The 6 Best Triceps Exercises with Cable

Barbell Medicine
March 8, 2024
Reading Time: 20 minutes
Table of Contents

    The triceps are involved in nearly all upper body pressing movements, as they’re secondary or accessory muscles in exercises like the bench press and push-ups. [1] Like other muscles, there are many ways to train the triceps, and it’s important that you choose the right equipment.

    Some of the very best isolation (single-joint) triceps exercises are performed with cable, as research suggests that cable exercises use a long range of motion and load the triceps very efficiently, perhaps better than free-weight exercises. [2,3,4] Additionally, standing cable exercises allow for overhead triceps training, which can be an effective way to train the long head of the triceps brachii. [5]

    Today, we’ll share our favorite triceps cable workouts, which include the overhead cable triceps extensions, cable triceps press down, cable lying triceps extensions, 1-arm overhead cable triceps extension, 1-arm triceps cable press down, and the 1-arm cable triceps kick back.

    What are the Best Cable Triceps Workout?

    Here’s an outline of the exercises we’ll go over today:

    • Overhead cable triceps extensions: 2-4 sets of 10-15 repetitions
    • Cable triceps press down: 2-4 sets of 10-15 repetitions
    • Cable lying triceps extensions: 2-4 sets of 8-12 repetitions
    • 1-arm overhead cable triceps extension: 2-4 sets of 10-15 repetitions
    • 1-arm triceps cable press down: 2-4 sets of 10-15 repetitions
    • 1-arm cable triceps kick back: 2-4 sets of 10-15 repetitions

    When working out your triceps, you want to make sure that all three heads of the muscle get trained. While it’s difficult to isolate one head with any particular exercise, exercises that place the shoulder in different positions can alter the range of motion for a particular head as well as its mechanical advantage within a movement. [6] 

    From a practical perspective, the triceps should be trained indirectly with compound (multi-joint) chest and/or push exercises and directly by isolation (single joint) exercises. [7] In the section below, we detail some of our favorite isolation triceps exercises. We recommend incorporating one or two exercises each time you train chest or push-pattern movements.

    1. Overhead Cable Triceps Extensions

    • Movement Category: Tertiary
    • Programming: 2-4 sets of 10-15 repetitions
    • Weight: Use a weight that leaves you 1 to 2 reps short of failure, e.g. RPE 8 to 9.
    Overhead Cable Triceps Extensions

    Being an isolation exercise, the overhead cable triceps extension is primarily a hypertrophy exercise. Due to the position of the arm, this exercise trains the triceps at longer muscle lengths than a cable press down, which tends to improve muscle growth. [8,9,10]  As mentioned above, however, picking multiple exercises through different ranges of motion, angles of pull, and so on is likely key for maximal development.

    Equipment-wise, you need a cable machine and a triceps rope attachment.

    Overhead Cable Triceps Extensions Instructions

    • Fasten the rope or E-Z bar attachment to the lower position of the cable pulley.
    • Grab the handle and then in a controlled motion turn around so that you’re standing facing away from the pulley and your hands are behind your head .
    • Stand shoulder-width apart — your feet can either be parallel or one foot can be in front of the other.
    • Lean forward at the hips slightly.
    • Press overhead until your elbows are fully extended. Try to keep your elbows from flaring.
    • Reverse the movement by bending your elbows, returning your hands to behind your head.

    2. Cable Triceps Press Down

    • Movement Category: Tertiary
    • Programming: 2-4 sets of 10-15 repetitions
    • Weight: Use a weight that leaves you 1 to 2 reps short of failure, e.g. RPE 8 to 9.
     Cable Triceps Press Down

    The cable triceps press down is another isolation exercise used in resistance training to target the triceps. As it’s an isolation exercise, you can really focus on getting a focused contraction in your triceps — and the best part is that you don’t need a lot of weight to ensure it’s effective. 

    Although usually performed using a cable machine, the cable triceps push down can also be done using resistance bands.

    Cable Triceps Press Down Instructions

    • Adjust the pulley to the level of your head or above. Use a V-grip, rope, E-Z bar, or straight bar attachment.
    • Using an overhand grip, grab the handle and take a step back, away from the pulley. This matters, as it places tension on the muscles throughout the entire range of motion.
    • Lean forward from the hips a bit and press down on the attachment, keeping your elbows tucked into the sides of your torso until your elbows are fully extended. Squeeze for a moment and then let the weight back up to the starting position.
    • Ensure your elbow joint and upper arms are fixed in the same spot throughout the movement. Your torso and legs should remain static, too. The only part of your body that’s supposed to move during the exercise are your lower arms.

    Take into account potential bar modifications. Chances are your gym has cable and pulley machines together with a selection of grip attachments. This means you could have the option to choose between a straight bar, E-Z bar, or an angled attachment like the V-angled bar. While they’re all used in the same way, there are some differences in the muscle activity during cable resistance training, depending on the handle type you’re using. [11]

    While a number studies have shown that the handle type affects the weight used and muscular activity in the triceps to some degree, it is unclear that any particular attachment is superior to another. [12,13,14,15] Our recommendation is to use the attachment you prefer.

    3. Cable Lying Triceps Extensions

    • Movement Category:  Tertiary
    • Programming: 2-4 sets of 8-12 repetitions
    • Weight: Use a weight that leaves you 1 to 2 reps short of failure, e.g. RPE 8 to 9.

    The cable lying triceps extensions, which sometimes is incorrectly referred to as a “skull crusher” is a compound (multi-joint) exercise because both the shoulder and elbow joints are moving during the exercise. This is a feature, not a bug, as the additional range of motion about the shoulder increases the stretch on the long head of the triceps, which crosses the shoulder joint. In many ways, the lying triceps extension is similar to the overhead triceps extension, though this variation has more active movement of the shoulder joint comparatively.

    In terms of equipment, you need a pulley system with a cable, an E-Z bar or similar attachment, and a bench to lie down on. This exercise can also be done with a regular E-Z bar or even dumbbells.

    A recent study in 43 men showed that improvement in 1-Repetition Maximum (1RM) bench press was about the same after 10-weeks of training in those performing bench press prior to lying triceps extension compared to those performing lying triceps extensions prior to the bench press, suggesting that exercise order may not be affect strength gain in untrained individuals. [16] That said, we recommend that triceps-focused exercises like the lying triceps extensions be performed after heavier compound exercises like the bench press when possible.

    Cable Lying Triceps Extensions Instructions

    • Set up a flat bench close to a cable machine, placing the pulley on the lowest possible setting. The bench should be relatively close to the pulley, such that you’re able to grab the E-Z bar attached to it near the bottom of the range of motion.
    • With your head on the bench close to the pulley and hands reached overhead, grab the E-Z bar attachment with a shoulder-width grip. This is the bottom of the range of motion.
    • From here, press your elbows forward towards your feet (shoulder extension) and straighten out your elbows (elbow extension) at the same time.
    • Reverse the motion and slowly lower the bar back towards the pulley, below the level of the bench.

    We recommend starting quite light on this exercise to allow the muscles, joints, and other aspects of your body to adapt. Your elbows and shoulders should be the only joints moving, thereby placing the majority of the load on the triceps.

    4. 1-arm Overhead Cable Triceps Extension

    • Movement Category: Tertiary
    • Programming: 2-4 sets of 10-15 repetitions
    • Weight: Use a weight that leaves you 1 to 2 reps short of failure, e.g. RPE 8 to 9.

    The 1-arm overhead cable triceps extension is yet another isolation exercise that helps build the triceps. Similar to the two-armed overhead triceps extension discussed above, the 1-arm variation places the shoulder into extension and therefore loads the long head of the triceps significantly.  Unlike the lying triceps extension, however, the shoulder joint is mostly static during the movement.

    Equipment-wise, you need a pulley system and cable. A single-rope attachment or D-handle can be used, or you can grab onto the end of the cable itself. Alternatively, this exercise can be performed with a dumbbell or even an exercise band. 

    1-arm Overhead Cable Triceps Extension Instructions

    • Fasten the rope or handle attachment to the lower position of the cable pulley.
    • Grab the handle with an overhand grip and then, in a controlled motion, turn around so that you’re standing facing away from the pulley and your hand is behind your head .
    • Stand shoulder-width apart — your feet can either be parallel or one foot can be in front of the other.
    • Lean forward at the hips slightly.
    • Press overhead until your elbow is fully extended. Try to keep your elbow from flaring.
    • Reverse the movement by bending your elbow, returning your hand to behind your head.
    • Squeeze your triceps and stay like this for a moment.
    • Gradually return the handle to the beginning position.
    • Repeat the same motions with your other arm.

    Your elbow should be somewhere between completely tucked in and completely flared out. Feel free to experiment until you find the position which feels the most comfortable.

    5. 1-Arm Triceps Cable Press Down

    • Movement Category: Tertiary
    • Programming: 2-4 sets of 10-15 repetitions
    • Weight: Use a weight that leaves you 1 to 2 reps short of failure, e.g. RPE 8 to 9.
    1-Arm Triceps Cable Press Down

    The 1-arm triceps cable press down engages the triceps from multiple angles, promoting  muscle growth, increased triceps strength, and stability in the shoulder joint.

    Equipment-wise, you need a cable machine with a single D-handle.

    1-Arm Triceps Cable Press Down Instructions

    • Attach a single grip handle to a high pulley cable and choose your preferred stack weight.
    • Stand facing the machine and holding the handle with an overhand grip.
    • Pull your elbow down into your side, keeping it tucked there for the duration of the set.
    • Press down on the handle until your elbow is extended all the way.
    • Stop and squeeze your triceps, and gradually return the weight up to the starting position.
    • Repeat the same movements with your other arm. 

    Make sure your entire body remains static during the exercise.

    6. 1-Arm Cable Triceps Kick Back

    • Movement Category: Tertiary
    • Programming: 2-4 sets of 10-15 repetitions
    • Weight: Use a weight that leaves you 1 to 2 reps short of failure, e.g. RPE 8 to 9.

    A versatile exercise targeting the triceps, the 1-arm cable triceps kickback is an isolation exercise which builds strength and size in all three heads of the muscle. The exercise is done using a cable machine with an attachment that allows you to select the weight appropriate for your current abilities. 

    The movement involves extending your arm at the shoulder joint, e.g. past the torso, with the help of your triceps, while the cable places tension on the arm. Research suggests the triceps kick back is an effective triceps exercise after triangle push-ups for loading the muscles. It can also be performed with dumbbells. [17]

    In terms of equipment, you’ll need a pulley and cable system. Most will opt to hold onto the end of the cable directly, though a D-handle or single-rope attachment can be used as well. Additionally, many people use a bench to place the arm and knee on, opposite of the side that’s being trained. Others will do this exercise without a bench, opting to bend over at the waist to recreate this “tabletop” position, where the torso is more or less parallel to the floor.

    1-Arm Cable Triceps Kickback Instructions

    • Stand facing the cable machine. Set the pulley at hip height.
    • Bend forward at the hips (bend your knees just slightly) and hold onto the stable part of the machine with one hand. At the same time, hold onto the end (ball) of the cable with the other hand. Make sure your elbow is bent too.
    • With your shoulder pulled back past your torso slightly and keeping it still with your back flat, press backwards on the cable to extend your elbow.
    • Reverse the movement back to the beginning position and repeat the move.
    • Once you complete the reps, switch sides.

    Anatomy of the Triceps

    The triceps is a large muscle consisting of three parts: the medial, lateral and long head. [18] The medial and lateral heads of the triceps both arise from the backside of the humerus, with the lateral head starting higher near the “ball” (head) of the humerus and the medial head arising from a bit lower. Neither cross the shoulder joint and therefore do not act upon it. On the other hand, the long head does cross the shoulder joint, originating from the scapula just below the glenoid fossa, e.g. the ball and socket joint made up of the humerus and scapula itself. [19] While the long head of the triceps is the only portion of the muscle that acts on the shoulder joint, all of the heads help extend the elbow joint and are antagonists of the biceps.

    Triceps Anatomy

    When it comes to exercising the triceps, you can either do it indirectly, e.g. during an exercise targeting other muscle groups like the bench press or directly using an isolation exercise as laid out above. Triceps training occurs indirectly through most pressing exercises, as triceps are a synergist in virtually all of these exercises. [20,21,22] The logic behind it is very simple — to work your chest muscles, you need to work your arms.

    However, maximizing the strength and/or size of the triceps muscles is likely to require isolating them directly, and you have several options, like cable push downs, lying triceps extensions, and cable flyes, among others discussed above. Current scientific evidence corroborates our experience for training the triceps, which is that triceps hypertrophy tends to be greatest when performed at longer muscle lengths that include shoulder extension, e.g. overhead triceps work. [23] We recommend including at least one overhead triceps exercise for this reason.

    Safety Precautions to Prevent Injury

    Here’s our advice on how you can make the most out of your triceps exercises:

    1) Volume needs to be suitable for the trainee

    It’s not uncommon to combine various workout regimens and exercises; the challenge lies in determining the appropriate exercises and the proper training “dose” for each individual that will yield the desired results.

    For instance, when the dose of training is higher than needed, the trainee can end up with too much muscle protein breakdown from the workout to build muscle size. Muscle growth is only feasible when you plan your workout in such a way that it reduces the breakdown of muscle proteins and promotes their synthesis. [24,25] Strength gain happens when the training dose, overall workout intensity, or exercise selection are appropriate for the trainee. [26,27,28]

    2) Consider progressive loading

    A good hypertrophy training program will continuously challenge the muscles through progressive overload or, more correctly, progressive loading. According to the principle of “progressive overload,” the body must be exposed to increasingly greater training stimuli as a person’s fitness improves in order to continue to produce adaptations like strength, hypertrophy, and so on. As an individual becomes more trained, the training needs to be adjusted to provide an ample amount of stimulus.

    That being said, progressive overload is something people often get wrong — they take it to mean that the training must get harder to yield better results over time, which is not true. Rather, the training should be the same level of “hard” over the course of a career. While the weight lifted and reps completed increase as an individual’s fitness improves, the relative difficulty remains more or less the same. We think that progressive overload is a misnomer, and prefer the term progressive loading.

    3) Let your muscles recuperate

    As mentioned above, matching the total training stress to your current abilities is incredibly important, and this spills over to recovery too. Like other muscle groups, programming the right amount of work for the triceps varies based on the individual’s current fitness levels, goals, response to training, and training split. In general, we recommend a total of 6 to 12 sets of direct triceps work per week for those newer to training. Those who are more experienced are likely to need more sets, perhaps 15 to 20 sets or more per week depending again on multiple variables. Recovery of triceps strength between workouts will likely vary depending on the workout split, usually taking a couple of days. [29] That said, complete recovery of strength is not necessary to train the muscle, again, provided the total dose of training week-over-week is matched to the individual.

    When planning your workouts, it’s also important to take into account whether you’ve worked on a single muscle group or more. While training two muscle groups such as chest and triceps together may be time-saving and effective, do it within your current fitness capacity. [30]

    Next, staying hydrated is key, but there isn’t a universally accepted amount of fluid that you should drink before, during, and after exercise. This is due to the fact that your specific rate of perspiration, the length and type of the workout, and how rapidly someone actually needs to be completely re-hydrated again all affect how much fluid you require and when. Overall, it is recommended that individuals replace the amount of body mass lost during a workout when recovery time is limited, e.g. < 4 hours. Put simply, this is ~ 1 liter of water for each kilogram of body weight loss. For once-per-day training, this can be achieved in most by drinking and eating normally without any special steps.

    Finally, take a few minutes break in between each set. Research indicates that in order to get maximum strength and muscle growth, athletes should take rest periods of at least two to three minutes. [31,32]

    4) Get in touch if you’re injured

    You aren’t supposed to experience intense, worsening pain when working out. [33] If that happens, we generally recommend stopping the exercise. That said, there are many different types of pain, some of which are beneficial — just consider sore muscles following an intense workout! If you don’t have a lot of experience with exercise, it can be difficult to differentiate between “good” and “bad” pain. If that’s the case, we recommend that you check out our article on pain in training.

    If you have an injury and are wondering how to make sure you are exercising safely, we encourage you to get in touch with us. Our coaching staff is made up of trained medical professionals, performance coaches, registered dietitians, and physical therapists; they’ll assist you in safely getting back on track with your workout regime.

    It’s also worth noting that most healthcare workers don’t regard safety to be a major concern when recommending exercises. It’s been shown that the risk of injury from resistance training is fairly low — two to four injuries per 1,0000 participation hours, that is, one to two injuries per lifter per year. [34,35] What’s more, most injuries aren’t fatal — the majority resolve on their own in two weeks.

    Finally, there is an injury risk to not exercising. [36,37] For example, a year-long study showed that people who don’t exercise have the same injury rate as individuals who train for multiple hours on a weekly basis. [38]

    Benefits of Hypertrophy Training

    Healthy Aging

    Engaging in hypertrophy training helps support the aging process — for instance, it can prevent the development of serious chronic diseases such as osteoarthritis, a debilitating condition connected to joint pain that typically affects knees, hips, and hands in middle-aged or elderly people.

    Strength training also shows noteworthy improvements in functional ability, muscle strength, and pain scores, even in cases with an advanced level of osteoarthritis. [39] What’s more, those who begin to exercise earlier in life will not only see a decrease in the loss of strength linked to the disease but also a complete stop of the disease’s progression. [40]

    Improved Endurance

    Resistance training may lead to improved endurance performance. According to a study by the University of Athens, endurance athletes who took part in resistance training and endurance exercises saw an improvement in their VO2 max by 12.9%. Those who only did endurance exercises, on the other hand, saw improvements in their VO2 max by just 6.8%. [41]

    Improved Physique

    Many people decide to engage in hypertrophy training just to achieve a better physical appearance. Still dreaming about having your ideal body? Then hypertrophy training might be just what will get you there.

    Disease & Injury Prevention

    Besides improved aesthetic appearance, hypertrophy training can help reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease, and type II diabetes. [34] Additionally, engaging in resistance training not only boosts muscle size and strength but also seems to reduce the risk of injury. [42]

    Weight Management

    While exercise isn’t great on its own for weight loss, it does improve body composition, prevent weight regain, and it seems to boost people’s sense of feeling full during eating, which is how it helps with weight control. [43]

    However, to truly understand the concept behind weight management, we need to dive deeper into EPOC, that is, excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, a mechanism frequently seen as useful in reducing abdominal adipose tissue or baby fat. It’s a term that denotes the extra energy used after exercise to aid in recuperation processes such as remodeling and muscle repair. [44]

    The increase in muscle protein synthesis levels in the after-workout timeframe is seen as a noticeable bump in resting energy expenditure. [45] Such a boost in energy levels requires extra oxygen consumption, which is referred to as EPOC. It’s also worth noting that the excess post-exercise oxygen consumption is higher in untrained as opposed to trained individuals, as plenty of high-cost metabolic processes are adjusted in trained people so that they are more effective. [46]

    What remains unclear, however, is whether EPOC boosts the amount of calories used daily, that is, TDEE, or the total daily energy expenditure, as this isn’t something that’s been tested. Current research suggests that the energy contribution of EPOC to TDEE is somewhat small. [47]


    To recap, the best triceps exercises with cable are:

    • Overhead cable triceps extensions
    • Cable triceps press down
    • Cable lying triceps extensions
    • 1-arm overhead cable triceps extension
    • 1-arm triceps cable press down
    • 1-arm cable triceps kick back

    While triceps exercises with cable are excellent for building your arms, if you really want to go above and beyond, you’ll benefit from a more comprehensive training program such as the ones we offer here at Barbell Medicine.

    If you’re not quite ready to commit to any of our programs, that’s ok! Feel free to subscribe to our email list for free access to our introductory training programs that can provide guidance while you’re getting started.


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    Barbell Medicine
    Barbell Medicine
    The Barbell Medicine Website Editorial Team consists of Fitness, Health, Nutrition, and Strength Training experts. Our Team is led by Jordan Feigenbaum, MD, an elite competitive powerlifter, health educator, and fitness & strength coach.

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