Who’s asked, “Why Do Tricep Kickbacks Hurt My Shoulders?”
Tricep kickbacks are generally viewed as a fantastic way to isolate the triceps.
You’ll typically really “feel the burn” and they’re a great way to give your triceps a pump.
However, all too often tricep kickbacks are accompanied by shoulder pain.
So, what exactly is going on here?
Why Do Tricep Kickbacks Hurt My Shoulders?
The main reason that tricep kickbacks hurt your shoulders is because you’re using too much weight. It’s important to remember that the tricep is a small muscle and that the kickback isolates the tricep during the movement. Therefore, if you use an excessive load you’ll typically use momentum and other muscles to lift the weight, e.g. the shoulders. Other common issues could be that you’re using too great a range of motion or that you’re pushing the dumbbells up rather than back. Finally, if you feel pain as soon you perform the tricep kickback this could be a sign of a potential shoulder injury, such as bursitis.
1. You’re Using Too Much Weight
Tricep kickbacks are no different from any other exercise, in that, if you’re using too much weight you’re likely to run into problems.
This will generally affect your technique, the effectiveness of the movement, and of course it can cause pain in various body parts, namely the shoulders.
The triceps happen to be one of the smaller muscle groups, and the kickback exercise isolates the tricep to great effect.
So, realistically common sense should prevail here.
If you’re exercising and isolating one of the smallest muscles, then don’t use too much weight.
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In fact, tricep kickbacks actually respond better to perfect technique rather than a heavier load (more on this in a moment).
So, from what I’ve seen in the gym environment, many people could actually halve the weight they’re using for kickbacks and stimulate the long head of the triceps to far greater.
For the vast majority of people, irrespective of muscle and strength, I would even consider around 16kg (35lbs) as too heavy.
And realistically, even half this weight would suffice for most.
The aim is to isolate and activate the long head of the tricep and really produce that “burn” during kickbacks.
So, the movement should be performed in a slow and controlled manner, which is hard to do when you’re using too much weight.
If you’re specifically looking to build mass in the triceps then there are better exercises, such as dips and the close-grip bench press.
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With kickbacks, when using a heavy load you’ll automatically make use of momentum and other body parts to get the weight “up”.
And this is generally why you’ll feel kickbacks in your shoulder.
So, leave your ego at the door, drop the load significantly, and you should produce some great results (and no nagging shoulder pain).
2. Your Range of Motion Should Be Shorter
The tricep kickback is probably one exercise where most people use too much range of motion.
I know, it’s not often you hear that.
However, the tricep is only actually activated and stimulated through a very short range of motion.
Plus, it’s important to set yourself up correctly to perform the movement.
I did say that kickbacks are an exercise that are more about technique than weight.
And unfortunately this is where many people are going wrong.
The result is excessive strain on the shoulder, plus you’re wasting a lot of energy before you’ve even hit the triceps.
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Get Into The Correct Position
Firstly, bend at the hips, much the same as you would for a bent-over row, but get your torso as close to parallel to the ground as possible.
I know many people like to lean on a bench, or perform one arm at a time, and there’s nothing wrong with this.
However, my preference is to perform kickbacks unsupported and with both arms at the same time.
Once you’ve got yourself into position, row the dumbbells up as you would with a two-arm dumbbell row.
But, take your elbows even higher.
In fact, you want your elbows to be higher than shoulders.
Plus, make sure that your arms are tight to your sides and not flared out.
Now, many people will start with the dumbbells close to their chest, or their arm perpendicular to the floor.
However, this will immediately activate the shoulders, and you are literally wasting the first half of the movement.
Your starting point should actually be further back.
So, once you’ve rowed the dumbbells up, take your hands further back, either besides your legs or even slightly behind.
You should immediately feel the triceps activate.
This is your starting and ending point for kickbacks.
Realistically, this is about half the range of motion that most people perform kickbacks.
However, this ensures that the triceps remain activated through the entire rep, and there is less strain placed on the shoulders.
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3. You’re Pushing the Dumbbell Up and Not Back
Something else I see fairly often is the dumbbell being pushed up, as opposed to back.
Remember the movement is called a tricep kickback and not a kickup.
In fact, many people tend to end the movement with the dumbbell weight plate parallel to the floor.
This would typically see your arm, from shoulder to hand, at almost a 45 degree angle to the floor.
And this will immediately pull on the tendons and ligaments that surround the shoulder joint, which will explain the discomfort you’re feeling.
I will also say that you have gone well past the point of actually stimulating the triceps.
So, your aim should always be to take the dumbbell back rather than up.
As I’ve mentioned, the range of motion where the triceps are properly stimulated is very short.
In many cases (depending on your size and build), the dumbbells may not even be moving much more than 8-10 inches.
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4. There Could Be an Issue With Your Shoulder
If your shoulder hurts the very second you go within an inch of a tricep kickback this could be a sign of something untoward.
I’ve spoken previously of how many of us have weekly workouts that are too pushed-focused.
Basically, there’s a lot of pressing going on, whether lying down in the form of a bench press or overhead for shoulders.
Now, don’t get me wrong, these movements (and their variations) are fantastic exercises.
However, I’m a great believer in that we should all be performing twice as many pull-based movements as we do push-based.
Unfortunately, this lack of “pulling” typically leads to muscle imbalances and various injuries.
And this is especially true of the joints, and the shoulder joint is often the first one to give.
In fact, it’s not unheard-of to feel a vast array of push exercises in the shoulders.
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Over time this preference for pushing exercises can often lead to a wide variety of shoulder issues and injuries.
This can start off with flexibility, mobility, and range of motion problems.
And many lifters seem to end up with rotator cuff injuries, shoulder impingement, tendinitis, bursitis, just to name a few.
I would always recommend that you seek professional medical advice if the pain you feel is unbearable.
And obviously stop using a particular exercise if it causes you problems.
More often than not, your shoulder will return to normal with rest, recuperation, some simple stretches, plus some light mobility and flexibility work.
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Tricep kickbacks will hurt your shoulders if you use too much weight or perform the movement with incorrect technique. The vast majority of lifters can produce far better triceps by probably halving the weight they currently use for kickbacks. Plus, if you lessen the range of motion so that the triceps are stimulated throughout each rep you will take a great deal of stress off the shoulders. That being said, if you find that shoulders immediately hurt when performing kickbacks this could be a sign of a shoulder injury or condition.
Check Out My Review of Joe Brent’s “Shoulder Pain No More” Program Which is Aimed at Treating and Curing 9 Different Shoulder Injuries and Conditions
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.