Tip: Big Triceps, No Elbow Pain

Build stronger triceps – without all the wear and tear – by using X cables. Try these inflammation-free exercises.


Smashing your triceps with repeated reps of poorly aligned exercises can result in inflammation and elbow pain. Instead, choose exercises that put you in good alignment to build bigger triceps without the unnecessary wear and tear.

Think of your elbows like the hinges on your car door. If you repeatedly try forcing movement in a direction the hinges aren't operational in, well, you'll end up needing new hinges. That's what happens with some triceps movements.

Golfer's elbow should be renamed "meathead's elbow" since it's more common in lifters than you might think. Let's fix that.

The Triceps Solution

"X" cables (or cross cables) are simply where you cross over two cables creating an "X" in the middle. Usually, you just hold the end of the cable. X cables are a good way to align the force through your elbows. Torque and valgus stress on the elbows are more easily managed.

X cables can put you in a good alignment to target the long head of your triceps, creating a more elbow-friendly alternative to exercises like skull crushers. Going overhead, you can efficiently target the long head in its lengthened position, loading in the direction of its fibers. (Credit to Coach Kassem Hanson for this one.)

For a slight variation, if you have the range to go further overhead, stepping back into the cables will change the feel of the exercise. There's a bigger stretch, and the point of maximal load is close to full elbow flexion. That means lots of mechanical tension.

Guillotine extensions are a good option for overall triceps development and arguably one of the best-aligned triceps exercises to limit elbow stress. You'll notice how close the cables are to your elbows with these. They somewhat resemble a Tate press, but performed with cables. Just keep your chin up and watch your neck!

Using an X cable setup for kickbacks will also target the long head. Here you can place yourself in good alignment to work the long head in a more shortened position, focusing on a good squeeze.

Using two ropes can have a similar effect since the direction of force and alignment are close to the X cables setup. It's also an alternative if you only have use of a single cable (although it does require two ropes). Overhead extensions and kickbacks with a dual-rope setup are all brilliant elbow-friendly options.

For a real triceps smoker using either the X cable setup or dual-ropes, here's a triple-threat exercise to try. Aim for 6-8 reps in each position:

  • Position 1: Step back, stand upright. Here the emphasis is on training the triceps long head in mid to shortened position.
  • Position 2: Kneeling, upright. Emphasis on mid-range.
  • Position 3: Kneeling, leaning forward. Emphasis on mid to lengthened position.

If you care about building bigger triceps while keeping your elbows intact, these X cable and dual-rope exercises should give you plenty of ideas to work with.

Gareth Sapstead is a leading strength and physique coach from the UK. He specializes in problem solving and breakthrough training techniques.

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