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Which cable tricep workouts and machine exercises are the best?

These intense cable workouts will challenge your triceps with constant muscle-building tension.
Written By  James Jackson
Last Updated on 2nd May 2022
A man demonstrating two of the best cable tricep exercises to include in your workout routine

Cables are a great tricep training tool because they challenge your arms with constant muscle-building tension, which results in plenty of hypertrophy and, quite frankly, a skin-splitting arm pump.

This guide explains how to perform various cable machine tricep exercises with the optimal muscle-stimulating form. After that, you’ll get access to three done-for-you cable tricep workouts so that you can get started with your training right away.

Related Workouts:

The 5 best cable tricep exercises

Not all cable tricep exercises are created equally; some are much better than others. Indeed, depending on which head of the triceps you want to focus on, you’ll want to choose certain exercises over others.

1. Lying cable tricep extension

A man performing a lying cable tricep extension

The lying cable tricep extension is one of the best tricep machine exercises that you can do for mass. This is because, unlike pushdowns, lying extensions place a ton of tension on the all-important long head of the triceps, which is the single biggest muscle in your upper arms.

The key to getting the most from this movement is to lower the bar behind your head (rather than directly to your forehead) so that you can put the long head of your triceps under a growth-stimulating eccentric stretch.

The only downside of the exercise is that you’ll need to wheel a bench over to the cable machine, which might not be feasible in every gym.

  1. Wheel a bench over to a cable station.
  2. Connect a bar to a low pulley.
  3. Lie on the bench and reach back and grab the attachment.
  4. While keeping your elbows tucked in, extend your elbows and squeeze your triceps.
  5. Slowly lower the bar behind your head (keep going until you feel an intense triceps stretch).
  6. Straighten your arms until your elbows are once again fully extended.
  7. Repeat for 3-5 sets of 8-15 reps.

2. Cable overhead extension

A man doing an overhead rope tricep extension at the gym using cables

If you want to bulk up your arms by developing the crucial long head of your triceps, then the cable overhead extension should always be a part of your hypertrophy-focused tricep cable workouts.

Unlike other tricep cable exercises, the overhead extension places the long head of the triceps under an absolute maximal muscle stretch. How does it do this exactly?

Well, since the long head acts on the shoulder joint as well as on the elbow (specifically, it assists with shoulder extension), anytime you put your arms in an overhead position, you’re placing the long head under a tremendous stretch. [1]

As you probably know, the eccentric muscle stretch is the most crucial part of the rep for stimulating hypertrophy, so you should definitely add this movement to your tricep cable workout if you care about your gains.

  1. Connect a rope attachment to a low pulley and then grab each end with a firm grip.
  2. With the rope in your hands, turn away from the cable machine and lower the rope behind your head.
  3. Flex your triceps forcefully (while keeping your elbows tucked in) to extend your elbows.
  4. Keep going until your elbows reach complete extension.
  5. Slowly lower the rope behind your neck again and repeat for 3-5 sets of 8-15 reps.

3. Cable crossover tricep extension

A man at the gym doing a cable crossover tricep extension

While many people understand that maximally stretching the triceps requires their arms to be in an overhead position, few lifters realize that maximally shortening (i.e., contracting) their triceps necessitates that their arms be behind their body.

This is where the cable crossover tricep extension comes in.

By keeping your shoulders slightly behind your torso, which is to say by placing your shoulders into extension, you’re priming your triceps to maximally contract. This is a great way to recruit muscle fibers that you wouldn’t usually hit with traditional pushdowns and overhead extensions.

You can add this movement to your tricep machine workouts as a high-rep finisher, or you can do it at the start of your session to warm up your elbows.

  1. Remove any attachments from the cable crossover.
  2. Grab the right cable with your left arm and the left cable with your right arm.
  3. Allow your shoulders to drift behind your torso slightly.
  4. While keeping your elbows tucked into your sides, flex your triceps until your elbows reach full extension.
  5. Hold the peak contraction for a moment and then release the cables in a controlled manner until your forearms touch your biceps.
  6. Repeat for 3-5 sets of 10-20 reps.

4. One arm cable overhead extension

A man doing a one arm overhead cable tricep extension with a single rope

If you want to ensure that your triceps are symmetrical as well as muscular, then be sure to include the one arm cable overhead extension in your next triceps cable workout.

While doing your tricep exercises with cables is obviously good for getting a pump, some movements can lead to muscular imbalances, which is why it’s important to include at least one unilateral exercise in your routine.

The one arm cable overhead extension is one of the best unilateral tricep exercises for building the long head and, thereby, overall upper arm mass.

The only minor downside (unless you just love being in the gym) is that your workouts will take longer when you train each tricep separately. Is this extra gym time worth the trade-off of more balanced triceps?

If you’re a beginner? Probably not. After all, novice lifters don’t have enough mass to make any symmetry improvements worthwhile. On the other hand, if you’ve been training your arms for a while and already have some size, then one arm overhead extensions are definitely worth your time because they can make a real difference to your physique.

  1. Connect a rope attachment to a low pulley.
  2. Grab the rope with one arm and then turn away from the cable station.
  3. Lower the rope behind your neck to stretch your triceps. Keep going until your forearm and bicep make firm contact.
  4. Reverse the motion by flexing your triceps.
  5. Keep going until your elbow is completely locked out.
  6. Perform 3-5 sets of 10-20 reps per arm.

5. Cable tricep pushdown

A man doing a cable rope pushdown exercise for his triceps

No cable tricep workout is complete without some kind of pushdown. Unlike overhead tricep cable exercises, pushdowns emphasize the lateral head of the triceps by placing the long head in a weaker position.

While it doesn’t contribute as much mass to the triceps as the long head, the lateral head is an aesthetically important muscle because it’s highly visible on the outside of your arm.

As for which attachment to use, it depends on you. Go for the attachment that puts the least pressure on your wrist (likely the rope) or the one that enables you to lift the greatest amount of weight (probably the straight bar).

  1. Connect your attachment of choice to a high pulley.
  2. Grab the attachment, and then take a step back.
  3. Pin your elbows to your sides and then flex your triceps forcefully. Keep going until your elbows are locked out.
  4. Release the contraction in a controlled manner.
  5. Repeat for 3-5 sets of 8-15 reps.

Cable tricep workouts for building muscle

Cables are definitely one of the best gym machines for triceps that you can use for hypertrophy because they apply constant tension to your muscles.

But knowing how to structure an optimal cable tricep workout is also important because exercise order determines which head of your triceps gets the most attention.

And while some lifters may well have a lagging lateral head, the long head has by far the most growth potential so—if you’re training for hypertrophy—it makes sense to start with tricep machine exercises that train that head.

Triceps cable workout 1: Strength

A man doing his tricep cable workouts

If you want to make your triceps as strong as possible, then this triceps cable workout is for you. While the specific tricep pulley exercises are very similar across all three workouts, the rep ranges are customized to different goals.

So, low rep pushdowns, for example, will have better carryover to your bench press strength than high rep overhead extensions, which are still an excellent triceps machine exercise in their own right.

Of course, you can also do these triceps cable exercises after your free weight movements (like close grip bench press) if you want to combine different training tools.

One reason why some lifters do their tricep workouts with cables exclusively is that cables are typically more elbow-friendly than free-weights. So if you’re already doing heavy bench presses and overhead presses, then it can make sense to give your elbows a break when it comes to isolation work.

1: Lying cable extension — 5 sets of 6-8 reps

2: Straight bar pushdown — 5 sets of 6-8 reps

3: One arm overhead extension — 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps

Cable tricep workout 2: Hypertrophy

A man demonstarting some good tricep pulley exercises that you can do on the cable machine

As mentioned, performing a tricep workout with cables is a great way to give your elbows a break while challenging your tris with constant mass-building tension (if you use good form and train progressively, cables can build just as much mass as free weights—see these dumbbell tricep exercises for more info).

But what many lifters don’t realize is that tricep cable exercises actually have so much variety. Most people just do a few sets of pushdowns and call it a day, but you really can hit your triceps from every angle by combining cable training with your creativity.

This cable tricep workout, for example, emphasizes the long head, triceps symmetry, and also the lateral and medial heads of the triceps. In other words, because this session is hypertrophy focused, it hits your triceps from every conceivable angle without making you burnt out (more volume isn’t always better).

1: Cable skull crusher — 4-5 sets of 10-12 reps

2: One arm overhead extension — 4-5 sets of 10-12 reps

3: Rope pushdown — 3 sets of 15-20 reps

Triceps machine workout 3: Pump

A weight lifter demonstrating some cable machine tricep exercises that you can do in your workout

Everyone loves pumping up their biceps and watching their vascularity increase before their eyes. But if you want to make your t-shirt sleeves tighter, then getting a triceps pump is your best bet. [2]

But don’t be fooled. While this workout will pump your arms up like a balloon, it’ll also lead to plenty of muscle growth if you perform it on a regular basis. After all, high reps work wonders for the arms when you train intensely.

1: Overhead extension — 3-5 sets of 12-20 reps

2: Rope pushdown — 3-5 sets of 12-20 reps

3: Cable crossover tricep extension — 3-5 sets of 20-30 reps

See Also: Tricep band workoutTricep bar exercises

Conclusion: Which of the tricep cable workouts is best for you?

A man demonstrating some good cable tricep workouts for building muscle

As you’ve seen, there are many excellent triceps machine exercises to choose from. But as for which is the most effective, it depends on your goals and on your body.

For example, if you’re training for size and could only do one of the cable tricep exercises that you saw above, then it should probably be overhead extensions because they emphasize the single biggest muscle in your upper arms—the long head of the triceps.

On the other hand, if you want to hammer your triceps with heavy weights, then a pushdown is the way to go because they really allow you to load up and test your strength.

Of course, you can also make your own custom tricep cable workouts based on the exercises that you find to be the best. Your triceps, after all, are just a muscle. And like any muscle, they respond to and grow from tension.

References

  1. GetBodySmart. (2020, April 16). Triceps Brachii Muscle - Long Head. https://www.getbodysmart.com/arm-muscles/triceps-brachii-long-head
  2. Capritto, A. (2021, April 13). The muscle pump: Why your muscles look bigger during workouts. CNET. https://www.cnet.com/health/fitness/muscle-pump-how-to-get/
James Jackson
James Jackson is a personal trainer who uses his expertise in strength and conditioning to create helpful workout tutorials that show fitness enthusiasts how to build muscle while staying safe in the gym. He draws on the latest sports science data as well as tried and tested training techniques to get the best results for his clients without them having to live in the gym.
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