The triceps pushdown is among those exercises that seem simple but are easy to do wrong.
When done right, pushdowns are excellent for strengthening the triceps. But if your form is wrong, triceps pushdowns become useless and even dangerous.
Not everybody loves triceps pushdowns, but you should at least give them a shot. Below, I’ll help you set expectations for this exercise and guide you on how to perform triceps pushdowns correctly.
Why Do Triceps Pushdowns?
There are two things that I like a lot about triceps pushdowns (also known as triceps push downs or triceps cable pull downs):
First up, we have convenience. If you have a resistance band, then you may easily do the tricep pushdown at home. To increase strength gains and resistance, you may just switch to a heavier band. Cable tricep pushdowns can be more convenient, but if you are at home, then resistance bands are very nice too.
As for isolation, triceps pushdowns are excellent for working your, well, triceps muscles. Although the triceps are used in many other movements – e.g., bench press or military press – isolated triceps training can be very beneficial for its strength.
If you have weak triceps muscles, then focused triceps training via exercises like pushdowns may help you improve your bench press or any other movement where the triceps are actively engaged.
Triceps Pushdown Muscles Worked
Triceps pushdowns are done to strengthen the triceps muscle. However, this isn’t the only muscle that is engaged in pushdowns.
To help you better understand triceps pushdowns and how they should be performed, I will now briefly cover the muscle groups that are activated during this exercise.
So first off, we have the triceps (triceps brachii). This muscle’s function is the extension of the elbow joint – in other words, straightening the arm. Pushdowns primarily work the medial and lateral heads of the muscle.
Next, we have stabilizing muscles, like your lats, abs, shoulders, chest, and legs. These do not actively contract during pushdowns – instead, they work statically to ensure the stability of your body.
If you do triceps pushdowns incorrectly, other muscles may start assisting you as well. You don’t want that – the very purpose of pushdowns is to train the triceps. If you cheat using your legs, back, and chest, what’s even the point of doing pushdowns?
With that in mind, we should now talk about the proper form for triceps pushdowns.
How To Do Triceps Pushdowns
Here’s how you prepare and perform triceps pushdowns step-by-step:
- Attach a rope attachment or horizontal bar to the cable machine.
- Face the cable machine with your feet slightly apart.
- Brace your abs and tuck your elbows at your sides. Make sure that your chest is out and the shoulder blades are together. Slightly bend forward too.
- Inhale. Push the attachment down until your elbows are fully extended but not locked in the joint. As you push the bar down, exhale.
- Slowly bring the attachment back up and inhale as you do so.
3-4 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions should be fine for most people.
As you can see, triceps pushdowns are fairly simple. They are way easier to learn than the big compound movements.
One thing to keep in mind with triceps pushdowns is that you should find a comfortable starting position for yourself. I prefer to keep my knees and body slightly bent, with the feet a bit wider than shoulder-width. I feel most stable in this position, but chances are that you’ll have a different idea due to differences in body build.
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Mistakes To Avoid When Doing Triceps Pushdowns
Triceps pushdowns are very simple and accessible to learn. However, they are also very easy to do wrong.
Here are the top mistakes that you should avoid with triceps pushdowns to help you set the right form and stick to it. These often come up if the weight is too heavy, but they may also occur in inexperienced people.
First up, we have elbow movement, which is perhaps the most common mistake among beginners.
Ideally, your elbows should be tucked against your sides when you are doing pushdowns. The purpose of doing so is to provide support to your elbows and ensure that they aren’t moving.
The only motion you should be doing in pushdowns is extension and flexion in the elbow joint. This joint should be fixed in place – if you move your elbows back and forth, then you’ll also be moving your shoulder joint. That is not what you want to do.
Now, a slight movement in the elbows is okay – you can’t prevent movement 100%. However, if your elbows are rocking back and forth a lot, you will be using your lats to do pushdowns. Pushdowns aim to work the triceps muscles, so we obviously don’t want any of the bigger muscles to take away the load.
While we are on the subject of bigger muscles, it’s really easy to “cheat” in elbow pushdowns.
If you don’t have rock-solid form, you might quickly let your legs, pecs, or lats take over. You should assume a starting position and maintain it throughout the entire set.
Elbows flaring out
If your elbows flare out during pushdowns, you will be engaging your delts and pecs. These much stronger muscles can easily make this exercise useless, so be sure to keep your elbows tucked against your sides.
Now, your triceps will still work with your elbows flared out, and you may be able to push heavier weight. But the effect certainly won’t be the same. There are way better exercises for the chest and delts anyway, and it’s always better to lower weight to maintain form.
Using the knees and the torso
Any movement in your knees and torso is going to shift the load away from the triceps. More precisely, you’ll be engaging your legs and back if you do this. With the assistance of these powerful muscles, you can move tremendous weight in pushdowns.
But if you use your legs, is there even a point in triceps pushdowns?
The answer should be pretty obvious. As I mentioned above, assume a comfortable starting position and maintain it during the set.
Curling the wrists
Your wrists should remain neutral throughout the entire set. Don’t curl up your wrists – not only is there no point in doing this, but you are also running the risk of injuring the wrists. Even if you do want to work your wrists, do some wrist curls or deadlifts without straps instead.
Triceps Pushdown Variations
Triceps pushdowns have variations as well. If you don’t have a cable machine or don’t see any results from regular pushdowns, give the following variations a shot.
Resistance band pushdown
If you have a resistance band, you may do pushdowns at home. You just need to fix the resistance band around a sturdy object above your head (like a hook) and perform pushdowns following the above steps.
Resistance band pushdowns actually have one significant advantage over regular cable tricep press downs. As you push the band down and stretch the cable, resistance increases. In a cable machine, the resistance is constant through the entire range of motion.
On the other hand, you can’t as easily adjust the resistance level. To make the exercise harder, you’ll need to get yourself a heavier band.
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Alternating/one-arm triceps pushdowns
Alternating/one-arm triceps pushdowns are great if one of your arms is stronger than the other.
Depending on the equipment you have, you could try alternating pushdowns (where you do one pushdown with one arm and the next pushdown with the other) or one-arm pushdowns. Alternating pushdowns can be easily done with a resistance band, while cable machines are suitable for one-arm pushdowns.
If you are going to do one-arm pushdowns on a cable machine, replace the bar with handles for comfort.
Finally, you may try reverse-grip pushdowns where your palms are facing up, like in curls.
This triceps pushdown variation is more challenging than regular pushdowns. They could help you better isolate your triceps muscles as well, so if you feel that your chest or shoulders are working too much during standard pushdowns, give this variation a shot.
Triceps Pushdown Alternatives
The triceps pushdown is terrific for triceps training, but it is just one among many triceps exercises. A few alternatives are described below.
Narrow-grip bench press
Did you know that the narrower your grip in the bench press is, the more your triceps are engaged?
Unlike pushdowns, narrow-grip bench press is a compound movement, so it engages more muscles. Like in the regular bench press, your shoulder and chest muscles are working as well. However, precisely because of this, you could lift heavier weights and potentially have better triceps gains!
So next time on triceps day, try a narrower bench press grip and see how it goes. Don’t go too narrow, though, since the barbell may start swinging around as you do presses.
You may try narrow-grip dumbbell presses as an alternative as well, by the way.
Everybody knows skull crushers. This, at times, frightening exercise is great for working the triceps.
Skull crushers can be performed with dumbbells or a barbell, whichever you have or whichever is more comfortable for you. You lie on the ground or a bench, hold the weight above your chest, engage your core, fix your elbows, and slowly bend the elbows to bring the weight toward your head and back up.
Overhead triceps extensions
This one is performed with a dumbbell. If you have kettlebells, they work too, but a dumbbell is the best.
Grab your dumbbell(s), assume a standing position, and raise the weight above your head onto straight arms. Bending only at the elbows, slowly lower the weight behind your head and then lift it back up. You may perform this exercise with one or two dumbbells.
Remember that only your elbows should be moving during pushdowns. If you move any other joint, you’ll be engaging other, bigger muscles, defeating the point of this exercise.
Triceps pushdowns can be done anywhere, and they are great if you feel that your triceps are weak or visually lag behind other muscles. Follow my tips and remember to keep the weight light enough to maintain form but heavy enough to train the muscle.