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
- Replicating the tricep pushdown
- The place for isolation exercises
- Tricep Push Down Alternatives – FAQs
- Tricep pushdown alternatives – the bottom line
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:
How to do banded tricep pushdowns:
- Anchor the band on the rack
- Keeping your elbows tight to your body, pull the band from the top, down towards your hips
- At the bottom of the rep, open your hands apart slightly to increase the contraction
- Slowly return to the start position, keeping elbows tucked in at your sides
- Repeat as many times as required
Banded tricep pushdowns muscles worked:
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:
- Bench (optional)
These are the dumbbells we recommend for ‘most people’.
We have spent over 50 hours of research and compared over 100 dumbbells. Adjustable dumbbells make sense for most home gyms as they save space.
The Nüobell dumbbells go all the way to 80lbs per hand. This means they are much more versatile than most 50lbs adjustable dumbbells. You can use these for heavy shrugs, squats and bench press etc.
The main reason they are the top pick is because of their shape. They actually feel like real dumbbells and are not awkward to lift like some others.
How to do dumbbell skull crushers:
- 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)
- Lower the dumbbells down as far as you can, keeping the upper arms pointing directly upwards
- At the bottom of the rep, pause and press the dumbbells back to the start position
- Repeat as many times as required
Dumbbell skull crushers muscles worked:
Note: if you have problems with your elbows, check out our skull crusher alternatives to substitute this exercise. If you want to see this exercise combined with 5 others, also check out our 6 best dumbbell tricep exercises.
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:
This is the suspension trainer that we recommend for ‘most people’.
We have spent compared over 50 of them and ran them against our criteria.
It’s robust, very high quality, easy to adjust and pack away.
The main reason it gets our top spot is because of its versatility. The adjustable feet straps and rubber handles allow you to do more movements than other trainers that don’t have these features.
How to do TRX pushaways:
- 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.
- Start the movement by slowly straightening the arms, ensuring the upper arms remain parallel with the ground throughout
- When the arms are fully straightened out in front of you, pause and slowly bend the arms again, returning to the start position
- Keep your movement slow and deliberate at all times
- Repeat as often as required
TRX pushaways muscles worked:
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:
- Weight bench
This is the weight bench we recommend for ‘most people’.
We compared over 70 benches against 12 criteria. This is our highest-ranked flat, incline & decline (FID) bench.
Some adjustable benches can be a bit wobbly when on the incline. But the AB-3000 is very sturdy.
With a height 18mm it’s comparable to benches that cost twice as much.
How to do dumbbell tricep kick-backs:
- 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
- Bend your elbow to 90 degrees, with the upper arm remaining parallel to the floor and the dumbbell pointing downwards
- Straighten the arm behind you, so your whole arm is pointing backwards
- Bend the elbow back to the start position
- Repeat as many times as required
Dumbbell tricep kick-backs muscles worked:
- 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 the full range of movement you don’t just engage the muscles for 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:
- Sit bolt upright on the end of a bench. Hold a dumbbell behind your head, arm fully bent, elbow pointing upwards
- Extend the arm up overhead, straightening the arm fully
- Slowly lower the dumbbell behind the head again, keeping the upper arm pointing up throughout the movement
- Repeat as many times as required
Overhead tricep extensions muscles worked:
- Rear deltoids
- Spinal erectors
Note: check out our overhead triceps extension alternatives to get more exercise ideas that target your triceps.
The place for isolation exercises
The vast majority of personal trainers will always advocate a program 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.
Check out our dumbbell tricep exercises or our 7 tricep exercises with dumbells, barbell and cable if you are looking for more variations.
Tricep Push Down Alternatives – FAQs
What exercises best replace the tricep pushdown?
While there are many exercises that can re-create this particular exercise, I singled out the following as the best tricep pushdown alternatives:
Feel free to experiment with these alternatives, though, and determine which ones work best for you.
Can I do a triceps pushdown using dumbbells?
The only caveat to consider is that the position of the body is different, as usually the tricep pushdown is performed while standing, whereas the dumbbell versions of this exercise are done sitting or lying down.
This variation in body positioning affects the overall effect of the exercises.
Are tricep pushdowns worth it?
Triceps pushdowns are definitely worth it, as they are an essential exercise to ensure elbow health.
If you don’t have a cable machine at your disposal or you simply want to experiment with variations – our top picks can offer you just that – 5 effective tricep pushdown alternatives for you to try out.
Throughout my 2-and-a-half decade experience, I’ve summed these up because they’re great, efficient alternatives, and can be done with merely a few extra bits of equipment.
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.