The tricep pressdown is one of the best tricep isolation exercises to help build your bench press and arms.
Even so, tricep pressdowns can result in a plateau after a while, which can reduce the effectiveness of the exercise and the necessary enjoyment that training brings us.
So, if you have plateaued or seek variety in your training, there are many alternatives to choose from that utilize various types of equipment that are equally effective.
The 12 best tricep pressdown alternatives are:
- Dumbbell Skull Crushers
- Resistance Band Pressdowns
- Cable French Press
- Dumbbell Kickbacks
- Incline Close Grip Bench Press
- Close Grip Dips
- Single Arm Dumbbell Overhead Tricep Extension
- Single Arm Tricep Pressdown
- Diamond Push Ups
- Machine Tricep Extension
- Close Grip Bench Press
- TRX Skull Crushers
In this article, I will give additional detail on each of these exercises, including why it’s a good alternative, how to do it, and some additional tips to master the exercise.
Moreover, I have included a variety of barbell, machine, and bodyweight variations for you to effectively improve your tricep strength and size.
Looking for other tricep training resources, check out:
- 16 Best Tricep Exercises To Increase Bench Strength
- 10 Best Lateral Head Tricep Exercises (That Actually Work)
- How Do Powerlifters Train Arms (Definitive Guide)
- 8 Close Grip Bench Press Benefits (Plus, 1 Drawback)
What Makes a Good Tricep Pressdown Alternative
A good tricep pressdown alternative will accomplish one of the following:
- Target similar muscle groups as worked in the tricep press down
- Isolate the triceps
Let’s look at these features in greater detail.
Muscles Used In the Tricep Pressdown
The muscles used in the tricep pressdown is:
- Lateral Head Tricep
- Medial Head Tricep
- Long Head Tricep
Tricep pushdowns are the action of elbow extension, consequently targeting all three heads of the tricep.
Takeaway: An effective tricep pressdown alternative will target the lateral head, medial head, and the long head of the tricep.
Since the triceps are often the secondary muscle in compound movements (like the bench press or overhead press), isolating the triceps via a tricep pressdown is a necessary component of an effective routine.
Triceps make up two-thirds of the size of the arm and play a key role in assisting in the execution of a bench press, overhead press, jerk, and other pressing movements.
So, the location of the triceps makes it easy to isolate, resulting in less total body fatigue. This allows us to prescribe higher volumes and higher intensities of isolation work to promote a hypertrophic (muscle-building) response.
Takeaway: An effective tricep pressdown substitute will cause less total body fatigue, while isolating the muscles of the tricep.
Tricep Pressdown Alternatives: 12 Exercises
1. Dumbbell Skull Crushers
Dumbbell skull crushers allow you to focus on the isolation of the triceps, which makes it a good tricep pressdown substitute. If you don’t have access to the tricep pressdown equipment all you need is a set of dumbbells for this movement.
How To Do It
- Hold two dumbbells, with palms facing towards the center of the body.
- Lay back on the bench until head, shoulders, hips, and feet make contact with the ground and bench.
- Elbows should be completely extended out in front of you.
- Lower the two dumbbells until elbows are at 90 degrees flexion or both dumbbells are parallel with forehead.
- After this, drive the dumbbells back into extension.
Engaging your lats and bringing the dumbbells further behind your head and further forward can result in a better tricep contraction.
This allows for hyperflexion (greater lowering) and hyperextension (greater contraction) at each phase of the exercise.
2. Resistance Band Pressdowns
Resistance band pressdowns are synonymous with the tricep pressdown, but can be done on the road and at home which make them a good tricep pressdown alternative. It’s the exact same movement pattern as the pressdown, but instead of using a stacked machine, you’re using a band.
How To Do It
- Grab hold of each side of the resistance band with each hand.
- Maintain proper posture by keeping your chest up and squeezing the shoulder blades together.
- Pull the band down until the elbows are at complete extension, while accommodating for the increase in resistance as the bands lengthen.
- Keep your elbows tucked, and resistance outward flare while achieving this last step.
- Control the band’s resistance back into complete flexion of the elbows.
Banded variations utilize very low absolute loads, which allow you to take resistance band pressdowns to failure multiple times throughout the week.
For this reason, you can achieve great benefit by programming multiple burnout sets of the resistance band pressdown towards the end of your workout.
Resistance band pressdowns can be paired well with banded bicep curls to take your arm routine to the next level.
If you did want greater resistance, you can use multiple band combinations. For example, I use a 2-inch band, combined with a 1-inch and 0.5-inch band, for reps between 10-12 when I don’t want to do a ‘burnout set’.
3. Cable French Press
The cable french press is similar to the tricep pressdown. However, the angle in which this exercise is performed keeps constant tension on the triceps, whereas in the pressdown you won’t have tension on the triceps at the bottom of the movement. For this reason, many lifters prefer the cable french press over the tricep pressdown.
How To Do It
- Face away from the cable stack, hold each end of the rope overhead with the elbows completely extended.
- Lower the rope until elbows are completely flexed.
- To complete the repetition, drive the arms back into complete extension.
The french press has many variations that can be cycled through multiple training blocks. This can be beneficial by preventing plateaus when training for size and strength in the triceps.
French press variations include:
4. Dumbbell Kickbacks
Dumbbell kickbacks are similar to the tricep pressdown in that it doesn’t create a lot of fatigue from doing the movement. This is because you can use a lighter weight on the dumbbell kickback, and so long as you have strict technique, your triceps should have a high degree of activation.
How To Do It
- Hold a dumbbell in one hand, and bend your torso at a 45 degree angle.
- Firmly plant one knee into the bench, while grasping the head of the bench with one hand.
- Raise your elbow up until it is in line with the torso.
- Bend your elbow to 90 degrees of flexion.
- “Kick back” the dumbbell until the arm is completely extended.
- Guide the dumbbell back into flexion to complete the repetition.
Dumbbell kickbacks allow you to drive the shoulder back further to get a greater tricep contraction. Due to the angle of the shoulder, you can go extremely light on this exercise and still get great benefits.
Program considerations for this exercise include high repetition/low intensity sets to exhaustion. This will promote optimal triceps growth so long as you have strict technique, i.e. not swinging your entire arm as you move the dumbbell, but rather, focusing on extending from the elbow.
5. Incline Close Grip Bench Press
The incline close grip bench press is an underrated tricep exercise that effectively places more of an emphasis on triceps isolation over the pecs. There’s no doubt that it’s more ‘compounded’ than the previous variations I’ve discussed, but if you only have access to a barbell, then this is a great tricep pressdown replacement.
How To Do It
- Lay down on a bench that has an incline.
- Ensure your hips and feet are firmly secure into the bench and floor.
- Grip the bar at shoulder width apart or narrower than regular bench.
- Build tension by pushing the base of your hand into the weight of the bar.
- Firmly wrap your fingers around the bar as if you were breaking it.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together while creating a big chest.
- Unrack the bar, and bring it forward until it is inline with your upper chest.
- Row the bar down to your upper chest, while maintaining tucked elbows.
- After the bar has made contact with the upper chest, then drive the weight away until elbows are completely extended.
Between each rep, rebuild tension to ensure the effectiveness of the exercise. If you lose tension, then you aren’t targeting the triceps well enough and you lose power output.
Build tension by squeezing the hips into the seat of the bench and locking your feet onto the floor. After each rep, act as though you are closing your armpits and squeezing your shoulder blades together.
Tempo reps can challenge your ability to maintain tension (i.e. bringing the barbell down at a count of 4-5 seconds), therefore improving your ability to complete the incline close grip bench press.
6. Close Grip Dips
The close grip dip exercise isolates and improves triceps strength and size. For some people, though, it can be hard on the shoulders if you don’t have adequate shoulder mobility. So my advice is to start with your own bodyweight to assess how it feels, then progress the load as tolerated.
You may also want to play around with the range of motion. Even if you’re only doing ‘half reps’ (i.e. the top half of the range of motion), you will still activate your triceps to a large extent, so it would be worthwhile doing if you’re looking for a substitute for the tricep pressdown.
How To Do It
- Find a pair of parallel bars that are slightly wider than shoulder width apart.
- Place the base of your hands onto each bar.
- Press the weight of your body up into complete extension of the elbows.
- Slightly leaned forward, lower your body until you achieve 90 degree flexion of the elbows.
- To finish the repetition, push yourself up into complete extension of the elbows.
Several strategies can be used to make the close grip dip exercise harder. Throwing on a dip belt can increase the stimulus and challenge of the close grip dip.
Other strategies that can make the close grip dip harder are tempo variations which can help us learn how to execute the dip by slowing the movement down.
Furthermore, tempo variations increase time under tension and work capacity of the dip, which can contribute to an increase in size and strength of the triceps.
Want to take this exercise on the road or include it in your home gym? Check out my article on the 10 Best Portable Dip Bars for At-Home Workouts.
7. Single Arm Dumbbell Overhead Tricep Extension
The single arm dumbbell overhead tricep extension is an exercise that targets all three heads of the tricep, just like the tricep pressdown, however it’s performed with one arm at a time, which allows you to work out any imbalances between the right and left sides.
When you do the tricep pressdown, if you don’t feel activation between the left and right sides equally, then I would replace it with the single arm dumbbell overhead tricep extension.
How To Do It
- This exercise can be done seated or standing.
- Have the elbow completely extended overhead with the palm facing away.
- Behind your neck, lower the dumbbell towards the opposite shoulder until the elbow is bent 90 degrees.
- Raise the dumbbell back to the overhead position until the elbow is completely extended.
Exaggerate each phase of this exercise, which is flexion and extension of the elbow joint, you can then target the triceps to a greater degree.
As well, you should do this exercise with a lighter intensity/high volume approach to successfully fatigue the muscles of the triceps.
Sometimes I see lifters doing this exercise fairly heavy, but they’re compensating by using their shoulders. You want to ensure you’re only using your tricep to move the load if you’re looking for an alternative to the tricep pressdown.
8. Single Arm Tricep Pressdown
Single arm tricep pressdowns are a good tricep pressdown alternative by similarly isolating the triceps. But just like the prior exercise, a single arm is used, which is beneficial in preventing imbalances and strengthening unilateral (single-sided) strength.
Traditionally, bilateral (two-sided) pressdowns can be the source of imbalances of tricep growth between the left and right arm. Therefore, I recommend using at least one unilateral (single-sided) tricep exercise every 3-4 months in your programming to offset any imbalances that might naturally occur.
How To Do It
- Utilize the handle attachment, by clipping it on the cable machine pulley.
- While keeping the entire arm in line with the shoulder, firmly grasp the handle.
- Unrack the weight to build the initial tension on the tricep.
- While slightly leaned forward, start with the elbow flexed.
- Push the handle down until the elbow is completely extended.
- To complete the rep, flex the elbow by allowing the handle to come back up.
The handle attachment can be quite limiting in allowing for range of motion, while the base of the pulley can be pressed down with more freedom.
Ditch the handle attachment and grab the base of the pulley to increase the range of motion of the exercise and promote a better triceps contraction.
9. Push Ups
When traveling, we don’t have access to a cable stack to do triceps pressdowns, but we can manage to do push ups as a good on-the-road alternative.
If you want additional load, then wrap a 0.5 inch or 1-inch band around your back and place each end of the band in your hands. As you perform push-ups the top range of motion will be challenged to a greater extent as the band lengthens, which creates additional demand on the triceps.
Even for myself, who can bench press 315lbs for 10-12 reps, I find a banded push-up quite challenging on the triceps in the 20-30 rep range.
How To Do It
- This exercise will be done in a prone (face down) position.
- Start with your elbows completely extended with your hands directly under your shoulders.
- Maintain neutral hip positions and avoid hip shift or hip drop during the exercise.
- Lower the weight of your body until the body is just short of touching the ground.
- From the bottom position, press as hard as possible until elbows are at complete lockout.
Make this exercise easier by either raising your hips or planting your knees into the ground. To make this exercise harder, you can add a tempo and pause just short of touching the ground.
To isolate the triceps further, bring your hand stance closer in, while bringing your hand stance further out will increase the focus on the pecs.
10. Machine Tricep Extension
The machine tricep extension, opposite to the preacher curl, isolates the movement of elbow extension to effectively target the triceps. Rather than isolating the tricep using a cable system, like the tricep pressdown, the machine tricep extension, as the name suggests, uses a machine.
The downside to this exercise is that not every gym has a machine tricep extension. It’s definitely a ‘luxury item’ when it comes to gym equipment, and you may need to be working out in a big box gym, like GoldsGym, to access one.
How To Do It
- Make sure that the back pad and seat height places your elbows in a 90 degree angle inline with the pivot point of the machine.
- To maintain stability, relax your shoulders and firmly plant your feet into the ground.
- Firmly grasp the two handles and place your elbows onto the padding.
- Focus on isolating the triceps by extending the arms out.
- Complete the repetition by returning to the starting position with the arms flexed.
During this exercise, you can dip your chin down, and drive your elbows into the pad, to really focus on the movement of elbow extension.
Normally, it is extremely difficult to take out supporting muscles while doing any exercise, so it is beneficial to do everything to isolate the intended muscle group as much as possible.
For me, I also find I can isolate the tricep to a greater extent if I drop the seat lower so that my arm is slightly overhead when I’m locking out my elbow.
11. Close Grip Bench Press
Unlike the conventional bench press, close grip bench prioritizes and targets the triceps to a greater degree which makes close grip bench a great tricep pressdown alternative.
Aside from building tricep strength, close grip bench press has other benefits as well. A big one that I love about it is the increased range of motion in comparison to regular bench press.
Note that the close grip bench press is a ‘compound exercise’, so you will still get pec and shoulder activation. Therefore, it isn’t as specific to the tricep pressdown as other exercises. But, it still has a heavy focus on the triceps, which is why I still recommend it as an alternative to the pressdown.
How To Do It
- Lay face up on the bench with your shoulders slightly in front of the bar.
- Hand placement should be about shoulder width apart, or narrower than your regular grip.
- To build tension, drive the base of your hand through the bar.
- Pull your shoulder blades together, while driving them into the bench.
- After the unrack, bring the bar forward until it is in line with the lower chest/upper abdomen.
- Lower the bar in a controlled fashion until it makes contact with the lower chest/upper abdomen.
- At the bottom, drive the weight of the bar away from your torso, by pushing with through your elbows, until they are at complete extension.
Close grip bench, in my opinion, is a big plateau breaker for many people who are having trouble with bench press.
Execution in bench press relies on triceps strength, which makes it a fundamental part of our training program if our goal is to improve the bench press.
So, program more close grip bench press into your training protocol, if your goal is to improve the bench press.
For more information on this, check out my article on How To Increase Your Bench Press Without Benching.
12. TRX Skull Crusher
The TRX skull crusher is another bodyweight tricep extension alternative that can be done at some hotels, at the gym, or at home.
I’ve just recently started doing this exercise as part of my “upper body push days”, and it’s surprisingly difficult. You can make this exercise more or less difficult by adjusting the position of your body (more horizontal to the ground = harder).
How To Do It
- Start this exercise facing away from the anchor point of the TRX set up.
- Grab each TRX handle with your palms facing away from you.
- Start this exercise leaned forward with the elbows extended.
- Curl the arms towards your forehead in a controlled fashion.
- Extend your elbows away from you while squeezing the triceps.
Be in a more prone (face down) position to make this exercise more challenging. To make this exercise easier, be in a more upright position.
The tricep pressdown is one of the best exercises in developing and isolating the muscles of the triceps. However, all of the exercises mentioned in this article serve as strong alternatives to the tricep pressdown by targeting and isolating the triceps.
Whether or not you have a full gym set up, a variety of cable, barbell, dumbbell, bodyweight, and banded exercises are great additions to your tricep routine.
About The Author
Javad Bakhshinejad was born and raised in the Washington Area. Currently, he is a student at Seattle University where he’s been pursuing an MS in Kinesiology, and has been a Strength Coach in the athletic department. He was a competitive bodybuilder for 8 years where he later transitioned to competitive powerlifting for 4 years. Currently, He has his own personal coaching business, where he works with powerlifters and bodybuilders.