The Tricep Pushdown is one of the very first tricep exercises people learn how to do in the gym.
And unfortunately, it's also one of the exercises they tend to do with really poor form, using too much momentum and body movement.
The pushdown is a good exercise and it's best done as a very strict movement, focusing on the contraction of the triceps. It should not be a ballistic exercise and it's definitely NOT a strong mass-building exercise (for mass, you need to focus on compound movements such as close grip bench press, decline close grip bench press and dips).
The pushdown is useful for activating the triceps and getting a hard contraction to help work on the shape of the muscle. In other words, don't base your whole tricep program on pushdowns...it's an auxiliary exercise and should be treated as such in a program.
To perform a pushdown, you can use a high pulley and choose from a variety of attachments. I like the straight bar...you can also use an upside down V bar or a rope as well.
Put a moderate weight on the stack for now...less than you would normally use. We want to focus on proper form here before weight.
I like to do pushdowns a little differently than the "classic" way of doing them, which is by locking the arms to your sides and moving only at the elbows.
This is a very effective trick for getting more out of the pushdown exercise.
And I'll tell you why...the long head of the triceps (the largest head of the tricep muscle, which hangs down the underneath part of the arm when your arm is extended out to the side).
To fully activate the long head of the triceps you need to utilize BOTH of it's functions. The first function is to extend the elbow (the normal pushdown movement). The second function is adduction of the humerus...which in English means bringing your arm down.
Just to be clear, though, you don't HAVE to do this short additional movement to get a good contraction on the triceps. If you prefer to just do the traditional hinge-type movement, that is totally fine.
Back to the long head...to activate this second function of the long head, at the start of the movement, your arms need to be up a little rather than locked at your sides.
This makes the pushdown a two-part movement. The first part then has you bringing your arms down to your sides. This short movement activates the adduction function of the long head of the triceps.
NOW you do the regular pushdown, bending only at the elbow like a hinge and pushing down hard to the bottom.
When you're at the bottom, try to actively push the bar down towards the floor as though trying to stamp it onto the ground. It will make a big different in your contraction as this attempt to push to the floor further activates that adduction function of the long head of the triceps.
Keeping control the handle, let the bar come back to the normal start position.
Now let the weight pull the bar up a bit and your arms up a bit back to our original start position.
Repeat the sequence using that two-part movement.
Now the important thing to remember is that is is a TWO-part movement...it's not taking a wind-up on the pushdown to use more weight. It should be two distinct parts to ensure you're not using momentum to blast the bar down.
Once you start getting into heavier weight (and can go fairly heavy as long as you continue to use tight form), you can adjust your stance a bit to help counterbalance the load.
Step one leg back and get over the weight a bit more. Use the same two-part movement as above.
And keep tight form. Heavier weight isn't a license to use momentum.
Let the bar come back up (be sure to control the weight on the negative to maintain tension on the triceps) then back up to the original start position. Repeat the sequence.
That's how to do the tricep pushdown with optimized form.
It's a bit of a break from normal form, but even if you decide to use normal form, definitely keep in mind what the pushdown exercise is truly for...it's not a mass builder...it's a muscle "shaper" (which I have in quotes because you can't change the shape of your muscles...you can use the hard contraction to accentuate the shape you've already got).
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