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Why Cable Tricep Extensions Should Be a Staple in Your Arm Training

 Written by 

Julien Raby

 Last updated on 

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Building bigger, more muscular arms is a must for many gym-goers. Whether it’s to improve your compound lifts or have a more pleasing physique, the triceps cannot be neglected.

The triceps are mandatory for compound lifts, like the bench press and overhead press. These movements strengthen the muscle, but isolation exercises will take your muscles even further.

A man performing cable tricep extensions at the gym
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That’s where cable tricep extensions come into play. The cable machine offers a fantastic way to isolate the triceps and has several variations. Here’s everything you need to know. 

What Is a Cable Tricep Extension?

The cable tricep extension is an exercise that primarily engages the tricep muscle found at the back of the upper arms. The isolation movement is also known as the cable tricep pushdown, cable pushdown, or cable tricep press-down. 

Whatever you call it, the exercise is typically performed in a gym using a cable machine with a rope attachment or bar.

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Muscles Worked

As you might imagine, tricep cable pushdowns target the tricep muscles. The triceps muscle has three different muscle bellies or heads—the long head, lateral head, and medial head

It’s possible to target each of these triceps muscle heads, depending on the technique and position of your arms. This changes muscle activation, which has an impact on muscle growth and tricep size.

extension triceps poulie haute 1
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Credit: Aliaksandr Makatserchyk

Long Triceps Head

The triceps’ long head muscle starts at the infraglenoid tubercle of the scapula (shoulder blade) and connects to the back surface of the olecranon process (the bony point of the elbow).

Essentially, the long head of your triceps extends from a spot on your shoulder blade and attaches near your elbow joint. Consequently, exercises performed above your head tend to emphasize the activation of the triceps’ long head.

Lateral Triceps Head

The triceps’ lateral head muscle begins slightly above the radial groove of the humerus (upper arm bone) and attaches to the back surface of the olecranon process (elbow point). 

As a result, most triceps exercises, especially those involving a sturdy and fixed arm position, activate the lateral tricep heads. Typically, using a neutral or pronated grip (with the palm facing down) specifically targets the lateral tricep heads.

Medial Triceps Head

The triceps’ medial head muscle has its origin just below the uppermost part of the humerus (upper arm bone) and inserts approximately at the elbow point. Like the lateral head of the triceps, numerous exercises that involve maintaining a robust and stable arm position activate the medial head of the triceps.

A muscular man doing cable tricep extensions
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The Benefits of Cable Tricep Extensions

Your triceps size won’t only help you fill out a t-shirt or crew neck. The triceps are necessary for compound movements, like the flat bench press and the overhead press. 

Compound exercises are typically the primary movements in exercise programs, so the triceps are often neglected. 

These movements do improve the triceps, but a triceps workout will isolate the muscles, building more muscle mass.

Improving the triceps with isolation exercises can provide you with more stability and strength during pressing movements and enhance your physique. 

Improved Physique

If you’re after an aesthetic physique, you’ll need to develop all parts of the arms. Incorporating different triceps isolation exercises that target each head of the muscle group can help you build fuller arms.

Overhead triceps extensions and unilateral movements will improve the long head of the muscle.

For the medial and lateral heads of the triceps, heavier pressing and rope pushdown-style movements are the go-to. 

Increased Arm Strength 

Training individual muscle groups isn’t easy. You can quickly develop full-body fatigue and run out of gas in the tank to build the arm muscles.  

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Compound lifts, like the overhead press and bench press, are demanding on the body. Although they use the triceps, the muscle may not receive adequate activation. If you aren’t incorporating effective tricep isolation exercises, you may have muscle imbalances or lagging triceps. 

Tricep exercises can help you mitigate these issues, regardless if your goal is to improve your lifts or have a better physique. 

Carry Over to Other Exercises

Effective triceps exercises have direct carry-over into other lifts, like the bench press, overhead press, and dips. 

Compound movements like the bench press may not activate the triceps enough to continue muscle growth over time, which can cause you to stagnate on the lifts. Cable tricep workouts can complement your main lifts and help you avoid plateaus

Outside of the gym, the triceps are also used for climbing, throwing, moving, and pulling activities.

A man at the gym doing cable tricep extensions
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How to Perform a Cable Tricep Extension

Cable triceps extensions require a cable machine. Use a weight you can comfortably lift for 8–12 reps for two to three sets. If you’re uncertain what weight to use, start with the lightest setting and work your way up.

  1. Adjust the cable pulley machine so the pulley is at the highest height. Grab the handle using an overhand grip and face the machine. 
  2. Step backward to remove the weight from the weight stack. Maintain an upright position with the feet a bit wider than the hip distance. Keep a slight bend in the knees and a neutral head position. 
  3. Keep the chin slightly tucked and maintain a stable position on the ground. 
  4. The upper arms should rest against the ribcage.
  5. Now, tighten the core, shoulders, and hips to finish the starting position.
  6. Squeeze your triceps to straighten the elbows toward the floor.
  7. Push down with the triceps with a slight bend in the elbows. The rest of your arm shouldn’t move, only the elbows.
  8. Now, carefully bend the elbows to return to the starting position and finish one repetition. Repeat the movement for your desired rep range.

Cable Tricep Variations

There are several tricep cable variations besides the extension, like the overhead extension and tricep kickbacks. Adding variations will help you develop the upper body, targeting specific areas of the triceps. 

Straight-Bar Triceps Pushdown

One of the most straightforward variations of the rope cable tricep extension is the straight-bar triceps pushdown.

 This variation uses a straight bar attachment, allowing you to push more weight than with a rope. 

  • You can load more weight onto the cable machine.
  • Excellent for adjusting rep ranges and building strength.
  • You can vary your grip to find a comfortable position or stimulate more muscle groups like the forearms. 

The range of motion remains consistent, as the bar doesn’t shift around. You can use heavier weights and adjust your grip for additional forearm stimulation.

Single-Arm Cable Pushdown

The single-arm cable pushdown is another variation, isolating the arms individually. It’s a unilateral variation, allowing you to challenge each arm and complete more reps. The additional repetitions add up over time, resulting in more time under tension and calories burned. 

  • You can engage the core more to ensure your body stays tight throughout the movement.
  • Provides symmetrical growth for each arm.
  • You can customize the rep range or weight to accommodate weak points.

Overhead Cable Triceps Extension

The overhead triceps extension allows you to engage the long head of the triceps and challenge your mobility. With a cable overhead, you challenge the long head more, creating a more developed arm. 

  • You can use more weight, as you’re using two arms.
  • It targets the long head of the triceps muscle, which can be neglected. 
  • It can help improve shoulder mobility and stability.

This is a great movement to include in your tricep cable workout, as it will target any potential weak points you have in the long head of the muscle.

Cable Triceps Kickback

Cable kickbacks are a variation of the dumbbell movement. The cable attachment provides consistent tension without additional strain on the shoulders. This allows you to engage the triceps even more, and you can add extra volume to your routine. 

  • It provides consistent resistance throughout the entire exercise, activating the triceps more.
  • Requires less weight, which will place less stress on the joints and cause less fatigue.
  • It’s easy to learn and can be added at the end of your training regimen.

Cross-Body Cable Extension

For a dual cable option, try the cross-body cable extension. This movement uses two cables, providing a consistent challenge for both arms. The cross-body extension also provides more time under tension, allowing you to use less weight without losing efficacy. 

  • It’s a unilateral movement, allowing you to improve muscle imbalances and asymmetries. 
  • Consistent resistance produces more gains with less weight.
  • Fewer weight places less stress on the joints allowing you to focus on your technique.

Do the Different Grip Handles Make a Difference?

The various handles you can select from on the cable pulley machine have different advantages, disadvantages, and best use cases. The attachments can change your grip strength, the weight you can load, and the muscles you activate.

Straight Bar

The straight bar is fantastic for tricep pushdowns. It allows you to load more weight and adjust your grip to engage more muscle groups. Compared to the rope attachment, the straight bar provides a consistent range of motion, allowing for more control.

Rope Attachment

The rope attachment is commonly associated with tricep and isolation exercises. The material allows for more mobility in the elbows, wrists, and range of motion. You can pull on the rope to get a full contraction and a deeper range of motion, depending on the movement. 

The Tricep Pressdown Bar 

The tricep press-down bar is designed for tricep movements. It’s an upside-down V design with steel end apps where you place your hands. 

The design creates a locked width and position, so it doesn’t offer versatility for grip. The advantage is that you may be able to load more weight with this attachment. 

Individual Handles

The handle attachment is the most versatile grip, as it works with nearly any exercise. It allows you to rotate your hands mid-movement, which can be excellent for several workouts. It’s comfortable, straightforward, and versatile.

A man at the gym doing rop tricep extensions
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Mistakes to Avoid

The tricep extension and variations are straightforward, but without proper form, you can still suffer an injury. Here are a few common mistakes to avoid to ensure you’re activating the correct muscles and reducing the risk of strain or injury. 

Too Much Lean and Elbow Flare 

Leaning too far forward and flaring the elbows will recruit different muscles. When you do this, you use the delts and pecs more, making the movement less effective.

Instead, keep the elbows tucked into your sides and ensure the torso is upright. Maintain a tight core and keep your feet firmly planted on the ground. 

Letting the Elbows Rise

It’s essential to keep elbow movement to a minimum when performing tricep extensions. Too much elbow movement will recruit different muscles, causing less muscle development.

Instead, ensure the elbows are tucked by the rib cage throughout the entire movement. 

This will ensure you’re only engaging the triceps and getting the most optimal muscle activation. If you notice too much elbow movement, you can also try lowering the weight.

A strong man doing rop tricep extensions
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Are Cross Cable Tricep Extensions Good?

Yes, cross-body tricep extensions are a fantastic exercise for developing the triceps. You can perform this movement with both arms simultaneously or unilaterally. You can also use less weight without losing efficacy, which can be beneficial if you have joint issues.

What Does the Rope Tricep Extension Target

The rope tricep extension targets the triceps. The tricep muscle is made up of three muscle heads, the long head, lateral head, and medial head. Adjusting your grip, technique, and variation can help you engage each head more. 

What Type of Tricep Extension Is Best?

All tricep extensions have advantages, disadvantages, and best use cases. The overhead tricep extension can be a fantastic movement for targeting the long head of the muscle. Rope tricep extensions are a tremendous overall movement for tricep development.


Julien Raby is the owner of BoxLife. He owns a bachelor in literature and a certificate in marketing from Concordia. He's Crossfit Level 1 certified and has been involved in Crossfit since 2010. In 2023 he finally made it to Crossfit Open Quarterfinals for the first time. LinkedIn Instagram Facebook

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