Any time you straighten an arm or use your arm(s) to push, your triceps is at work. Tricep pushdowns are a popular way of working this muscle on the back of your arm. But if you don't have access to the right equipment for that exercise, you can choose from any tricep pushdown alternative.
Exactly how many sets and repetitions you should do, and how much weight you should lift, depends on your strength-training goals. For general strength and endurance, doing one to three sets of eight to 12 repetitions — as recommended in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans — is a great place to start.
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If you're aiming for muscular endurance, consider using a slightly lighter weight and doing more than 12 repetitions, as counseled by the American Council on Exercise — and for strength or power, use heavier weights that make it challenging to complete six to eight repetitions.
Move 1: Tricep Pushdown at Home
Tricep pushdowns are usually done with a high cable pulley. But if you don't have access to a cable machine, you can do a version of the tricep pushdown at home with nothing but an elastic resistance band and a door anchor.
- Thread your elastic resistance band through the loop side of the door anchor; the midpoint of the band should be in the loop.
- Position the door anchor on top of a sturdy door, and then shut the door to hold it in place. The "stopper" side of the anchor goes on the far side of the door, while the loop that holds the resistance band should be entirely on your side of the door.
- Stand facing the door and grip one side of the band in each hand. Keep your elbows close by your sides and bend your arms so they come up to about chest height.
- Choke up on the band, or adjust the handles as necessary, so there's tension in the band at this position.
- Imagine that your elbows are pinned to your sides as you straighten your arms, pressing your hands down against the band's resistance.
- Return to the starting position with a slow, controlled motion.
Move 2: Triangle Push-Ups
One of the few sources of scientific data in determining the best triceps exercises is a small EMG study that was sponsored and then published by the American Council on Exercise. The researchers monitored 15 subjects as they performed eight different triceps exercises; of these, the triangle push-up was found to provoke the most activity in your triceps.
- Position yourself in the usual push-up position: Balanced on your hands and toes, body straight and hands positioned underneath your shoulders. As an easier modification, you can do this exercise from bent knees.
- Bring your hands closer together, so that your thumbs and fingers form a triangle.
- Squeeze your core to keep your body straight as you bend your arms, lowering your chest toward your hands as far as is comfortably possible.
- Straighten your arms, pressing your body back up to the starting position.
For some people, the space between your hands might look more like a diamond — so it's little surprise that this exercise is sometimes called a diamond push-up.
Move 3: Tricep Kickbacks
After triangle push-ups, the next-best triceps exercise in the aforementioned ACE study was the tricep kickback. For this exercise you need one or two dumbbells, plus a weight bench or other similarly supportive surface.
- Hold the dumbbell in your left hand.
- Bend your right knee; place it on the bench, then hinge forward from the hips and use your right arm on the bench to support your body. Aim to keep your back flat like a shelf — not rounded forward like an upside-down bowl.
- Imagine that your left elbow is pinned against the side of your body as you straighten your left arm, lifting the dumbbell until your arm is horizontal to the floor.
- Bend your elbow, lowering the dumbbell but keeping your elbow tucked against your body.
- Once you've completed a full set of tricep extensions with your left arm, be sure to switch the weight to your right hand, place your left knee and left hand on the bench, and work the other side of your body.
Move 4: Overhead Tricep Extension
If you don't have the right equipment to do a tricep pushdown, a dumbbell is all you need for this alternative exercise. The most important similarities between a tricep pushdown and overhead tricep extension are that both exercises work both arms at once, and also use external weight for resistance.
- Sit on a weight bench or a chair with a relatively low back. You can also do this exercise while seated on the bed, or even sitting on the floor.
- Grip the inner plate at one end of the dumbbell in both hands, with the dumbbell handle passing between your overlapping thumbs and fingers, as demonstrated at ExRx.net.
- Squeeze your abs to keep your torso stable as you lift the dumbbell straight overhead.
- Keep your elbows close to your ears as you bend both arms, lowering the dumbbell behind your head.
- Straighten your arms, pushing the dumbbell back overhead.
Move 5: Suspended Push-Ups
Exercises like the tricep pushdown force your triceps to work in isolation — but during real-world movements, your triceps rarely works on its own. Because of that, compound movements like the push-up — even regular push-ups, as opposed to the triangle push-up already discussed — are a good way to work your triceps in a more functional way. Suspension training is also a great workout for your core.
As noted in an EMG study of 21 volunteers, published in the December 2013 issue of the Journal of Human Kinetics, doing suspended push-ups produces even more activity in the triceps brachii — and all your other muscles — than doing push-ups on a static surface.
- Adjust the handles on the suspension trainer to the desired height. The lower the handles, the more difficult the exercise will be.
- Position yourself facing away from the suspension trainer's anchor, and take one handle in each hand.
- Walk your feet back, keeping your body straight from head to heels and your arms straight too, until you're in an inclined version of the classic push-up position.
- Keep your body straight as you bend your arms, lowering into a classic push-up position with the handles of the suspension trainer near your nipple line. If the handles are down by your belly or above your shoulders, you need to move your feet back or forward, respectively.
- Straighten your arms, pressing yourself back to the starting push-up position.
Read more: An At-Home Triceps Workout With Just 4 Moves
It might take a little trial and error to find the right position for your suspension trainer. Make sure you stick to a comfortable, controlled range of motion; lowering too far into a push-up, or without control, can hurt your shoulders.
- American Council on Exercise: "Terrific Triceps"
- Journal of Human Kinetics: "Electromyographic Comparison of Traditional and Suspension Push-Ups"
- ExRx.net: "Dumbbell Triceps Extension"
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"
- American Council on Exercise: "How Many Reps Should You Be Doing?"