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What Muscles Are Being Worked in a Tricep Pull Down?

author image Fred DiMenna
Fred DiMenna has been writing professionally since 2000. He has authored research articles published in "Journal of Applied Physiology" and "Respiratory Physiology and Neurobiology," and has also been fitness editor for Chelo Publishing in Manhattan, which publishes fitness magazines including "Exercise for Men Only" and "Natural Bodybuilding and Fitness." DiMenna has a Ph.D. in exercise physiology from the University of Exeter.
What Muscles Are Being Worked in a Tricep Pull Down?
A man flexes his bicep and tricep muscles. Photo Credit Hill Street Studios/Blend Images/Getty Images

A triceps pushdown, also called a pulldown, is a resistance-training exercise that involves pushing a bar down in front of you. The bar is connected to a cable that wraps around an overhead pulley before attaching to a weight stack. When you push the bar down, the weights rise to provide opposition. Triceps pushdowns work the muscles on the back of your upper arm.

Elbow Extension

Seven muscles cross and act at your elbow joint. Two of these muscles, the triceps brachii and anconeus, are positioned on the back of your upper arm. These muscles are attached to the ulna bone of your forearm and pull your arm straight if it is bent. This motion, called elbow extension, is what occurs when triceps pushdowns are performed correctly.

Triceps Brachii

Your triceps brachii, or triceps for short, is a three-headed muscle that covers the entire rear portion of your upper arm. The long head of the triceps also crosses and produces movement at the shoulder, while the medial and lateral heads are the primary elbow extensors. All three heads participate in elbow extension when there is resistance. The three heads of the triceps present a horseshoe shape when tensed.

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Your anconeus is far less prominent than your triceps. It is a shorter muscle that you can feel on the outside of your elbow. In addition to elbow extension, your anconeus contributes to pronation and supination, which are movements that occur between the bones of your forearm. This function stabilizes the elbow joint.

Proper Technique

To isolate your triceps and anconeus while doing triceps pushdowns, perform the movement correctly. Maintain the distance between your elbows and the cable, because if you shift your body forward, tension will be lost. It is also important to restrict motion to your elbow joint because if you move at the shoulder, stronger muscles will be activated and stimulation of your elbow extensors will be reduced.

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  • “Principles of Anatomy and Physiology, Ninth Edition”; G. Tortora and S. Grabowski; 2000
  • “Kinesiology: Scientific Basis of Human Motion, Twelfth Edition”; N. Hamilton, et al.; 2008
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