The triceps are an integral part of your upper arm anatomy. They look incredibly sexy when toned and strong but are also a key functional muscle that helps with the flexion of your elbow. When it comes to building mass and strength, a combination of compound exercises with isolation moves like the tricep pushdown will have you reaching peak beast mode in no time. The tricep pushdown uses the cable machine to isolate the tris, with particular emphasis on the lateral head. It’s the ideal exercise to add to your upper body or arm day regime, in combination with some of the alternatives suggested below.
What is a Tricep Pushdown?
A tricep pushdown is a strength training exercise that lets you isolate and target the triceps. It’s generally performed using a cable machine and adjustable weights so you can modify the exercise to meet your goals. Depending on your preference and what’s available, you can also choose from a straight bar, rope handles, EZ-curl bar, or V-bar. It involves facing the machine and pushing the handles down, with all movement focused on the elbow, thereby employing the triceps and moving them through the full range of motion for optimum results.
Benefits of Doing Tricep Pushdowns
Adding tricep pushdowns to your upper body or arm workout brings many benefits. Firstly, it helps emphasize the lateral head, which will give you excelled definition along the outside of your arm. Then, they’re also brilliant for engaging your core, back, and shoulders as stabilizers. Of course, doing tricep pushdowns will also help increase your upper body mass and give you that much sought-after horseshoe-shaped tricep. Finally, you’ll also see improvement in your elbow, shoulder, and wrist stability, which in turn can improve performance in other exercises.
What Muscles Does the Tricep Pushdown Work?
The tricep pushdown will work all of the muscle heads in the tricep but puts the highest activation on the lateral head. While it isolates your tris, you’ll also get a secondary workout in your glutes, lats, abs, traps, and pecs, as they act as stabilizers while you work.
How to Do a Tricep Pushdown
Tricep pushdowns are a relatively simple exercise; however, a few tweaks to your technique will ensure you get the best results. As an isolation exercise for your triceps, it’s a great move to add after heavier compound exercises. However, it’s important to try to stop your other muscles from stealing tension. To do this, keep your elbows pinned to your sides to prevent lat involvement – holding the bar underhand with a wider grip, or using ropes or a V-bar can also help keep them tucked in. Next, keep your chest up and out, shoulder blades contracted, and torso tilted forward, so your shoulders and chest don’t take over. This will also increase your range of movement and maximize tension through the whole range of movement. Lastly, while pushing down, focus on keeping your wrists neutral to your forearms, so they don’t flex.
- Stand a couple of paces back from the cable machine, facing it with your chosen bar/handles in an overhand grip. You can stand with both feet together, or one dropped behind the other.
- Lean forward slightly, hinging at the hips with your chest up.
- Pull the bar down until your elbows are by your sides, and keep them locked there. Your arms will be bent around 90 degrees.
- Moving at the elbow joint only, push the weight down until your arms are straight and your triceps are fully contracted.
- Again, moving at the elbows only, allow the bar/handles to move back up until your arms are perpendicular to your body.
- Repeat for your chosen reps and sets.
How to do a Tricep Pushdown at Home
If you’re working out at home, it’s less likely you’ll have access to a cable machine. A great at-home alternative that requires minimal equipment is a resistance band cable pushdown. The mechanics and execution are the same; however, instead of the cable machine, you’ll use resistance bands attached very securely to a hook, door frame, or another alternative anchor point above your head. It’s important to make sure it’s securely and safely attached so that it doesn’t come flying off mid-pull and smack you in the face.
Bar vs. Rope Tricep Pushdown
One of the biggest questions about tricep pushdowns is what handle to use – straight bar, V-bar, EZ-curl bar, or ropes. What you choose depends on what’s available, what’s more comfortable for you, and your wrist flexibility. A straight bar has some limitations, especially if you have any wrist issues. This is because for many people, when the wrist is flexed, there’s a tendency for radial deviation, which makes holding a straight bar less comfortable, and can cause you to flare your elbows out. As such, the more natural hand position when holding ropes or even a V-bar can help your form. Another benefit of the rope is that research has found it slightly more effective in tricep engagement, and you can get a little extra activation at the bottom of the push as you naturally pull out. However, all handle types can have a place in your workout.
Tricep Pushdown Alternatives
Like training any part of your body, there are many alternative exercises that hit your triceps. Some are big compound moves that hit the whole muscle, while others are excellent isolation exercises that allow you to focus on one of the three heads. Incorporating tricep pushdowns with a combination of these other exercises will give you a well-rounded routine for increasing mass and strength. It’s also a good idea to mix things up occasionally so both you and your triceps don’t get bored with too much repetition. Finally, don’t forget to factor in some rest days to give your body a chance to recover and repair!
Lying Triceps Extensions
A classic triceps exercise is lying tricep extension, also known as skull crushers. It’s a killer move that takes the long head of the tricep through the full range of motion, from contraction to extension. This exercise involves lying on a bench, using dumbbells or a barbell, keeping your elbows in a narrow position, and lowering the weights to either side of your head. One downside of this move, though, is a lack of tension at the top of the move if you’re starting with your arms straight up. To combat this, move your arms slightly back at the shoulders or use an incline bench so there’s greater tension throughout the whole range of motion. Alternatively, you can also use resistance bands attached to the dumbbells to provide that tension as your arms reach 90-degree with your torso.
Weighted Upright Dips
Weighted upright dips are an excellent isolation exercise to add to your routine. This lets you target the lateral and medial heads of the tricep, thanks to the more upright position. Plus, it’s also easy to progressively overload with weight, which is one of the best ways to train the type two muscle fibers. You’ll need an appropriate weight to hang from your waist or hold between your knees. The main downside of a weighted upright dip is that it can cause shoulder discomfort depending on your flexibility. If that’s the case, a close grip bench press is a great alternative.
Close Grip Bench Press
Even though isolations exercises are excellent for targeting certain muscle groups, big compound pressing moves with large weights are one of the most efficient ways to train your triceps. This is because it’s easier to progressively overload the weight for stronger, bigger muscles, particularly because the triceps are predominately type-two muscle fibers that respond best to heavy stimulation. When it comes to grip on a bench press, the closer your hands, the more tricep activation you’ll get, especially through the long head. However, closer hands can also lead to shoulder or wrist discomfort. As such, the sweet spot is hand placement on the bar that’s just narrower than your shoulders for the best of both worlds.
Tricep Rope Pushaways
Also known as overhead cable extensions, this exercise is excellent for getting a stretch through the long head. It’s a brilliant single-joint move that makes an effective superset when combined with tricep pushdowns. When executing these, you’ll want to focus on keeping your elbows tucked in close beside your ears. Additionally, when you release the weight back, allow your elbows to move back slightly to really accentuate that stretch – just don’t let them flare out.
Reverse Grip Tricep Pushdown
The triceps don’t actually influence the pronation or supination of the forearm or hand on a biomechanical level. However, the body is a linked kinetic chain, and movement doesn’t happen in a vacuum. As such, an underhand grip helps to keep elbows tucked in – which can be very helpful if you have a tendency for your elbows to flare out like chicken wings. Plus, it also allows for a little extra extension of the arm at the shoulder for an even more contraction of the tricep. The only downside is that it can put pressure on your wrists, in which case, you can switch to single handles instead of a straight bar.
Diamond Cutter Pushups
If you’re looking for bodyweight exercises for home, or are new to working out, then a diamond cutter pushup is a great variation on a traditional push-up to work your triceps better. It positions your hands close together under your body, creating a diamond shape. This shifts some of the emphasis away from the chest and to the triceps. There are a couple of downsides, though. If you can do a lot of them, then you won’t be getting sufficient stimulus to cause hypertrophy and muscle growth. Additionally, it doesn’t activate the long head as much as some alternative exercises, and the hand placement can be an issue if you have limited wrist mobility. A close-grip pushup can be a good alternative if the diamond hand placement does hurt your wrists.
Another effective pushup variation for hitting the triceps is the cobra pushup. The difference here is that rather than pushing your body straight up, you’re scooping the chest and torso forward and up as you push. This shift puts your elbows behind the body at the top of the move when they’re fully extended. It’s where you’ll get the biggest contraction of the long head, which makes up the majority of the tricep’s mass. This is a much more challenging variation, so don’t fret if you need to drop down to your knees!
The JM Press was originally developed by world-recording holding strength and conditioning athlete and coach JM Blakely. It’s essentially a mash-up of a tricep extension (skull crusher) and a close grip bench press. As such, it’s a big compound exercise that works not only the triceps but also the deltoids and pecs. You’ll be able to build strength and muscle, as well as improve your bench press lockout. It’s an excellent addition for powerlifters, weightlifters, CrossFit athletes, and general bodybuilding. However, it can put a lot of pressure on the tendons in your elbow, so work up slowly to heavy weights; otherwise, you risk injury.
Another basic exercise to hit your triceps is the dumbbell kickback. It’s a fairly flexible move that you can do one-handed using a bench, bent with a hand braced on your knees, or two-handed and tilted at the waist. One of the key factors is to make sure that your upper arm is kept parallel and tight to your body at full elbow extension. You’ll also want to avoid swinging and using momentum, flaring the elbows, and arching your back. If you want to take your kickbacks to another level, set yourself up facing forward on an incline bench set to around 45 degrees. This will give you maximum long head contraction at the top of the move.
Incline Dumbbell Powerbombs
Another name for incline dumbbell powerbombs is an incline dumbbell overhead press. It’s ideal for hitting the long head of the muscle because the shoulder is in a flex position. Additionally, setting your bench up at around 45-degrees rather than doing a flat-lying extension gives even better shoulder flexion. However, like the lying triceps extensions, there is minimal tension when your arm is straight up. Fixing this is easy, though. Start with your arm moved slightly back so it’s more in line with your ears than perpendicular to the floor. This will ensure tension through the whole range of motion, so you get the most efficient and effective workout.
Best Triceps Workout
If all of this choice is a bit too much, or you just don’t feel like thinking, check out this best triceps workout, backed by science. Coming from the mind of ATHLEAN-X creator Jeff Cavaliere, he takes each move to another level, so you get the best results. After all, the triceps take up 60 percent of your upper arm mass, so you want them to look big and strong. This workout has just five killer moves – a close grip bench press, tricep dips, overhead cable extension, tricep pushdowns, and lying triceps extensions.
Tricep Pushdowns FAQs
What are tricep pushdowns good for?
Tricep pushdowns are a strength training exercise that is good for isolating the triceps, with a focus on the lateral head. They're best used in combination with other compound exercises that work the upper body, arms, and shoulders for effective, well-rounded results.
Which tricep pushdown is best?
There are a few ways you can do a tricep pushdown. Choose from an underhand or overhand grip with straight, EZ-curl bar, V-bar, or rope handles. Each has its own pros and cons, and what works best will vary between people. However, in general, an underhand grip can help you keep your elbows tucked in but can place more strain on the wrist. Meanwhile, an overhand grip on rope handles or a v-bar can be the most natural position for your hands. Finally, research has also shown that rope handles are slightly more effective in activating the triceps.
Does tricep pushdown work the whole tricep?
The tricep pushdown does work all three heads of the tricep; however, there is increased activation in the lateral head along the side of your arm.
Alexandra Linde is an experienced writer holding a bachelor's degree in Journalism. She is the owner of Alexandra McKiterick Creative and has expertise in travel, fashion, fitness and lifestyle. Alex has previously written for Flightcenter, Travello, and Backpacker Deals.
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