9 Great Triceps Pushdown Alternatives to Maximize Gains

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
July 29, 2022

The tricep pushdown is a cable machine resistance exercise performed for the purposes of rehabilitating or training the triceps brachii in the capacity of an isolation exercise.

However, this particular exercise may require substitution in a workout program or rehabilitation routine, either due to a lack of available equipment or the need to accommodate other changes in said fitness routine.

Fortunately, a variety of other alternative triceps isolation exercises exist that can recreate or even improve upon the sort of training stimuli, training intensity and time under tension that the triceps pushdown provides.

What Muscles are Activated by the Triceps Pushdown and its Alternatives?

Being an isolation exercise, the triceps pushdown only activates a single muscle group – namely, that of the triceps brachii located along the rear of the arm, of which is separated (as per its name) into three heads.

cable tricep pushdown

These heads are referred to as the lateral head on the outer side of the arm, the medial head in the center, and the long head in the inner portion of the arm, all of which are responsible for different motions involving the release of force in an adductive capacity.

Though it may depend on the particular angle and grip of the exerciser as they perform the triceps pushdown, it is generally the lateral head that receives the largest volume of muscular activation and training stimuli from the exercise, meaning that potential alternative exercises 

Why Should the Triceps Pushdown be Alternated with Other Exercises?

The triceps pushdown is a widely utilized exercise for the purposes of isolating the triceps brachii so as to induce muscular hypertrophy and strength gains with the use of time under tension as well as dynamic muscular contraction.

Despite this, however, the triceps pushdown can have a few drawbacks that require it to be replaced with another exercise that can replicate or even surpass it in terms of the sort of training stimuli imparted.

The most common problems encountered with the triceps pushdown primarily have to do with the sort of attachments that are used during the exercise, with straight bar triceps pushdowns placing undue stress on the elbow and wrist joints.

tricep pushdown substitutes

A different but similar set of problems is found in the use of rope attachment triceps pushdowns wherein the particular angle of training may take some of the resistance away from the triceps brachii muscle group itself.

And considering the fact that the triceps pushdown is a unilateral exercise – that is to say, performed with both sides of the body – it is likely to exacerbate or induce muscular imbalances if performed repeatedly without the addition of bilateral isolation exercises as well.

How Should a Workout Program Change when Replacing Triceps Pushdowns?

When choosing to substitute the presence of triceps pushdowns in a workout program with a similar exercise, the exerciser or their coach must also modify said program in order to assure that the intended training benefits and muscular activation are being achieved despite the modification.

This will depend on the sort of alternative exercise that is being used, with the substitution of triceps pushdown with a heavy compound exercise requiring far more drastic changes in the workout program than if one were to replace the triceps pushdown with a less intense isolation exercise, such as triceps kickbacks.

Generally, a good rule of thumb is that if the exerciser finds themselves or their triceps brachii muscles becoming overly fatigued on a regular basis, it is best for the workout program to involve less volume or less intense exercises targeting that particular part of the body.

The opposite is also true in the case that the exerciser finds their triceps to be poorly trained and not developing at the same rate as the rest of their muscle groups, with either an increase in the intensity of the exerciser’s repetitions or the addition of more exercises solving for this issue.

Free Weight Alternatives to the Triceps Pushdown

The primary difference between that of a free weight exercise and the sort of exercises involving cable machines like the triceps pushdown is that free weight exercises are not self-stabilizing, requiring the addition of other muscle groups so as to reduce the chance of injury as well as maintain proper form during the repetition.

This is not usually considered a drawback due to the additional training stimuli imparted by free weight exercises, and as such choosing a free weight alternative exercise to the triceps pushdown is more than a suitable choice unless the exerciser possesses certain injuries or training requirements that exclude free weights.

1. Skullcrushers

A classic exercise making use of either an EZ curl bar or a pair of dumbbells, the skullcrusher is performed by the exerciser lying flat on their back and extending their free weight exercise equipment directly over their chest.

barbell lying skullcrusher

They will then lower the weight to their forehead or slightly above it by bending their elbows, all the while maintaining a stable foundation by locking their deltoid muscles in place.

Skullcrushers place distinctly more tension and resistance on the triceps brachii than the triceps pushdown due to the angle of tension and the nature of free weight exercises, making the skullcrushers an excellent possible alternative to the triceps pushdown in workout routines that require stronger triceps brachii activation.

2. Dumbbell Triceps Kickbacks

Similar to the triceps pushdown in training intensity and the fact that it is an isolation exercise as well, the dumbbell triceps kickback is a novice level exercise that works quite well as a method of directly training the lateral head of the triceps brachii muscle group.

dumbbell tricep kickback

This is not to say that the entirety of the triceps aren’t activated while performing the dumbbell triceps kickback – only that said exercise replicates the muscular activation pattern of the triceps pushdown in a very efficient and simplistic manner.

In order for the exerciser to perform the dumbbell triceps kickback, they simply need to stand with their back bent as they “kick back” a dumbbell in both or one hand, of which will extend beyond their buttocks, with the elbow reaching near full extension behind the torso.

The dumbbell triceps kickback may substitute the triceps pushdown in a direct one to one ratio of volume, allowing the same level of caloric burn and endurance training to occur without the use of a cable machine.

3. Close Grip Bench Press

Not an isolation exercise but in fact an offshoot of the common compound movement known as the bench press, the close grip bench press may be performed with a barbell and set of weight plates so as to fulfill the need for sufficient resistance.

close grip bench press

The difference between the common bench press and the close grip bench press is in its name – that the exerciser places their hands closer together than would normally allow for significant pectoralis muscle group activation, thereby shifting the resistance from the chest to the triceps brachii instead.

Though the focus of the exercise is shifted to that of the triceps, it is important for the exerciser to note that the close grip bench press is still considered a compound movement and as such may activate more than just the triceps muscle group.

As such, the exerciser must modify their workout program accordingly.

Machine Alternatives to the Triceps Pushdown

The most similar to the triceps pushdown in terms of exercise equipment type used, machine alternative exercises to the triceps pushdown are usually that which replicate the constant time under tension effect that the triceps pushdown imparts, as well as the ability to truly isolate the triceps brachii muscles.

The drawback to utilizing machine based exercise alternatives to the triceps pushdown is in the nature of the equipment used, requiring large and specialized gym machines that many exercisers do not have access to without actually visiting a gym, making the following exercises best for regular gymgoers.

4. Triceps Extension Machine

A machine specifically built for the purposes of training and activating the triceps brachii muscle group, the triceps extension machine is an excellent alternative to the triceps pushdown due to the similar time under tension involved and the isolation capacity of the exercise.

tricep extension machine

The triceps extension machine may be used in a similar amount of volume of repetitions as the triceps pushdown, and generally requires no extra changes in the workout program be made so long as the exerciser’s rate of perceived exertion or RPE remains the same.

5. Cable Machine French Press

Quite close in terms of training stimuli to the triceps pushdown, the cable machine French press is often compared to a cable machine triceps extension except for its particular angle of resistance, of which is achieved by the exerciser adjusting the pulley over their heads as they draw the attachment handles behind the skull.

A downside to using the cable machine French press as a triceps pushdown alternative is the fact that it also requires a cable machine – something that may exclude this particular alternative exercise from one’s list of options if the reason for substituting the triceps pushdown is a lack of equipment.

Otherwise, the cable machine French press should be top among the list of alternative exercises to the triceps pushdown due to the similarity in its training intensity, time under tension, and induced training stimuli if performed in the proper manner.

6. Overhead Cable Triceps Extension

The overhead cable triceps extension is quite similar to the cable machine French press but instead places the training angle below the exerciser’s torso, increasing the tension placed on the elbow joint and shoulder joint but making up for it with a higher level of lateral head triceps activation.

cable tricep overhead extensions

The overhead cable triceps extension is less of a substitute exercise and more of one that may be used in combination with other exercises normally found in a workout routine that contains the triceps pushdown, meaning that the overhead cable triceps extension may be used entirely interchangeably with the former exercise.

Miscellaneous and Bodyweight Alternatives to the Triceps Pushdown

In the event that the exerciser does not possess any gym equipment or can only make use of resistance bands, or if they simply wish to transition to calisthenic exercises as opposed to ones that make use of resistance equipment – several possible alternatives exist, all of which can be as effective as the triceps pushdown.

7. Bodyweight Triceps Dips

A favorite among calisthenic enthusiasts and gym goers wishing to incorporate some level of extra triceps activation in their workout, the bodyweight triceps dip is performed by the exerciser placing their hands behind them on a bench as their feet lay on the floor ahead of them.

bench dip

They will then lower themselves by bending their elbows and maintaining a straight torso, allowing their buttocks to fall beneath the ledge of the bench, activating their triceps brachii muscle group.

The relative intensity of this exercise will depend on the exerciser’s own bodyweight to physical strength ratio, with strong individuals of rather low body weight receiving far less training stimuli and perceived resistance from the triceps dips than the former individual.

8. Pushups and Push up Variations

Pushups and their subsequent variations are a classic calisthenic exercise best known for its compound exercise style activation of the pectoral and triceps brachii muscle groups.

push up

Depending on the particular variation used, the push up may place more of the resistance away or on the triceps brachii of the exerciser, with such versions of the push up like the archer push up or the triceps push up being better alternatives to the triceps pushdown than just the traditional push up exercise.

9. Resistance Band Triceps Extensions

Requiring the use of the resistance band, a variation of the triceps extension may be utilized as an alternative to the triceps pushdown in a pinch, with the exerciser either hooking the resistance band to an overhead object or held behind their back with the other hand.

band overhead tricep extension

The resistance band triceps extension suffers from the inability to induce progressive overload over longer periods of time, however, as increasing the resistance of the exercise will require the exerciser to purchase another resistance band with a higher rating of resistance.

As such, it is best to only use the resistance band triceps extension as an addition to other exercises that are capable of training the triceps brachii in a more progressive manner.

References

1. Hussain J, Sundaraj K, Subramaniam ID, Lam CK. Muscle Fatigue in the Three Heads of Triceps Brachii During Intensity and Speed Variations of Triceps Push-Down Exercise. Front Physiol. 2020 Feb 21;11:112. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2020.00112. PMID: 32153422; PMCID: PMC7047337.

2. 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 May;52(3):201-205. doi: 10.1016/j.aott.2018.02.005. Epub 2018 Mar 2. PMID: 29503079; PMCID: PMC6136322.

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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