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5 Tricep Pushdown Alternatives at Home

Tricep pushdowns are so much more than bodybuilding isolation exercises – they’re a useful part of a program for overhead strength, plus they help to ensure excellent elbow health.

A lot of home gyms don’t have a cable machine in them, so their owners automatically discount tricep extensions as an exercise. If that sounds like you, it’s time to add them back into your training. I’m going to show you a few different tricep pushdown alternatives, explaining how you do them and what equipment you’ll need.

Each of these exercises have been tried and tested by me during my (near) 20 years as a personal trainer and weightlifting coach. I use many of these with my clients inside my own 8,000 sq foot gym. 

They’re simple, effective and can be done in a home gym with a little extra equipment. 

Understanding the tricep pushdown

The tricep pushdown is designed to increase the size and strength of the tricep muscle. This is located at the back of the upper arm. It is responsible for elbow extension (straightening the arm). It’s a muscle with three heads (lateral, medial and long head) and is trained in a single plane of motion (bending and straightening the arm).

If you compete in a sport where overhead strength is integral (weightlifting, CrossFit, gymnastics) or a sport where throwing is fundamental (American Football, Baseball, Basketball), strong triceps are a must.

Tricep pushdowns are an isolation exercise, which means they’re a single-joint exercise designed to target the one muscle. Although they’re used in all pressing movements (you can’t straighten the arm without using the triceps), some people like to target them specifically.

Replicating the tricep pushdown

The elbow is a ‘hinge joint’, which means it moves in one plane of motion – it can either ‘flex’ (bend) or ‘extend’ (straighten). To replicate the tricep pushdown, we need to extend the elbow under tension. 

The tricep pushdown alternatives in this list will therefore be limited to isolation exercises that load the triceps as they extend. 

1. Banded tricep pushdown

What I like about the banded tricep pushdown is its versatility – it’s an exercise that is suitable for all levels, because you can adjust the band strength. It also gets harder at the end range of the band – the further you stretch it, the harder it becomes!

It’s also a great alternative for the tricep pushdown because it’s the exact same movement pattern, it’s easy to set up and the equipment required is very cheap and accessible. 

Equipment needed for banded tricep pushdowns:

  • Band anchor point – this can be a squat rack, pull up bar etc
  • Resistance band

How to do banded tricep pushdowns:

  1. Anchor the band on the rack
  2. Keeping your elbows tight to your body, pull the band from the top, down towards your hips
  3. At the bottom of the rep, open your hands apart slightly to increase the contraction
  4. Slowly return to the start position, keeping elbows tucked in at your sides
  5. Repeat as many times as required

Banded tricep pushdowns muscles worked:

  • Triceps

2. Dumbbell skull crusher

Skull crushers are usually performed with a barbell, but I prefer the dumbbell version for a couple of reasons. The first one is safety – it’s easier to drop a barbell on your head (hence the name skull crusher) than the dumbbells which are to the side.

The second reason is effectiveness – the dumbbells force each side to work independently, so there’s no chance of your stronger arm doing more of the work. Isolating each side is far more effective in this sense, plus it leads to better technique. You can do these either on the floor or a bench.

Equipment needed for dumbbell skull crushers:

  • Dumbbells
  • Bench (optional)

How to do dumbbell skull crushers:

  1. Lie back, with a dumbbell in each hand and arms at full extension, as if you were doing a bench press. Dumbbells should be in a neutral grip (palms facing each other)
  2. Lower the dumbbells down as far as you can, keeping the upper arms pointing directly upwards
  3. At the bottom of the rep, pause and press the dumbbells back to the start position
  4. Repeat as many times as required

Dumbbell skull crushers muscles worked:

  • Triceps

3. TRX push away

The TRX push away is evidence of how versatile and useful the TRX is. It’s a very simple exercise, but don’t confuse simple with effective. If you do this properly you’ll train your triceps, your core and you’ll activate your lats as they stabilize the shoulders.

A TRX is a relatively cheap addition to a home gym and its versatility more than justifies its inclusion in your home gym. To maximize the effectiveness of this exercise, make your movements very slow and deliberate. By increasing the time under tension you’ll increase the potential muscle and strength adaptations from the exercise. 

Equipment needed for TRX pushaways:

How to do TRX pushaways:

  1. Holding on to the handles, lean forward with your arms parallel to the ground and the elbows up high. The arms should be fully bent.
  2. Start the movement by slowly straightening the arms, ensuring the upper arms remain parallel with the ground throughout
  3. When the arms are fully straightened out in front of you, pause and slowly bend the arms again, returning to the start position
  4. Keep your movement slow and deliberate at all times
  5. Repeat as often as required  

TRX pushaways muscles worked:

  • Triceps
  • Core 
  • Lats

4. Dumbbell tricep kick-backs

Dumbbell tricep kick-backs have been (possibly unfairly) put into a patronized category of exercises. Years of magazines recommending housewives do them with tins of beans to ‘tone their arms’ hasn’t helped their reputation, but they’re very useful if you are smart about how and when you include them in your programme.

As an isolation exercise, a pre-fatigue method or even a finisher, they’re great. They’re not going to build massive strength, but they’ll help to refine a physique and give your arms extra muscle. Perfect for adding volume to an arm workout. 

Equipment needed for dumbbell tricep kick-backs:

How to do dumbbell tricep kick-backs:

  1. Stand with your torso and upper arm parallel to the ground. If you need to, put a hand on a bench to support this position
  2. Bend your elbow to 90 degrees, with the upper arm remaining parallel to the floor and the dumbbell pointing downwards
  3. Straighten the arm behind you, so your whole arm is pointing backwards
  4. Bend the elbow back to the start position
  5. Repeat as many times as required

Dumbbell tricep kick-backs muscles worked:

  • Triceps
  • Rear deltoids 

If you are looking for more back workouts check out our pull up alternatives to improve your lats and back muscles.

5. Overhead tricep extension

The overhead tricep extension is a similar move to the dumbbell tricep kick-back in that it’s not going to build you massive strength or size, but it’ll help to add volume and intensity to your workouts. It’s a true isolation exercise in that it’s not only single-joint, but it’s also single limb too.

When you do the overhead tricep extension with full range of movement you don’t just engage the muscles with a longer time under tension, you also help to stretch the muscle. Finally, the upright position throughout the lift can help engage the spinal erectors and upper back.

Equipment needed for overhead tricep extensions:

How to do overhead tricep extensions:

  1. Sit bolt upright on the end of a bench. Hold a dumbbell behind your head, arm fully bent, elbow pointing upwards
  2. Extend the arm up overhead, straightening the arm fully
  3. Slowly lower the dumbbell behind the head again, keeping the upper arm pointing up throughout the movement
  4. Repeat as many times as required

Overhead tricep extensions muscles worked:

  • Triceps
  • Rear deltoids 
  • Spinal erectors

The place for isolation exercises

The vast majority of personal trainers will always advocate a programme made up of mostly compound (multi joint, using a lot of muscles) exercises. There’s still a place for isolation exercises such as tricep pushdowns and the like. 

Here’s my preferred use of such exercises…

  • Rehab – when under the guidance of a physical therapist you’re told to isolate a muscle to strengthen it and fix an injury
  • Volume – if you’re a bodybuilder or physique competitor and want to ‘bring up’ a lagging body part, isolation exercises are a good way of doing so
  • Pre-fatiguing – a popular way of increasing intensity of exercise is by pre-fatiguing a target muscle ahead of the ‘working sets’. Isolation exercises work well here
  • Finishers – this is the opposite of pre-fatiguing but works on the same principle. When the muscle is tired from the main lift, a light weight, high volume isolation exercise can help to wring the last few drops of effort from it

It’s easy to dismiss isolation exercises as useless, or less-effective than compound movements, but like all tools, they’re effective when used correctly. Just make sure you program them well.

Tricep pushdown alternatives – the bottom line

In a home gym, you might not always have the room or budget to install a fully-fledged cable machine. But that doesn’t mean you should miss out on particular exercises!

Choosing smart equipment for building your home gym like this is a great way to use the 80:20 principle.

With a bit of creativity and a deeper understanding of how to replicate exercises and movements, you can bring in alternatives that help you to achieve your training goals. 

The exercises in this list are alternatives to the tricep pushdowns, so I was trying to replicate the action of the exercise. It’s by no means an exhaustive list of tricep exercises though – I could have included close-grip bench press, diamond push ups and dips if it was merely tricep exercises.

You don’t always need to limit your training based on equipment.

If you want more tricep exercises check out these alternatives to dips here.

by Steve Hoyles
Hi! My name is Steve Hoyles. I’m a personal trainer, gym owner and fitness copywriter. Since graduating with my Sports Science degree in 2004 I’ve worked in the fitness industry, helping thousands of people reach their health and fitness goals. My writing has been read by millions of people in over 200 countries.

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