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There seems to be little that is more fun in the gym than getting hyped up on pre-workouts and doing isolation exercises like triceps pushdowns.

Along with the biceps curl, the tricep pushdown is among the most commonly seen activities performed by lifters in the gym. This is for good reason, since everyone knows arms are the most important body part to train.

(Not arms, sorry. I meant to say GUNZ.)

Let’s get the most out of our arm training and learn how to do a triceps pushdown with such unbelievable efficacy that you might not need to train arms six times a week.

How To Do the Triceps Pushdown

Form varies very slightly for each triceps pushdown variation. For this tutorial, we’ll use the rope attachment variation.

  1. Set the cable machine to where the bottom of the rope attachment is hitting you in the face.
  2. Set up so your head is a few inches from the bottom of the rope.
  3. Set your feet roughly shoulder-width apart. Sometimes you’ll see people staggering their feet here. Keep them neutral.
  4. Grab the rope attachment with an overhand grip and bring it to where it is a few inches from your upper chest. This is the starting position.
  5. Keeping your shoulders still, extend from the elbow joint and bring each hand to each side of your hips.
  6. Control the weight back up with the elbow joint.
woman doing cable machine tricep pushdowns

Trainer Tips for Form

Technique with these single joint isolation exercises is a lot more relative than their compound lift cousins. We’re just trying to feel the muscle more than execute an athletic maneuver. 

Set Up Like a Praying Mantis

This is a simple image, but it works. We want a pretty large range of motion with our triceps pushdowns, and the tendency is to sometimes cheat by putting the hands lower and only working the extreme end of the ROM.

When you are setting your cable height, think of a praying mantis. You want your hands high and torso with a little bit of forward lean.

Think of a praying mantis. You want your hands high and torso with a little bit of forward lean.

Press Straight Down

This is one of those small things that changes everything. You want to move your hands straight down rather than trying to pull the weight into you.

You keep more pressure on the triceps that way.

You can “cheat” a little bit by leaning into the machine. This actually helps you focus on pressing down in addition to adding leverage to the cable.

Put a Bolt Through Your Elbows

This is how I always coach curls and pushdowns.

Set your elbows against your rib cage and imagine a rod going straight through the side of your body. This image should let you turn your elbows into simple fulcrum machines.

The elbow is naturally a fulcrum joint, but when we get excited and want to use more weight or more reps we throw extra shoulder and hip moves into the equation.

This isn’t weightlifting. When we are looking for triceps hypertrophy, we want the focus to be on the muscle1, not the amount of weight being moved.

Common Triceps Pushdown Mistakes

There are a few things to look out for when performing the tricep pushdown.

Using Too Much Weight

This is a classic bodybuilding type of exercise, so we can go back to a classic hypertrophy rep scheme2 with it. Keep the repetitions high and the weight low. Using too much weight can lead to a shortened range of motion or poor form. 

Worrying About Which Head of the Triceps You’re Hitting

The triceps muscle is made up of three different heads (Latin roots are our friend!). They are the long head, medial head, and lateral head.

Unless you are talking to bodybuilding judges, nobody is ever going to say “Hey, nice work on your arms, but your lateral head is really dominating your long head and you really need to bring it up.” Most people are just going to say “Whoa, your arms look great!”

You’re going to hit all three with every triceps pushdown exercise3 you do. It’s not something that needs to be stressed about.

Triceps Pushdown Variations

There are a million ways to perform some kind of elbow extension. All of these tricep pushdown variations are great because they are convenient, fast, and don’t take a lot out of you.

Triceps Pushdowns With Resistance Bands

Every home gym owner who hasn’t taken the time to rig up a DIY cable pulley knows about these. Rather than driving to the YMCA after you close-grip bench press in order to get in 5 minutes of cable triceps pushdowns, most of us throw a resistance band over a power rack.

The proper form for resistance band pushdowns is similar to doing a rope pushdown, and you can moderate intensity both by adding and taking away bands, and by adjusting how high you grip on the band.

These can be pushed for very high reps; I typically do sets of 50 to 100. The band doesn’t really have an eccentric phase, which can make it easier for the elbow joint to handle.

Reverse Grip Triceps Pushdown

I remember I saw a guy in my college gym doing these and it blew my mind. I think I did reverse grip triceps pushdowns every day for like 3 months afterward.

Usually done with a straight bar attachment, this is just what it sounds like.

Take an underhand grip on the bar and use the same form cues as its overhead brethren. It’s a nice change of pace in a triceps workout. If you find yourself fatigued after a few sets of overhand pushdowns, you can usually switch to these and keep working.

The single arm reverse grip pushdown is also fantastic, and can be a superior substitute for the triceps kickback.

Useful Triceps Pushdown Equipment Accessories

These simple accessories either let you perform triceps pushdowns with minimal equipment, or let you find a different angle to attack the triceps brachii from.

resistance band triceps extension

Resistance Bands

These appear multiple times in this article for a reason. In my garage gym (named Natty Bros. Gym, where everyone must both wear formal evening attire and pass a drug test before entering), I have carabiners screwed into the studs of my unfinished walls at different heights. 

Ostensibly they can be used for anything, but in reality the setup is used for triceps pushdowns 100% of the time.

Resistance bands are cheap, and you can combine them to create different intensities. If you aren’t a member of Natty Bros., bands also have myriad uses other than pushdowns.

Grenade Ball Attachments

When I was first building Natty Bros., I kept googling things like “DIY landmine” and “DIY hand grenade” and I wondered why I got put on a list.

Grenade balls come in a variety of sizes and attachment types, and work a little like Fat Gripz, but as an orb rather than a cylinder. Holding onto a softball sized ball instead of a 1-inch barbell changes the lift and taxes your grip and forearms. 

A lot of bodybuilders think that by gripping more tightly with your hands, and some research even supports4, that you will activate more muscles down the chain. 

These are easy to DIY with baseballs and softballs, but it’s really not that much of a savings compared to buying the production model. These are great for pull-ups as well!

FAQs: Tricep Pushdowns

What muscles does a tricep pushdown work?

The triceps! It is one of the best exercises for the triceps, and among the most joint conscience tricep exercises you can find. 

We don’t want to worry about the three heads. It’s enough to know it’s the muscle group on the back side of your upper arm that looks like a horseshoe.

Are tricep pushdowns effective?

Any tricep extension will be effective at triceps activation. Where the tricep pushdown shines is its relative gentle touch on the body. Skullcrushers look super sweet, but by the time you get to your 30’s they already start to hurt enough you don’t care how much they build muscle.

Tricep pushdown alternatives include things like overhead dumbbell extensions, tricep kickbacks, and single arm cross body lying dumbbell extensions. I never include the latter in any training program because it takes too much energy to write when you want to stay in a caloric surplus.

Both of these let the tricep push the weight and make it hard for any other muscle to take over (like the pecs or front delts on a push-up).

Tricep pushdowns let you take the barbell out of your hand, take load off your spine, elbow joints, and shoulder joints, and give you a nice contraction in your triceps.

What are the benefits of tricep pushdowns?

Triceps pushdowns make your arms look better. What other reason do we even have for going into the gym?

Kidding aside, pushdowns assist with increased help with lockout on the bench press and have possible ramifications for elbow joint health.

References:

  1. Bernárdez-Vázquez R, Raya-González J, Castillo D, Beato M. Resistance Training Variables for Optimization of Muscle Hypertrophy: An Umbrella Review. Front Sports Act Living. 2022 Jul 4;4:949021. doi: 10.3389/fspor.2022.949021. PMID: 35873210; PMCID: PMC9302196.
  2. Schoenfeld BJ, Grgic J, Van Every DW, Plotkin DL. Loading Recommendations for Muscle Strength, Hypertrophy, and Local Endurance: A Re-Examination of the Repetition Continuum. Sports (Basel). 2021 Feb 22;9(2):32. doi: 10.3390/sports9020032. PMID: 33671664; PMCID: PMC7927075.
  3. Hussain J, Sundaraj K, Subramaniam ID, Lam CK. Muscle Fatigue in the Three Heads of Triceps Brachii During Intensity and Speed Variations of Triceps Push-Down Exercise. Front Physiol. 2020 Feb 21;11:112. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2020.00112. PMID: 32153422; PMCID: PMC7047337.
  4. Mogk JP, Keir PJ. Prediction of forearm muscle activity during gripping. Ergonomics. 2006 Sep 15;49(11):1121-30. doi: 10.1080/00140130600777433. PMID: 16950725.

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