How to Use the Straight Bar Pushdown to Build Bigger Arms

 Written by 

Julien Raby

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We’ve all heard the saying, “Do curls to get girls.” But what about the triceps

The triceps are on the backside of the arm and are often overlooked. But training your triceps will help you in other lifts and daily activities while giving you fuller, more-developed arms.

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One of the best exercises to target the triceps is the Straight Bar Pushdown on a cable machine. Here’s everything you need to know, including the benefits, how to perform, safety tips, and more. 

What Is the Straight Bar Pushdown?

Let’s start with the fundamentals—what is the Straight Bar Tricep Pushdown

The straight bar pushdown, triceps pushdown, or cable pushdown is an isolation exercise targeting the triceps muscle. The movement uses a cable machine with a straight bar attachment. 

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The tricep exercise can also be performed with a rope attachment, V-bar handle, or E-Z bar attachment. 

The cable pulley machine provides constant muscle tension, providing more time under tension and triceps development. The straight bar handle and various attachments modify your body position and grip. This changes muscle engagement and exercise mechanics. 

Muscles Worked

The primary muscle used during cable triceps pushdown exercises is, well, the triceps. It’s an isolation movement, targeting the entire muscle. The triceps muscle is composed of three different muscle heads—the long, lateral, and medial heads

Understanding the muscle’s anatomy will help you build strong triceps, leading to more muscle gains and an increase in muscle size. 

Long Triceps Head

The long head of the triceps muscle begins at the shoulder blade and attaches to the bony area of the elbow. 

The long head of the muscle helps extend your arm and is the only portion that crosses the shoulder joint. This head is most activated during overhead exercises, like the overhead press or overhead triceps extension.

Lateral Triceps Head

The lateral head, or outer head, starts slightly above the upper arm bone and connects to the back of the elbow. It’s the most substantial portion of the muscle, and most triceps exercises, especially those with a straight-arm position, activate it. The straight bar pushdown engages the lateral head the most

Medial Triceps Head

The medial heads of the triceps start just below the upper arm bone and connect right at the elbow. It contributes to arm and elbow extension. Close-grip exercises, like diamond push-ups, engage the muscle the most. 

How to Perform the Straight Bar Pushdown

The Straight Bar Pushdown may look like a simple exercise, but the incorrect form can severely limit your muscle gains and increase the chance of injury. Don’t use heavy weights; instead, use a manageable weight in the 8–15 rep range.

  1. Stand a short distance away from the cable machine and hold onto a bar with your hands about shoulder-width apart.
  2. Pull the bar down until your upper arms are straight and pointing to the ground. This is how you start the exercise.
  3. Push the bar down until your arms are completely straight.
  4. Slowly and smoothly, let the bar go back up to the starting position.

Ensure you perform the exercise slowly and with control. The movement should only happen at the elbow joint, so maintain a tight core without excessive arm movements. 

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Straight Bar Tricep Pushdown Benefits

Cable pushdown exercises, like the straight bar pushdown, have several benefits when it comes to developing the upper body.

More Pressing Strength

The triceps are used in a multitude of heavier compound exercises, like shoulder and bench presses. The muscle works as a stabilizer, helping you lift heavier weights overhead during shoulder presses or above the chest on the bench. 

Building strength through accessory exercises will improve your performance, especially if you have lagging triceps. This is especially beneficial if you compete in powerlifting, strongman, or CrossFit competitions. 

Constant Time Under Tension

The cable machine provides constant resistance throughout the entire range of motion. The cable attachment challenges the muscle as you lift and lower the weight. More muscle tension leads to faster fatigue, which leads to more muscle growth.

Because there’s tension throughout the entire movement, you don’t have to use as heavy of weights, either. This makes cable triceps pushdown exercises an effective workout for beginner and advanced lifters alike. 

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Triceps Development

The straight bar pushdown strengthens the largest muscle in the upper arm, the triceps. Not only can it provide you with better performance in other lifts and daily activities, but it will also enhance your aesthetics.

The exercise can provide you with fuller, more developed arms. This provides you with a more athletic appearance and can improve symmetry across the body. 

Convenient, Versatile, and Easy

The cable machine is versatile, convenient, and easy to use. The pushdown is a beginner-friendly cable triceps exercise that fits nearly any training regimen. 

If your training goal is a better physique, the straight bar pushdown can help you increase arm size. If your training objective is to improve other compound lifts, the movement can help you develop more robust, stabilizing muscles.

Overall, the isolation movement works excellent for novice-level lifters, fits most training schedules, and isn’t tricky to master

Straight Bar Pushdown vs. Rope Pushdown

Grip Position

The most apparent difference between the two attachments is the grip and hand position. With the straight bar, you primarily use a pronated position (overhand grip), but you can also use a supinated (underhand grip) position. 

With the rope attachment, you use a neutral grip with the palms facing each other. 

  • Straight bar: Can be performed with overhand or underhand grips. 
  • Rope: Performed with a neutral hand grip, 

The different hand positions can slightly alter the activation and emphasis within the triceps muscles.

Range of Motion

The rope attachment provides a greater range of motion, as you can spread your hands apart at the bottom of the exercise. This can lead to a more intense contraction in the triceps and recruit the outer triceps head. 

  • Straight bar: Less range of motion, as your hands stay in the same position.
  • Rope: Higher range of motion, as you can spread your hands apart to increase triceps contraction. 

Although you can change your grip width, the straight bar travels in a linear pattern, so it has a smaller range of motion. 

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Stability and Wrist Position

Although the straight bar is more stable, it can be more challenging for those with wrist mobility problems. The straight bar can place the hands in an awkward position, leading to discomfort and a higher risk of injury in compromised individuals. 

  • Straight bar: More solid design, but it can be more uncomfortable for those with wrist complications. You can typically load more weight with a straight bar attachment.
  • Rope: This may require more wrist stability, as the cord can move and rotate during the movement. Lighter weights are recommended for rope attachments to avoid unnecessary strain. 

The rope attachment can be easier or more challenging, depending on the lifter. It has more movement, which can be beneficial for some and uncomfortable for others. 

Straight Bar Pushdown vs. EZ Bar Pushdown

Grip Position

The EZ bar attachment has a zigzag or curved shape, allowing for a neutral grip (palms facing each other). The EZ bar places less stress on the wrists and can be more comfortable for individuals with wrist or joint issues.

  • Straight bar: Can be performed with overhand or underhand grips. The overhand grip can place more stress on the elbow joint for some individuals. 
  • EZ bar: Uses a neutral grip with palms facing one another, which may place less stress on the wrist and joints. 

Range of Motion

The range of motion is generally similar between the two variations. However, some individuals may find that the EZ bar attachment allows for a more fluid and comfortable movement due to the neutral grip and ergonomic design. This can enhance the mind-muscle connection and overall muscle engagement.

  • Straight bar: Similar range of motion, can adjust grip width to change muscle activation.
  • EZ bar: Similar range of motion, but typically has a more ergonomic design which can be comfortable for some lifters. 

Stability and Wrist Position

The EZ bar attachment provides a more stable grip compared to the straight bar due to its design and ergonomic handles. This stability can be beneficial for individuals with weaker grip strength or those who struggle with maintaining grip during exercises.

  • Straight bar: Solid construction, but can place more stress on the wrists in some individuals. 
  • EZ bar: The ergonomic design allows for a wider grip width, which can be more comfortable in individuals with wrist injuries or weak grip strength. 

Straight Bar Pushdown vs. V-Bar Triceps Pushdown

Grip Position

The V-Bar variation involves using a V-shaped bar attachment, which allows for an angled overhand grip with the hands close together. The V-bar attachment places the hands in a parallel position, palms facing each other.

  • Straight bar: Can be performed with overhand or underhand grips. You can adjust grip width to change muscle fiber recruitment. 
  • V-bar: Uses an angled overhand grip which can be easy on the wrists and joints. 
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Range of Motion

The range of motion is generally similar between the two attachments. However, the V-bar attachment may provide a more natural and fluid movement due to the neutral grip and ergonomic design of the V-bar attachment.

  • Straight bar: Has a similar range of motion and weight capacity. 
  • V-bar: The V-bar can have a more natural range of motion due to its ergonomic design. Many lifters find they can load more weight with this option. 

Stability and Wrist Position

The V-bar attachment offers a more secure and stable grip compared to the straight bar. The V-shaped handles provide a better grip, allowing for greater control and stability during the exercise. 

  • Straight bar: Stable design and construction, but may be more uncomfortable for some lifters. It can also place unnecessary strain on the wrists and joints. 
  • V-bar: This may be more comfortable, allowing for more stability. It can alleviate pressure on the wrists and may have a lower injury risk.

More comfortable wrist positions can be particularly beneficial for individuals with weaker grip strength or those who want to focus more on the triceps without worrying about grip fatigue.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Many exercises seem straightforward, but there’s a lot going on under the surface. Incorrect form, too much weight, and bad hand placement can reduce the effectiveness of the tricep pushdown. 

Furthermore, if your bad habits get out of hand for too long, you may strain or injure yourself. Here are some common mistakes to look out for and how to avoid them. 

Arching the Back

A slight forward lean is part of the tricep pushdown technique. But leaning too far forward or arching the back can increase the risk of injury. Doing so can place additional stress on the lower back and make the exercise less effective. 

Instead, tilt from the hips rather than arching the back. Ensure your elbows are tucked into your sides, with a tight core. 

Loading Too Much Weight

It’s tempting to load heavy weights onto the cable machine in hopes of making the most gains. Unfortunately, too much weight typically causes you to use more momentum, which reduces the effectiveness of the exercise and increases the chance of injury.

Heavy loads can cause you to lean too far forward, placing additional stress on the shoulders and back. Instead, use manageable weights you can lift comfortably for three sets of 8–12 reps

Flaring Your Elbows

Flaring the elbows is more common with the V-bar and rope attachment pushdowns. Flaring the elbows out while lowering the weight makes the exercise less effective. 

This motion reduces the laid on the triceps, changing it to the back. Elbow flare will compromise your efforts and increase the chance of injury or strain. Instead, keep the elbows tucked in and avoid flaring them to the sides. 

Using Momentum

Another common mistake is to “cheat” the movement through excessive momentum. You might notice this if you swing your torso or use your upper back to move the weight. 

This helps you lift heavier weights and get through the set but removes the work from the triceps.

Excessive momentum or jerking movements cause you to use the shoulders and back. Not only will this lead to reduced effectiveness, but it can increase the chance of injury

Instead, prioritize a strict form. Take your time to ensure the movement is slow and controlled. Keep the elbows tucked in at the side, use manageable weights, and brace your core. Doing so will reduce excessive movements and keep the load on the triceps. 

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Tricep Pushdown Alternatives

Besides variations in handle attachments and grip positions, there are alternative exercises you can use to target the triceps. You can use these movements as a substitute during your arm day or incorporate them into your routine. Here are a few to consider. 

Single-Arm Cable Pushdown

The Single-Arm Cable Pushdown is a unilateral movement, meaning you train each arm independently. Unilateral variations are helpful for correcting muscle imbalances and will challenge your stability. 

Performing this exercise also engages the stabilizer muscles around your elbows and shoulders. This contributes to improved joint stability and reduces the risk of injury during other workouts.

Overhead Tricep Extension

The Overhead Tricep Extension will help you engage the long head of the triceps while challenging your balance and stability. The overhead position engages the long head of the muscle, which can be neglected with other movements. 

The movement can help you improve weak points you may have in your physique or strength. Overhead tricep extensions can be a bit more challenging on the lower back, so ensure you have a tight core and stable foot position. 

Cable Tricep Kickbacks

Tricep Kickbacks can be performed with cables, dumbbells, or resistance bands, making them a versatile option. The cable machine provides constant tension without additional stress on the shoulder joints. 

This movement targets all three muscle heads but engages the lateral head the most. It will help you develop strength for functional movements, like lifting or pushing objects. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What Do Straight Bar Pushdowns Work?

Straight bar pushdowns target all three heads of the tricep but primarily engage the long head. The straight bar provides the option of an overhand or underhand grip, but most lifters prefer an overhand position.

What Is the Difference Between Straight Bar and Rope Pushdown?

The rope attachment allows you to use a neutral grip with the palms facing one another. This can be more comfortable for some lifters, while other lifters find the loose design to be uncomfortable. The rope attachment also allows a broader range of motion by pulling your hands apart at the bottom of the lift. 

Which Tricep Pushdown Is Best?

The answer will depend on your fitness goals and comfort levels. Many lifters prefer the V-bar or EZ bar attachment, as they offer comfortable, ergonomic designs. The rope attachment uses a neutral grip, which can be better for those with wrist injuries or mobility concerns. 

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About

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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