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Target Your Triceps with This Key Move for Powerful Arms

They’re the key to a killer arm workout without a dumbbell in sight.

By Lauren MazzoFebruary 13, 2024


Did you know your triceps, the muscle on the back of your upper arm, is basically three muscles in one? Like the words “tricycle” or “trilogy,” “tri” implies “three,” explains Peloton instructor Tunde Oyeneyin. Your triceps are made up of three sections (or “heads”) of muscle that start in different places on your upper arm and shoulder and merge to connect to your elbow. (That’s why they’re technically referred to in the plural as “triceps” and never “tricep.”)

“The primary function of the triceps is the extension of the arm at the elbow joint,” Tunde says. Any exercise that involves straightening your arm at the elbow will use your triceps to some degree. Plenty of moves put the spotlight on this muscle (think: skull crushers, overhead extensions), but none is quite as adaptable—or demanding—as the triceps dip. 

What Are Triceps Dips and Why Should You Add Them to Your Routine?

Triceps dips are a classic bodyweight exercise and can be done in various ways, including on the floor and using a dip station in a gym. The most common version of the triceps dip involves placing your hands on an elevated surface like a bench, chair, or step. (For this reason, they’re sometimes called bench dips.) You’ll sit on a bench with your feet on the floor and your hands on the edge of the bench and suspend your hips to put most of your weight in your hands. Then, you’ll raise and lower your body by bending and straightening your arms at the elbow.

The triceps might seem like a vanity muscle — they’re pretty small, after all, and showcased whenever you wear sleeveless tops—but they’re an essential muscle for moving well through your everyday life. You're using your triceps whenever you push something away from you or use your arms to press yourself up from lying down or sitting. Your triceps also support your upper body while cycling, help you throw a ball, and contribute to compound strength exercises like bench presses and push-ups. Strengthening your triceps can help make these other activities and strength moves feel easier, according to the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA).

And dips are one of the best triceps moves you can do. A study by the American Council on Exercise found that dips are more effective at targeting the triceps than overhead triceps extensions, rope push-downs, lying barbell triceps extensions, bar pushdowns, and closed-grip bench presses. Triangle push-ups and kickbacks were the only moves found to elicit similar or greater triceps activation.

That said, despite what the name implies, triceps dips don’t only work your triceps. “Triceps dips are a bodyweight exercise that helps to build strength in your arms, shoulders, and chest,” Tunde says. “It calls on stabilizing muscles, which aid in supporting the upper body, which makes this a great exercise to perform not only for aesthetics but also functional purposes.”

How to Do Triceps Dips

Triceps dips can get uncomfortable—not just because they make your triceps burn. It’s essential to do them correctly to work your triceps and not put too much strain on your shoulders.

If triceps dips hurt your shoulders, it can help to “decrease the distance or range of motion in the actual dip,” Tunde recommends. “The lower you dip, the more impact you might feel on the shoulders.” Start small, and work your way up to dipping lower as you get more comfortable with the movement. Here’s exactly how to do them: 

Woman performs a seated tricep dip
  1. Start by sitting on the edge of a bench, chair, or step with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor in front of you. Place your palms on the edge of the bench just outside your hips, so your fingers are hanging off the bench and pointing toward your feet. 

  2. Put your weight into your hands and engage your core to lift your hips off the bench and forward a few inches so your glutes are no longer over the bench. Drop your shoulders away from your ears, and squeeze your shoulder blades together and down your back. Keep your neck long, and don’t allow your chin to jut forward.

  3. Bend your elbows to lower your hips a few inches, making sure your elbows are moving straight backward and not out to the sides. Try to keep your chest open and avoid rounding your upper back.

  4. Stop when your upper arms are parallel to the floor or as low as is comfortable for your shoulders. Pause for one count, then press into your palms to straighten your arms, stopping before your elbows are locked. That’s one rep.

Benefits of Triceps Dips

A Stronger Upper Body and Core

In addition to working your triceps, research shows that dips engage muscles all over your upper body, including your chest, shoulders, biceps, and upper back. Dips also recruit some of your rotator cuff muscles, small but vital stabilizer muscles that help your shoulders move properly. If you’re doing a triceps dip with your feet on the floor (a floor dip or a bench dip), you’ll also recruit your core to help keep your hips elevated, helping build core strength and stability, says Jacque Crockford, DHSc, a health and fitness expert with the American Council on Exercise.

To Balance Out Strong Biceps

If you do a ton of bicep-strengthening work, regularly pick up or carry heavy items, or practice a sport that includes a lot of pulling movements (like rowing), working your triceps—which are opposite your biceps on your arm — can help balance out your arm strength.

Improved Mobility

“Triceps dips provide an opportunity for improving mobility in the chest and shoulders,” Crockford adds. Triceps dips put your shoulder joint far into extension and then engage the triceps muscles; this makes dips an excellent shoulder mobility exercise, as they position the shoulder toward the end range of motion and then ask the muscles to work. 

Can Be Done Anywhere, Without Weights

Many arm exercises require a pair of dumbbells—but not triceps dips. With dips, you can specifically target and challenge these muscles at home without specific equipment. Even better, you can scale them from a beginner level to quite advanced without adding weight.

Triceps Dip Variations

If you’ve never done a dip before, it might be best to start with floor dips or modified floor dips—the most beginner-friendly option since your range of motion is limited and you have more support from your lower body. From there, you can move on to bench dips. “Triceps dips on the floor are a fantastic option; however, triceps dips on a platform or bench will increase the range of motion and add more stress or fatigue to the muscle creating a greater challenge,” Tunde explains. Here’s a breakdown of the other triceps dip variations you can try.

  • Floor Dips: You can do this beginner-friendly, bodyweight version of a triceps dip on the floor with no equipment. Start in a reverse tabletop position with your fingers pointed toward your heels, your weight on your hands and feet, and your hips lifted. Holding your hips off the ground, bend your elbows to lower your body a few inches, then press into your palms to straighten (but not lock) your elbows.

  • Modified Floor Dips: If floor dips are too tough, stay in the same position, but rest your hips on the floor. Lean back into your upper body and perform dips using the weight of your upper body only.

  • Bench Dips With Legs Extended: If classic dips feel too easy, “a progression would be to extend the legs fully (with a hinge at the hips), which allows for additional effort to be needed to complete the exercise,” says Crockford. “The closer the heels are toward the upper body, the easier the move will be.”

  • Bar Dips (or Chest Dips): If you can access a dip station at a gym or even some parallel bars at a playground, you can perform hanging bar dips. Research shows that this variation dramatically increases the demand on your triceps and your chest muscles, anterior (front) shoulder muscles, biceps, and upper back muscles compared to a bench dip. To do them, hold onto both bars, put all your weight into your hands, hover your feet off the floor, and perform dips without touching your feet to the ground. (You can also modify slightly by using a resistance band to support some of your weight, Tunde adds.)

  • Ring Dips: Gymnastics rings are a challenging way to perform triceps dips since they aren’t stationary. This way, you need to work harder to stabilize your body while performing the dip.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Doing Triceps Dips

Triceps dips are a simple exercise, but it’s easy to do them incorrectly. Here are some common form mistakes to avoid.

Pointing Your Fingers In the Wrong Direction

Your fingers should always be facing toward your heels when doing dips. “This will help keep the wrists, elbows, and shoulder joints safe and help prevent injury due to improper form,” Crockford explains. “With the fingers pointing forward, the bones of the arm (and therefore the joints) are anatomically aligned and the wrists, elbows, and shoulders can move within a safer range of motion.”

Performing the Exercise Too Fast

Going too fast is one of the most common mistakes people make when doing dips, Tunde says. Take your time, and prioritize quality over quantity. Focus on feeling your triceps engage rather than powering through the movement using other muscles. 

Using Your Legs to Push Off the Floor

If you’re doing bench dips, floor dips, or modified bar dips with your feet on the floor, you could be guilty of this. Because your weight isn’t entirely in your arms, it’s common for your legs to try to help you complete the movement. Focus on pushing through your triceps alone, Tunde says.

Positioning Your Hands Incorrectly

Another mistake pointed out by Tunde is positioning your hands too narrowly or too wide. This could put your shoulder in an uncomfortable position and limit the amount of work your triceps are doing.


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