What is an overhead cable triceps extension and its benefits

No truly strong upper body is complete without strong triceps. But with the biceps getting the attention most of the time, the triceps can be quite overlooked too often. What most people are unaware of is that despite having massive bicep peaks, rock-solid chest, and shredded back, weak triceps can still risk the upper body to injuries and cause imbalanced muscle growth.

Strong triceps prevent such risks, and one effective exercise to strengthen this often-neglected muscle group is the overhead cable triceps extension.

What is an overhead cable triceps extension?

The overhead cable triceps extension is an isolation exercise that targets the triceps with the use of a cable machine. While all three parts of the triceps—the long, lateral, and medial heads—are at work during this exercise, the overhead position hits the long head of the triceps the most.

As you work your triceps with this exercise, or with any other overhead triceps extension variation, the long head becomes much denser, and the denser the long head is, the larger the triceps appear.

The triceps extension is a versatile movement that can be performed using different equipment. Aside from a cable machine, triceps extensions can also be effective with dumbbells; you may do the exercise by either alternating your arms or using them both at the same time.

If you don’t have a dumbbell, a resistance band or even objects at home that are heavy enough such as a water gallon can be used as a substitute. The important thing is to build both your triceps and biceps for a more dynamic overall arm strength.

How to do an overhead cable triceps extension

But while overhead triceps extensions can be done using a variety of equipment, the focus of this post is triceps extension using a cable machine. Here is how you should get started:

  1. Begin by connecting a rope attachment to the cable pulley at the top of the pole. Once the attachment is in place, stand half a step away from the cable machine and plant your feet firmly on the ground. Make sure that they are placed slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  2. Grab the rope with a neutral grip then bend at the hips and knees. Your glutes should be in contact with the pole as you slightly lean forward and extend your elbows to bring the rope forward.
  3. Maintain steady shoulders and keep your elbows at the side of your head as you bend them to bring the rope back behind your head. Make sure to breathe in as you do this.
  4. Engage your triceps as you extend your elbows forward to return to the starting position. Breathe out as you do this and make sure that you maintain the same bent-over position throughout the exercise. Your shoulders, elbows, and wrists should also remain in line with one another at all times.
  5. Repeat. Do at least 4 sets of 8-12 reps each, depending on the weight.

Tips for better execution

  • A staggered stance might also be a good placement for your feet. This position takes your glutes away from the pole as you bring one leg forward for support and put the other leg behind for balance. But regardless of which foot placement you go for, always perform the exercise with the position you are most comfortable with.
  • Avoid completely locking out your elbows to keep the tension in your triceps.
  • Avoid letting the rope pull you backward or hyperextend your spine. This usually happens when the weight stack is too heavy, so set a weight that is just right for you: not too heavy that you end up compromising your form just to lift it, but also not too easy that there is little to no effect to your triceps at all.
  • Slightly tuck your chin so the rope travels over your head, not graze it.
  • Refrain from letting your shoulders go far too forward as you extend your elbows.

Muscles at work during this exercise

Aside from the triceps, particularly the long head muscle, the overhead cable triceps extension also recruits other muscles as well.

At the top of each repetition, your deltoids contract as the muscle fibers are activated. This gives your shoulders a secondary role.

Moreover, this exercise also engages your core since your abdominal muscles are activated throughout the exercise to stabilize you during the movement.

Benefits of doing this exercise

Improved strength and appearance

The most obvious benefit of the overhead cable triceps extension—or any overhead triceps extension variation for that matter—is the hypertrophy of the triceps. Unlike other exercises that target this muscle group, this particular movement activates all three heads of the triceps which means that your entire triceps, not just one of the heads, is strengthened through this exercise.

Strengthening your triceps also improves the appearance of the upper arm. It is known that this specific area is prone to being saggy as you age, but building bigger and stronger triceps will help provide better definition to your upper arm.

There are plenty of compound exercises, like the push-up and chest press, that work the triceps together with other major muscle groups. But allotting a significant amount of time to perform a triceps-specific exercise will build arm strength more effectively because you will not be limited by the exhaustion of other muscles.

Strong triceps are also vital in the accomplishment of day-to-day activities since this muscle group is responsible for stabilizing the shoulder and elbow joints as well. Lifting heavy items, pushing things, performing athletic activities, even writing—all these movements require strong triceps.

Less tension on the wrists

Unlike other triceps exercises such as the triceps pushdown, overhead cable triceps extensions remove unnecessary pressure on the wrists, making it the less painful—if not the painless—option for your triceps-strengthening goals. This is because, throughout the entire motion, the wrists maintain the same angle to keep a neutral position.

Better posture

Since you are standing while doing this exercise, you are forced to engage your core muscles to support your spine. As a result, you start to develop proper posture with a straight back, braced core, and retracted shoulders. Even if you do this exercise while sitting down, you will still need to recruit your core and maintain proper posture to properly do the full range of motion.

Common mistakes during an overhead cable triceps extension

Hyperextending the spine

Most people tend to arch their lower back when performing overhead cable triceps extension and more often than not, this is caused by the weight stack being too heavy. This puts a great deal of unnecessary pressure on the spine which could eventually lead to injury. To avoid making this, keep your abs and glutes tight during each rep to ensure proper form.

Incomplete range of motion

If you see people in the gym doing overhead cable triceps extensions like they are about to be late for something, just know that that is not the proper way to do the exercise. The movement needs to be controlled for optimal results. Not doing the full range of motion and going too fast will not do anything to your triceps at all; you will just exhaust yourself for nothing.

Unsteady elbows

Another all too familiar mistake when it comes to overhead cable triceps extensions is when people let their elbows drift outwards instead of keeping them pinned to the sides of their head. This places the tension on the shoulders and removes it from the triceps. Keep in mind that this is a triceps exercise so the tension must be kept in the triceps.

Alternatives to the overhead cable triceps extension

If you think this triceps extension variation is not for you, you might want to consider a few other triceps exercises that are just as effective in strengthening and sculpting your arms.

Alternating triceps pushdowns

Begin by placing your feet shoulder-width apart and facing a pulley machine with the handles at chest height. Hold the handles with a pronated grip and your elbows pinned to your sides. Once in this position, fully extend one arm to bring the handle down. Pause at the bottom of the movement and flex your triceps for maximum contraction. Slowly return to your initial position and keep alternating until you finish your desired number of sets and reps for both arms.

Skull crushers

Lie down on a flat bench with your feet planted firmly on the ground. Engage your core as you bring the dumbbells above your chest with your palms facing each other. Hinge your elbows to slowly bring the dumbbells down just behind your ears while keeping your elbows stationary. Flex your triceps as you extend your arms back into the straight position at the top. ‍Repeat until you finish your desired number of sets and reps.

Triangle push-ups

Place your hands on the ground in a position that makes your thumbs and index fingers touch to form a triangle shape. Extend your arms and your legs straight back with your feet close together while making sure that your back is straight. Lower your chest as you bend your elbows until your chest nearly comes in contact with the ground. Then contract your triceps and chest to push back up to your initial position. ‍Repeat until you finish your desired number of sets and reps.