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Overhead tricep extensions vs. cable pushdowns: Study says one of these builds more muscle

Which tricep workout builds more muscle?

Black and white picture man shirtless doing cable pushdown exercise in the gym
Daniel Apodaca / Unsplash

Just like the bicep, the tricep muscle is important for arm strength and flexibility. Your triceps brachii is a three-headed muscle at the back of your upper arm that stabilizes your shoulder joints and helps with key arm movements like extending your elbow. If you’re trying to bulk up and build your tricep muscles, certain exercises are more beneficial than others. Interesting research shows that even similar exercises can affect your muscles differently. We look at the latest research on the best muscle-building triceps workouts. 

man in gym wearing long sleeve blue shirt doing overhead tricep extension exercise with weight
Mdv Edwards / Adobe Stock

What is an overhead tricep extension?

Overhead tricep extension is a popular exercise you might see people doing at the gym, either standing up or sitting down. This exercise targets all three parts of your triceps on both arms. When the weight is at the lowest point during an overhead tricep extension, your triceps experience a full stretch and extension to their greatest length. This exercise might seem more challenging for some people because your shoulders have to work as stabilizers for your arms.

Here’s how to do an overhead tricep extension:

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart 
  • Hold the dumbbell or kettlebell over your head (grasp both handles of the kettlebell)
  • Your elbows should be pointing forward, and your upper arms should remain in place
  • Bend your elbows to lower the weight back behind your head 
  • Extend and straighten your elbows to lift the weight back up overhead
  • Hold the position for a moment before repeating your desired number of repetitions

Try to maintain good form, an upright posture, and an engaged core, and keep the movement slow and steady for best results. You can also perform this exercise using a cable machine or resistance bands by standing on the band or anchoring it somewhere.

woman doing cable pushdown tricep exercise in gym
Colynary Media / Unsplash

What is a cable pushdown?

A cable pushdown might also be called a rope pushdown and requires a cable machine or a resistance band. Cable pushdowns also target all three parts of your tricep muscles, increase strength over time, and tone your arms.

Here’s how to perform a cable pushdown with a cable machine:

  • You’ll want to start with a low-weight
  • Face the triceps cable machine
  • Hold the rope attachment or horizontal bar at your chest level
  • Tuck your elbows in at your sides and brace your core
  • Push down to fully extend your elbows 
  • Bend your elbows and bring the bar or rope attachment back to the starting position

Try to push both arms down evenly and keep your elbows tucked in. 

If you can’t access a cable machine, you can use resistance bands at home or on the go. Attach the resistance band to something sturdy at chin height or above your head, such as a metal bar or hook. Hold on to the ends of the band and perform the pushdown exercise in the same way.

man sweating in gym
Annushka Ahuja/Pexels / Pexels

What does the study show?

Interesting new research by Ritsumeikan University and the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Kanoya compared these two popular tricep exercises: cable pushdown and overhead tricep extension. The research involved 14 young men and seven young women around age 23. 

The researchers tested the study participants’ one-rep maxes for each exercise and measured their arm mass using an MRI. Twice a week, after a short warm-up, the participants performed five sets of ten reps of cable pushdowns on one arm and five sets of ten reps of overhead triceps extensions on the other arm. They completed the exercises on non-consecutive days. Every week, they increased the weights for each exercise.

At the end of the 12-week study period, the researchers measured arm mass using an MRI and revealed that both exercises increased strength, but overhead tricep extensions resulted in 40% more muscle growth and size compared to the cable pushdown.

man in gym wearing black looking in mirror lifting up weights next to weight rack
Anastase Maragos / Unsplash

Why overhead tricep extensions are a superior workout

During overhead tricep extensions, the tricep muscle’s long head, called the triceps brachii, is fully lengthened, which could be one possible reason for the impressive muscle-building results. The long-head muscle appears to be the most active during this movement, but all three heads of the muscle are targeted.

Researchers also point to the reduction in blood flow to the triceps during overhead extensions, which could have increased metabolic stress in the muscle and encouraged hypertrophy.

Stronger arms are important and reduce your risk of injury during everyday activities like carrying groceries, exercising, and strength training. Both cable pushdowns and overhead extensions are excellent workouts for building and strengthening your triceps, but it seems the overhead tricep extensions reign supreme.

Steph Green
Steph Green is a content writer specializing in healthcare, wellness, and nutrition. With over ten years of experience, she…
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