How to Do the Triceps Pushdown Exercise for Strong, Sculpted Arms

LIVESTRONG.com may earn compensation through affiliate links in this story.
The triceps pushdown is one of the best exercises to work this muscle group and is a great option for both beginners and experienced lifters.
Image Credit: Bojan89/iStock/GettyImages

If you're looking to build arm strength and muscle size, don't sleep on the triceps pushdown. This arm exercise really hammers the triceps muscle in the upper arm, and is a great option for both beginners and experienced lifters alike.

Advertisement

  • What is a triceps pushdown?​ It's an exercise where you use a triceps pushdown machine made with cables and weights to isolate the triceps muscle in the upper arms. The movement involves bending and extending at the elbow as you hold your arms by your sides, so your triceps — the main muscle used to bend and straighten the arm — does most of the work. You can also do a triceps pushdown on a Bowflex machine or other cable machine at the gym that allows you to set the cable above your head.
  • What muscles does a triceps pushdown work?​ The triceps pushdown works all three heads of your triceps muscles, Caroline Pearce, lead trainer for FitOn App, tells LIVESTRONG.com. They also activate other stabilizing muscles — including muscles in the core, back and chest — though these are secondary benefits to the targeted triceps challenge they provide.
  • Are triceps pushdowns effective?​ Heck yes they are. "The triceps pushdown is perfect for isolating your triceps muscles to strengthen and define the backs of your arms, an area often overlooked and difficult to target," Pearce says. As you maintain proper form and zero in on your triceps, you're also using your core, shoulders, back and chest to stabilize the movement, Pearce adds.

Advertisement

Here's everything you need to know about what triceps pushdowns are good for, how to do them properly and variations to add to your routine.

How to Do a Triceps Pushdown With Proper Form

JW Player placeholder image
Type Strength
Body Part Arms
  1. Start by facing a cable machine and situating the cable attachment at a height above your head. Attach the bar or rope and grasp it securely.
  2. Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart. Engage your core, push your shoulders back and down and try to maintain this position throughout the exercise.
  3. Press the handles of the bar or rope down in front of your chest, so your elbows are aligned with the middle of your trunk.
  4. Straighten your elbows by pressing the cable down toward the floor.
  5. Extend your arms fully, while maintaining the same position with the rest of your body and keeping your elbows in place by your sides.
  6. After your elbows are fully extended, bend your elbows again to raise the cable back to the top with control.
  7. Repeat this movement for a set number of reps.

Watch the Full Tutorial

JW Player placeholder image

Watch a Demo With a Rope Attachment

JW Player placeholder image

Anatomy of the Triceps

The triceps is a muscle located in the back part of the upper arm with three heads: the lateral, medial and long head. The long head is the biggest triceps head. The triceps’ main function is to extend the elbow. The triceps muscle is also helpful for bringing the arm downward from an overhead position.

In order to fully contract the triceps, the upper arm should be behind the torso as the elbow straightens, according to rehab research from the U.S. Department of Veterans' Affairs. There are several triceps exercises that can be done to strengthen the muscle, such as pull-ups and pushdowns, which hit all triceps heads.

4 Triceps Pushdown Benefits and Muscles Worked

1. They Build Triceps Strength and Muscle Size

The triceps pushdown is known as a triceps isolation exercise — meaning it solely targets the triceps. The triceps are responsible for bending and straightening the arm at the elbow, and it's also the muscle that gives your arm shape. If you can see your upper arm muscle pop, that's your triceps. And you need to do isolation work (in addition to compound strength moves) to strengthen and grow it (if that's your goal).

Advertisement

2. They Sneakily Work Your Core, Back and Shoulders

While not a core exercise by any means, the triceps pushdown does require some core, back and chest stabilization work to keep your torso rock solid as you move your elbows. So, you're getting some bonus stability work in these areas, even though they're not the main events.

3. They Are Beginner Friendly

If you're just getting started working your triceps, the triceps pushdown is a relatively beginner-friendly move to learn. The cable machine helps keep you stable and removes the wobbly factor of holding onto dumbbells, allowing you to build strength slowly and safely with a little extra guidance.

Advertisement

4. They Build Muscular Endurance

You can use the triceps pushdown to build muscular endurance in the triceps by using a lower weight for higher reps. Higher endurance can make it easier to do everyday tasks that require your arms to engage for a long period of time, like carrying grocery bags.

4 Tips for Better Results

1. Nail the Set Up

"Your distance from the cable machine weight stack and pulley should be a step backward with your shoulders over your hips for the perfect angle of pushdown," Pearce says. "Too close and you crowd yourself; too far and you risk leaning forward with your torso."

Advertisement

Keep your feet hip-width apart and maintain a slight bend in your knees. This ensures a solid, stable base. "Feet too close and legs straight puts you at risk of losing balance," Pearce explains. Finally, tuck your chin slightly toward your chest and retract your shoulder blades so they are back and down — not tense and scrunched up toward your ears.

2. Keep Your Elbows Close

When your elbows flare out as you push down on the bar, it shifts the focus from your triceps to your chest and shoulders and can strain these muscles, Pearce says. "This is often a result of trying to lift too much weight or not understanding the correct form," she adds.

Advertisement

To prevent this from happening, focus on keeping your elbows tightly in place close to your body.

3. Maintain a Straight Spine

If you try to push more weight than your current triceps strength can tackle, you may find you end up moving your chest forward instead of simply straightening your arms to move the weight. Overcompensating with your torso takes all the work out of your triceps, which defeats the entire purpose of the move.

Advertisement

"Keep your spine straight and select a weight your triceps can push down without needing that extra contribution from the rest of your body, whose role is purely to stabilize and not force the movement," Pearce says.

Along the same lines, you want to avoid arching your back. Keeping your abs tight and your core engaged throughout the movement will help you maintain a straight, neutral spine so you don't strain your low back.

Advertisement

4. Use a Neutral Grip

Another common mistake with the triceps pushdown is curling your wrists back — which, as you can imagine, doesn't feel so hot. Instead, use a neutral grip. That means you're holding onto the bar or rope and your wrists aren't bent backward or forward. Your wrists should be straight and feel comfortable, without any sort of strain.

Which Triceps Pushdown Is Best? Straight Bar vs. Rope

There's more than one way to do a triceps pushdown: You can perform a pushdown using either a rope or bar as handles. But which cable machine attachment is most effective? Is a bar or a rope better when doing triceps pushdowns?

A May 2012 study by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and the University of Wisconsin/La Crosse Exercise and Health Program compared the best triceps exercises and found the rope pushdown is technically more effective than the straight bar pushdown when it comes to working the triceps muscle. (Other triceps moves, like triangle push-ups and triceps kickbacks, proved even more effective.)

Like all exercise variations, there are a few pros and cons to using the straight bar or the rope attachment to do pushdowns. Some key differences, according to Pearce, include:

  • Range of Motion:​ The straight bar limits the range of motion of the exercise. The rope attachment, which is flexible and V-shaped, can be pushed down farther, allowing you to hold the contraction for longer.
  • Ability to Progress:​ "The straight bar will allow you to push more weight, as the bar is more stable," Pearce says.
  • Muscle Balance:​ "For muscle symmetry, the rope may also be more favorable as each arm is working independently, preventing the stronger arm from compensating during the movement," Pearce says. Although both arms push down at the same time, they are also pushing independently on each side of the rope.
  • Wrist Comfort:​ The rope allows for a more neutral grip, which can feel a lot kinder to your wrists. On the other hand, the straight bar can force your hands into pronation and cause discomfort and strain. "That said, a straight bar may be a better option for a beginner who has less experience with the movement pattern, less stability through the supporting muscles and is lifting lighter weights."

5 Triceps Pushdown Variations and Alternatives

No cable machine? No problem. Try these triceps pushdown variations and alternatives for a similar — and sometimes even better — upper-arm pump at home.

1. Triceps Pushdown With Resistance Band

JW Player placeholder image
Type Strength
Activity Resistance Band Workout
Body Part Arms
  1. Loop a mini band around your wrists.
  2. Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart. Engage your core, push your shoulders back and down and try to maintain this position throughout the exercise.
  3. Bend your elbows to 90 degrees. Press out on the band throughout the entire exercise so it's tight.
  4. Straighten your elbows by pressing your hands down toward the floor. Maintain the same position with the rest of your body, and keep your elbows in place by your sides.
  5. After your elbows are fully extended, bend your elbows again to 90 degrees with control.
  6. Repeat for a set number of reps.

2. Triangle Push-Up

Type Strength
Activity Body-Weight Workout
Body Part Arms, Chest and Abs
  1. Start in a high plank position on your hands and toes with your hands together, thumbs and forefingers touching to form a triangle.
  2. Bend your elbows and lower your chest to the floor.
  3. Push back up.
  4. Repeat for a set number of reps.

3. Triceps Kickback

JW Player placeholder image
Type Strength
Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part Arms
  1. With a dumbbell in each hand, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hinge your hips back, maintaining a flat back. Your upper body should be at a 45-degree angle to the floor.
  2. Bring your arms to your sides, elbows tight to your ribs. This is the starting position.
  3. Extend your arms straight back with control and squeeze your triceps at the top.
  4. Bend your elbows and slowly lower your arms back to the starting position.
  5. Repeat for a set number of reps.

4. Overhead Triceps Extension

Type Strength
Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part Arms
  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand or a single, heavier dumbbell in both hands over your head with a firm grip.
  2. Bend your elbows to lower the dumbbell(s) behind your head, envisioning your arms bending over an invisible bar connecting your elbows.
  3. Straighten your elbows to press the weight(s) back up overhead.
  4. Repeat for a set number of reps.

5. Close-Grip Bench Press

JW Player placeholder image
Type Strength
Activity Barbell Workout
Body Part Arms and Chest
  1. Hold a barbell and lie flat on a bench. You can also lie down on the floor with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. If you don't have a barbell, hold a dumbbell in each hand with palms facing in toward each other.
  2. Exhale as you press the barbell or dumbbells upward until your arms are almost fully extended. As you press, keep your elbows tucked in close to your sides so your triceps do most of the work.
  3. Inhale as you slowly bend your elbows again, lowering your arms gently back down.
  4. Repeat this movement for a set number of reps.

Ready to give the triceps pushdown a try? This exercise is perfect for isolating your triceps muscles to strengthen and define the backs of your arms.

Advertisement

references

Report an Issue

Screenshot loading...