Skull Crushers Guide | How To, Variations, Benefits, and More

By 11 February 2021Training

Skull crushers are one of the best exercises for building strong triceps. The tricep skull crusher is awesome for hitting all three of the triceps’ muscle heads and can be easily modified for a variety of needs and goals, which is why we program this movement fairly often.

At Pheasyque Lab, we love skull crushers specifically because they’re so dynamic in nature and provide our clients with adequate stimulus when working through tricep extension. By improving skull crusher strength, we can improve our bench press and overhead strength, and build strong arms across the board for a variety of activities.

If you’re on the quest of building strong triceps and improving your pressing strength, then the skull crusher is a movement you should start integrating into your programming more often.

In this skull crusher guide, we’re going to cover:

  • How to improve arm strength and power with skull crushers.
  • Best skull crusher tips for beginner, intermediate, and advanced lifters.
  • Muscles worked with the skull crushers and common variations to employ.
  • Progressions for skull crushers and how to own the movement patterns of this exercise.
  • Why everyone could benefit from using skull crushers in their workouts.

Skull Crushers Table of Contents

  1. How To Do Skull Crushers
    • Dumbbell Skull Crushers
    • Barbell Skull Crushers
  2. Barbell VS Dumbbell Skull Crushers
  3. Muscles Worked With Skull Crushers
  4. Skull Crushers Tips for Hypertrophy
  5. Skull Crushers Mistakes
  6. Skull Crushers Alternatives

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How To Do Skull Crushers

Skull crushers are seemingly a simple movement in nature, but oftentimes, lifters don’t optimize their positions to get the most triceps growth for their buck. By applying simple changes to your body position, we can facilitate and support tricep muscle growth.

Step 1: Nail the Setup

dumbbell skull crusher set up

To set up for skull crushers, simply lie back on a bench and ground the torso, and bring your preferred implement (dumbbells, barbell, kettlebells, etc.) overhead. Ideally, you want to limit torso extension (arching) to create more of a disadvantage for the triceps, AKA providing them with more work.

Advanced Tip: Bring the feet up onto a wall or the bench to focus on limiting torso extension!

Step 2: Eccentrically Load

how to perform skull crushers

Bring the arms back ever so slightly, so there’s a slight tension on the triceps, then lower the weight slowly to around forehead level for a barbell and just below that for dumbbells/kettlebells.

At the bottom, focus on maintaining tricep tension and not just letting the weight “sit into the joints”. You should be actively contracting throughout the entire eccentric portion of the movement.

  • For barbell skull crushers, you’ll be limited by your head unless you slightly bring the elbows back.
  • For dumbbell skull crushers, you can turn the hands slightly outwards to avoid hitting the head at the bottom and to achieve a greater range of motion.

Step 3: Contract and Lockout

How to set up for skull crushers

Once you’ve hit the end range of motion for your eccentric, contract and lift the weight back to its starting position. Think about initiating the contraction with the triceps and cue yourself to “move around the below” versus simply moving through elbow flexion and extension.

Dumbbell VS Barbell Skull Crushers

The main differences between barbell and dumbbell skull crushers are how heavily they can be loaded, how beginner-friendly some variations are, and how they feel on some lifters’ elbows.

Barbell skull crushers can generally be performed heavier, so they’re usually a better option when pushing strength is the goal for this exercise. Dumbbell skull crushers are often more beginner-friendly and a bit more “elbow-friendly” for lifters who have what we would call cranky elbows when performing barbell skull crushers.

Those are really the only two fundamental differences between these exercises. Some lifters allude to the wrist positioning changing the mechanical tension that can be produced with these variations, however, more and more we’re noticing that wrist position (when there’s no discomfort present) is much lower on the training hierarchy of concerns when triceps growth is the goal.

Skull Crushers Muscles Worked

The main muscles worked with skull crushers will be the triceps. The triceps consist of three different heads (long, lateral, and medial) and skull crushers will train each head respectively at different points of the range of motion to various degrees.

Triceps Muscle heads

In addition to working the triceps, you’ll also have some very passive latissimus dorsi and serratus activity due to stabilizing weight overhead due to the body’s horizontal positioning.

Skull Crushers Tips for Hypertrophy

To increase muscular hypertrophy, we need a couple of consistent variables present throughout our skull crushers sets. Two variables in particular that we’re going to focus on in this article include working with an adequate range of motion and producing enough effort during each set.

1. Working With Adequate Ranges of Motion

When training with skull crushers and trying to improve tricep muscular hypertrophy, we want to make sure we’re trying to work through adequate ranges of motion. In the context of skull crushers, this would entail bringing the implement we’re using from a locked out position to a lowering position that we can manageable hit with good form while producing eccentric contractions.

In addition to moving through a full range of motion for this exercise, we also want to make sure the triceps are moving the load and we’re rotating around the elbow joint, and not just moving the arm to move the arm.

Author’s Note: This point isn’t to say that muscular hypertrophy doesn’t occur during smaller ranges of motion, but for the context of the goals of this movement, then larger ranges will generally fair best for most lifters!

Triceps Skull Crusher Guide

2.  Producing Effort

Outside of hitting an adequate range of motion, we also need to produce effort for each and this can take multiple forms. Two common ways we can increase effort is with load management (increasing and decreasing weight) and modifying tempo. Both of these are incredible tools to work with depending on the adaptations you’re going for.

At Pheasyque Lab, we utilize tempo to increase time under tension, then pair it with Reps In Reserve (RIR) to help our lifters scale their progress accordingly while producing adequate effort.

Skull Crushers Mistakes

Smooth is strong and execution is key for making sure we’re actually targeting the triceps with skull crushers. Far too often, lifters worry so much about the load that they end up throwing their torso into extension and taking away work from the triceps, and this brings us to mistake number one.

Mistake 1: Hips Shooting Up

The hips shooting up or the torso going into larger arches (extension) can limit tricep activity because we’re then shifting the shoulder back which then causes the elbow to also shift backward. This will then put more work into muscles like the lats and serratus as the movement turns more into a pullover variant at some points.

In our tutorial, we like doing the variation where we elevate the feet or have them in a hook lying position on a bench. This helps keep the torso grounded and tension the triceps.

Mistake 2: Elbows Flaring Out

On top of too much torso extension, excessive elbow flare can also be a problem with skull crushers. When we think about the triceps and their main function producing elbow extension, then we can see why elbow flare could be a problem.

The triceps will be strongest when they can create more mechanically proficient elbow extension, so if we’re flaring the elbows out, then we can be losing out on our abilities to utilize the triceps’ heads to do their jobs.

Skull Crushers

Skull Crushers Alternatives

If skull crushers are not an option for you, then there are a few great alternatives that you can plug in to produce similar muscle actions.

1. Cable Tricep Extensions

Cable tricep extensions are a great skull crusher alternative as they place the arm into a relatively similar position and focus primarily on elbow extension. The main differences are how we’re loading and the anatomical positioning differences in each exercise’s setups.

2. Overhead Tricep Extensions

Overhead tricep extensions, while not perfectly mirroring the setup mechanics of skull crushers, are another great alternative. This variation is great for anyone that has a cable machine or a band at home that wants to focus on higher rep sets that can be taken closer to failure.

Skull Crushers Takeaway Notes

At Pheasyque Lab, we love programming skull crushers for developing tricep strength and mass.

  • Both barbell and dumbbell skull crushers are great variations to use and they should be employed based on individual goals and factors like skill level.
  • Skull crushers can help build all three heads of the triceps and modifying how they’re performed can shift emphasis into different heads at various rates (incline, decline, and flat bench positioning).
  • Limit torso extension and elbow flare to optimize your potential to build the triceps with skull crushers.
  • To add mass to the triceps with skull crushers, we need to move through adequate ranges of motion and produce effort on a consistent basis.

Join Pheasyque Lab to level up your training and nutrition. We offer a variety of programs and products designed to be affordable and effective!

Jake Boly

Jake Boly

Jake Boly, CSCS, M.S. is a weathered veteran of the fitness industry. Prior to Pheasyque Lab, he was the Fitness Editor at BarBend.com for four years. To date, Jake has written over 1,700 articles about fitness and health and has trained hundreds of athletes all while continuing to push the boundaries of fitness and health content creation.

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