How To Do Skull Crushers For Triceps And NOT Hurt Your Elbows

When it comes to the “best” triceps exercise, the conversation most often involves the following three:

  1. Dips.
  2. Close grip bench press.
  3. 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.

31 thoughts on “How To Do Skull Crushers For Triceps And NOT Hurt Your Elbows”

31 Comments

  1. Great tips. Number 6 is the biggest elbow saver for me. As someone who has had surgery on both elbow tendons, skull crushers can be killers if I try to do them with heavy weight. I find that using lighter weights but better form (most heavy skull crushers look like people dropping a weight to their head and then flopping their body in an effort to throw the weight back up) not only helps my elbows (and wrists when there is too much weight to properly control the bar) from hurting, but also destroys my triceps due to the strict form and slower lowering and raising of the weight. After Bench Press and Overhead Press on Upper Body days, my triceps and elbows are pretty beat up so I use these just to give them a final slap and let them know who’s the boss without torturing the rest of my body.

    • Yup, totally agree. I even like to go lighter each set reverse pyramid style.

      And you reminded me of another point. I think another reason why skull crushers tend to piss off a lot of people’s elbows is because they are often done after 1000 sets of every chest pressing exercise known to man. By that point, you’re just asking for problems.

  2. My left elbow started killing me last year (medial epicondylitis, akagolfer’s elbow). I finally determined (through a thorough examination of my training routine) that it was likely endless curls, skull crushers, and pullups on a static straight bar.

    So I took the advice from sites such as this and others, and switched to mostly compound exercises, a 4-day upper/lower split, using gymnastic rings for all pulls/chins/dips/pushups, and relegating single joint exercises like curls and triceps exercises to a couple sets at the end of a workout.

    My elbow is finally healing (probably about 75% better), I’m stronger and I feel like my training is finally back on track after a few years of stagnation. No longer do I adhere to the “Monday is National Bench Press Day” philosophy.

    • Medial epicondylitis sucks dude. I’ve had it and it’s one of the most stubborn/never ending injuries I’ve ever seen.

      And 99% of the information and advice you’ll find about it (rest it, ice it, take an anti-inflammatory, get a cortisone injection, etc.) is total horse shit and often counterproductive to what actually makes it better (which is primarily specific eccentric exercises done right and programmed properly… plus fixing the cause of it like you’ve done). It’s an injury I plan to write a lot more about in the future.

      It’s doubtful though that skull crushers would cause it. They’d be more likely to cause problems on the lateral side of the elbow. But curls and pull ups for sure. They are the two exercises everyone with golfer’s elbow complains about the most.

      It’s why I will never curl with a straight bar again or do chin ups (underhand grip) ever again.

      • Hey, i realize this thread is from way back when but i’d really like some advice on how to get rid of my medial epicondylitis(had an MRI and twas confirmed – it was that painful 🙁 )

        So i tried the normal RICE and backing off the workouts for a while. Slowly re-introduced workouts minus skull crushers or direct tricep work except dips which i felt didnt bother my elbows. The only thing now is chin ups are starting to bug me and i need to get my tricep size up.

        So in all i just need a sure way to get rid of golfers elbow completely. (can’t afford ART massage and most e-books are just expensive)

  3. Great article, I’ve always used a curl bar for brain crushers since dumbbells seemed like they would be awkward for me.
    I’ll start using dumbbells and see how it goes.
    Thanks.

    • They may feel slightly strange at first if you’ve only ever done them with a bar (just like dumbbell pressing will feel strange if you’ve only ever pressed a barbell), but I think you’ll like it.

      Let me know how it goes.

  4. Yep I had to stop doing seat db tri extensions for the same reason. To get in the 10-15 rep range i was using a single 80lb dumbell and after awhile my elbows got sore to the point that even 1 or 2 was very painfull so I gave them up and just started doing pressdowns on a stack and also kickbacks. I rotate between those 2 now and still have a bit of a sore elbow but thats because Im a blockhead and do pressdowns with 210 on the stack and kickbacks with 55lb dumbells

  5. Hi thanks for the great advice. But I have a question I did skull crushers for the first time I while and I did them with a dumbbell on a flat bench and the next day my tris and elbows hurt when I bent my arm. I think its called tennis elbow or tendinitis I used to do them the same way and had no problem. Do you think I should find a new work out?

  6. Are close grip decline pushups on your knuckles with an adjustable weighted vest a safe and effective triceps exercise?

  7. Better yet, how about decline diamond pushups with an adjustable weighted vest. As i progress will the diamond position still be safe on my wrists? I have no issues at all so far.

    • Impossible to say. For example, barbell curls felt perfectly fine for me for about 11 years. During the 12th year, they hurt my elbows. Dips felt fine for me until I started adding weight and got to around 25-30lbs.

      As long as your form is good, your programming is sound and you have no preexisting issues, then use common sense. If everything feels good, good. If problems develop, adjust accordingly.

  8. I use soley skullcrushers for tricep work,4 days between each session,i lower the bar to just past top of my head,i never lock out,i use rep ranges from 8 – 12 or 15 – 20,not once in 3 years of training this way have i had pain in my elbows,i dont know what i’m doing right but long may it continue

  9. One rule you NEVER break, and I call it the 90 degree rule. NEVER let your arm break 90 degrees, or the L shape. I see guys bring their hands up so far it almost touches their shoulders. All that does is place a tremendous load on the tendon that does not benefit it anyway.

  10. Hey!
    I’ve been doing skull-crushers but they don’t hurt my elbows,they seem to hurt my forearms for some reason(and mainly the right hand one) , is it any reason why it would do that, or is it another exercise I’m not doing correctly?
    I’m following your muscle mass building routine so upper body day 2 is the one that gives me forearm pain after doing it.( when I didn’t do skull-crushers I didn’t feel like my elbows are hurting).

  11. Just read this article. Love how well you accommodated your reader’s desire for less profanity. Haha! All great advice. Thanks!

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