The best tricep exercises with dumbbells as recommended by a gym owner/PT

The 5 best exercises for building bigger arms, as recommended by the founder of Top Fitness, Tom Opper

Young muscular man lifting up dumbbells at the gym
(Image credit: Getty Images)

When looking to increase muscle mass in the upper body, most people put emphasis on the bicep, performing hundreds of bicep curls in the hope to add volume and definition. That's not the right approach; you need the best tricep exercises with dumbbells to really make those arms pop.

What many people don’t realise is that - according to the journal of biomechanics - the tricep actually accounts for around 55% of upper arm muscle mass, while the biceps takes up about 30%.

And in case you were wondering, you don’t need a fully equipped gym to really put your triceps through their paces. You can perform most arm-building exercises with just one dumbbell. If you're working out at home, we recommend using adjustable dumbbells; they are convenient and easy to use.

So which exercises are best when it comes to specifically work out the tricep muscle? We’ve enlisted the help of fitness expert, personal trainer and founder of Top Fitness, Tom Opper, to give us a rundown of the best dumbbell moves for growing those guns.

Want to know more about dumbbell workouts? Check out the best full-body dumbbell workout and the best workout for fat loss that uses dumbbells only! Or you can try this 30-minute drill that's the best workout for weight loss at home; no equipment required!

What exactly is the tricep?

Before we go into how to best exert your triceps to increase both size and strength, let’s break down the composition of the muscle so you can best understand how and why certain exercises work. Afterall, knowledge is the key to success.

The tricep is the muscle that is located between the humerus and the ulna at the elbow and works to extend or straighten the arm. It’s split into three sections, which are often referred to as tricep “heads”.

These consist of a lateral head (the medium-sized part), the long head (the largest part) and a medial head (the smallest part). To get the most out of your tricep workouts, it is best to choose exercises that hit all three of these areas. And because the tricep is a pulling muscle, push exercises are predominantly best for working them. 

The rewards you can reap from consistently training the biceps in this way include enhanced upper body performance, better shoulder stability to decrease your chance of injury, and (perhaps the most desirable) bigger, more defined-looking arms.

The best tricep exercises using only dumbbells

Here are the best dumbbell exercises for targeting your triceps, why they are beneficial and how to perform them.

1. Close-grip dumbbell bench press

Switching up the traditional dumbbell bench press to use a closer grip moves the emphasis away from the chest in favour of hitting all three heads of the tricep, making it an extremely effective exercise for building tricep strength and overall size.  

Opper recommends performing this exercise towards the beginning of your workout to ensure you are at your least fatigued. 

How to do it:

Take a dumbbell in each hand and lie flat on your back on a level weight bench. Hold your dumbbells up in the air over the chest with straight arms.  

Bring the dumbbells down in a controlled fashion until the elbows are parallel with the bench, or until you reach the bottom of your self-defined comfortable range of motion. During the movement, aim to keep the elbows tucked in as closely to your sides as you can. For a cue, aim to “keep your wings in”. 

After a brief pause, press the dumbbells back up towards the ceiling, again keeping the elbows tucked. 

Repeat for 6-12 reps.

2. Dumbbell close-grip press ups

Close-grip press-ups are a fantastic exercise for targeting the triceps over the chest and front delts, says Opper, and incorporating dumbbells can make this exercise more effective by increasing the working range of motion. And because you can keep the wrists straight in this exercise as opposed to with the traditional press-up, it’s also a more joint-friendly variation. 

How to do it:

Set up two dumbbells on the floor so that your palms are facing inwards towards each other while holding them. Make sure they’re slightly closer than shoulder-width apart. To make the exercise more challenging, move the dumbbells closer together. 

Keeping the elbows tucked in (avoiding the elbows flaring out at all), lower yourself slowly until your chest lightly touches the dumbbells, or to the bottom of your own comfortable range of motion. 

After a brief pause at the bottom, push yourself back up by straightening the arms to just shy of elbow lockout.

Repeat for 10-16 reps

Opper recommends working with higher reps that are closer to failure with this movement, so it can make a great finisher exercise. 

3. Skull crushers

Dumbbell skullcrushers, otherwise known as lying dumbbell tricep extensions, are a great exercise for building both size and strength in the triceps as they isolate the triceps above any and all other muscles, while keeping stress low on the wrists.

How to do it:

Grab either a heavy dumbbell in both hands, or two lighter dumbbells in each hand and lie on your back. This can be on the floor or on an adjustable weight bench set to a flat position. For stability, keep your feet planted firmly on the floor at all times.

Hold your dumbbell(s) over your head with straight arms with your palms facing inwards (towards one another). Once you’re in this position, move the arms very slightly backwards to maximise tension on the triceps. 

Keeping the upper arms straight, slowly lower the dumbbells by bending at the elbows until they are level with your ears. Pause briefly, and then lift the weights back to the starting position by straightening your arms, pausing just short of lockout.

Repeat for 8-15 reps.

4. Single-arm tricep kickbacks

Unilateral (single-arm) exercises such as the tricep kickback are extremely important to incorporate into your exercise repertoire in order to identify, and subsequently, counteract any strength imbalances between sides. And because this exercise specifically isolates the triceps, it can be fantastic for building a strong mind-muscle connection with this muscle group, which is a particularly important skill to learn for newer trainees. 

How to do it:

Stand behind a weight bench (ideally at around 30 degrees) holding a dumbbell in one hand. 

Hinge forwards at the hips and grab the top of the bench with your other hand. Raise your dumbbell-bearing arm until it is roughly parallel with the ground – this will be your starting position for the lift. 

Without moving the upper arm and keeping the shoulders and hips still, straighten the arm by squeezing the triceps until the arm is locked out. 

Return the dumbbell back to the starting position by bending the elbow, keeping the upper arm parallel with the floor at all times. 

Repeat for 8-15 reps.

Opper advises switching to your other arm and performing the same number of reps.

“Once you’ve identified your weaker arm, I recommend starting with that, and then matching the reps with your stronger arm to gradually work through imbalances,” he says.

5. Close-grip dumbbell floor press

The dumbbell floor press is a variation on the traditional bench press that focuses primarily on the upper part of the movement. This not only places a particular emphasis on loading the triceps, but the shorter range-of-motion means you can load this movement with heavier dumbbells, further increasing the effectiveness of the exercise. 

How to do it: 

Grab one dumbbell in each hand and lie flat on your back on the floor. 

Hold your dumbbells up in the air over the chest with straight arms.  

Bring the dumbbells down in a controlled fashion until your elbows lightly touch the floor, aiming to keep the elbows tucked in as closely to your sides as you can. 

After a brief pause, press the dumbbells back up towards the ceiling, again keeping the elbows tucked.

Repeat for 6-12 reps.

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Lee Bell is a freelance journalist & copywriter specialising in technology, health, grooming and how the latest innovations are shaking up the lifestyle space. From national newspapers to specialist-interest magazines and digital titles, Lee has written for some of the world’s most respected publications during his 11 years as a journalist.