Triceps training is something most power, strength, and sports athletes know they should be doing. For some of us, knowing and doing are not the same. It is for this reason that we will discuss, review, and provide technique breakdowns and exercise recommendations for the skull crusher, a premier triceps strength and hypertrophy exercise for all training levels.
If your goal is stronger pressing (bench press, snatch and jerk lockouts, and/or even gymnastic work like dips and handstand push ups), stick around as we will cover:
- Skull Crushers Form and Technique
- Benefits of Skull Crushers
- Muscles Worked by Skull Crushers
- Skull Crushers, Reps, and Programming Recommendations
- Skull Crushers Variations and Alternatives
- and more…
How to Do the Skull Crusher
Below is a step-by-step guide on how to properly set up and perform the skull crusher using a barbell.
Step 1: Start by lying flat on your back, on a bench, with the head slightly off the end. The barbell should be locked out at the top position, with the wrists about shoulder width.
Wrist widths can vary based on flexibility and preference. The key is that the lifter should feel that they are able to contract the upper beck and depress the shoulder blades to secure the shoulder girdle. This will be essential for the next steps.
Step 2: As the name implies, the lifter should allow the elbows to go into joint flexion, so that the barbell itself is tracking towards the cranium.
As you do this, be sure to keep the elbows pushed into the body, making sure that they are not flaring out to the sides. It may be helpful to focus on squeezing the bar, setting the back, and making sure the elbows stay pointed back/up as you descend into the negative portion of the lift.
Step 3: Once the barbell has reached just above the cranium, be sure to double check the elbow and barbell placement (see above step). From here, it is recommended that you allow the elbow to track slightly backwards with the elbow itself fixed in deep flexion.
This movement is subtle, yet can increase the stretch on the triceps and help to keep tension on the triceps at the bottom of the range of motion.
Step 4: From there, slightly pull the elbows forward as you reach upwards to the sky.
It is important to not have the elbows get pushed to far forwards, as this will decrease triceps isolation and increase strain on the shoulder.
*** The skull crusher is a great strength and mass builder for the triceps, however many lifters and coaches may be performing them incorrectly. It is imperative you adjust widths, angles, and tempos to best individualize this exercise to the athlete.
Muscles Worked – Skull Crushers
The skull crusher is a single joint exercise that specially target the triceps. Unlike other triceps movements, like close grip bench press and dips, the skull crusher is single joint in nature, and therefore the only movement that takes place is at the elbow joint (which, the triceps works to extend). By adding this single joint exercise into training, you can specially target weak, underdeveloped triceps.
The triceps are responsible for elbow extension which is found in most pressing movements (bench press, overhead presses, push ups, dips, overhead stability, etc). The skull crusher isolates the triceps by having the lifter perform deep elbow flexion while stabilizing the shoulder and wrist joints (see below).
While the shoulders are not concentrically and eccentrically contracting, they scapular stabilizers and rear deltoids are working diligently to stabilize the shoulder socket to allow the lifter to remain in a fixed position. By not allowing shoulder movement, the lifter can force the elbows to flex to acquire necessary ranges of motion, which in turn increases the demands on the triceps to fully extend the elbow joint.
4 Benefits of Skull Crushers
Below are four (4) benefits of the skull crusher that coaches and athletes from most strength, power, and fitness sports can expect when implementing skull crushers into a training regimen.
Strong triceps are key for all pressing movements and overhead stability. Powerlifters must have strong triceps to assist in the locking out of the bench press. Weightlifters must perform triceps work as they are necessary for elbow extension in the receiving phases of the snatch and jerk. In addition, stronger triceps tend to help decrease wear and tear on the elbow joint.
Improved Lockout Strength
The triceps are responsible for elbow extension, which is a key marker for proper lift execution in the bench press, snatch, and jerk. Most power and strength athletes will see improvements in lockout performance with added triceps strength and hypertrophy work (assuming they are perfecting any technical faults that may be resulting in pressouts).
Healthy joints often come from proper training volume, technique, and increasing muscle hypertrophy and force production so that volumes and loading can be absorbed by the muscles themselves rather than on the tendons, ligaments, and joints. Stronger triceps (along with proper modifications in case of elbow flare-ups) are key to not only increasing pressing performance but minimizing overuse injury to the joints and connective tissues.
For some strength and power athletes, bigger, leaner arms are an added goal. The triceps are roughly ⅔ of the arm, so more dedicated tricep work could help you achieve a superior set of pipes. If you are someone who is only looking for the “functional” reasons as to why we train triceps, just ignore this one…but for the rest of us…
Who Should Do Skull Crushers?
The skull crusher can be highly beneficial for all strength, power, and fitness athlete. The below groups can benefit from learning and performing this movement due to the various reasons listed below.
Skull Crushers for Strength and Power Athletes
The skull crusher is an accessory movement to increase triceps strength and hypertrophy. In addition, this can help to increase injury resistance for the elbow joint and improve overall elbow extension abilities necessary for sports performance.
Skull Crushers for Olympic Weightlifters
The triceps are responsible for overhead stability and elbow extension in the snatch and the jerk portions of the competitive lifts. By increasing triceps training by implementing single joint exercise like skull crushers, you can help a lifter build more raw strength and muscle mass necessary for locking out lifts (assuming there is not a technique fault).
Skull Crushers for General Fitness, Hypertrophy and Strength
The skull crusher, while not as “functional” as other pressing movements like push ups and dips, can be a good option for lifters looking to increase triceps training volume without the added wear and tear on the shoulders and chest (such as if they were to simply do more push ups, bench press, etc). They also are vital for proper elbow extension and upper body strength.
How to Program the Skull Crusher
Below are three primary training goals and programming recommendations when utilizing the skull crushers into specific programs. Note, that these are general guidelines, and by no means should be used as the only way to program skull crushers.
Strength – Reps and Sets
For strength building sets, athletes can perform lower repetition ranges for more sets.
- 4-6 sets of 4-8 repetitions, resting 2-3 minutes
Hypertrophy – Reps and Sets
Muscle hypertrophy can be accomplished by adding training volume (more reps), time under tension, and/or training towards fatigue.
- 4-6 sets of 8-12 repetitions, resting 1-2 minutes
Muscle Endurance – Reps and Sets
Some lifters may want to train greater muscle endurance (for sport), in which higher repetition ranges and/or shorter rest periods are recommended.
- 2-3 sets of 12+ repetitions, resting 60-90 seconds between (this is highly sport specific)
Skull Crusher Variations
Below are three (3) skull crusher variations that can be used by coaches and athletes to keep training varied and progressive.
Dumbbell Skull Crushers
Dumbbell skull crushers are done in a simians fashion to the Barbell or EZ bar variation, however by using dumbbells you are able to attack the triceps unilaterally. This can be beneficial for lifters who may have muscle imbalances or coordination issues. Additionally, this may allow for a deeper elbow flexion angle which may improve muscle development.
Incline Bench Skull Crushers
The incline bench skull crusher variation can be done with any type of loading (barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, etc) and is set up with the bench at a slight incline. By adding the incline, you are able to slightly increase the stretch on the triceps and hit the muscle from slightly different angles.
Skull Crusher Negatives
Negatives, also called eccentrics, are highly effective at creating muscle damage and hypertrophy. To do this, an athlete should have a spotter spot them as they slowly lower the supra heavy load down under control. The spotter should be sure to keep control and make sure the load doesn’t come crashing down on them. When it is time to lift the load, the spotter can help the lifter lift the weight to the top position, repeating for reps.
Skull Crushers Alternatives
Below are three (3) skull crusher alternatives coaches and athletes can use to increase triceps strength and muscle hypertrophy.
Close Grip Bench Press
The close grip bench press is a bench press variation that is done to target the triceps and chest by narrowing the grip width on the barbell. In doing so, the lifter must tuck their elbows into their sides, typically at around a 20-30 degree angle to the torso. This variation can be easily swapped for regular bench press when athletes have issues locking out bench press reps or if they are looking to limit shoulder involvement in the press.
Dips, whether on rings, bars, or other supports are great mass building exercise for the triceps, chest, and anterior shoulders. Strength and power athletes can use these with bodyweight or additional resistance (chains, weight belts, etc) to increase triceps strength and hypertrophy.
Overhead Triceps Extensions
The overhead triceps extension can be done with dumbbell, a barbell, EZ bars, or cables. This exercise targets the similar segments of the triceps that the skull crusher does, and may be less painful on joints if a lifter has elbow issues. Note, that pain should not be dismissed and properly reviewed by a medical professional.
Featured Image: Mike Dewar