Tricep Pushdowns are one of the first exercises most lifters learn, and for good reason. Whether you perform them with a bar or a rope, Pushdowns—often called Tricep Extensions—deliver a serious pump, helping you build bulging muscles along the back of your arms.
That is, of course, if you perform the move correctly. And what lots of people think is the right way to do Pushdowns—standing rigid and upright, gripping the bar (or rope) with bent elbows, and keeping the elbows pinned to the sides of the torso—isn’t correct at all. In fact, performing Pushdowns in this manner fails to hit an entire segment of the triceps.
To understand why, you need to know a little bit about triceps anatomy. That might sound boring, but hear us out.
The triceps consist of three components known as heads. The medial head and lateral head attach from the upper arm bone to the forearm and extend the elbow. The long head runs from the backside of the shoulder blade to the forearm. It helps the other two heads extend the elbow and also extends the shoulder, which occurs when you pull your arm straight down.
When people perform Triceps Pulldowns standing straight up, they fail to work the shoulder-extending function of the long head.
“Everyone goes on the rope pulldown machine, locks their elbows to their sides and goes to town,” says Dr. John Rusin, strength and conditioning coach, physical therapist and author of the Functional Hypertrophy Training Plan. “That’s not the most advantageous way to train the triceps.”
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By using this approach, you leave a third of the muscle—the long head—out of the movement. Making matters worse, the long head is arguably most important part of the triceps. Not only does training the long head add serious size to the back of the shoulder, it also increases shoulder stability. So by omitting the long head from your Pushdown, you’re missing out on size and injury-prevention benefits.
Rusin explains that to correctly train the triceps, you need to work them through a full range of motion—just as you would with any other muscle group. And the trick to getting the long head involved in the Tricep Pushdown is actually quite simple: Just tilt your torso forward at a 30- to 40-degree angle instead of standing straight up.
From this stance, grip the bar or rope as you normally would and pull it down until your upper arm forms a 90-degree angle with your sides. That’s your starting position. From there, drive your arms down until your entire arm is perpendicular to the floor. That’s the bottom of the rep.
The forward lean might make you think you’re cheating. It looks like you’re putting your back into the move. But what you’re really doing is allowing the three heads in your triceps to move through their full ranges of motion, including that shoulder-extending motion of the long head.
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“When the weight brings you up, not only is your elbow going to flex, but your shoulder is going to come forward and flex as well, putting stress through the long head of the triceps,” explains Rusin. “And then when you come through, you’re going to initiate with an extension at the shoulder joint to get a full range of motion through the entire triceps group.”
This concept applies to any triceps extension exercise. For example, to more effectively engage the long head of the triceps, you can perform Skullcrushers on a decline bench or allow your upper arms to shift back a bit as you lower the weight, instead of keeping them perpendicular to the ground
“If you incorporate shoulder extension and flexion in direct triceps work, it’s going to work really well,” adds Rusin.
To build a larger and stronger triceps, Rusin recommends performing between 8 and 12 reps. Explosively straighten your arms to push the weight down, and control it on the way up over two seconds. Ideally, each set should take about 30 to 40 seconds to complete.
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