The triceps pushdown is one of the simplest and most effective exercises for training your triceps.
It’s a fixture in many weightlifting programs because it trains all three heads of the triceps, especially the long head, making it excellent for developing your upper arms.
In this article, you’ll learn what the triceps pushdown is, why it’s beneficial, how to perform it with proper form, the best triceps pushdown alternatives, and more.
What Is the Triceps Pushdown?
The triceps pushdown (often erroneously called the “tricep pushdown”) is a triceps isolation exercise performed using a cable machine.
To perform the triceps pushdown, you grip a handle attached to a high cable pulley and push the handle toward the floor by straightening your elbows.
You can use several different handles to perform the triceps pushdown, including the rope handle, straight bar, EZ bar, and V bar. This is why you’ll often hear people refer to the exercise as the “bar triceps pushdown,” “rope triceps pushdown,” and so forth.
Despite what many people say, changing the handle you use doesn’t drastically change how the exercise trains your triceps, so use whichever one feels most comfortable.
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Triceps Pushdown: Benefits
1. It trains your entire triceps.
The triceps has three heads: The lateral head, medial head, and long head. The long head is the largest and thus contributes most to the overall size of your triceps.
While the triceps extension effectively trains all three heads, research shows that it emphasizes the long head, making it particularly good for adding size to your upper arms.
2. It maximizes triceps development.
Many people think that heavy bench pressing is enough to train your triceps, and doing sets of isolation exercises like the triceps pushdown is superfluous or “junk” volume (extra sets and reps that aren’t worth the effort).
However, research shows this probably isn’t the case.
For instance, in one study conducted by scientists at Paulista University, researchers found that while doing the bench press or triceps pushdown alone caused some triceps growth, including both exercises in your training was better. (They also found that doing the bench press followed by the triceps pushdown led to more growth than doing the exercises in the reverse order.)
This jives with other research that shows training a muscle group with various exercises produces better results than just one exercise.
That’s why I always include triceps isolation exercises like the triceps pushdown and heavy pressing exercises in my fitness programs for men and women, Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger.
(And if you’d like more specific advice about what exercises to include in your training program to reach your health and fitness goals, take the Legion Strength Training Quiz, and in less than a minute, you’ll know the perfect strength training program for you. Click here to check it out.)
3. It allows you to train your triceps when your other “pushing” muscles are tired.
During all of the best pushing exercises, like the bench press, overhead press, and close-grip bench press, your chest and shoulders bear the brunt of the load.
If your chest, shoulder, or push workouts only consist of free-weight exercises like these, your pecs and delts may fatigue faster than your triceps. In other words, while your chest and shoulders may be bushed after 6 sets of these exercises, your triceps may be able to handle a few more.
The triceps pushdown is a helpful workaround in this scenario, as it allows you to train your triceps after your other pushing muscles are fried.
This ensures you train your triceps with the volume they need to grow without your chest or shoulders becoming a limiting factor.
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Triceps Pushdown: Muscles Worked
The triceps pushdown trains all three heads of the triceps. Here’s how they look when viewed from behind:
Triceps Pushdown: Form
The best way to learn how to do the triceps extension is to split the exercise into three parts: set up, push down, ascend.
1. Set up
Adjust the pulley on a cable machine to the highest setting and attach your preferred handle (the straight metal or rope handle, EZ bar, and V bar are all good options), then stand in front of it with your feet about shoulder-width apart.
Grab the handle with both hands (if you’re using a bar attachment your palms should face the floor), take a step back so that your hands are supporting the weight, and lean slightly forward while pulling your elbows back toward your torso, so that your shoulders are over your hands. You can also put one foot behind the other if that’s more comfortable for you.
2. Push down
Without changing your back angle, push the handle straight down until your arms are straight, keeping your elbows at your sides.
Raise your hands and return to the starting position. This is a mirror image of what you did during the extension.
Don’t let the weight yank your arms back to the starting position or try to bend your arms slowly. The entire ascent should be controlled but only take about a second.
Here’s how it should look when you put it all together:
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The Best Triceps Pushdown Alternatives
1. Reverse-Grip Triceps Pushdown
The reverse-grip triceps pushdown (sometimes referred to as the underhand triceps pushdown) is almost identical to the regular triceps pushdown—the only difference is you take an underhand grip (palms facing upward).
Some people say that changing your grip from palms down to palms up on the triceps pushdown greatly impacts which head of the triceps you train, but this is probably an over exaggeration. It likely changes which head you emphasize to a small degree, but it’s difficult to say whether this has any meaningful effect on long-term muscle growth.
Still, the reverse-grip variation is a viable alternative that some people find more comfortable for their elbows.
2. Banded Triceps Pushdown
The resistance band triceps pushdown is a good variation if you like to work out at home or while traveling and have limited space and equipment.
However, because a resistance band offers almost no resistance when it’s slack, there’s little tension on your triceps when they’re stretched. This makes the band overhead triceps extension less effective for building muscle than the cable or dumbbell overhead triceps extension, which is why you should only use it when you don’t have access to gym equipment.
3. Machine Triceps Pushdown
The machine triceps pushdown uses a machine to mimic the movement of the free-weight triceps pushdown.
Like most machine exercises, the machine triceps pushdown is easier to learn and perform than the free-weight triceps pushdown because it requires less balance, coordination, and stabilization. This makes it a good variation for people who are new to weightlifting or working around an injury.
However, machine exercises are slightly less effective than free-weight exercises for building muscle, so once you’ve built a base level of strength or recovered from your injury, it’s usually best to do to the cable triceps pushdown.
4. Single-Arm Triceps Pushdown
The single-arm triceps pushdown is the same as the regular cable triceps pushdown, except instead of training your arms bilaterally (both together), you train each unilaterally (one at a time).
This is beneficial because it . . .
- May enable you to lift more total weight than you can with some bilateral exercises, which may help you gain more muscle over time
- Helps you develop a greater mind-muscle connection with your triceps, because you only need to focus on one side of your body at a time
- Helps you correct muscle imbalances, because both sides of your body are forced to lift the same amount of weight (one side can’t “take over” from the other)
5. Dumbbell Kickback
The dumbbell kickback involves a similar movement to the cable triceps pushdown (which is why some people call it the dumbbell triceps pushdown).
Like the cable triceps pushdown, the dumbbell kickback effectively trains the long head of the triceps. The only downsides are that it’s difficult to maintain good form once you progress to heavy weights and it doesn’t train your triceps through a full range of motion or place tension on them when they’re stretched, which makes it less effective than the cable variation for gaining muscle and strength.
+ Scientific References
- Kholinne, E., Zulkarnain, R. F., Sun, Y. C., Lim, S. J., Chun, J. M., & Jeon, I. H. (2018). The different role of each head of the triceps brachii muscle in elbow extension. Acta Orthopaedica et Traumatologica Turcica, 52(3), 201. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.AOTT.2018.02.005
- Hussain, J., Sundaraj, K., Subramaniam, I. D., & Lam, C. K. (2020). Muscle Fatigue in the Three Heads of Triceps Brachii During Intensity and Speed Variations of Triceps Push-Down Exercise. Frontiers in Physiology, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/FPHYS.2020.00112
- Brandão, L., de Salles Painelli, V., Lasevicius, T., Silva-Batista, C., Brendon, H., Schoenfeld, B. J., Aihara, A. Y., Cardoso, F. N., de Almeida Peres, B., & Teixeira, E. L. (2020). Varying the Order of Combinations of Single- and Multi-Joint Exercises Differentially Affects Resistance Training Adaptations. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 34(5), 1254–1263. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000003550
- Barakat, C., Barroso, R., Alvarez, M., Rauch, J., Miller, N., Bou-Sliman, A., & De Souza, E. O. (2019). The Effects of Varying Glenohumeral Joint Angle on Acute Volume Load, Muscle Activation, Swelling, and Echo-Intensity on the Biceps Brachii in Resistance-Trained Individuals. Sports (Basel, Switzerland), 7(9). https://doi.org/10.3390/SPORTS7090204
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- Oranchuk, D. J., Storey, A. G., Nelson, A. R., & Cronin, J. B. (2019). Isometric training and long-term adaptations: Effects of muscle length, intensity, and intent: A systematic review. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 29(4), 484–503. https://doi.org/10.1111/SMS.13375
- Jakobi, J. M., & Chilibeck, P. D. (2001). Bilateral and unilateral contractions: possible differences in maximal voluntary force. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology = Revue Canadienne de Physiologie Appliquee, 26(1), 12–33. https://doi.org/10.1139/H01-002
- Janzen, C. L., Chilibeck, P. D., & Davison, K. S. (2006). The effect of unilateral and bilateral strength training on the bilateral deficit and lean tissue mass in post-menopausal women. European Journal of Applied Physiology 2006 97:3, 97(3), 253–260. https://doi.org/10.1007/S00421-006-0165-1
- SuppVersity. (n.d.). SuppVersity EMG Series – M. Triceps Brachii: The Best Exercises to Get That Horseshoe Look on Your Triceps – SuppVersity: Nutrition and Exercise Science for Everyone. Retrieved October 4, 2022, from https://suppversity.blogspot.com/2011/08/suppversity-emg-series-m-triceps.html
- Schoenfeld, B. J., & Grgic, J. (2020). Effects of range of motion on muscle development during resistance training interventions: A systematic review. SAGE Open Medicine, 8, 205031212090155. https://doi.org/10.1177/2050312120901559