Wanting to build big and strong triceps isn’t just about aesthetics. The triceps are a powerful contributor to compound pressing movements like the barbell bench press and the overhead press. Because compound exercises are the cornerstone of many programs, the triceps themselves are often not trained in isolation.
Heavily loaded movement patterns can certainly challenge the triceps. But isolation exercises can be the missing link in both strength and physique development. Arranging triceps isolation exercises with various loads and repetition ranges can perfectly complement a barbell pressing routine or a standalone arm day.
There’s really one way to build your triceps, and that’s to extend your arms. Virtually any isolation movement for the triceps is a triceps extension. You’re probably familiar with a handful of them — like the rope pushdown or overhead extension. But a crucial factor to adding mass to the back of your arms is to vary the movements you use. Certain movements target specific portions of the triceps better.
These variations are sure to stretch sleeves and help set new personal records. This article will take you through nine of these triceps exercises, explain the anatomy of the triceps, and discuss the benefits of triceps-specific training.
Triceps Extension Variations
- Straight-Bar Triceps Pushdown
- Single-Arm Cable Pushdown
- Rope Triceps Extension
- Cross-Body Cable Extension
- Overhead Rope Triceps Extension
- Single-Arm Overhead Cable Triceps Extension
- Cable Triceps Kickback
- Machine Triceps Extension
- Reverse Grip Triceps Extension
Using a straight bar for this variation allows you to potentially push a lot more weight than rope varieties of this lift.
The range of motion stays consistent throughout the move, since the bar never shifts (unlike a rope). While there are advantages to using ropes, this variation lets you go heavy for increased hypertrophy. You can also easily switch your grip for more variation and forearm stimulation.
Benefits of the Straight-Bar Triceps Pushdown
- You can handle a lot of weight with the triceps pushdown, which in turn should stimulate more hypertrophy.
- This move is great for improving triceps size and strength.
- You can use a variety of different cable attachments to find a grip and angle that best suits your body and goals.
How to Do the Straight-Bar Triceps Pushdown
Line up a cable stack system with the attachment point raised all the way to the top of the machine. Using a straight-bar attachment, grip the handle with your palms facing down at a comfortable width. Take a half-step away from the cable stack to allow a subtle hip hinge as you draw the handle to chest height. Extend your elbows by pushing down against the handle until your arms are as locked out as possible.
The single-arm cable pushdown is a unilateral variation of the straight-bar pushdown.
As physique or strength develops, breaking isolation exercises up into unilateral variations can increase the exercise’s challenge and benefits. And by working just one side of your body at a time, you’re also doubling your overall rep count for more overall work. This may not seem like a significant deal, but those extra reps add up workout to workout and can result in a fair number of extra calories burned.
Benefits of the Single-Arm Cable Pushdown
- You can improve your anti-rotational strength due to the unilateral nature of the move. Your core will work to ensure your torso stays rigid as you perform the movement.
- An even workload between your arms ensures symmetrical growth and strength.
- This move allows customizable positioning to accommodate muscle mass or body size.
How to Do the Single-Arm Cable Pushdown
Draw the D-handle cable attachment down alongside your body in a similar starting position to the straight-bar pushdown. Use your opposite hand to anchor against the cable stack. Drive the handle straight down until your elbow is locked out. Let the weight draw itself back up to chest height with control, then repeat. To recruit more of your core muscles, perform the exercise without placing your non-working hand onto the cable machine.
The first “true extension” on this list, the rope triceps extension takes advantage of long cables or ropes to allow your arms to travel alongside your body.
The length of the cable attachments allow a much more natural extension arc of your elbow. This provides a more complete range of motion in both the starting and locked out positions. Taking your triceps through this range of motion can work wonders for stimulating muscle growth, since you’ll be recruiting as many muscle fibers as possible.
Benefits of the Rope Triceps Extensions
- This move requires less weight to produce overload than pushdowns, which means you won’t be fatiguing yourself as much for big results.
- The movement’s longer range of motion can recruit more of the triceps muscle, which can translate into more hypertrophy.
- Because bracing is less of a limitation for this move, you can focus more on your triceps.
How to Do the Rope Triceps Extensions
Take a half-step backwards away from the cable stack to allow proper range of motion. Draw your elbows tight to the sides of your body. This is the starting position. Complete each repetition by driving your arms down and alongside your body to a hard elbow extension. Lock out your arms each time. Your grip should start neutral and then slowly rotate downward as the triceps get closer to lockout.
The cross-body cable extension utilizes a dual cable stack set-up to more directly align the resistance of the machine with each arm.
Where a rope triceps extension allows a greater range of motion relative to a pushdown, the cross body style allows each cable stack to challenge the full range of motion more consistently. This consistency allows you to spend more time under more tension, which means you can use less weight to produce serious results.
Benefits of the Cross-Body Cable Extension
- The unilateral set-up allows you to target strength and muscle imbalances.
- More consistent resistance through the range of motion — thanks to the tension of the cable — produces more muscular tension.
- This move requires less weight to produce overload, which means you don’t have to eat into your recovery to get desired results.
How to Do the Cross-Body Cable Extension
Grip one cable per hand using just the carabiner. The left cable should be in your right hand and vice versa. With the cables in hand, draw your elbows down to rest alongside each side of the body, forming an “X” with the cables in front of you.
Take a small step away from the machine. Slightly hinge and brace your core and low traps – this is the starting position. Bend your arms alongside your body, adjusting the angle of your arms to stick with the line of pull from the cable as closely as possible. Return to the starting position with control.
The overhead position places the long head under greater challenge, where non-overhead positions may lack this stimulus. This helps you develop a fuller-looking arm while also promoting shoulder health. You’ll be addressing a lot of potential weak points all at the same time, given that both overhead stability and the triceps long head too often go underdeveloped.
Benefits of the Overhead Rope Triceps Extension
- The bilateral rope attachment means you can use more weight. Generally, you are stronger when using both arms at once versus just one.
- This move helps target the long-head of triceps, which can translate into bigger-looking arms.
- Overhead movement can promote mobility and stability of the shoulder, which is great for overall lifting strength and health.
How to Do the Overhead Rope Triceps Extension
Lower the cable stack attachment point to the lowest setting with the rope attachment selected. Grip the ropes with the same hand orientation that you’d use for a triceps rope extension. Rotate your body to face away from the machine with your arms overhead. The resistance should be pulling straight down, prompting your elbows to bend — this is the starting position.
Your elbows should be flared outward into the most comfortable position, which will be highly individual. Brace your core and drive your hands fully overhead to lockout. Return to the starting position with control and repeat.
The single-arm variation of the overhead triceps extension is an extremely valuable tool for shoulder health and triceps development. Because it’s unilateral, you’ll use less weight. But you’ll also have a more precise set-up and individualized range of motion.
By making your arms perform independently, you’re eliminating any external stability provided by using the single rope attachment. You’ll also be addressing any strength and muscle imbalances between your arms.
Benefits of the Single-Arm Overhead Cable Triceps Extension
- The unilateral set-up allows this movement to be highly individualized to target any unilateral weaknesses.
- This lift provides enormous shoulder mobility and stability development, which can carry over into your compound lifts.
- You can target the long-head of triceps, which is great for developing bigger arms.
How to Do the Single-Arm Overhead Cable Triceps Extensions
Set up a cable stack with the attachment point at the bottom-most position. Grab the carabiner and rotate to face your body away from the machine. Raise your arm overhead and start with a bent elbow.
Attempt to straighten your upper arm as much as possible. Extend your elbow by driving your hand upward against the resistance of the cable stack. Perform for repetitions.
Cable triceps kickbacks are a quick improvement on the dumbbell version of the same exercise. Triceps kickbacks are often used to cap off a good arm session.
Using a cable can help pump up the effectiveness of this exercise and your ability to keep overloading it without straining your shoulders. By keeping your shoulders out of a compromising position, you’re allowing yourself to work your triceps even if you’ve got shoulder issues. Plus, you’ll be able to add a lot of volume to your triceps workout without stacking on a lot of heavy recovery needs.
Benefits of the Cable Triceps Kickback
- The consistent resistance throughout the range of motion allows for greater muscle recruitment.
- This move requires less weight to produce overload, which means that you can practice this lift sustainably.
- An easy set-up makes this a simple add-on at the end of your triceps session.
How to Do the Cable Triceps Kickback
First, choose a hinged position or a bench to kneel on. Once you select an appropriate height for the cable stack, grab the cable by the carabiner. Your palm should be facing your body. The cable should be trying to pull the carabiner towards the machine through the thumb and forefinger. Gripping tightly, flex and extend your elbow from an approximate 90-degree angle to complete lockout. Repeat for repetitions.
The exercise itself mimics many of the benefits of the straight or neutral grip cable pushdown. But this one doesn’t require all that bracing, so you can focus more of your energy on engaging your triceps. And by focusing that energy all on your triceps, you’ll be able to recruit a lot more muscle fibers to stimulate hypertrophy.
Benefits of the Machine Triceps Extension
- The externally stabilized load from the machine allows you to move more weight, potentially triggering more hypertrophy.
- Since the weight is stabilized for you, you can get your muscles accustomed to the lines of pull in triceps extensions while focusing fully on the load itself.
- You can safely hit muscle failure without worrying about stabilizing the load under pressure.
How to Do the Machine Triceps Extension
Using the landmarks provided by the machine, line up your elbow with the indicated pivot points. Grip the handles with a neutral (palms facing each other) hand position. Using the foot pads, drive your legs hard to secure the small of your back against the seat. Push your hands against the handles through the range of motion to lockout. Return to starting position with control and repeat.
The reverse grip triceps extension is an underhand variation of the straight-bar triceps pushdown. Where the pushdown version is capable of greater loading, the underhand grip helps dial in the mind-muscle connection.
Given that higher loads often cause a grip failure before the triceps get enough stimulation, strict technique — and mental grit — is absolutely necessary. This one might get “boring” since you’re using such little weight, but that’s exactly what makes it so crucial to your program. You’ll be forced to tune in to “squeezing” your triceps on every rep, which primes you for a great arms workout.
Benefits of the Reverse-Grip Triceps Extension
- This lift helps develop a mind-muscle connection, which can help elevate your training.
- You can use this as a great warm-up exercise for other triceps exercises, which can help you become more resilient against injuries.
- This move requires minimal load to stimulate growth, which won’t eat as much into your recovery needs.
How to Do the Reverse-Grip Triceps Extension
Using either a straight-bar or unilateral D-link attachment, grab the implement with your hand facing upwards. Hinge subtly while bracing your core and low traps to stabilize against the weight stack. Draw your arm(s) alongside your body and extend your elbows to lockout.
Anatomy of the Triceps
The triceps muscle group can be divided into three distinct muscle bellies (or heads) — the long head, lateral head, and medial head. Each of these muscle heads can be targeted depending on the exercise or orientation of your arm, a detail that has a subtle but meaningful impact on physique development.
Long Head of the Triceps
The long head of triceps originates on the infraglenoid tubercle of the scapula and inserts on the posterior surface of the olecranon process. In simpler terms, the long head of your triceps spans from a point on your scapula or shoulder and attaches around the point of your elbow. This means that overhead exercises place a bit more emphasis on the triceps long head.
Lateral Head of the Triceps
The lateral head of the triceps originates just above the radial groove of the humerus (the top of the upper arm bone). It inserts on the posterior surface of the olecranon process (point of the elbow). This means that the majority of triceps exercises, particularly those that keep your arm in a strong and stable position, target the lateral head of your triceps. Usually, neutral or pronated (palm facing down) grips target the triceps lateral head.
Medial Head of the Triceps
The medial head of the triceps also originates just below the top of the upper arm bone and inserts roughly at the point of the elbow. Similar to the lateral head of the triceps, many exercises that keep your arm in a strong and stable position stimulate the triceps medial head.
Benefits of Isolated Triceps Training
Due to their unique anatomy, each triceps head may not be stimulated to the same degree by each exercise. This is especially true when performing primarily large compound movements like the barbell bench press. With this in mind, isolated triceps training can help you form a more complete physique, boost strength gains, and provide a great carryover into triceps-dominated pressing exercises.
If muscle gain is your goal, it helps to have a good mix of different triceps isolation exercises that develop each head of the muscle group. Unilateral and overhead exercises can help develop the long head of triceps. To target the medial and lateral heads of the triceps, use a mix of heavier pressing or pushdown-style exercises.
Strength training for individual muscle groups can be challenging. The majority of strength exercises produce a ton of systemic fatigue. Systemic fatigue is another way of describing full-body fatigue. In this case, the triceps may not have had an adequate direct dose of exercise for growth yet.
The overhead press or bench press, for example, are extremely taxing on the body. Because of this, there’s a solid chance that the triceps don’t get enough direct work before the rest of your body is too tired to carry on. Enter isolation exercises, particularly ones that are stabilized for you. Machine extensions, dips, and triceps pushdowns can be extremely effective at strengthening the triceps when big compounds have run their course for the day.
Pressing Carry Over
As with strength gain in general, improving big compound upper body exercises such as the bench press and dips can be accelerated by direct triceps work. Where a bench press may not add adequate volume to continue growing the triceps over time, training the triceps in isolation can definitely help improve the bench press. Hitting the triceps to complement barbell training can keep their size and strength more than adequate to outrun any potential plateaus.
Tossing in new variations of triceps extensions is a great strategy to keep workouts from becoming boring. Keeping training enjoyable usually produces better consistency, which is a critical part of developing sleeve-stretching triceps.
Plus, depending on your arm position and grip style, you can target different triceps heads to improve any weaknesses in strength and physique. Direct triceps work can also keep your arm strength from plateauing you on the bench press. So, what are you waiting for?
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