How to Do Triceps Push-Ups for Seriously Strong Arms

Use these expert tips to mix the triceps push-up into your routine, and you'll make upper-body strength gains that can push you through a plateau.

an exerciser in the middle of doing a triceps push-up
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At some point along your fitness journey, there's a good chance you'll hit a wall with your strength progress. Although frustrating, it's a totally normal part of resistance training. And luckily, there are steps you can take to push through it.

One solution: Practice the triceps push-up, a bodyweight exercise that helps you build serious strength throughout your upper body. Ahead, find out how to do the triceps push-up with perfect form, no matter how you modify or progress the move. Plus, learn more about all the benefits the triceps push-up has to offer and why you'll want to make it a staple in your training program.

How to Do a Triceps Push-Up

A triceps push-up is practically identical to a traditional push-up: You’ll start in a high plank position, slowly bend your elbows to lower your body to the ground, then press into your palms to return to your plank. The key difference between the two moves? Your elbows are tucked close to your sides during a triceps push-up, but they’re pushed out so your arms form a 45-degree angle with your trunk during a regular push-up, says Antonia Henry, M.Sc., R.Y.T., an NASM-certified personal trainer and pregnancy and postpartum athleticism coach. 

If you’re struggling to visualize the exercise, watch Henry demonstrate the triceps push-up with proper form below.

A. Start in a high plank position on the floor with hands directly underneath shoulders and legs extended, feet hip-width apart.

B. Engage core by tucking tailbone and drawing navel in toward spine. Lock in lats by drawing shoulders down and away from ears. Engage glutes and quads.

C. Look down to keep neck neutral, continue engaging core, and ensure body forms a straight line from head to heel. Keeping biceps close to sides, slowly bend at elbows to lower body, stopping about 3 inches above the floor.

D. Push away from the floor to return to starting position.

The Key Triceps Push-Up Benefits

As you can probably guess from the name, the triceps push-up helps build strength in your triceps brachii — a large, thick muscle on the backside of your upper arm with the primary function of extending the elbow joint, according to the National Library of Medicine. But that’s not the only benefit the exercise has to offer.

Works Multiple Muscle Groups and Joints at Once

The triceps push-up may look like an upper body–focused exercise, but it’s actually considered a compound exercise, meaning you have to call on multiple muscle groups and joints at the same time to perform the movement, explains Henry. Specifically, your triceps, pecs, deltoids (aka shoulder), and core muscles — plus your shoulder, elbow, and wrist joints — all need to work together to lower your body to the floor and lift it back up in a controlled manner, she adds.

In turn, push-ups, as with other compound exercises, make for a highly efficient workout that can help make daily movements easier.  "More complex movements require better control and timing of multiple muscle groups — as well as the joints they act upon," Bill Kelley, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., owner of Aries Physical Therapy in South Florida, previously told Shape. "And that coordination and control translate to other activities, helping you be stronger and more balanced out in the world," he added. IRL, that might look like having an easier time pushing your kid's stroller up a hill or moving your heavy couch across the room while redecorating your home.

Can Help You Push Through Upper-Body Strength Plateaus 

Training your triceps can not only make you feel like your most confident and strong self, but it can also help you push through plateaus in the weight room. A common sticking point during an overhead press, for example, is simply getting the weight to start traveling upward from your shoulders, says Henry. The same goes for the first part of a chest press, when you need to actually push the weight off your chest, she explains.

“When you're struggling with getting the weight away from your body, that is really where a lack of triceps strength comes to play,” notes Henry. Strengthening the muscle, such as by practicing the triceps push-up, can help you push through those sticking points and thus continue increasing your load on other upper-body exercises, she adds.

Challenges Your Core Muscles

Surprise: The triceps push-up helps build strength in your core — aka muscles within your trunk that work together to keep your spine stable and prevent injury. Specifically, “your core is stabilizing you through the movement, so it's kind of like a plank in motion,” notes Henry. Core strength may seem like NBD, but your ability to push more weight — whether it be during a barbell overhead press or a back squat — and do it safely (read: without injuring your lower back) relies on your ability to appropriately fire your entire core, as Shape previously reported. Plus, if you were to let your core slack off during the triceps push-up, you’ll feel achy throughout your lower back while performing the move, adds Henry.

Triceps Push-Up Muscles Worked

As previously mentioned, the triceps push-up primarily targets your triceps, more so than the traditional push-up, says Henry. Your pecs and deltoids also come into play, but they aren’t working as heavily as they would in a regular push-up, as your triceps are bearing more of the load, she adds. Regardless of which variation you try, the triceps push-up will surely challenge your core control and stability, notes Henry.

Triceps Push-Up Variations

The classic triceps push-up may not feel right for you and your body — and that’s okay. Whether you’re looking to scale down the move to meet your current abilities or make it more difficult to match your progressing fitness level, you have options.

Modification: Elevated Triceps Push-Up

The simplest way to make the triceps push-up a bit less challenging: Place your hands on an elevated surface, such as a plyo box, stair, or even a racked barbell rather than the floor, suggests Henry. “The higher up your hands are, the easier it's going to be. And that’s a great way to start doing triceps push-ups today — you don't have to wait until you've reached a certain level of strength,” she notes.

If triceps push-ups make your wrists ache, try doing the move with each hand resting on top of a dumbbell handle, which eases some of the stress placed on the joint, recommends Henry.

Progression: Hand-Release Triceps Push-Up

When you’re ready to amp up the challenge of the triceps push-up, try performing it on a decline (read: with your legs elevated six to 10 inches off the floor), suggests Henry. The decline will put greater emphasis on your chest muscles, she adds. Or, you can perform the triceps push-up with light weights on your back or your feet looped into a suspension trainer, the latter of which further tests your core stability.

If those options aren’t up your alley, consider a hand-release triceps push-up, which involves lowering yourself all the way to the floor, briefly lifting up your hands, then placing them back on the ground and pressing up to return to the starting position. “Hand-release push-ups are a really fun way to make these more difficult because you take out the stretch reflex, which helps you get from the bottom of any movement to back to where you started,” says Henry. By picking your hands up, you'll lose any momentum that would typically assist you on the way back to the starting position.

Common Triceps Push-Up Mistakes

In order to do a proper triceps push-up, you’ll need to set up your stance with intention. Make sure your palms are in line with your shoulders, and avoid positioning your arms like a "T" as you may have learned in elementary gym class, advises Henry. Not only does this improper arm placement prevent you from targeting your triceps, but it also “puts a lot of stress on your pecs and your shoulder muscles,” she explains. You’ll also want to keep your spine neutral and core engaged; if your hips or thighs come in contact with the ground before your chest at the bottom of your push-up, take it as a sign that your form could use some perfecting. 

How to Add the Triceps Push-Up to Your Routine

Although the triceps push-up is a bit more difficult than a regular push-up, you don’t need to master the traditional variation before trying this move, says Henry. “I think that they can be totally complementary. If you’re trying to improve your push-ups in general, one day you can do a regular one with your elbows at 45 degrees, and another day you could do them with your elbows tucked in,” she notes.

As a general rule of thumb, aim to do three sets of as many reps as possible, suggests Henry. Once you can do 10 triceps push-ups in a row, you’re likely strong enough to try a progression. “That can look like doing the first two sets elevated, then doing the last set from the floor. Or you could do as many reps as you can with the more difficult version, then when that becomes too difficult, you make it a little bit easier," explains Henry.

You’ll want to chat with your health-care provider or physical therapist before tackling the exercise if you’re experiencing serious wrist pain, as the move does put pressure on the joint, says Henry. But for the most part, “triceps push-ups are a low-risk movement," she adds. "The worst thing that could happen is you might hit your face on the ground," notes Henry.

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