When it comes to the “best” triceps exercise, the conversation most often involves the following three:
- Close grip bench press.
- Skull crushers.
Sure, there are plenty of others that can get the job done just fine. And yes, various other compound pressing exercises in your routine (bench press, shoulder press, etc.) will likely produce the majority of your triceps size and strength gains.
Plus, as I’ve explained a million times before, there is rarely anything in the weight training world that is universally “the best” for every single person… especially exercises.
But, ignoring all of that for a minute, it’s hard to argue that these aren’t all potentially great triceps exercise. They most definitely are, and I’ve personally used each one of them in my training at various points over the years.
But Then There Was One
As of today however, the only one I still do regularly is skull crushers.
Close grip bench presses were never a favorite of mine. They always just felt slightly awkward. And doing them on a flat bench tends to bother my shoulders a bit, which leaves decline close grip bench pressing as the only way I’ll do them. Dips are totally out of the question for me, as they kill my shoulders (along with many other people’s shoulders).
Which leaves us (or really me) with skull crushers. Along with a small handful of others, they’ve been one of my go-to triceps exercises of choice for quite a while.
What Are Skull Crushers?
Despite its scary name, it’s just a triceps isolation exercise that involves the same basic elbow extension movement every other triceps isolation exercise involves.
The main difference here is that you do them lying down (on a flat, decline or incline bench) with the weight (straight bar, EZ curl bar, dumbbells) held directly over you similar to the top position of a bench press. It’s then lowered down directly over your face/head by bending at the elbow.
It’s technically just a lying triceps extension, but “skull crusher” just makes for a much catchier nickname. You can see an example here.
Simple and easy enough, right? Of course, there is one tiny potential problem (besides accidentally crushing your skull) that may be of note…
Beware: They May Destroy Your Elbows
Besides dips (which are a well known shoulder killer), there is no other exercise I can think of for any body part that is as well known for causing elbow pain as skull crushers are. It’s just one of those exercises that tends to hurt for a lot of people.
Why is this? Well, the mechanics of the movement itself may very well be the sole culprit in many cases. In other cases however, I think the specific way the person is performing the exercise may either be causing the problem entirely or at least adding to the stress being placed on the elbows.
To show you what I mean, here now are what I’ve found to be the 6 most elbow friendly tips for doing skull crushers pain-free…
1. Don’t Do Them With A Straight Bar
Even though most gyms have EZ curl bars, I still sometimes see people doing skull crushers and various other triceps extension exercises with a straight bar. The fun part is watching them finish their set and proceed to rub their elbow and/or wrist as though they are in pain.
I’m not surprised. I’d be in pain too if I did these with a straight bar.
That’s where the EZ curl bar comes into play. The slight curve it allows is often significantly more comfortable on your wrists and elbows. You know, similar to how the EZ curl bar is also more wrist/elbow friendly than the straight bar when doing biceps curls.
It just seems to be closer to the natural state your wrists and elbows would prefer things to be in during this exercise (and others).
2. Don’t Do Them With An EZ Curl Bar Either
What I mentioned in #1 is often common knowledge, or at least something people discover on their own at some point. Which means, most of the people doing skull crushers are already smart enough to be doing them with an EZ curl bar.
But yet, it STILL hurts their elbows (and maybe their wrists as well). If this describes you, then I highly recommend using dumbbells instead.
Grab them with a neutral/hammer grip (palms facing each other) and try it that way. You’ll probably feel a significant improvement in wrist comfort, and it will probably feel a lot better on your elbows as well. I personally do skull crushers almost exclusively this way.
3. Don’t Lower To Your Nose… Or Forehead
Skull crushers can be done by lowering the weight to a bunch of different places between your chin and some point behind your head. The three most common tend to be:
- A version sometimes referred to as “nose breakers” where the weight is lowered to around nose level.
- The version you probably see people doing most often which involves lowering the weight to about forehead level.
- The third version involves lowering the weight to some point just slightly past the top of your head.
If you are fond of your elbows, I’d highly recommend not going anywhere near the “nose crusher” version. And if the typical “forehead” version hurts, I’d recommend avoiding that one too.
Instead, the most elbow-friendly lowering point for most people (myself included) is usually slightly over your head.
4. Don’t Do Low Reps
Some exercises are much better suited for lower reps (deadlifts come to mind), while others seem to be better suited for higher reps (leg extensions and lateral raises come to mind). I’d definitely put skull crushers and most similar triceps isolation exercises into the “better suited for high reps” category.
I personally don’t go lower than 10 reps for these and most often stay in the 10-15 rep range. If you like having elbows that don’t feel like crap, you may want to do the same.
Don’t worry, your triceps will get plenty of lower rep work during pressing exercises. Let skull crushers do the higher rep ‘pump’ work.
5. Don’t Do Them For Too Long Or Too Often
This one especially applies to you if you’ve found that you can do them for 4 weeks, or 6 weeks or 8 weeks or whatever-weeks with no elbow pain or problems of any kind, but at some point when you’ve been doing them long enough, they start to hurt.
How do you avoid this? Simple. Change exercises before reaching this point. I’m not talking about silly muscle confusion nonsense or changing exercises super often to “shock your body.” I’m just talking about rotating out your triceps isolation exercises just frequently enough to avoid experiencing any elbow pain.
I’d also recommend keeping the frequency of this exercise to once per week. So for example, if you’re using an upper/lower based program (such as The Muscle Building Workout Routine) and are therefore training triceps twice per week, do skull crushers in one of the workouts and something else in the other.
6. Don’t Worry Too Much About Weight And Progression
Yes, progressive overload is and always will be one of the biggest requirements of building muscle and gaining strength. Yes, pushing yourself to increase the weight being lifted as often as you can should be your #1 focus.
However, as crucial as this is, it should be less of a focus with an exercise like skull crushers.
Why? For starters, you’re not going to be able to progress at isolation exercises very often in the first place… especially in comparison to compound exercises. This is why you don’t see many people doing an exercise like lateral raises with very much weight (unless of course they’re doing the hilarious full body heave version). Skull crushers and most other isolation movements are kinda the same way.
They are better suited for generating muscular fatigue than progressive tension, whereas squats, deadlifts, presses. rows, etc. are typically the other way around or an equal combination of the two. (Additional details here: How To Get Bigger Arms)
Not to mention, due to the not-so-elbow-friendly mechanics I mentioned earlier, this isn’t really an exercise where you want to be grinding out reps with a weight that’s just a little too heavy for you.
That’s why I’d rather see people push for higher reps (like I said before, I like going as high as 15 reps per set with these) rather than trying to constantly up the weight at which point your form (and subsequently your elbows) will almost always turn to poopy.
(A reader recently asked me if I was capable of getting my points across without resorting to using words like “shit.” That, dear reader, was for you.)
Then, when you are comfortably able to do that amount for a few workouts in a row, feel free to add the smallest amount of weight possible.
What If Your Elbows Still Hurt?
Now let’s say you try all of these adjustments. You use an EZ curl bar, you use dumbbells, you lower more to the top of your head than your nose, you do higher reps, switch to another triceps exercise every few weeks, keep the frequency low and don’t obsessively try to increase the weight every workout.
Let’s say you try all of that and skull crushers STILL end up hurting your elbows. What do you do then?
Simple… stop doing skull crushers.
For whatever reason, there are just certain weight training exercises that don’t get along with our bodies no matter what modifications we make to our form and the overall way we’re doing them. In cases like this, the best idea is to just permanently avoid those exercises.
For example, here are 6 great exercises I’ll never do again for this very reason.
Like I mentioned earlier, there are plenty of other triceps exercises that can get the job done just fine, and I’m sure you’ll be able to find at least a few of them that don’t hurt your elbows like these do. Use them instead.
Because, like I’ve also mentioned before (What Are The Best Exercises For My Workout Routine?), that’s really step #1 in determining which exercise truly is “the best” for you.