Pressdowns are, by far, the most popular triceps movement used in gyms throughout the United States. They're great because they put you in a position that makes it easy to scope out what's going on in the gym around you. For instance, if that lingerie model who just joined the gym is doing cable crossovers, you've got a front row seat.
Unfortunately, that's about all pressdowns are good for. Have you looked at the triceps of powerlifters and strongmen competitors recently? Needless to say, they are plenty massive, but very few of them will waste their time on pressdowns. Along the same lines, look at your average gymnasts — most have massive triceps that were built largely by doing plenty of dips and pressing motions.
Don't be too depressed though, because I'm about to give you ten (count 'em, ten) great triceps movements that you can use to replace your pressdowns:
1) Parallel dips
In my opinion, this is the absolute king of triceps builders. Yet, like the other ever-demanding movements such as squats and chins, it rarely makes the Men's Fitness pulley artist-type of routines.
To start the exercise, grasp the bars and boost yourself up until you've stabilized yourself at arm's length over the handles. (If you have access to the better v-shaped dipping bar, use as narrow a grip as possible without, of course, compromising shoulder integrity.) Then, lower your body as far as possible in between the bars, making sure to keep lowering until your biceps make contact with your forearms. In other words, your triceps must get fully stretched. Once you reach the bottom position, press yourself back up by extending the elbows. Try to stay as upright as possible throughout the range of motion. If you lean too far forward, you'll just be bringing your pecs into the movement.
If you can't lower yourself under control until the biceps make contact with the forearms, go back to collecting stamps, or maybe perform the decline close-grip bench press movement until your elbow extension strength is sufficient. Incomplete range in the triceps dips is a complete waste of time. Along the same lines, don't cheat yourself by doing chopped reps (not going all the way down and coming up only three-quarters of the way). By the same token, your elbows should only travel to 98% of full elbow extension to maintain maximal tension on the triceps.
And please, don't resort to the El Geeko version where you put your feet on a bench in front of you and your hands behind you. This exercise, along with Smith machine pressing exercises, is one of the major causes of shoulder impingement syndrome in the bodybuilding community.
At first, your bodyweight will probably suffice as the means of resistance. As you get stronger, you can progressively increase the resistance by holding a dumbbell between your legs or hooking a plate or dumbbell in the specialized chin/dip belt. There are a lot of models out there on the market, but I prefer the ones that consist of standard leather lifting belts with hooks sewed into the belt.
2) Close-grip bench presses
From a supine position (lying on a bench), the barbell is lifted off the rack and held at arm's length. The bar is brought to the lower portion of the sternum, and the elbows extend just short of lockout during the pressing movement.
The name of the exercise itself is a misnomer, since I advise most individuals to use a 14-inch grip. I don't believe in the very narrow grip (four to six inches) that you see all around the country as it creates enormous strain on the wrists and elbows. (Small-framed females, however, often referred to by certain crude individuals as "spinners," may find that an eight- to ten-inch grip is optimal for their bone structure.)
As soon as the bar is four to six inches above the chest, one should concentrate on pushing the bar back toward the uprights and move the elbows under the bar to have a more effective biomechanical advantage. Locking out the elbows will take the precious muscle-building tension away from your triceps, so just go to 95% of lockout.
Of course, besides the obvious safety reasons, I suggest having a partner help you for the unracking and racking of the barbell to insure the longevity of your rotator cuff muscles.
3) Decline close-grip bench presses
These are performed almost exactly the same as conventional close-grip bench presses, except that they're done while in a decline position — from a supine position lying on a decline bench that should be set between 10 and 25 degrees of declination.
The barbell is lifted off the rack and held at arm's length. The bar is brought to a point about two inches above the nipples, and the elbows extend just short of lockout during the pressing movement.
4) Seated EZ-bar French presses
Sit on a flat bench with an EZ-bar racked on your clavicles. The bar should be held with a pronated (palms down) grip. The grip width should be slightly narrower than shoulder width. Press the weight overhead until your elbows are just short of reaching the lockout position — this is where you'll begin the exercise.
Start by lowering the bar behind your head until your forearms make contact with your biceps — at this point, you should feel a good stretch on the long head of the triceps. Then extend the elbows, using only your triceps strength, and push the bar back to the start position. The forearms are the only things that should be moving in this exercise to insure effective triceps isolation.
5) Decline dumbbell triceps extensions
MRI studies have shown that the decline dumbbell triceps extension is one of the most effective movements when it comes to recruiting the triceps. I find that it allows for a greater stretch of the triceps than almost any other exercise.
Lie on a decline bench and hook your feet under the padded rollers while holding a pair of dumbbells. Press the dumbbells upward in a bench press fashion. You're now ready to start the exercise. Use a semi-supinated grip so that the palms are facing each other. Holding the elbows stationary, lower the dumbbells down until the forearms make contact with the biceps. At this point, the end of the dumbbell will probably be making contact with your shoulders. Lift the dumbbells back up to the starting position by extending the elbows. The elbows, of course, should be the only joint moving during this exercise.
For the sake of variety, one can add a pronating motion at the end of the elbow extension (turning the palms away from you), which would add some more recruitment of the small anconeus muscle.
6) Lying triceps extensions
There are several possible bar pathways for the lying triceps extensions. Some will recommend bringing the bar to the bridge of the nose, some to the hairline, and others to the forehead (aka skull crushers). These exercises can also be done by using a handle attached to a low pulley machine. Whatever. Trying to figure out which is best is futile since you'll adapt to a particular movement in a matter of a few workouts, so I believe that you should vary the bar pathway about every six workouts or so.
The important thing to remember is to not turn this movement into a lat movement. It's all too easy to do, as the impulse is to employ a pullover motion while extending the forearms. Also, make sure to keep your wrists in a neutral position to prevent any future elbow problems.
7) Seated half presses in a power rack
Huh? What's a shoulder exercise doing in this list? Did we get a little too "cut and paste" happy?
Nahh. It's a movement that Louie Simmons has used to great advantage. This exercise is excellent for packing meat on the lateral head of the triceps, as that part of the muscle is largely dormant in most people. You can tell when it's developed, though, as it will make the back of the triceps look like an X, in addition to making you appear to be considerably wider.
Set up an adjustable incline bench inside a power rack with the inclination of the bench being at 80-90 degrees in relation to the ground. (The seat portion should be angled, too, so that you won't slip off when executing the exercise.) Adjust the pins in the power rack so that the bar is at hairline level for the starting position. Your grip on the bar should be about shoulder width. The elbows should be pointing outward.
Simply press the weight up as if you were doing a conventional press. However, make sure that you use a "dead stop" in the bottom position. In other words, let the weight come to a complete stop against the pins. I've found using dead stops ranging from two to four seconds in the bottom position to be the most effective with this exercise. They will help you build up the triceps, as each rep forces you to fight against inertia. A recommended tempo for this exercise would be 221 (two seconds to lower, a two-second pause, followed by a one-second lift) or 321, depending on your arm length.
8) Omni-triceps extensions on a Swiss ball
This exercise may be a bit alien to some of you, so let me set it up step-by-step:
Step 1 — Lie down on a 55-cm Swiss ball with a loaded EZ-Curl bar held approximately 1 mm (otherwise known as a "smidgen") above the forehead. Make sure that your elbows are pointing at the ceiling.
Step 2 — Perform the concentric range of a lying EZ-bar extension with the elbows coming just short of lockout.
Step 3 — Once the bar is at arm's length, shift your body on the ball so that when you lower the bar, you'll be doing what amounts to an incline triceps extension.
Step 4 — Lower the bar.
Step 5 — Shift your body again so that you're in the starting position.
Step 6 — Repeat steps 2-5 for the prescribed number of reps.
Don't get too worried if your elbows spread outward during the performance of this exercise. Following the old bodybuilding adage of always pointing the elbows directly at the ceiling may, in fact, injure your arm extensor tendons over a long-term period. Besides, it doesn't do much to isolate the triceps muscles.
For even more variety, you can do this same movement with dumbbells held in a semi-supinated grip.
9) Incline bench overhead pressdowns
In my book, this movement is the triceps equivalent to concentration curls. It takes away the temptation of using your abdominal muscles to complete the range of motion. In other words, it offers an incredible degree of isolation. This exercise also offers the advantage of being suitable to a trainee suffering from a bout of lower back pain.
I often prescribe this movement last in a triceps workout, after a high percentage of triceps motor units have been knocked off by other exercises.
Simply put an incline bench in front of a high pulley (so that when you sit down, you're facing away from the machine). Adjust the incline to about 60 degrees. Grasp a straight bar handle and, with your upper arms glued to your torso, extend the forearms. You are, in essence, doing a fairly traditional pressdown, but doing it on an incline bench allows you keep perfect form.
10) California presses
The California press is a hybrid movement which is actually a cross between a close-grip bench press and a lying triceps extension. It's a very popular assistance movement used in powerlifting circles, particularly by those lifters who need to increase triceps mass and strength to bring their bench press poundages upward.
Get in the same start position as the close-grip bench and lower the barbell. But instead of lowering to the lower pecs, lower it to the upper pecs by allowing the elbows to pivot forward as you lower the bar. At this point, the forearms will come into contact with the biceps, the bar will be touching the upper chest, and you'll experience a great stretch in the triceps.
From this position, push the bar away and upward from your chest. The elbows should come just of short of lockout when you get to the top position.
A good starting weight would be about halfway between what you use in the lying triceps extensions and the close-grip bench press.
Okay, so it's not realistic for you to use all of these movements in any one workout. Don't sweat it. Think of this list as kind of a Chinese menu of triceps movements and use it to plan current and future workouts. Unfortunately, there's no fortune cookie. But if there were, it would say: