Exercise Analysis - Triceps Pushdowns

The generic petition to “make a muscle” is universally met with a raised arm that is bent at the elbow. This posture effectively displays the three muscles that flex the elbow, one of which is the biceps brachii. But there are more than 600 muscles in the human body and others are at least as worthy of display in response to this request. One is situated right “next door” on the opposite side of the upper arm.

The triceps brachii is a horseshoe-shaped muscle made up of three distinct segments. Each of these “heads” originates from a different place on the skeleton, although all three merge into a single tendon at the opposite end. This tendon is attached to the ulna, one of two bones situated next to one another that make up the forearm. Two of the heads of the triceps originate from the humerus (the bone of the upper arm), so these only cross and create motion at one articulation (the elbow). The long head also crosses the shoulder and is active creating movement under certain circumstances at that joint, as well.

When the arm is bent at the elbow, the triceps are lengthened. If there is an opposing force responsible for imposing this joint configuration, the only way to return the arm to a straightened position is to call the triceps into action. If they develop enough tension within their contractile mechanism to overcome the opposition present, they will shorten and the arm will be drawn straight. Consequently, they are associated with every pushing movement we do.

Regardless of whether your main resistance-training objective is the development of form or function, the relative importance of the triceps cannot be denied. The biceps get more hype, but all they can do is pull, so you wouldn’t be able to accomplish much without their lesser-known neighbors. And because they have three heads, the triceps actually comprise a greater percentage of the girth of the section of the body that those who hone their musculature for display are so eager to present.

There are many exercises typically used to target the triceps. In some cases, this important muscle isn’t considered the main player in these movements, but it is very active nonetheless. For example, push-ups and bench presses are both classified predominantly as chest exercises, despite the fact that movement also occurs at the elbow in each case. The chest is nowhere to be found when it comes to pulling that maneuver off! Triceps can also be isolated with single-joint movements where motion occurs exclusively at the elbow. But it is important to structure your program wisely if you incorporate these exercises because you have to recognize that the triceps are also involved in all of the multi-joint pressing movements you do. Muscles adapt to a higher level of development between periods of stimulation and 48 hours is generally needed for these changes to occur. Consequently, if you perform pressing movements for chest or shoulders, you must do your isolation triceps training either during the same workout after the compound maneuvers or no less than two days later.

The most basic isolation movement for triceps is the cable pushdown. These are performed with the exerciser standing beneath an overhead pulley with opposition offered by a weight stack providing resistance to arm straightening that is transmitted through a cable attached to a bar held in the hands. The bar will be pulled up by the weight, so your elbows will be bent prior to initiating the concentric (positive) portion of the repetition. When you develop enough tension in your triceps, your arm will straighten and the bar will wind up at thigh level upon completion. At this point, the contracted position should be held momentarily to allow for maximal muscle engagement before triceps’ tension development is reduced just enough so that the bar rises up slowly back to the starting position.

When performing cable pushdowns, it is important to keep the upper arm directly down at your side and completely motionless throughout. This also applies to the rest of the body. All ancillary movement should be avoided and postural integrity must be maintained throughout. This involves holding the spine in neutral alignment with the chest elevated, shoulders back and head straight.

Many lifters restrict elbow range of motion when performing triceps pushdowns, but this is not warranted. Muscles are trained most effectively when they travel through their full movement range, so the elbow should be bent completely before the pushdown is initiated. It is also important to maintain resistive tension throughout by not allowing the cable to end up alongside the elbow joint upon completion of the lockout. Muscles operate in a lever system where opposition is a function of both the resistive force (in this case, the weight selected on the stack) and the moment arm through which that force is transmitted. When the perpendicular distance from the line of pull of the cable to the elbow joint is minimal, the moment arm is correspondingly small and there is very little opposition present, no matter how much weight you are lifting.

This article was originally published in New Living Magazine, which can be accessed on-line at www.newliving.com.






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