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December 11, 2021 8 min read

Tricep pushdowns are one of those bodybuilding exercises that no weekly routine is complete without. Few triceps exercises can boast the total three-head activation and bonus lat, ab, pectoral, trap, and ab workout tricep pushdowns do.

Changing the grip style to perform reverse grip tricep pulldowns targets more specific parts of the triceps. Find out more about this tricep pushdown variation, how to perform it in perfect form, and strategies for programming it into your workout routine in this complete guide to reverse grip tricep pushdowns.

Triceps brachii muscle labeled.

Basic Triceps Brachii Anatomy

To understand how a simple change in grip style can change this exercise so much, it helps to know the basics about how the triceps muscles work.

Like the  biceps brachii, the triceps impact flexion of the elbow joint. These two muscles are what’s called an antagonistic pair, meaning one relaxes or lengthens when the other contracts.

Specifically, the triceps work to extend the elbow joint (straighten the arm) while the biceps work to bend the elbow and turn the arm so that it’s supinated, which means the palm faces up. Biceps are named for the two heads on the muscle. Triceps have three heads. “Brachii,” which follows both, is a Latin word that simply means “of the arm.”

The three heads of the triceps and their functions are as follows:

  • Long Head: This head makes up most of the tricep’s mass. It’s responsible for elbow extension and it also contributes to adduction and extension of the shoulder joint. Adduction happens when the arm is lowered from an above-the-head position and extension of the shoulder joint occurs when your arm swings backward behind you.
  • Medial Head: The medial head of the triceps is most active out of the three in the sense that it is activated during every type of elbow extension while the other two only see activation when the elbow extends against weight or resistance. When your arm is raised above shoulder level,  the medial head contributes more to elbow extension.
  • Lateral Head: Used more rarely, the lateral head of the triceps is employed when greater force and intensity are needed. For example, the lateral head kicks in during the last phase of a bench press when the weight needs that little extra push to achieve lockout.

It’s worth mentioning that the lateral head is the most visible of the three heads from the side, so if you want sculpted triceps you need to target the lateral head specifically.

How To Do Tricep Pushdowns

Let’s take a look at how to do a conventional tricep pushdown (or pressdown) and how it affects the three heads of the triceps muscle. Later, we’ll compare how that changes with a switch to a reverse grip.

Follow these steps to do a regular tricep pushdown:

  1. Find a high pulley machine or any similar piece of equipment - it might be called a tricep pushdown machine, a  cable machine, press machine, or any number of other combinations of those terms. You can also use a lat pulldown machine with a straight bar although most personal trainers and weightlifters tend to use V-bars or tricep ropes on a cable machine.
  1. Set your weight. We highly recommend using a moderate amount of weight that will still give you the feel of the exercise and help you learn the form without fatiguing or making errors. 
  1. Stand about a foot away from the machine. Depending on how long your arms are, you might need to stand further back to give yourself room. 
  1. Making sure the pulley is just above your head height, grab hold of your handle with an overhand grip. You can keep your feet together or slightly apart. Push your chest up like you’re deadlifting, hinge forward at the hip just a tiny bit, and bend your knees slightly. 
  1. Pull the bar down to your chest and tuck your elbows into your sides. This is perhaps the single most important form tip for the tricep pushdown: do not let those elbows move behind your hips.
  1. Activate your core, inhale, and push down until your arms are nearly straight. Resist bending forward, keep a straight back, and keep that chest up.
  1. Exhale as you slowly bring the handle to around chest level. Your elbows should be just shy of 90 degrees when you’re back in the starting position.
  1. That’s one rep. Run through around 8 of these in a set and do 2 - 3 sets depending on your fitness level.

Muscles Worked In Tricep Pushdowns

You’re absolutely going to feel the burn in your triceps during this exercise. But there are a few other muscles that tricep pushdowns target as well.

  • Latissimus Dorsi: The lats are the widest muscle on the human torso, stretching from the mid-back around the sides of the ribs and up under the arm to connect with the humerus, or upper arm bone. Lats work with the pecs and teres major to raise the arm, bring it toward the body’s midline, and rotate it. Notably,  lat activation occurs when the arm is adducted (at the body’s midline) and prone with the elbow fully extended. More on this when we get to the reverse grip tricep pushdown. 
  • Pectoralis Major & Minor: Your pecs are the largest muscle on your chest. They help rotate the arms forward and they’re also a huge player in pushing motions like the pushdown, which is why push-ups are such a great pec exercise. The pectoralis minor is much smaller than the pectoralis major. Its duties mostly focus on movement of the shoulder blade, although it’s also useful in moving the ribs when you breathe in certain situations.
  • Rectus Abdominis: Located within the ab muscles, the rectus abdominis is primarily responsible for flexing the trunk, keeping organs in place, and assisting with breathing. This is the six-pack muscle so you’ll want to target it for killer abs.
  • Obliques: Near the rectus abdominis on the side of the torso, the obliques help rotate the torso and bend over sideways. They also pull the chest down and contribute to a regulated intra-abdominal pressure.
  • Trapezius: Your traps are found in the upper part of your back and between the neck and shoulder. They help turn your neck, tilt your head, shrug your shoulders, stand up straight, twist the torso, and help the shoulder blade stay in place when you throw an object. 
  • Triceps: We’ve already mentioned that the pushdown is particularly effective for the triceps. Since all three heads of the triceps cross the elbow joint, they all power its motion. So when your arms straighten out during a pushdown, all three heads are getting a workout. 

How To Do Reverse Grip Tricep Pushdowns

This pushdown variation focuses on how you hold the rope, triangle, or horizontal or EZ bar attachment. In the conventional tricep pushdown, you take an overhand grip, which means your palms are on top of the handle and facing the floor. A reverse grip, also called an underhand grip, has your palms facing the ceiling. 

Then follow these steps to do a reverse grip pushdown with the right form:

  1. Set the weight on any kind of cable or pulley machine as described in our conventional pushdown workout exercise guide above. 
  1. Reach up and grab the bar with a shoulder-width underhand grip - your palms should touch the bottom of the bar before you grip it.
  1. Stand about a foot away from the machine and pull the handle down to your hips. Your elbows should be bent to a 90-degree angle and your elbows need to be tucked into your sides. 
  1. Put your chest up and bend your knees a little before bringing the handle down. Make sure you don’t lean forward or move toward the cable, otherwise your pecs will start taking over. 
  1. Slowly return to the starting position to complete one repetition. You’ll know you’re there when your elbows are back at 90 degrees. 

Reverse Grip vs. Conventional Tricep Pushdowns

Does the simple change of grip do that much in the end? Here’s what we know: the reverse-grip cable pushdown impacts the same secondary muscle groups as the standard version and is just as good a tricep workout. In terms of function, the triceps only controls extension of the elbow.

All three heads cross the elbow joint to  attach at the ulna and forearm supination is controlled by the biceps, not the triceps. So turning the grip around shouldn’t have any effect, right?

Not entirely. While the simple act of supinating the grip doesn’t impact the  tricep workout all on its own, there are some other elements at play. For example, when you use an overhand grip, your elbows flare out slightly and your shoulders have to rotate internally to accommodate the movement. As you progress through a pushdown, these movements only become more pronounced. 

With a reverse-grip tricep pushdown, you can keep your elbows tucked in more easily and avoid interference from other muscle groups. The elbow tends to drift away from your body when you do pushdowns with an overhand grip. Reverse grips prevent this from happening. At the bottom of the move when the elbow is completely extended and the arms are straight, the elbows will even be behind the body somewhat.

So not only are you getting less interference, but you’re also getting a fuller extension and thus better activation of the triceps. The right form in a reverse grip pushdown helps prevent the abs, shoulders, and pecs from contributing and lets the triceps do all of the work. It also helps maintain elbow and shoulder position to prevent you from drifting out of form.

Programming Reverse Grip Tricep Pushdowns

Another vital aspect of the overhand vs. underhand grip in tricep pushdowns is that, to the extent it allows for some chest, shoulder, and core activation, the conventional overhand tricep pushdown isn’t doing anything other well-known triceps exercises aren’t doing already.

Skullcrushers, kickbacks, close grip bench presses, and tricep extensions should already be part of your arm day routine. If that’s the case, then a conventional overhand grip tricep pushdown isn’t unique and might not be needed for anything except a little workout variety.

The reverse grip pushdown, on the other hand, lets you isolate that tricep muscle better because you’ll be more comfortable keeping your elbows tucked and shoulders backed. The temptation to lean forward is reduced. If you want to cheat to make a reverse grip tricep pushdown easier, the lats are the only way to do it.

Our advice is to keep all of those tricep exercises in your arm day workout and switch to the reverse grip pushdown to push your tricep further toward exhaustion. 

How to Do Reverse Grip Tricep Pushdowns At Home

Now that you’ve seen the way a reverse grip tricep pushdown can be a great improvement to your arm day routine, you might be wondering whether you can do this move without the high pulley machine. Great news. You can easily do triceps pushdowns or accurately mimic the exercise with dumbbells, a barbell, or resistance bands. If you want to do them at home, resistance bands are the simplest and most affordable option.

Grab a fairly large loop resistance band and follow these steps to do a banded tricep pushdown:

  1. Wrap one end of the loop around a high anchor point and then grab hold of both sides of the band about halfway up the loop. 
  1. Pull the loop down toward your hips with your palms facing up, your chest up, elbows tucked in at ninety degrees, and your knees bent. 
  1. Straighten your arms out toward the floor until your elbows are completely unbent. Slowly return them to the ninety-degree position to complete one repetition. 

If you have a bench and barbell handy, you can mimic this exercise by lying flat on the bench, holding the bar aloft over your chest with straight arms and an underhand grip, and slowly bending your elbows so the weight moves closer to you with each rep.

We highly caution you to use a spotter with this exercise in case you need to let the weight drop at any point. The same idea can be executed with a dumbbell in each hand, although we prefer the resistance band variation because it maintains constant tension on the triceps.

Reverse Grip Tricep Pushdowns Offer Greater Isolation

While an underhand grip might not have a huge impact by itself, it sets you up for more effective and more properly executed repetitions.

You’re likely losing out on  tricep gains over time if you stick with the conventional overhand grip in your pushdowns and let other muscles like the pecs, abs, and shoulders take over. Use the information and workout instructions in this guide to ensure your tricep pushdowns are having the impact they should when arm day rolls around.

And if you really want to get your arms jacked, load up on the  RIPPED STACK  for serious muscle growth.