We love the tricep pushdown because it’s a triceps isolation exercise to improve the elbow hinge – a complement to your compound movements (like bench press). But what if you can’t use the tricep pushdown?
We’re going through our favorite tricep pushdown alternatives, so you can get the best from your upper arm exercises without a cable machine. Let’s get started with why the tricep pushdown is so popular, and what factors a tricep pushdown alternative needs to offer.
The tricep muscle
Triceps make up around 60-70% of your upper arms, and they have more potential for growth than the biceps. Effective triceps exercise – like the pushdown – can be a huge factor in how muscular you look in and out of clothes. The triceps are a silhouette muscle – they fill out your sleeves and build a well-rounded upper body.
The triceps are not the only primary muscle group in a push exercise, like the bench press or push ups, but they are a major contributor.
The triceps are both elbow and shoulder muscles, as the long head crosses into the shoulder. This means that you should train triceps with a range of shoulder positions – especially emphasizing the length of the movement and stretch-mediated exercise.
Triceps exercises should focus on keeping the elbows tucked and stabilizing one of the joints. Typically, a stable shoulder means a more effective triceps workout, whether that’s with challenging bodyweight exercise (like diamond push ups) or the time-tested close grip bench press.
What we want to do is hinge the elbow and either exaggerate shoulder-elbow relationships for length with lighter exercises (like the overhead extension), or keep that shoulder position stable throughout a tricep exercise.
What is the triceps pushdown? (cable machine pushdown)
The tricep pushdown is a cable machine triceps exercise that uses cable tension on a stack machine to train the triceps. It’s a way of pushing down against weight – a rare way to train that hits the triceps hard.
There are a few key factors that make the triceps pushdown so important:
- You can get a really deep bend in the elbow joint in the starting position, extending range of motion
- You finish with arms straight, developing joint and end-range isometric strength
- Elbow extension is directly targeted – perfect for tricep strength, carryover to other exercises (like bench press), and mass gain
- The pushdown lets you overload the medial and lateral heads directly, without being limited by long head position (like the overhead tricep extension, e.g.)
These factors make for an important all-rounder that can be a great isolation exercise for burn-out and pump work. It’s also great for elbow health if you follow the full range of motion.
Any great cable pushdown alternative needs to do at least some of these things – or do them better than the standard cable pushdown. So let’s look at our favorite triceps pushdown alternatives – and why we chose them.
What makes a good tricep pushdown alternative?
Tricep pushdown alternatives need to replicate or improve on the major factors of a tricep pushdown: elbow hinge isolation, good range of motion, and a loaded straight arm position to emphasize the squeeze and strengthen lockout.
Some exercises do this directly, like the resistance band triceps pushdown (an alternative to the standard tricep pushdown position with a band instead of cable).
Others, like dumbbell skull crushers, focus on keeping the elbows tucked and grinding out high rep sets and use different types of resistance for training triceps (with free weights instead of constant tension).
The 7 best tricep pushdown alternative exercises
1. Close grip bench press (or narrow grip bench press)
The close grip bench press is a more tricep-focused form of bench press, where the elbows are tucked and the elbow hinges more. With the arms shoulder width apart, you reduce how the elbows flare to emphasize elbow hinging. This makes the close grip bench press a superior triceps builder.
Like the triceps pushdown, the close grip bench press is a great way to focus on elbow extension, as well as being a useful all-purpose push exercise and perfect to build ‘straight upper body strength’ for other exercises and sport purposes.
2. Overhead tricep extensions
Tricep extension exercises are great – and the overhead extension is among the best. It’s an easy way to isolate elbow extension, which makes it the perfect triceps pushdown alternative.
With an easy setup, great range of motion, and focus on the long head of the triceps brachii, you get a ton of value from this exercise. You can use light dumbbells to make it a pump exercise, or go superheavy.
This is also one of the best triceps pushdown alternatives for supersets. You can combine it with a skull crusher variation to double up on tricep gains or try pairing it with a biceps exercise to score both sides of the arms for better time-saving.
3. Lying dumbbell tricep extensions
This is a simple but effective exercise for the triceps. It’s like a skull crusher but with a slightly more reclined arm position to hit the long head more effectively. This makes it a powerful choice for beginners, where it has a slightly shorter range than the overhead extension mentioned above.
This comes with all the scaling of the other exercises, and if you keep the arms shoulder-width apart, it provides a great tricep burner. This is a great lighter choice for long sets, supersets, and circuit training for the triceps.
4. EZ curl bar skull crushers
The EZ curl bar skull crusher is a great alternative to tricep pushdowns – with a decent range and it offers great carry over to military press with its tricep extension focus.
Triceps pushdowns and skullcrushers are both classic options and the EZ curl bar skullcrushers are a great choice for two-handed triceps pushdown alternatives. Combine with some single-arm training for the best total results.
5. JM Press (Bench press alternative)
The JM press is somewhere between a close grip bench and a tricep extension. It’s a modified movement that replaces triceps pushdowns very closely – it has a great range of motion and moves the shoulder joint, shoulder blades, and the elbow.
This is often a very heavy loading option, so make sure to give yourself time to recover or use it as a primary muscle-builder. Unlike the triceps pushdown, it’s not a light choice.
You need to fit it into a week of training being aware that you’ll have smoked upper arms the next day!
6. Body weight skull crushers
Using body weight will allow you to develop your triceps muscle anywhere, with exercises like diamond push ups and other body weight options. As with all skullcrusher variations, this is a great choice for isolating that elbow hinge and building massive strength and size.
Unlike the triceps pushdowns, but like most bench alternatives, the bodyweight skullcrusher is a heavy training option. You can scale it with more leg support or a higher surface to rest your hands on – but it’s still quite demanding.
Prepare with push ups and other body weight exercise to make sure you’ve got a base of strength for this one!
7. Banded tricep pushdowns
Using a resistance band for your pushdown makes it harder at the bottom – building better lock-out strength. The triceps love elastic resistance, and the resistance band can easily be adjusted to increase tension and make it a more challenging exercise depending on your strength.
The resistance band pushdown is a very effective triceps exercise, and one of the best replacement exercises for the cable or lat pulldown machine version. They’re also a great choice for developing secondary muscle groups for stability.
A banded tricep pushdown isn’t always as effective as a cable machine, so you should combine this with heavier tricep exercises close grip bench presses.
Conclusion: final thoughts
Triceps pushdowns are a regular sight in the gym for how much you can feel them. Triceps pushdown alternatives come in many shapes and sizes but they all seek to replicate that same high-quality experience.
The more you can get into long-range elbow hinging, the better the results. You should also make sure you’re combining different types of exercise: one-arm and two-arm, long-range and short-range, and then getting into the long head with shoulder and elbow movements.
With this list of our favorite triceps pushdown alternatives, you can see some of the best options out there. Whether you’re training with weights or calisthenics, you can get excellent tricep strength and size results!
- Bodyweight Tricep Exercises
- Isometric Tricep Exercises
- Lateral Head Tricep Exercises
- Medial Head Tricep Exercises
- Tricep Pushdown Alternatives
- TRX Tricep Exercises
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