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The Bodyweight Skull Crusher Is An Underutilized Tool for Building Strong Arms

This is a fantastic triceps exercise that comes with a ton of variations.

When the average gym-goer thinks about training their triceps in isolation, the pieces of equipment that come to mind are barbells, dumbbells, and cables (or bands for you CrossFitters). What if I told you that your own bodyweight could be used to train your triceps?

You would immediately think that I am referring to dips and push ups. Yes, both of these exercises fit the criteria for training the triceps and using bodyweight, however, these are compound movements. We are looking for a movement that will isolate the triceps.

Want to know the real answer to my question above? Bodyweight skull crushers.

How To

Step 1: The Set Up

The bodyweight skull crusher can be performed with a barbell in the squat rack or on a Smith machine. Place the bar at belly button height and stand an arm’s length away. From there, take a big step back and you are ready to go. 

Bodyweight Skull Crusher How To

Performance Notes:

  • I recommend using a suicide grip. Sometimes having your thumbs fully wrapped does not allow you to move around the bar.
  • I recommend placing your hands just outside of shoulder width. You may need to move your hands in or out if you feel stress on the elbows.
  • To make the movement easier, place the bar higher. 
  • To make the movement more difficult, place the bar lower.

Step 2: The Descent

Before initiating the movement, engage your core by squeezing your rib cage into a locked down position. Lower yourself by bending at the elbows and traveling your head forward. Always make sure that your elbows are tracking in a straight line, as opposed to flaring out to the side.

The goal is to finish by meeting your “skull” to the bar and having your elbow crease at 90°.

Bodyweight Skull Crushers

Performance Notes:

  • Always lower yourself using a controlled descent. 
  • Always maintain a neutral spine. If you begin to extend your lumbar spine, try placing the bar higher.

Step 3: Extending the Elbows

Finish the movement by fully extending your elbows and bringing your body back to the start position. Actively pause in the start position for a second before attempting the next rep.

Benefits

Bodyweight skull crushers have all of the same benefits of the weighted skull crusher: triceps strength, carryover to pressing exercises, and chasing a pump.

So what are the benefits of choosing the bodyweight variation over the weighted variation?

Reason 1: Body Control

As with any other bodyweight movement, you must control your entire body throughout the exercise. Having spatial awareness while performing a triceps isolation exercise is not something that you will achieve to the same degree using a barbell, dumbbell, or cable.

Reason 2: Joint Friendly

If you are getting achy joints from a traditional skull crusher, then the bodyweight skull crusher may be a good fit for you. The amount of stress and range of motion on the elbows can easily be limited by placing the bar higher. Not to mention, you eliminate the external load that is acting on your elbows.

Reason 3: Gyms with Limited Equipment

Maybe you train at a CrossFit gym or in your garage where you don’t have EZ bars or a huge selection of dumbbells. To perform the bodyweight skull crushers the only thing you need is a barbell and a squat rack (something most bare-bone gyms can accommodate).

Variations

1. Deep Flexion Bodyweight Skull Crushers

Bodyweight Deep Skull Crushers

The deep flexion variation of the bodyweight skull crusher follows all of the same guidelines as the standard variation mentioned above. The only difference is that instead of ending with your “skull” at the bar and elbow crease at 90°, you will go into a much deeper position.

Your elbows will travel far forward and your head and neck will go underneath the bar. This range of motion is similar to an overhead tricep extension.

2. Single Leg Bodyweight Skull Crushers

Single Leg Bodyweight Skull Crushers

Perform the bodyweight skull crusher while raising one leg into a bent knee position. This will add in the extra challenge of stabilizing the hips and core while lowering yourself. This variation can be great for someone who wants to work on total body control.

3. Negatives

Start the movement as you normally would, but lower yourself over the course of 3-5 seconds. Instead of extending your elbows and finishing the rep, just take a step forward and stand up. Reset yourself at the start position and perform another negative rep.

This is a great way to introduce a beginner to the movement or for someone who experiences elbow pain while extending the elbows.

4. Ring / TRX Bodyweight Skull Crusher

Ring Bodyweight Skull Crushers

Using a set of rings or a TRX is a great way to perform the movement while allowing each arm to work individually. This variation would be best for someone who is interested in correcting imbalances between both arms.

5. Chaos

Chaos Bodyweight Skull Crusher

Replace the barbell with a thick band wrapped around the J-Cups. Make sure you place the J-Cups higher than normal, being that the band is going to lower a few inches when you grab it.

Perform the skull crusher as you normally would, but now your upper body will be challenged by the unsteady surface you are working on.

6. Bodyweight Skull Crushers on the Floor

Bodyweight Skull Crusher On Floor

Start in a downward dog position. Bend at the elbows until they reach the ground. In this variation, you do not want your head traveling forward due to the stress that will be placed on your elbows.

Instead you want to keep your eyes gazing at your feet. The range of motion is much shorter than the other variations, but still gets the job done.

7. Bodyweight Skull Crushers on an Incline Bench

Bodyweight Incline Bench Skull Crusher

Stand behind an incline bench, placing your hands at the top of the pad. Perform the bodyweight skull crusher as described above. This variation forces you to keep your hands in close, which may feel better on your elbows.

Similar to the standard variation, the higher the bench is set, the easier the movement is to perform.

8. Bodyweight Skull Crushers on a Box

Bodyweight Box Skull Crusher

Push a box up against the wall and place your hands at the edge of the box. Get into the start position and lower yourself to the point where your entire forearm is flat against the side of the box. This variation forces you to come to a dead stop against the box, leaving you to perform a very strict tricep extension.

Most boxes are lower than your belly button, so make sure that you have mastered the standard variation first!

9. Front Foot Assisted Bodyweight Skull Crushers 

Assisted Bodyweight Skull Crushers

Assume the normal start position for the bodyweight skull crushers, then place one foot forward with your knee slightly bent. This will reduce the amount of bodyweight that you need to control. This variation can be used for a beginner who is still developing tricep strength.

Wrapping Up

Skull crushers are one of the most common exercises for direct triceps training, but they have been performed the same way forever. If you are looking for a change to your training routine or in search of a new challenge, give the bodyweight skull crusher a try. It hits the mark on triceps isolation, displays great body control, and you can do them just about anywhere!

 
James Alt

James Alt

James is a strength and conditioning enthusiast based out of Long Island, NY. He has trained clients of all kinds through his work in physical therapy offices, CrossFit gyms, and an athletic performance internship at Stony Brook University (D1). James has also launched Nuclear Strong, a strength and conditioning brand that offers online training programs with a focus on getting strong, looking good, and feeling healthy. He holds a Master’s in Applied Healthcare Informatics and is currently pursuing a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) certification.

1 thought on “The Bodyweight Skull Crusher Is An Underutilized Tool for Building Strong Arms”

  1. James, this is such great content! I’m going to do some more of this at the gym. You wrote a very informative article, thanks for the great information!

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