When people think about big arms, they typically think of building the biceps – the muscle on the front of the upper arms. But your triceps, directly opposite the biceps, actually make up about 60% of the muscle fiber of the upper arm.
So the key to building sleeve-busting arms is hitting the triceps. And the cable is the best way to work the different heads of the triceps because of two main factors – constant tension on the muscle and the ability to hit different angles.
Here are the 8 best exercises for your tricep cable workout:
- Cable Rope Overhead Tricep Extension
- Bent-Over Cable Tricep Rope Pressdown
- Single Arm Overhead Cable Tricep Extension
- Single-Arm Cable Tricep Pressdown
- Straight Bar Cable Overhead Tricep Extension
- Cable Skullcrushers
- Standing Dual Rope Cable Tricep Pressdown
- Single Arm Cable Cross-Body Tricep Extensions
Make sure you’re including these 8 cable tricep exercises into your routine. I use each of these variations with my clients. Keep reading for information on tricep anatomy, function, best practices, and some sample tricep workouts.
What Are The Triceps, And What Do They Do?
The triceps are located on the back of the upper arm. The triceps help extend the elbow, like when you do a push-up or bench press. Tricep means ‘three heads’ – and that’s exactly what the tricep has.
The key to growing your triceps is ensuring you’re hitting all three heads.
Want to build your bench press? Here are the Best Tricep Exercises to Increase Bench Press Strength
Anatomy of The Triceps
To get into more detail, the triceps are the big horseshoe muscle on the back of the upper arm.
The triceps consist of 3 heads – the lateral, medial, and long head. They all converge at the elbow but start in different places.
The Long Head
The long head of the triceps is just that – the longest of the 3 heads of the triceps. The long head attaches to the scapula and elbow. This is important because it not only extends the elbow but also has a small role in stabilizing the glenohumeral joint (the ball and socket joint in your shoulder)
The medial head of the triceps helps extend the elbow, but it doesn’t play a role in shoulder stabilization because it doesn't attach to the scapula.
This is the strongest out of all three heads. It is active during elbow extension when the forearm is supinated or pronated.
Want to focus on your lateral head? Start here! Best Lateral Head Tricep Exercises
The Function of the Triceps
The triceps' primary function is extending the forearm at the elbow joint. This is the opposite motion of the biceps, which flexes the forearm. The triceps also help stabilize the elbow joint when the forearm and hand are performing fine motor tasks like writing.
Benefits of Using Cables to Train the Triceps
There are three main benefits to using the cable machine to work your triceps.
Time Under Tension
The main benefit of using a cable machine is the increased time under tension. Mechanical tension is one of the leading drivers of hypertrophy (muscle-building). The cable is fantastic for this because the tension is constant. It’s not dependent on gravity and the angle of the exercise.
The cable is a great way to isolate smaller body parts. Because of this, you can add a tremendous amount of volume to your lagging body parts.
Safer Than Free Weights
A cable machine is a great option for those with injuries. Not a ton of setup needs to be done typically, and you don’t need to pick up anything heavy. The adjustability of the cable machine lets you change the angles easily without needing to completely change exercises or get any heavy dumbbells or barbells out.
The 8 Best Cable Tricep Exercises
1. Cable Rope Overhead Tricep Extension
The cable rope overhead tricep extension should be a staple in your cable tricep training regime. According to a new study, they found that tricep hypertrophy was much greater in the overhead position as compared to the neutral arm position.
That doesn’t mean that neutral grip tricep exercises are worthless by any means. Still, it does mean that overhead tricep variations should be in your routine if you want to stimulate the triceps maximally.
How to Do a Cable Rope Overhead Tricep Extension:
- Grab a rope cable attachment, and make sure the cable is taller than you.
- Face away from the cable.
- Stagger one foot forward and get some space from the cable machine.
- Keep your elbows locked in, and as you extend out spread the rope.
Make sure your elbows stay stable when doing this. When people start to fatigue, they start to reach their shoulders back and add momentum to this exercise. Try your best to lock your elbows in and focus on extending your arm forward.
I like to do sets of 12-20 with moderate weight for exercise. I’ve found that higher reps lead to more of a ‘burn,’ and sometimes if you go too heavy, it’s hard to get set up correctly.
2. Bent-Over Cable Tricep Rope Pressdown
This is a staple exercise in gyms worldwide – and for good reason. It works! This is a must-do exercise to blast your triceps' medial and lateral head.
It’s also one of my favorite exercises to pair with the Cable Rope Overhead Tricep Extension. No extra setup is needed, and it’s a great way to work all three heads of the triceps! For the exact workout, keep reading until the end.
How to Do a Bent-Over Cable Tricep Rope Pressdown:
- Face the rope.
- Lock your elbows into your torso.
- From there, extend your arms down and spread the rope.
- As you come back in, don’t let your elbows drift forward.
- Try to actively engage your triceps with each rep.
Make sure to spread the rope apart at the bottom of each rep. This adds a little more tricep activation. Avoid rushing through. Take your time and try to actively engage your triceps with each rep.
This exercise typically works best in the same rep range as the previous one. 3 sets of 12-20 reps should definitely torch the triceps! Sometimes I’ll do a very light 25-30 rep burnout set to finish off the triceps at the end of a workout. Give this a try if you’re feeling up to it!
3. Single Arm Overhead Cable Tricep Extension
This is very similar to the first exercise on the list – the cable overhead extension with the rope. Both are important to include in a well-rounded training program. However, this variation allows you to focus on burning out one arm at a time.
How to Do a Single Arm Overhead Cable Tricep Extension:
- Set the cable so it’s taller than you.
- You can use a rope or just grab the cable with no attachment.
- Face away from the cable and use your non-working hand to stabilize your elbow.
- Actively engage your tricep as you send your hand forward.
Use your non-working hand to stabilize your working arm. Not allowing any movement of your elbow will place greater emphasis on your tricep muscle. Basically, more gains! Stability leads to ability.
I’ll usually pair this with a bilateral exercise as a finisher. It’s great with another overhead variation, or you can pair this with a press-down and burn it out. 10-15 reps per arm are what I usually have my clients do with this exercise.
4. Single-Arm Cable Tricep Pressdown
This is a very similar exercise to the 2nd on this list – it’s just the single-arm version. It’s a good idea to incorporate both double-arm and single-arm variations. This allows you to work on your side-to-side deficiencies and adds variety.
How to Do a Single-Arm Cable Tricep Pressdown:
- You can use a rope attachment or grab the pulley directly.
- Stand up tall, and lock your elbow into your torso.
- Use your tricep to press down.
- Don’t allow any drifting of your elbow – keep it locked in.
Don’t allow your elbow to drift forward as you perform the set. There’s a tendency to let your elbow creep forward once you start tired. Don’t let that happen – we want to keep as much tension on the tricep as possible. Tension = growth.
I’ll similarly use this exercise to the Single Arm Overhead Cable Tricep Extension. I’ll usually pair this with a finisher in which you’re using both arms together. This exercise works best with moderate to high reps (10-15 reps per arm/set).
5. Straight Bar Cable Overhead Tricep Extension
Any time you’re going overhead, you’re biasing the long head of the triceps.
This is a great exercise for muscle growth because you’re working the triceps in a more lengthened position, which aids in hypertrophy. This is one of the mechanisms proposed in the study showing more tricep hypertrophy when working overhead.
How to Do a Straight Bar Cable Overhead Tricep Extension:
- Set your cable all the way to the bottom.
- Grab the straight bar, then turn around and stagger one foot forward.
- Reach your hands behind your head, then use your triceps to send the bar back overhead.
- Try to keep your elbows close to one another, especially as you press up and overhead.
A lot of people cut their reps short when they do this exercise. As you reach the straight bar back, try to get it all the way to your neck. Also, try to keep your elbows close to one another, and don’t let them go out too wide.
I like to pair this exercise with a bicep curl on the straight bar. Typically, I’ll do sets of 10-15 reps of both the curl and the tricep extension. It’s a great pairing to add some mass to the entire arm!
6. Cable Skullcrushers
Most gym-goers have done skull crushers with dumbbells or an EZ bar. But you can get a great tricep pump by throwing some cable skull crushers into your routine.
This may require a little more setup than traditional skull crushers. But what makes this different from just using dumbbells is that the cable keeps constant tension on the muscle. It isn’t dependent on gravity like dumbbells are.
How to Do Cable Skullcrushers:
- Grab your bench and place it right by the cable.
- Make sure the cable is set BELOW the bench.
- Lay flat on the bench with your head close to the cable.
- Control the cable as you reach it back.
- Aim for your forehead or just overhead.
- Then extend your arms straight and squeeze your triceps.
Make sure the cable is set BELOW your head. If the cable is set up too high it won’t be as stimulating for the triceps.
I like higher reps with this exercise. Anywhere between 15 and 20 works best for me and my clients.
For a refresher on dumbbell skull crushers, as well as other tricep exercises, check out the Best Tricep Isolation Exercises
7. Standing Dual Rope Cable Tricep Pressdown
At first glance, this exercise seems pretty similar to the Bent Over Cable Tricep Pressdown. However, standing up straight and adding the additional rope changes the angle the triceps are worked. Training those different angles is the key to hitting all 3 heads of your tricep.
How to Do a Standing Dual Rope Cable Tricep Pressdown:
- You’ll need 2 rope attachments.
- Face the cable and stay mostly upright as you perform this exercise.
- Keep your elbows glued to your torso.
- As you extend down, your hands should come slightly away from your body.
- So think about extending your hands down but also out slightly.
As you bring your hands down to your sides, your hands should NOT touch your body. There should be some space between your hands and your hips. Coming out at this slight angle will increase the activation of both your medial and lateral heads.
This is definitely an exercise you want to do for higher reps. Right around the 12-rep mark, it really starts to burn. So stick in the 12-20 rep range with this exercise.
8. Single Arm Cable Cross-Body Tricep Extensions
This is an exercise not many people have done, but it’s great for blasting the medial and lateral head of the triceps. It’s a unique angle, so it will work the muscle slightly differently than a standard single-arm press down.
How to Do a Single Arm Cable Cross-Body Tricep Extensions:
- Set up the rope attachment and grab it with both hands.
- You should be standing adjacent to the cable machine.
- Lock your elbow into your torso.
- Extend your arm out, away from your body.
- You should focus on one arm at a time, with the arm furthest from the cable doing most of the work.
Make sure you’re focusing on using JUST ONE arm at a time. You want to put the emphasis on the hand furthest from the cable.
I’ll usually do a superset with this exercise and either the cable rope overhead tricep extensions or the cable rope tricep press downs. I like moderate to high reps with this exercise – sets of 10-15 reps per arm.
Sample Cable Tricep Workout
Sample Cable Tricep Workout for Hypertrophy
Here’s a superset you can use to finish off your next upper body or arm day. There are 3 exercises. Your goal is to go through each exercise with minimal rest. Rest for 1-2 minutes after you finish the third exercise. 3 sets total.
- Single Arm Cross-Body Tricep Extension x 12-15 reps per arm
- Cable Rope Overhead Tricep Extension x 12-15 reps
- Cable Rope Tricep Pressdown x 12-15 reps
Sample Cable Tricep Workout for Tricep Strength
For this superset, you’re focusing on strength. So I want you to take a little longer rest between sets if you need. Your goal is to increase the weight each round on both of the exercises.
- Single Arm Overhead Cable Tricep Extension x 15/12/8-10 reps/per arm
- Bent Over Cable Tricep Pressdown x 15/12/8-10 reps
**Make sure you take adequate rest between rounds so you’re able to increase the weight!
No cable? No problem! Start with these: Best Bodyweight Tricep Exercises (At Home & No Equipment)
How To Prepare for a Tricep Cable Workout
The triceps are a smaller muscle group, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to warm up properly. Make sure you’re doing some arm swings – getting the arms moving and blood flowing before you hop into a workout.
Here are two of my favorite upper body warm-up exercises. You’ll just need a band:
1. Banded Around The Worlds
2. Band Pullaparts
It’s also important to hydrate properly and ensure you’ve eaten something to help fuel your workout.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can You Get Big Triceps From Just Cables?
There are plenty of ways to blast the triceps, but cables are one of the best options because of the constant tension on the muscle and the adjustability of the cable angle.
Are Three Tricep Exercises Too Much?
For my clients, I’ll typically program 2-3 tricep exercises in a superset. Make sure to vary the angle so you can hit all 3 heads of the tricep.
The cable is one of the best ways to blast your triceps and add some mass to your arms. They keep constant tension on the muscle, have easily adjustable angles, help increase volume, and are typically a safer option than free weights.
These are all exercises I use with my clients in different capacities. Try each of these 8 exercises and find the movements that feel the most stimulating for your triceps!
About The Author
Kurtis Ackerman is a personal trainer residing in Southern California. He is the owner and head trainer of KB Fitness. He competed in powerlifting and Strongman in his younger years. Now he trains a wide variety of clientele but specializes in working around injuries. You can connect with him on Instagram or LinkedIn.