Bodybuilders LOVE to flex their biceps, and even recreational exercisers like to show off their biceps from time to time. But, while the biceps are undeniably the glamour muscle of bodybuilding and fitness, the triceps are every bit as important.
The triceps actually make up a more significant percentage of your upper arm mass. As such, if you want arms you can truly be proud of, you need to dedicate at least as much time to triceps training as you do working your biceps.
There are lots of triceps exercises to choose from, and one of the most popular is the machine triceps extension.
In this article, we explain why and how to do this exercise and reveal the seven best alternatives and variations to use to prevent workout boredom.
Machine Triceps Extension – Muscles Worked
Machine triceps extensions are an isolation exercise. That means they involve movement at just one joint. In addition, they work a very short list of muscles. The main muscles developed by machine triceps extensions are:
Triceps brachii – it should be no surprise that machine triceps extensions primarily work the triceps brachii or triceps for short. The triceps is located on the back of the upper arm and is responsible for elbow extension and shoulder extension.
Contrary to popular opinion, the triceps and not the biceps are the biggest arm muscle. Of the three triceps heads (long, medial, and lateral), machine triceps extensions tend to emphasize the medial head.
Anconeus – the anconeus is a small muscle found at the rear of the elbow joint. Working with your triceps, this muscle assists in elbow extension. Despite its small size, this is a very strong muscle, although it doesn’t contribute much, if anything, to the size of your upper arms.
How to Do Machine Triceps Extensions
Get more from machine triceps extensions while keeping your risk of injury to a minimum by following these guidelines:
- Adjust the seat height so that your shoulders are roughly level or slightly above the arm pad. Select your weight.
- Sit on the machine and place your upper arms on the pad. Hold the handles. Your upper arms/elbows should be roughly shoulder-width apart.
- Keeping your upper arms stationary, extend your arms until your elbows are straight, and then bend them again. Do not allow the weights to touch down between reps.
- Continue for the desired number of repetitions.
Note: Triceps extension machines may vary in design, so use the machine at your gym according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Failure to do so could result in a less effective workout or even injury!
Machine Triceps Extension Benefits
Not sure if machine triceps extensions deserve a place in your workouts? Consider these benefits and then decide.
Isolate your triceps– the machine triceps extension is the triceps equivalent of biceps preacher curls. It fixes your upper arm in place, ensuring you cannot use additional muscle groups to lift the weight. As such, this is a very strict triceps exercise that makes cheating all but impossible.
Easy to learn – when you do machine triceps extensions, your movement is guided by the apparatus you are using. As such, it’s very hard to do this exercise incorrectly. This makes machine triceps extensions ideal for beginners and anyone looking for a simple triceps workout.
Perfect for drop sets – drops sets involve training to failure, reducing the weight by 10-20%, and then pumping out a few more reps. This process can be repeated anywhere from once to several times. Extending your set beyond its usual endpoint may increase muscle growth. Machine triceps extensions are ideal for drop sets as most have selectorized weight stacks, making it easy to adjust the load.
Improve your mind-muscle connection – machine triceps extensions involve a very strict, deliberate movement. Because they target your triceps so precisely, you’ll be able to concentrate intensely on the muscle being trained, which will improve your mind-muscle connection. A strong mind-muscle link will make this and every other exercise you do more effective.
Machine Triceps Extension Drawbacks
While machine triceps extensions are a mostly beneficial exercise, there are also a few drawbacks to consider:
Hard on the elbows – some exercisers experience elbow pain during or after machine triceps extensions. This is possibly due to fixing the upper arms in one position, which puts the elbow joint in a somewhat mechanically disadvantageous position.
So, if machine triceps extensions hurt your elbows, choose a different exercise, and ideally one that allows your upper arms to move more freely.
Not very functional – there are very few natural movements that mirror machine triceps extensions. As such, this exercise may not carry over well to activities outside the gym.
That said, this is not really a consideration if you are training specifically for hypertrophy (muscle growth). But, if you are training for a sport or want to increase your bench press performance, this exercise may not be your best choice.
7 Machine Triceps Extension Variations and Alternatives
Machine triceps extensions are a highly effective upper arm exercise, but that doesn’t mean you need to do them all the time. There are several variations and alternatives you can use to keep your workouts productive and interesting:
1. Skull crusher
If you take a moment to analyze the movement performed during machine triceps extensions, you’ll soon see that it’s almost identical to that of skull crushers. Your arms are perpendicular to your body, and the upper arms remain stationary as you bend and extend your elbows.
As such, skull crushers are a viable alternative to machine triceps extensions. You can do skull crushers with a barbell, EZ bar, dumbbells, or a low pulley machine.
2. Close grip bench presses
Where machine triceps extensions are an isolation exercise, close grip bench presses are compound, which means they involve two or more joints working together. They’re still a triceps exercise, but your anterior deltoids and pecs also get a good workout.
Because your arms are perpendicular to your body, close grip bench presses work your triceps in a similar way to machine triceps extensions. However, close grip bench presses are more functional and also easier on your elbows.
3. Diamond push-ups
Diamond push-ups look nothing like machine triceps extensions. Still, they actually work your triceps in a very similar way, albeit in conjunction with your anterior deltoids and pecs. The great thing about this exercise is that you can do it anywhere and anytime, making it ideal for home and on-the-go workouts.
How to do it:
- Kneel on the floor on all fours. Place your hands together, so your thumbs and first fingers form a diamond shape. Walk your feet out and back, so your body is straight. Brace your abs and pull your shoulders down and back.
- Bend your arms and lower your chest to the back of your hands.
- Extend your arms and repeat.
- Make this exercise easier by bending your legs and resting on your knees. Make it more challenging by raising your feet on a bench or step or wearing a weighted vest.
4. Triceps pushdowns
While not all gyms have a triceps extension machine, most have a high cable station you can use for pushdowns. This exercise is one of the most popular and widely performed triceps exercises and offers many of the same benefits as machine triceps extensions. However, it’s generally easier on the elbows.
You can do triceps pushdowns in several different ways, including:
5. Triceps dips
If you are comfortable with diamond push-ups, you may be ready for an even more challenging bodyweight triceps exercise – triceps dips. While you do need some dipping bars to do this exercise, it’s still a widely accessible bodyweight exercise.
Dips are a compound exercise, so as well as working your triceps, they also hit your chest and anterior deltoids. But, by keeping your torso as upright as possible, you can ensure that your triceps do more of the work. Leaning forward increases pec engagement.
6. Seated overhead dumbbell extensions
You don’t need a lot of equipment to build strong, muscular triceps. In fact, you can get an excellent triceps workout using nothing more than a single dumbbell. Seated overhead dumbbell extensions, also known as French presses, are a simple yet effective triceps isolation exercise that’s ideal for home workouts.
How to do it:
- Sit on an exercise bench and hold a single dumbbell in both hands. Raise the dumbbell overhead, so your upper arms are next to your ears. Brace your abs and plant your feet firmly on the floor.
- Keeping your upper arms stationary, bend your elbows, and lower the weight down behind your head.
- Extend your arms and repeat.
- You can also do this exercise with a barbell or using a low cable machine.
7. Tate press
Named after powerlifting guru Dave Tate, the Tate press could just as easily be called the chest crusher because it shares some similarities with skull crushers.
Regardless of the name, this is a challenging triceps isolation exercise that is a great alternative for machine triceps extensions. Be warned; this is a potentially tricky exercise, so resist the temptation to go too heavy too soon!
How to do it:
- Lie on a flat bench with a dumbbell in each hand. Hold the dumbbells over your chest, so they’re about two inches apart. You should use a pronated or overhand grip, so your palms face your body toward your legs.
- Maintaining the two-inch gap, bend your elbows and lower the dumbbells inward and down to lightly touch your chest. Flare your elbows outward as you lower the weights.
- Drive the weights back up and repeat.
More Triceps Exercises:
- How To Do The Dumbbell Lying Triceps Extension
- How To Do The Cable Overhead Triceps Extension w/ Rope
- Cable Lying Triceps Extension Exercise Guide
- Best Triceps Exercises According to Science
- Best Medial Head Triceps Exercises
- Chest and Triceps Workout
- Cable Exercises for Bigger, More Sculpted Triceps
- Best Compound Triceps Exercises
- Dumbbell Triceps Exercises
The biceps are bodybuilding’s glamour muscle. Still, it could be argued that the triceps are actually more important, as they make up a more significant percentage of your upper arm mass.
As such, if you want to build the largest, most muscular arms possible, you need to work your biceps and triceps equally. You may even want to pay extra attention to the muscles at the back of your arms.
Machine triceps extensions are an effective exercise and provide a convenient way to isolate your triceps from the rest of your body. They’re easy to learn and perfect for pump-inducing drop sets.
That said, as potent as this exercise is, it’ll become less effective if you do it too often. So, make sure you know a few alternatives to you can stay out out of any potential training ruts.