The triceps pushdown, also known as the triceps pressdown, is undoubtedly the most popular triceps exercise. While the exercise is more popular than it should be, at the same time it is dismissed as worthless by critics. Wrongly.
ABOUT THE EXERCISE
For complete development of your triceps brachii, make sure you train from all shoulder positions: flexed, extended and extra extended. Or seen from the position of the arms: your arms above your head, along your body and behind your upper body.
With the triceps pushdown (extended position) you mainly train the lateral and medial head of the triceps. These heads also come into action with the (narrow) bench press, but with the pushdown you create a fully-fledged finishing touch. For the long triceps head, however, you will need to do exercises with your arms above your head, such as lying triceps extensions. The pushdown alone is therefore certainly not enough to develop your triceps.
Triceps pushdowns are an isolation exercise. This means that there is movement in one joint, in this case the elbow. There is no other muscle that assists in the exercise. So your triceps are all alone.
Attach a straight bar (or a rope – see below) to the cable of a high pulley. Make sure it hangs about eye level.
Grab the bar with an overhand (pronated) grip slightly narrower than shoulder width.
Now push the bar down until your arms are fully or almost fully extended (see below). Hold this position for a moment and now lower the weight stack in a controlled manner by bending your arms completely.
Repeat for desired number of repetitions.
In practice, the described implementation has three variants, all three of which are defensible:
I. Elbows slightly forward, high position in the top
So this implementation is not ‘wrong’; you use a little more long triceps head and you create a good stretch in the bottom position.
II. Strict execution without moving the elbows
You only move your forearms and completely isolate your triceps. Fine, but for some it causes discomfort in the elbows.
III. The elbows move back slightly
This way you turn it into a real pushdown. This variant is less stressful for the elbows.
None of these three is the best exercise: you first and foremost choose the one that is most comfortable for you and where you feel your triceps work the best.
Just make sure you pick one execution and apply it consistently in your program. Although after a while you can safely switch with another variant.
Multiple body positions are okay with this exercise, depending on what you find most comfortable. You can position your shoulders back or forward. If desired, you can also raise them a bit, so shrug them, or just lower them.
Lean forward slightly during the performance, but not too far. Assume an angle of 30 to a maximum of 40 degrees. To do this, take some distance from the pulley – one or two small steps. Also don’t stand any further, because then your lats and rear delts will take over part of the work.
Keep your upper body almost still and do not rock.
RANGE OF MOTION (ROM)
Aim for a full range of motion (ROM). In the lower position, your forearm is almost perpendicular to the floor. In the top one, your hands come out approximately at the height of your chest (depending on the variant you choose – see above), so your forearms should touch the triceps. That is somewhat higher than parallel, so that the upper and lower arms make a smaller angle than the 90 degrees that is often propagated. Try drawing an imaginary semicircle.
Your elbows point straight down, not to the side, during the exercise. Keep them as close to your body as possible, but don’t force them against it. Partly for this reason, it is best not to stand too close to the pulley, but take some distance.
You can lock your elbows, but you don’t have to. Again you can choose: whether you use a full lockout in the bottom position, or you keep some bend in your elbows (although you do apply a full ROM).
In the latter case, you maintain some tension on your triceps (constant tension), creating more metabolic stress. With a full lockout, the tension disappears for a while, but then you benefit from the peak contraction in your triceps again, especially if you hold this position for a while.
Both options are defensible, as long as you make a clear choice. Well, you can combine the two if you wish: when the constant tension gets too great, you ‘pause’ with a full lockout, after which you do a series of repetitions with constant tension, then another lockout and so on.
ROD OR ROPE?
There are many variations of the standard triceps pushdown, performed with a straight bar. The best known is the one with rope (rope attachment), which is often referred to as rope pushdowns. One is not necessarily ‘better’ than the other: above all, it is again a matter of preference. If you can feel your triceps working well and experience no discomfort in shoulders, elbows, forearms and/or wrists, you basically have the right grip.
However, there are some subtle differences between the various grips.
The version with rope appeals more to the long triceps head because of the (semi) neutral grip. And you can give a kind of extra ‘push’ at the bottom of the exercise. As a result, many people appear to be able to tighten their triceps slightly better at the bottom of the movement than in the version with a bar.
However, do not twist your wrists to pull the rope out: that has no added value, unless you are otherwise unable to fully extend your arms. However, most people should be able to push the rope straight down.
With a bar you can generally take a little more weight. Furthermore, our idea is that with a straight bar you use the same (pronated) grip as with, for example, the bench press and shoulder press, in which the triceps play an important role, and that the carry-over is the greatest.
When using a bar, keep your wrists neutral to your forearms, including at the bottom of the movement. So don’t bend your wrists down like you’re doing wrist curls.
So bar and rope both offer subtle benefits, but if you look purely at the total activation of the triceps, the rope version is slightly better than the bar version, according to an EMG study by ACE. But as said, the version with a bar can be made a little heavier, so on balance your choice probably doesn’t matter that much.
If you do the exercise with a bar, you can also perform it with an underhand (supinated) grip. An underhand grip combined with a straight bar keeps your elbows in the correct position and forces you more or less into a strict execution. The big disadvantage, however, is that you can use significantly less weight, which is why the question is how effective this variant is. We advise against it in principle.
In addition to a straight bar, you can also perform the exercise with a V-bar. This semi-neutral grip emphasizes the long head of your triceps, much like the rope attachment version does. In addition, you can use the most weight with this bar, because it offers the most stability to put pressure.
Another option is an EZ bar, which is kinder to your wrists.
Finally, you can also perform the exercise with one arm, with a one-hand grip or single rope attachment.
PLACE IN YOUR TRAINING PROGRAM
It is only in step three that isolation exercises such as triceps extensions and triceps pushdowns come into play. In this sense, you can argue that the triceps pushdown is an advanced exercise because there is simply no room for such exercises in a beginner training program, as you probably need at most 10-12 sets per week to maximize your triceps growth and that includes ‘indirect’ sets of compound exercises.
Nevertheless, the triceps pushdown is known as a beginner exercise, because of its simple execution. Maybe that’s why triceps pushdowns are so popular. Remember, though, that pushdowns primarily target the lateral and medial heads of your triceps. For the long head you should (also) do exercises with the weight above your head.
Finally, don’t use too much weight. If a relatively small muscle is almost alone in an exercise, you should train it in higher rep ranges. So use a weight that allows you to do anywhere from 10 to 20 reps, and train your sets close to failure and for example the last set in a row to complete failure.