The skull crusher is an old school bodybuilding exercise that is either in the love it or hate it category.
Some people can get very strong with a skull crusher and move some serious weight, which is always going to help build up your triceps. If, however, you’re reading this and are anything like me, the skull crusher can end up playing havoc on your elbow joints and becomes an unusable exercise.
There’s also the small factor that comes with supporting a bar loaded with plates above your head using a relatively small joint and muscle group. I frequently see beginners either perform this exercise in an unsafe way or reach out looking for variations on the skull crusher that are either safer or easier on the joints.
While variations work (dumbbell or kettlebell skull crushers as an example), the skull crusher is by no means an essential exercise.
Therefore, I’ll cover what some of the best skull crusher alternatives are and how you can add more size to your triceps whilst being more joint-friendly just by excluding skull crushers from your routine completely.
The 5 best skull crusher alternatives are:
- Cross Body Tricep Extension
- Cable Rope Overhead Tricep Extension
- Seated Dumbbell Overhead Tricep Extension
- Weighted Dips
- Close Grip Barbell Bench Press
Skull Crusher Muscles Worked
Most of you will know what a skull crusher is and if you’re unfamiliar with that specific name, these can also be referred to as a lying tricep extension. Typically, a skull crusher is performed with an EZ curl bar or straight bar as this allows the most weight to be used and is an isolation exercise for the triceps.
The skull crusher is a movement that works all three heads of the triceps brachii (lateral, medial, and long) and will emphasize a different section depending on where you bring the bar to. For the lateral and medial head, you’d lower the bar to mid-forehead and arguably this would be poor execution in terms of exercise mechanics.
The reason is that this movement could easily be replicated using a close grip bench press but you’d also be able to use more weight and do so more safely. Bringing the bar behind your head though will lead to much greater long head activation and this is where you’re likely to see more muscle growth with the skull crusher.
Are Skull Crushers Bad
Skull crushers have a slightly bad reputation and I’d say the name doesn’t help! The reputation though will depend entirely on who you ask. If you ask an elite level powerlifter, they’ll say skull crushers are essential for building/strengthening their triceps.
Similarly, a high-level bodybuilder will also see the benefit as you can load a skull crusher with more weight than you could a traditional dumbbell or barbell overhead extension. Others might have a very different opinion due to safety concerns of pressing weight directly above your face or due to elbow pain usually caused by this exercise.
Therefore, instead of labeling the exercise, I’ll cover some of the benefits and drawbacks so that you can form your own opinion.
Skull Crusher Benefits
The main benefit of the skull crusher is that it engages all three heads of the triceps. Most tricep exercises work the lateral and medial head but most often, the long head of the triceps gets neglected. The reason for this is that the long head is more active when the arms are raised.
The closer your upper arm is to touching your ear, the more engaged the long head will be during a tricep exercise. During a skull crusher, if you lower the weight below your head instead of to the forehead, you’ll get a much greater activation in the long head and fully work the triceps.
The second benefit is that you can lift more weight with a skull crusher than you could with a seated or standing overhead tricep extension. When it comes to training, lifting more weight doesn’t always mean more muscle growth but it will when two exercises use the same movement pattern.
The reason for this is that when lying down you have a larger, more stable base from which you can generate more force. This more stable base allows you to use more weight and also has more scope for progression over time which makes it a popular exercise, especially amongst strength athletes.
Skull Crusher Drawbacks
The main drawback of the skull crusher is that most people will start to experience elbow pain when working up to heavier weights on this exercise. I’ve personally had this and it’s not just elbow pain that you might experience.
During a skull crusher, the weight is heaviest when your forearm lies above your upper arm and this stacking of bones and joints (elbow and wrist) can place a great amount of tension on the joints.
You’re in a biomechanically weak position when pressing weight from the forehead and as the skull crusher is seen as a big lift, people will usually overload this range of motion too much which leads to joint pain. Your positioning will also be impacted by wrist flexibility and grip width which makes it very difficult to use good form on this exercise.
The second drawback of the skull crusher is, as the name suggests, the dangers of using poor form on this exercise or hitting muscle failure with a loaded bar in a very hazardous position being just in front of the skull.
There is no reason to add an element of risk to an exercise ever! Weighted squats on Bosu balls, pressing max weight without a spotter, and in my opinion, lifting weights in front of your face all carry an unnecessary risk and can be easily avoided.
If something poses a risk but can be easily avoided, I see no reason why you’d need to include it and that is definitely the case with skull crushers.
Skull Crusher Alternatives
As I’ve already mentioned, the skull crusher is not an essential exercise when it comes to developing the triceps and for some people, it may not provide any benefit at all. Therefore, below you’ll find some of the best alternatives to skull crushers.
These are not your generic tricep extension alternatives, they are alternatives that allow you to hit the multiple heads of the triceps (just like the skull crusher does) whilst also being more efficient or beneficial in certain circumstances.
1. Cross Body Tricep Extension
The cross body tricep extension takes the exact same position as a skull crusher but shifts the emphasis during the range of motion used. With a dumbbell, you’ll bring the weight across your body rather than towards your head which makes it a safer alternative to a skull crusher.
The lateral and medial heads are more engaged with this movement and you won’t be able to use as much weight as a skull crusher due to a lower long head engagement so most people use this exercise either to warm up the triceps and elbow joint or as a finisher at the end of a tricep workout.
2. Cable Rope Overhead Tricep Extension
The cable rope overhead tricep extension is a great exercise for focusing on the long head of the triceps. The cable and rope combination help to keep tension on the triceps throughout the entire exercise whilst also placing the triceps into a fully stretched position.
Being able to fully stretch a muscle group and train it under load is a big precursor for maximal muscle growth and few exercises do this better than a cable overhead extension.
A good tip to keep in mind is to pull the rope apart during the concentric portion of the lift and really try to separate the ropes at the top of the lift. This action will help you achieve a greater concentric squeeze for the triceps without actively having to focus on squeezing the muscle group.
3. Seated Dumbbell Overhead Tricep Extension
Similar to the exercise above, the seated variant of an overhead tricep extension makes use of one single dumbbell rather than doing a single-arm variant. The reason for the effectiveness of this exercise (as well as a key tip for form) is to keep the elbows pointing forward throughout the movement.
When your elbows are flared out, you remove some of the engagement on the triceps long head and this makes the exercise feel easier which allows people to use more weight but in the process, it reduces tension and growth potential.
Therefore, leave your ego at the door with this exercise and focus on keeping your elbows and forearm facing forwards. You should be able to work up to some good poundage with this exercise compared with the cable rope variant which means you can rotate between the two exercises in different training weeks to either focus on weight with this option or volume and time under tension with the cable variant.
4. Weighted Dip
The dip is an often overlooked compound exercise and when it comes to adding external weight through a dip belt or dumbbell held between your legs, it can be one of the best tricep builders out there.
The key with a dip focusing on the triceps is to remain upright throughout the movement, keep your elbows close to your sides and keep the weight (feet, legs, external weight) directly underneath you.
The dip is traditionally a chest builder with the triceps acting as a secondary muscle group so by utilizing the form above, you’ll keep the tension away from the chest as much as possible and place it mainly onto the triceps.
The reason this is such a good exercise is that most performing it will have a bodyweight of 190 – 220lbs on average. If you can also add some external weight over time, you could easily be working with weights as high as 250lbs+.
Now compare this to the skull crusher or a tricep extension and you’ll be doing well to work up to 100lbs in total. This is the main reason why dips shouldn’t be ignored and if you need further motivation or persuasion, check out the arms on gymnasts who are frequently utilizing a dip during training and routines.
5. Close Grip Bench Press
The close grip bench press is the best compound movement for the triceps and allows you to lift the most weight relative to other exercises.
I’ll keep mentioning that lifting more weight does not necessarily make an exercise better or guarantee more muscle growth but the more weight you can potentially lift with an exercise, the more growth potential it will provide.
There’s not too much to say on this exercise, this is my number one alternative to a skull crusher and one that could bring you the greatest progress in terms of strength gains and arm development. Focus on adding plates to this lift and you should see your arms start to grow by inches as well!
The skull crusher is far from an essential exercise and not only are there more than suitable alternatives, but there is also no reason why you need to include this exercise in your routine in the first place. Most people find more issues with this exercise than they do actual benefits.
In my opinion, the best skull crusher alternatives are the close grip bench press and the weighted dip. These are compound lifts that not only allow you to use more weight than a skull crusher but also allows you to do so in a much safer lifting position.
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