Tricep isolation exercises are a must-do for maximizing hypertrophy, especially considering the fact that the triceps account for two-thirds of your upper arm mass.
The problem with many tricep exercises, however, is that they can often be very elbow-intensive, which commonly results in joint pain.
With that in mind, we tried over 50 different movements and then selected the most elbow friendly tricep exercises for minimizing joint pain.
So if skull crushers hurt your elbows, be sure to check out these safe tricep exercises for making some serious upper arm gains.
5 elbow friendly tricep exercises to keep your joints safe
Keep your joints safe and your triceps growing with these elbow safe tricep exercises.
1. Rope pushdowns
Tricep pushdowns, which you can do with bands as well as cables, are the most elbow friendly tricep exercise in existence.
One reason for this is that cables provide smooth, consistent resistance that puts more tension on your muscles and less pressure on your joints than free-weight resistance.
Additionally, pushdowns don’t put much torque through your elbows when they’re bent, which means that your tricep tendon doesn’t take too much of a beating.
Furthermore, tricep pushdowns are more of a finesse exercise, so to speak, meaning that they’re naturally better suited to high reps and “pump n’ contraction” style training rather than all-out maximal lifting.
2. Resistance band skull crushers
Resistance band skull crushers, also called resistance band tricep extensions, challenge your tris with constant tension and joint-friendly resistance. They’re great if regular tricep extensions hurt your elbows.
Using a door anchor and a resistance band, you can do banded extensions pretty much anywhere. But just because band skull crushers are accessible and one of the best triceps exercises for beginners doesn’t mean that they can’t build your triceps to a large size.
Bands get heavier the further that you stretch them, meaning that band skull crushers naturally challenge your triceps with a potent peak contraction. In other words, you’re using your triceps muscles to lock the band out, which helps to take most of the pressure off your elbow joints.
Add in the fact that resistance band exercises are naturally suited to high reps, and you can see why banded tricep extensions put very little stress on your elbows.
3. Dumbbell lying tricep extension
Also called the dumbbell skull crusher, the dumbbell lying tricep extension makes a great addition to your safe tricep workouts—if you make one modification.
You need to lower the weights behind your head rather than directly to your face.
Bringing the weights behind your head means moving your shoulders backward, which in turn puts the long head of your triceps under a greater eccentric stretch.
So, in a sense, this small form modification gives you double the benefits because you’re protecting your elbows while simultaneously giving your triceps a deeper, growth-stimulating muscle stretch. What’s not to love?
Although barbell exercises enable you to lift more weight, tricep dumbbell exercises allow for greater freedom of movement, which can help to take tension off your joints.
Additionally, dumbbells are better than barbells for building proportional triceps, which will help your physique to look more aesthetic.
4. Tricep kickbacks
Out of all the elbow friendly tricep exercises, it’s the tricep kickback that gives your triceps the strongest peak contraction.
The reason for this is that a kickback trains your triceps while your shoulders are in extension, which means that it works the long head in its maximally contracted position (on the contrary, when your shoulders are over your head, the long head is maximally stretched).
Just be sure to lift light on this exercise. There’s really no shame at all in using the lightest dumbbells in the gym on tricep kickbacks (even if they’re pink). It’s all about using the best mind-muscle connection that you can muster up so that you can get the strongest possible peak contraction in your triceps.
5. Close grip bench press
The close grip bench press (CGBP) is an elbow friendly exercise if you perform it for high reps and with strict form.
Of course, some people can do low rep close grip bench presses without experiencing even a hint of elbow discomfort. However, regardless of what the exercise is, the chance of you experiencing joint pain always increases in direct proportion to the amount of resistance that you lift.
So if you want to do everything in your power to protect your elbows, try to perform the CGBP later on in your workout when your triceps are already warmed up and somewhat fatigued (which will limit the amount of weight you can lift).
One cool way to make the CGBP elbow-friendly is to start with moderate or high rep tricep extensions and then, when your triceps are nearing failure, move from extensions straight into a close grip bench press.
How to make your tricep workouts safer
Indeed, getting both a muscle stretch and a muscle contraction is more conducive to hypertrophy than merely performing isometric or eccentric contractions.
So, by making a few changes and improvements to your existing workouts, you can keep doing the most effective exercises while drastically reducing your elbow discomfort.
Stick to high reps
Performing high reps means lifting lighter weights, which puts less pressure on your elbow joints. And while you might think that high reps are worse for muscle growth than low reps, that’s not true if you train close to muscular failure and do plenty of volume.
You have to understand that your triceps, as mere pieces of muscle meat, respond to tension and tension alone. To your triceps, “reps” and “pounds” mean nothing.
Counting repetitions is just a useful way for you to measure your time under tension. As such, it doesn’t matter whether you do sets of 8 or sets of 20, providing that you train close enough to muscular failure to recruit a broad range of muscle fibers.
If anything, high reps are arguably better for isolation exercises because they enable you to accumulate training volume faster while giving you a better pump and sparing your joints in the process.
Use cables and bands
While dumbbells and barbells are undeniably effective training tools for building slabs of triceps mass, they often exert a lot of stress on your elbow joints—especially during single-joint exercises like extensions and skull crushers.
Cables and bands, on the other hand, provide constant tension and smoother resistance, which means that there are no sudden jerks in the lifting motion.
Cable and band exercises also require less core stabilization, meaning that you can better focus on training your triceps, which is the whole point of an isolation exercise.
Improve your form
If your triceps is cramping or if you have joint pain, then you may have an injury that needs medical attention. However, if you just have triceps soreness in the tendon area, then simply taking a few days or a week’s worth of rest can make your elbow feel like new again.
Once the discomfort has subsided, you should reduce the resistance and perform a technique reset. This is where you lift lighter weights with the absolute perfect form so that you can work your muscles rather than bash your joints.
Using good form enables you to get great results from lifting surprisingly little weight.
While it’s fine to increase the resistance as your triceps become stronger, you should always seek to nail the correct technique so that you can challenge your triceps with as much muscle-building tension as possible (muscles respond to tension, not weight, remember?).
Conclusion: What are the safest tricep exercises?
There are many elbow friendly tricep exercises that you can include in your workouts to keep your joints safe in the gym. However, for the best results, you need to do at least one exercise that trains the long head of the triceps because this muscle is the single biggest muscle in your upper arms.
The dumbbell lying extension is the best choice in this regard because it places the long head under a really intense eccentric stretch as you lower the weights behind your head.
Any time that you can bring your shoulders into the movement, you’re working the long head of your triceps and taking some pressure off of your elbow joint.
Other good, elbow safe tricep exercises include bench dips, close grip bench presses, and pushdowns. Combine multiple exercises into a full routine for the best results.
- WebMD. (2017, February 3). How to Prevent Elbow Injuries. https://www.webmd.com/pain-management/how-to-prevent-elbow-injuries
- Kholinne, E., Zulkarnain, R. F., Sun, Y. C., Lim, S., Chun, J. M., & Jeon, I. H. (2018). The different role of each head of the triceps brachii muscle in elbow extension. Acta Orthopaedica et Traumatologica Turcica, 52(3), 201–205. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aott.2018.02.005