The 8 Most Effective Triceps Exercises

Triangle Pushups

Paige Waehner

If you want to know the most effective triceps exercises, the American Council on Exercise has you covered. In an ACE-commissioned study, researchers took exercisers through eight of the most common triceps exercises and recorded muscle activity by attaching EMG electrodes to their triceps. The following pages list these exercises in order of effectiveness.

It's important to remember that, while triceps exercises won't get rid of fat from the back of the arms, they do help you build muscle, which can contribute to overall fat loss.

The most effective triceps exercise starts with the toughest one of all, the triangle pushup, which elicited the most muscle activity of all the triceps exercises studied.

Most Effective Triceps Exercise: Triangle Pushup

  1. Begin the move by positioning the hands on the mat directly under the chest with the fingers spread and the thumbs and forefingers touching, making a triangle shape.
  2. Straighten the legs into a plank position (harder) or keep the knees on the floor for an easier version.
  3. Make sure the back is flat and the abs are engaged as you bend the elbows, lowering until your chin or chest touches the mat. If you can't go that low, go as low as you can and work to build enough strength to lower all the way down over time.
  4. At the bottom of the movement, your elbows will naturally flare out to the side.
  5. Press back to start keeping the torso rigid and repeat for 1-3 sets of 8-16 reps.


Paige Waehner

The kickback is the second most effective triceps exercise and not far behind triangle pushups, coming in at about 88% of muscle activation. By bending forward, you really have to work against gravity to move the weight up and down. The key to this move is to use your shoulder to stabilize the upper arm, allowing the forearm to extend behind you. If you feel your elbow drifting down, use a lighter weight to keep good form.

How to:

  1. Prop the right foot on a step or platform, resting the right forearm on the thigh to support the back.
  2. Hold a weight in the left hand and pull the elbow up to torso level.
  3. Keeping the elbow in that position, extend the arm behind you, focusing on contracting the triceps.
  4. Lower the forearm down to about 90 degrees and repeat for 1-3 sets of 8-16 reps.
  5. Focus on keeping the upper arm stationary against the body throughout the exercise.


Paige Waehner

Dips are the third most effective exercise and a tough one depending on how you position your feet. In this version, the knees are bent, making the exercise easier. Extending your feet out will increase the intensity of the exercise. The key to keeping this move safe is to keep your hips close to the chair or bench to avoid straining the shoulders. Make sure you keep the shoulders down and away from the ears and, if you feel any discomfort in the shoulders, skip this exercise.

How to:

  1. Sit on a chair of bench with hands just outside of the hips and the knees bent or the legs extended straight out (harder).
  2. Lift up onto the hands and, keeping the hips very close to the chair or bench, bend the elbows, lowering down until they're at about 90 degrees.
  3. Keep the elbows pointing behind you, the shoulders down and the abs engaged.
  4. Push back to start and repeat for 1-3 sets of 8-16 reps.
  5. Avoid this exercise if you feel any pain in the shoulders.

Overhead Triceps Extension

Paige Waehner

The overhead triceps extension is the fourth most effective triceps exercise, coming in at about 76% of muscle activation. The key to this exercise is to keep the arms next to the ears as you lower the weight behind you. Make sure you can contract the abs to keep your back from arching.

You can do this exercise seated, as shown, or standing.  Believe it or not, this move actually feels harder when you're sitting.  A ball adds an element of core strength.

How to:

  1. Sit on a chair, bench or ball and hold a weight in both hands, extending it up overhead.
  2. Keep the ears next to the shoulders as you bend the elbows, lowering the weight behind your head until the elbows are at about 90-degree angles.
  3. Straighten the arms, contracting the triceps and repeat for 1-3 sets of 8-16 reps.
  4. Keep the abs engaged throughout the exercise and avoid arching the back.

Rope Pushdown

Paige Waehner

The rope pushdown, normally done on a cable machine with a rope attachment, comes in at number five, eliciting about 74% of muscle activation. The version above shows an adapted version you can do at home with an exercise band and a door attachment. With this version, you can increase intensity by using a heavier band or by holding the band higher for more tension.

How to:

  1. Attach a resistance band to the top of a doorway and tie a lose knot in the band about halfway down.
  2. Hold the band in each hand and begin the exercise with the elbows bent at about 90 degrees, elbows next to the torso.
  3. Extend the arms, taking the hands down towards the floor, spreading the band slightly out on either side as you contract the triceps.
  4. Bring the forearms back to start and repeat for 1-3 sets of 8-16 reps.

Bar Pushdown

Man Doing Triceps Pushdowns
Man Doing Triceps Pushdowns. Severin Schweiger/Getty Images

The bar pushdown is similar to the rope pushdown, but slightly less effective at about 67%. This exercise is usually done on a cable machine at the gym using a small bar attachment, although you can also do this exercise at home with an exercise band and a small pole or bar threaded through the handles.

The key to this move is to keep the elbows stationary as you push the weight down. If you lift the bar too high (say, higher than neck level), your elbows may come forward, making the exercise less effective.

How to:

  1. Stand in front of a cable machine, holding onto the bar with the elbows bent to about 90 degrees.
  2. Keeping the elbows stationary, push the bar down, contracting the triceps as you extend the arms.
  3. Bring the bar back up to about chest level without moving the elbows and repeat for 1-3 sets of 8-16 reps.

Lying Barbell Triceps Extensions (Skull Crushers)

Paige Waehner

Barbell triceps extensions (or what we often call skull crushers for obvious reasons), come in at a surprising number seven, eliciting about 62% of muscle activation. This is surprising because, if you've ever done these, you know how challenging this exercise is.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't do these anymore, but work them into a program that includes some of the top exercises as well.

How to:

  1. Lie on a bench, step or floor and hold the barbell with hands about shoulder-distance apart.
  2. Begin the exercise by extending the weight up over the head, palms facing out and thumbs next to the fingers.
  3. Bend the elbows and lower the weight until the elbows are at about 90-degree angles. This would be the part where you wouldn't want to crush your skull by going too low.
  4. Squeeze the triceps to straighten the arms without locking the joints.
  5. Repeat for 1-3 sets of 8-16 reps.

Close Grip Bench Press

Paige Waehner

The close grip bench press comes in 8th as an effective triceps exercise, eliciting about 62% of muscle activation. This move also involves quite a bit of chest, which may be why the triceps don't work as much as in other exercises.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't do this exercise. In fact, this can be a great exercise if you're working both the chest and triceps in the same workout. Doing this move at the end of your chest exercises can warm up the triceps before you move on to more targeted moves.

How to:

  1. Lie on a bench or step holding a barbell with hands about shoulder-width apart.
  2. Begin the exercise with the elbows bent and the barbell hovering just over the ribcage.
  3. Press the weight straight up over the ribcage, focusing on contracting the triceps.
  4. Lower and repeat for 1-3 sets of 8-16 reps.


Boehler B, Porcari J, Kline D, et al. ACE-sponsored Research: Best Triceps Exercises. The American Council on Exercise Certified News, August 2011.

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