Cable Kickback vs. Dumbbell Kickback

February 16, 2012

By Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS

Dumbbell Kickback

Long before cables were even invented, the dumbbell kickback was the only way to target the triceps with your arms at your sides. The triceps of course have three heads – the long, medial and lateral heads. The best way to target the lateral head is with your arms at your sides. If you wanted to hit the long head, you’d best raise your arms overhead, or if you needed to build up the medial head, the muscle least visible but no less important than the other two, you’d flip your grip on all the various triceps exercises. However, our focus this month is the lateral head, the sharp pointing muscle most visible from the side view. If all you have is a dumbbell, you must go old school and bend over at the waist so that your torso and upper arm are both parallel to the floor.

Cable Kickback

As with the dumbbell kickback the best way to hit the lateral head during the cable version is to keep your elbow high and fixed to your side. If you compare the form of the cable kickback to that of the standard pressdown, you’ll see there’s not much difference. Your upper arm and your torso are parallel and your lower arm is perpendicular to your torso in the start position, so you know you’re fully targeting the lateral head. If you’re doing the cable kickback, feel free to hook a D-handle to the cable so that you can alter your grip position from neutral to overhand to underhand. Doing so ensures that with your arms at your sides you call into play as much of the other triceps heads as possible even though the lateral head is leading the way.

Advantage: Cable Kickback

The cable kickback is the better choice and clear winner for a couple of reasons. The clue about the cable kickback being similar in form to the pressdown is the key. Even though you’re bent over, the cable provides continuous tension on the triceps musculature throughout the movement, whereas the dumbbell version creates little triceps tension in the start position when your lower arm is perpendicular to your torso. The dumbbell kickback also requires a high degree of involvement of the shoulder girdle, which removes focus on the target triceps, and could induce unwanted wear and tear on the shoulder, especially since it might not be warmed up.