Cable Pushdown: Benefits, Muscles Worked, and More

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
November 27, 2022

The triceps are a vital muscle group for pushing strength and stability in bench presses and overhead movements. The triceps are smaller upper-body primary mover muscles for elbow extension that also aid in shoulder extension. Both beginners and expert lifters may utilize the cable pushdown exercise to help increase triceps strength and size.

Cable pushdowns are excellent workouts for targeting and isolating the triceps. Benefits of performing cable pushdowns include increased arm size, the ability to control weight easier than with dumbbells and barbells, and a reduced risk of injury. 

Several pushdown variations employ various cable attachments to execute the exercise. The straight bar, EZ bar, and rope attachments all engage the triceps, although to a somewhat similar degree of muscular recruitment and activation. One may also utilize a flat bench to perform a lying cable pushdown for better stability when loading the muscles with greater resistance.

What is a Cable Pushdown?

A cable pushdown, often known as a triceps pushdown, is a single-joint isolation workout that focuses on and isolates the triceps muscles. To perform cable pushdowns, stand shoulder-width apart in front of a cable machine, feet approximately a step apart from the pulley. Next, take hold of the cable machine's handle attachment, whether it be a rope, a straight bar, or an EZ bar, and push down on the handles until the elbows are almost straight.

cable pushdown

According to research by Kholinne et al., the cable pushdown exercise targets the long head, which creates the required force to extend the elbow at low shoulder elevation. However, when the shoulder is elevated to a high angle (at least 90°), the medial head takes over as the primary muscle for extending the elbow.

Unlike the biceps, where hand orientation affects muscle activation, the triceps' lateral, medial, and long heads are mainly unaffected by hand supination or pronation. What is impacted is the strength of the grip while employing a supinated hand hold on the bar, and as a result, the exercise's safety is compromised as there will be more strain on the wrist. Although a supinated grip on the bar may help keep the elbows in the same position throughout the movement.

Muscles Worked by the Cable Pushdown

The triceps brachii muscle has three heads: long, lateral, and medial. It is a horseshoe-shaped muscle positioned in the back of the upper arm. Working all three heads of the triceps is essential for upper arm development, and the cable pulldown provides pretty much exactly that.

How to Perform a Cable Pushdown

To perform the cable pushdown, start using a resistance that can be done for three sets of 8–15 repetitions, allowing one to maintain proper form throughout the session.

Begin by setting the pulley to the highest placement on the cable machine. Attach a rope handle on the cable's end, grab the rope with a neutral grip and take a step away from the device. Do not move too far away from the machine to lessen lats engagement in this exercise. Stand with the feet shoulder-width apart, a slight bend in the knees, and push the buttocks out by bending at the hips.

cable pushdown muscles

Retract the scapula and stick the chest out. The shoulders should be directly over the toes of the feet, and the upper arms perpendicular to the floor. The forearms' starting position should be at about a 105° angle of elbow flexion.

Engage the core, and inhale while pushing down on the rope, leaving a slight bend on the elbow at the bottom of the movement. Then, reverse the action in a controlled manner, returning to the starting position. Maintain elbow position at all times.

Benefits of the Cable Pushdown

Increases Upper Body Strength and Corrects Muscle Imbalances

Although the biceps is supposed to be stronger than the triceps, there is a natural size difference between the two muscles that favors the triceps. However, we see more people in the gym training their biceps more frantically than they do for their triceps, which sometimes leads to muscular imbalances and affects performance in sports and daily activities.

Because the triceps and biceps operate as each other's antagonists, their optimal strength ratio should be around 1:1. Cable pushdown exercises assist in improving the triceps' strength imbalances over the biceps. In addition, this workout strengthens not just the upper arms but also the abdomen, back, and shoulder muscles.

The triceps are an important but sometimes ignored muscle group, and cable pushdowns can help anyone get more out of their upper-body compound exercises. For example, one may increase their performance during close-grip bench presses, diamond push-ups, and overhead workouts by practicing cable pushdowns to strengthen the triceps. It also improves an individual's lockout, which is the final third of the range of motion in a bench press and is heavily triceps-dependent.

Safer for Breaking Plateaus and Reducing the Risk of Injury

Loading the muscles with greater resistance using cable machines is considerably safer than using free weights to break plateaus. For example, it would be risky to break plateaus by lifting larger weights than usual while executing a skull crusher, an overhead triceps extension, or a close-grip bench press. Compared to free weights triceps extensions, cable pushdowns employing larger weights avoids placing you in circumstances that may cause discomfort and injury.

Mistakes to Avoid in Cable Pushdowns

Although the cable pushdown appears to be a simple workout, it requires muscular coordination and whole-body stability to perform it effectively. This total-body recruitment also generates a plethora of issues for execution and technique to arise.

Wrists Bending and Instability

Always keep the hands in line with the forearms when using a supinated or pronated grip. The knuckles are in a straight line with the forearms and elbows. Do not curl the wrist in any direction. If wrist stability is an issue, try using a semi-pronated or neutral grip handle like a rope or V-shaped bar attachment on the cable machine.

Incorrect Posture

Arching the back or hunching the shoulders forward during cable pushdowns prevents the core from adequately stabilizing during the movement. One can only engage the core effectively by securing the spine in a neutral position.

For better balance and stability, take a shoulder-width stance with hips and knees slightly bent, shoulders directly over the toes, buttocks pushed back out, the back straight, and the shoulders retracted.

Elbow Instability and Rowing Motion

The cable pushdown's range of motion should only come from the elbows, not the shoulders. When the elbows flare out, try to use a supinated grip for a few days to train the elbow to remain tucked. Always keep the alignment of the upper arms perpendicular to the floor and maintain elbow position throughout the movement. 

Maintain shoulder position at the bottom and the top of the movement. For example, if an individual let the shoulders move along with the elbow, the triceps get less engagement as the lats would be helping move the weight.

Overexertion

Although overloading is necessary to promote hypertrophy and strength development, too much weight progression would be detrimental and might lead to overexertion injuries. In addition, cable machines provide a sense of security that may drive some people to take on significantly greater loads than they are accustomed to in their training regimen. 

Overestimation of one's capacity might explain why persons who exercise on machines are more likely to get injuries due to excessive overloading. Moderate load progressions on workouts should be practiced at all times to avoid any risk caused by overexertion.

Final Thoughts

Maintaining balance and stability may be difficult when a person can perform a standing cable pushdown with resistance near his body weight. For resistance near body weight, the seated cable pushdown variation provides a more stable platform for the body to execute the exercise correctly. 

Position an inclined bench facing away from the cable machine and adjust the backrest at a 45° angle. Grab the rope handles and sit on the bench with the back firmly planted on the backrest. Shoulders flexed at a 20-30° angle and the elbow at a 105° flexion. One may also utilize the single-arm cable pushdown to train the triceps for better movement control.

References:

1. Kholinne E, Zulkarnain RF, Sun YC, Lim S, Chun JM, Jeon IH. The different role of each head of the triceps brachii muscle in elbow extension. Acta Orthop Traumatol Turc. 2018;52(3):201-205. doi:10.1016/j.aott.2018.02.005

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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