Arms Not Getting Any Bigger? Rethink Your Triceps Pushdown Form

If you are struggling to add inches to your arms your triceps may be the weak point. The triceps make up 2/3 of the arms circumference and quite naturally many gung-ho gym obsessives focus too much attention on the biceps.

Whilst you should not neglect your biceps it might be time to prioritize your tris if you are struggling to add inches to your arms. A complete arm arm development routine is needed.

single arm reverse tricep extension

The triceps brachii consist of the 3 muscles named the Lateral, Medial and Long heads. Once fully developed they resemble a horseshoe.

The arm is a hinge joint and the function of the triceps is to extend and straighten the arm and stabilize the shoulder joint.

In contrast the biceps make up a smaller portion of your upper arms size as they have only 2 muscle heads. The bicep works in contrast to the triceps, which enable you to pull your arm forward.

rope tricep pushdowns
rope eases joint pain

The tricep can be easily isolated with the right choice of exercises. Tricep mass can also be gained using a compound exercise like the close grip bench press. You aren’t going to gain mass with dumbell kickbacks.

The triceps will do a lot of work during regular bench press sets and with most other upper body pushing movements like the shoulder press.

Any exercise that causes you to hold a bar to stabilize it, think of squats and even on the deadlift, is supplementary engaging the tricep.

But if you really want to make them “pop” you need to isolate them with specific exercises.

Getting Around Elbow Problems

If tendinitis or general elbow pain is preventing you from lifting heavy it’s time to refocus and switch exercises.

Use cable machines as they allow you to isolate the muscle and use moderate to heavy weight. You can utilize more weight on pushing exercises such as tricep extensions.

Using a rope takes even more pressure off the elbow. You can also do this exercise overhead, and one arm at a time if you use a sensible weight.

overhead rope tricep pushdown

If you have shoulder problems a rope will allow you to train pain free if you maintain perfect form and don’t move or rotate the shoulder as Ben will show in the video below.

Always be sure to warm up correctly with lighter weight to maintain the integrity of the elbow and shoulder joints..

When you are performing isolation movements for the triceps at no point should you rotate the shoulder as Ben Pakulski of the groundbreaking bodybuilding program MI40X here shows 20 secs into the video.

The Benefits Of Ropes & Cables

Notice the tip where BPak shows a rope or dual cables (crossover stylee) can do way more than a straight bar can for triggering the triceps and keeping them under constant tension. There is no bar that allows you to start a tricep rep with a narrow grip and then straighten the arms and end up with a wider grip.

A rope allows you to complete this arc and keep the arms in their natural movement plane. This allows you to keep constant pressure on the tris, and time under tension is what leads to pure hypertrophy gains (as long as you get the harder parts of rest and diet right).

Form Guide – Keep The Scapula Locked Down & Out Of Tricep Exercise

Want bigger triceps? Keep assisting muscles and joints out of the rep.

The long head of the triceps muscle originates on the scapula. Keeping the scapula locked in place allows you to generate more force in the triceps. It also delimits shoulder input into your tricep exercises.

Many people hunch forward on tricep pushdowns and this automatically takes all input away from the biggest tricep muscle, the long head which attaches from the rear of the scapula to the elbow.

The shoulders should be externally rotated (backwards) with the help of the traps and the upper and mid lats at the start of rope pressdowns and close grip bench presses (need a thin bench to stop lats pushing your forward on bench press).

Hinge Joint Dictates Optimal Form On Triceps Pusdowns

There is no need to internally or externally rotate the arms when you are doing a triceps pushdown. Yes the arm can internally and externally rotate but the shoulder (rotator cuff) and lats do the rotation work. The triceps function is to let you extend and straighten the arm.

rope cable attachment

When everyone tells you in the gym these days they are doing tricep pushdowns with the elbows flared out as they are working the tricep at a different angle (to recruit new muscle fibers), they are not.

They are bringing in the lats, shoulder and traps, and taking the stress away from the tricep muscles.

They will probably lift more weight in the process, but whatever benefit they were previously getting by keeping their elbows tucked in, they have now lost. The force they are now using to press the load has been primarily taken away from the tricep. It is now working as a secondary muscle at best.

Tricep Pushdown Form Guide

Arms should move in a strict form, bending at elbow joint in a linear movement, with no swaying or rotating at the shoulder. The elbows should not flare out.

Keep them locked in against the sides. As you do you this in combination with locking down your scapula you will really feel it on the long tricep head. Which is ideal as this is the most meaty of all the heads.

Squeeze the tricep before you engage the weight on every rep.

Do it this way and you will develop a strong mind-muscle connection and you will feel more of a burn on the tricep muscles. The 3 heads will become more defined and thick once you stabilize the shoulder and focus all work on the lateral, medial and long heads.

There is nothing wrong with using a straight or cambered bar on tricep pushdowns except they can place a lot of pressure on the wrists. Once you hit the 90-degree angle a lot of pressure is being applied to the wrist joint.

The wrist can also take some of the strain away from the triceps if you pronate them forward to avoid wrist pain. Sometime you can over apply the force at the wrist joint to get the movement started.

Remember the goal of isolation exercises is to limit the adjoining help from joints and surrounding muscles.

Many people with wrist pain will flare the elbows out slightly to force a straight bar down in this exercise. Stop what you are doing now. Mimic the pushdowns starting position.

Bend your elbows and raise your wrists to your shoulders (palms facing forward). Now lower clench your fists as if gripping a straight bar and lower it as if performing a pushdown.

Pay close attention to the forearm. Notice you have to twist it to keep it flat? That is due to the rotation that happens via the radius bone in your forearm.

Try it again and pay close attention to the elbows. Don’t they just want to flare out? You really have to concentrate to keep them at your sides, it almost creates friction.

Whist this is the function of the radius bone, (combined with the shoulder and tricep) it rotates the forearm. Using a straight bar can take tension off the tricep, especially if your elbows flare out just a few millimetres.

If you have forearm or wrist flexor pain or stiffness, a straight bar will not give you the range of movement you need.

Using a rope or cables allows you to lock in your elbows at the sides and rotate the forearms in their natural range of motion. It also takes the wrists out of the equation.

You can also directly hold onto the cable attachments without adding a rope or bar, and I prefer to finish my triceps sets like this.

Distance From Cable Machine

The majority of force is felt in the triceps on a pushdown when you move the cables (or rope/bar) from 90 to 180 degress and beyond. If you are standing too close to the machine you won’t feel as much stress at the back of the rep.

BPak refers to how far you are standing from the machine as working the different planes of the strength curve. Naturally you have to work harder when you are standing further from the machine.

It is going to take more force to get the weight moving and to retain strict form. You will do less reps standing back than you will standing closer to the machine.

Standing further back will give you maximum tension over the greatest rep range. You can perform drop sets this way by taking a step forward after you tire out. Taking a step forward makes the reps easier, as there is less tension over the rep range.

It’s the same as dropping off a few plates. Keep moving forward each time you tire to cause maximum tension on the tricep. This is a great way to finish your tricep workout.

You can also play with this by starting your sets close to the machine. You can pump out 10-15 reps and then start moving further back. You could move to a middle distant for another 5-10 reps. Then you could move back to as far as the cables will stretch and complete another 5 repetitions. Feel the burn and try to slowly return the cable safely back to the machine.

Take Home

It’s important to remember that your biceps perform a lot of assistance work in many other exercises, mainly everything really, They are heavily dominant during back exercises, especially on pulling movements. That’s why a lot of bodybuilders favour working back and biceps together.

If you are lacking in arm development try specializing on triceps for 3-6 months, instead of working mainly on biceps. For most guys it seems so much easier to connect the mind muscle thang on the biceps.

But keep practising on the triceps and even cut back on the biceps exercises and you will start to notice some great gains.