Skull crushers are so-called because, if you fail mid-rep, the bar could come crashing down on your head! While that might sound unlikely, this actually happened to a friend of mine. He was training hard, and his spotter was too busy checking out own his reflection in the mirror to notice my buddy getting into trouble.
One failed rep later, the two of them had to rush to the nearest emergency room, where my friend ended up getting ten stitches in his forehead. He’s still got the scar. But every cloud has a silver lining, and the nurse who looked after him eventually became his wife 💖. True story!
Anyway, humorous names aside, the skull crusher is a very effective triceps builder. It can be done using a barbell, EZ bar, dumbbells, a low cable machine, or your body weight. Using a slightly declined workout bench increases triceps activation.
But, on the downside, skull crushers can be hard on your joints, leading to elbow pain. Triceps tendonitis is a common problem with skull crushers. Also, if you do skull crushers too often, this exercise can start to lose some of its potency, and your arm growth could grind to a halt.
Avoid all these issues by replacing skull crushers with some similarly effective alternatives. You don’t need to quit skull crushers for good, but taking a break for a month or two could be just what you need to give your elbows a break and overcome your triceps training plateau.
In this article, we reveal ten of the best skull crusher alternatives.
Triceps Anatomy 101
While it’s not essential to know all the ins and outs of triceps anatomy, a basic understanding of how this muscle works can be helpful. Feel free to skip this section, though, if you just want to get straight to training!
The full name of the triceps is triceps brachii. This means three-headed arm muscle. Located on the back of your upper arm, your triceps has two main functions:
- Elbow extension, i.e., straightening your arm
- Shoulder extension, i.e., drawing your upper arm backward
As mentioned, the triceps has three heads with three separate origin sites, all of which come together at a common insertion point on the ulna. This is the smaller of the two forearm bones.
The three triceps heads are:
- The long head
- The medial head
- The lateral head
All three triceps heads work together, but the amount of force each one generates depends on the position of your upper arm.
When your arms are by your side, the long head produces more force than the other two. With your arms at 90-degrees to your body, the medial head is more active. When your arms are vertical, the lateral head generates the most force (1).
Because of this, it is possible to target specific areas of your triceps, and any workout should include a variety of exercises to ensure each head is worked equally. Ideally, your triceps workouts should have exercises with your arms held overhead, perpendicular to your body, and down by your sides.
Top 10 Skull Crusher Alternatives:
1. Parallel bar dips
A lot of lifters like to do parallel bar dips as part of their chest workouts. That’s because dips really hit the abdominal head of your pecs, i.e., your lower chest. You can increase pec engagement by really leaning forward into each rep and getting a good stretch at the bottom.
But, if you keep your torso more upright, dips are a very effective triceps builder. You can do them using just your bodyweight or, for more of a challenge, with a weight hanging from your waist, wearing a weighted vest, or with a dumbbell clamped between your legs.
Dips can be hard on your shoulders, so minimize shoulder stress by not descending too deep. 90 degrees of elbows flexion should be sufficient for most people.
2. Close grip bench press
Like dips, bench presses are typically viewed as a chest exercise. But, if you bring your hands in and adopt a narrower grip, they become a powerful triceps exercise.
To avoid shoulder, elbow, and wrist pain, do not move your hands so close together that your thumbs are touching. That’s some old-school shenanigans right there! Instead, your hands should be roughly shoulder-width apart or very slightly less.
3. Diamond push-ups
You don’t need to use strength training equipment to develop more muscular triceps. This modified push-up will provide the back of your upper arms with a very effective workout. Diamond push-ups are so-called because you place your hands close together and your fingers and thumbs form a diamond shape.
Take care, though, as this exercise can put a lot of stress on your wrist, elbow, and shoulder joints. Give diamond push-ups a miss if you’ve got any upper body aches and pains.
4. Bench dips
Done with your feet resting on the floor, bench dips are a lot easier than full-on parallel bar dips. However, if you descend too far, like regular dips, they could hurt your shoulders. But, so long as you are sensible, bench dips are a useful triceps exercise that you can do at the gym or at home using a chair or step.
Make this bodyweight exercise harder by raising your feet on another bench or resting a weight plate across your hips.
5. Overhead triceps extensions
For all intents and purposes, overhead triceps extensions are a vertical skull crusher. However, with your upper arms next to your ears, this exercise does require excellent upper-body mobility.
Overhead triceps extensions can be done with a barbell, EZ bar, or a single dumbbell. You can also do it using a low cable machine.
6. Triceps kickbacks
A lot of people do triceps kickbacks with too much weight. They end up swinging rather than lifting the weight up, which takes stress off the target muscle. But, if you are prepared to check your ego, triceps kickbacks are a great arm builder. They involve both functions of your triceps: elbow extension AND shoulder extension. This creates a very intense triceps contraction.
You can do kickbacks using a dumbbell, low cable machine, and there is also a variation that uses a barbell.
7. Cable triceps pushdowns
There aren’t too many triceps exercises that are more popular than pushdowns. That’s probably because they’re easy to learn, perfect for intensity-boosting drop sets, and you can see your triceps working in the mirror!
There are several equally effective cable triceps pushdown variations. Options include straight bar pushdowns, rope pushdowns, V-bar pushdowns, reverse grip pushdowns, and single-arm pushdowns.
8. Tate press
While you won’t see many people doing Tate presses, there is no denying the effectiveness of this unusual triceps exercise. Named after Westside Barbell powerlifting legend Dave Tate, this exercise will increase upper arm size and strength and could boost your bench press, too.
Be warned; this weird-looking exercise does put a lot of stress on your elbows, so don’t go too heavy too soon.
9. JM press
The JM press is another triceps exercise from a powerlifter based at Westside Barbell. JM Blakely invented this exercise as an accessory to bench pressing. Park skull crusher, part close grip bench press, this is an excellent exercise for building muscle mass and strength.
In fact, when JM Blakely benched 300kg/660 lbs. at a bodyweight of 140kg/308 lbs. this was the only accessory exercise he used.
10. Bodyweight kneeling triceps extensions
While you can do skull crushers using just your body weight, they’re pretty hard and require lots of strength and core stability. Kneeling triceps extensions are a lot more accessible and ideal for less experienced exercisers and those times that you want a less intense workout, such as toward the end of your training session.
You can make this exercise harder or easier simply by shifting your weight forward or backward.
Skull Crusher Alternatives – Wrapping Up
Skull crushers are a great triceps mass builder. Providing they don’t hurt your elbows, there is no reason not to include them in your arm workouts. However, take care that your spotter is paying close attention, so this exercise doesn’t live up to its name!
But, if you feel skull crushers more in your elbow joints than your triceps, or you are bored of doing them over and over again, use one of the ten alternatives outlined in this article. Each one is just as effective and could provide your triceps with the variation needed to take your arm development to a new level.
1 – Science Direct: The different role of each head of the triceps brachii muscle in elbow extension https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1017995X17305898