Thick triceps are the hallmark of a well-rounded physique. When it comes to developing strength or inducing hypertrophy in the triceps, nothing comes close to Skull crushers.
Skull crushers are for triceps as the overhead shoulder press (say on a shoulder press machine) is for shoulders. It is the most fundamental exercise for this muscle group and should be a staple in any triceps routine. Want to improve overall arm thickness? This is your ticket.
Looking to improve your chest press or bench press strength? You've just found the answer.
There are, however, some potential flaws with the exercise. Particularly, if you have pre-existing mobility issues with your elbow. That's why, we will look at alternatives to the skull crusher that can produce similar results.
What is the Skull Crusher Exercise?
The Skull Crusher is an isolation exercise for the triceps muscle group. It is actually a group of exercises or a family if you prefer calling it that, that work the long head of the triceps. The long head is actually the largest and most powerful part of the triceps.
The exercise is generally performed by lying on a bench with a weight in each hand, preferably a set of budget dumbbells. You then proceed to lower the weight behind your head while keeping your elbows pointing up. That's the basic setup. There are a plethora of variations that all work the long head to a certain extent.
Some of the most popular variations are:
- EZ Bar Skull Crusher
- Dumbbell Skull Crusher
- Barbell Skull Crusher
- Machine Skull Crusher"
- Close Grip Bench Press
- Overhead Dumbbell Extensions
In this article, we will focus on the simplest of them all, the dumbbell skull crusher. This is an exercise that can be done pretty much anywhere with no specialized equipment. if you have a pair of simple dumbbells in your home gym, you should be good to go.
Thankfully, you can get these easily, since there's a myriad of great places where you can buy dumbbells and/or weights for your home workouts.
How to do the Dumbbell Skull Crusher
The Dumbbell Skull Crusher is an exercise that can be done with a pair of dumbbells or even a weight plate, pretty much like you would do seated tricep press.
Here's how you do it:
- Step 1 - Lie down on your back on a flat bench with a dumbbell in each hand.
- Step 2 - Bring the weights above your head with your palms facing each other. Your arms must be straight above your eyes
- Step 3 - Bend your elbows and slowly lower the weights towards the back of your head.
- Step 4 - Keep your elbows close to your head and pause for a moment when the dumbbells are just about to touch your skull.
- Step 5 - Extend your elbows and lift the weights back to the starting position.
The key points to remember are:
- Keep your elbows locked in place during the entire movement.
- Don't let the weights touch your head (Hence the name Skull Crusher)
- When your elbows are bent, the angle between your upper arm and forearm should be about 90-120 degrees.
- If you find this exercise too difficult, you can start with a lighter weight.
Best Skull Crusher Exercise Alternatives
The Skull Crusher is a difficult exercise to perform for a lot of people. This is mainly due to mobility issues with the elbow. If you are someone who falls into this category, then you might want to try some of these alternatives.
We have carefully selected alternatives that work the same muscle group (long head of the triceps) with identical or a slightly different movement pattern. This will help you avoid any aggravation to your elbow while still getting a great triceps workout.
Let's get started.
#1 - Cable Skull Crushers
The cable skull crusher is a great alternative to the standard skull crusher. It targets the long head of the triceps in a similar way but with a different range of motion. Also, since there's no free weight involved and you perform it standing, it's a great option for those with mobility issues.
No Skull Crushing mishaps here.
How to do the Cable Skull Crusher
- Step 1 - Attach a rope attachment to the highest setting on a cable machine.
- Step 2 - Grasp the rope with both hands overhead and position yourself so that your elbows are in line with your shoulders. Your back will be facing the machine.
- Step 3 - Move at least 3-4 feet ahead to attain an exaggerated/staggered stance.
- Step 4 - Keeping your elbows close to your head, slowly straighten them until your arms are straight above your head. Continue to pull until the arms are straight in front of your eyes.
- Step 5 - Think of it like a throwing motion and explosively extend your arms back to the starting position.
Pro Tip - Be sure to maintain control during the entire range of motion. Your muscles should be doing the majority of the work, not momentum.
Muscles worked with the Cable Skull Crusher
The Cable Skullcrusher isolates all three heads of the triceps but puts a greater emphasis on the long head.
Long Head of the Triceps
The long head of the triceps is the largest of the three heads and makes up about 2/3 of the tricep's mass. It originates on the shoulder blade and inserts on the humerus (upper arm bone).
The longhead's primary function is to extend the elbow, but it also aids in adduction (moving the arm towards the body) and medial rotation (turning the arm inward) of the shoulder.
Medial Head of the Triceps
The medial head of the triceps is the smallest of the three heads. It originates on the back of the humerus and inserts on the ulna (one of two bones in the forearm).
The medial head's primary function is to extend the elbow but, like the long head, it also aids in adduction and medial rotation of the shoulder.
Lateral Head of the Triceps
The lateral head of the triceps is the middle-sized head and originates on the back of the humerus. It inserts on the ulna, just above the medial head.
The lateral head's primary function is to extend the elbow but it also aids in abduction (moving the arm away from the body) of the shoulder.
The Golden Rule of Tricep training is that you do not need a lot of weight to stimulate growth. You should be able to select a weight that allows you to get 10-12 reps with perfect form but no more.
If you can do more than 12 reps, the weight is too light and if you cannot complete at least 10 reps, the weight is too heavy.
#2 - Close Grip Bench Press
The close grip bench press is a great alternative to the skull crusher if you have shoulder issues. It's also a great exercise for those looking to target their triceps without putting their elbows in a precarious position. It should also be noted that doing an exercise that is easy on your shoulders, especially after chest day, can help you avoid injury.
How to do the Close Grip Bench Press
- Step 1 - Lie flat on a bench (this doesn't have to be something complicated, even a small, adjustable weight bench for your apartment will do) with your feet planted firmly on the ground and grasp the barbell with your hands slightly closer than shoulder-width. The closer the arms, the tougher it is.
- Step 2 - Take a deep breath and lower the barbell to your sternum, tucking your elbows about 45 degrees to your sides. Be sure to keep your wrists straight throughout the movement.
- Step 3 - Once the barbell touches your sternum, drive it back up to the starting position, exhaling as you extend your elbows.
Pro Tip - Use a spotter when attempting this exercise for the first time. The barbell should be lowered in a controlled manner and pressed back up explosively. Again, you do not need a lot of weight to make this exercise effective.
Close Grip Bench Press Muscles Worked
The close grip bench press works the same muscles as the skull crusher but puts a greater emphasis on the triceps brachii (the muscle on the back of your upper arm).
The triceps brachii is made up of three heads - the long head, the medial head, and the lateral head. All three heads originate on the shoulder blade and insert on the ulna (one of two bones in the forearm).
The triceps brachii's primary function is to extend (straighten) the elbow but it also aids in adduction and medial rotation of the shoulder.
Due to the fact that you are gripping the barbell with arms close to each other, the close grip bench press will also work your forearm muscles. This includes the brachioradialis (a muscle on the outside of your forearm), the extensor muscles (muscles that extend the wrist and fingers), and the flexor muscles (muscles that flex the wrist and fingers).
The pectoralis major is a large chest muscle that makes up the majority of the chest. It originates on the sternum and clavicle (collarbone) and inserts on the humerus (upper arm bone).
The pectoralis major is responsible for flexing the shoulder (bringing the arm forward), adduction (moving the arm towards the body), and medial rotation (turning the arm inward).
As with the skull crusher, you want to select a weight that allows you to get 10-12 reps with perfect form but no more. It pays to know how much your bench press bar weighs and get the weight right to do the right number of reps without risking injury.
#3 - Rope Pushdowns
The rope pushdown is a great exercise for targeting the lateral head of the triceps, although you can combine it with face pull workout to train shoulder muscles for a bulky upper body look. It's a relatively simple exercise to perform and can be done with minimal equipment - all you need is a sturdy rope and a weight stack.
How to do the Rope Pushdown
- Step 1 - Grasp the rope with your palms facing down and position yourself in front of a weight stack or a cable pulley machine.
- Step 2 - Keep your elbows close to your sides and extend your arms, pushing the rope down until your arms are fully extended.
- Step 3 - Return to the starting position and repeat for the desired number of reps.
You should bend slightly at the knees and hinge at the waist when performing this exercise to take some of the strain off your lower back. Lean into the move as they say.
Rope Pushdown Muscles Worked
The Rope Pushdown targets the lateral head of the triceps. It also works the anterior deltoids (front of the shoulder), the brachialis (a muscle on the front of your upper arm), and the biceps brachii (the muscle on the front of your upper arm).
The anterior deltoid is a small, triangular muscle that originates on the clavicle and inserts on the humerus. Its primary function is to flex (raise) the arm forward but it also aids in medial rotation of the shoulder.
The brachialis is a muscle located on the front of your upper arm. It originates on the humerus and inserts on the ulna. Its primary function is to flex the elbow but it also helps to stabilize the shoulder joint.
The biceps brachii is a two-headed muscle that originates on the scapula (shoulder blade) and inserts on the radius (one of two bones in the forearm). It is responsible for flexing the elbow and bending the arm at the shoulder. It is also the primary show muscle on the arms.
Lateral head of the triceps
Of the three heads of the triceps, the lateral head is the largest and most visible. It originates on the infraglenoid tubercle of the scapula (shoulder blade) and inserts on the olecranon process of the ulna (one of two bones in the forearm).
It's a tad tough to gauge how many reps to do for this one. If you're a beginner, start with 8-10 and work your way up. If you're more advanced, shoot for 12-15 reps. Advanced athletes will want to take each set to failure.
#4 - Reverse Dips
The good ol' Reverse dips qualifies as an excellent triceps exercise by targeting the medial head of the muscle. It's a compound exercise that also hits the chest and shoulders. If these aren't hitting your muscles as hard as you want, then you should consider trying some power station workouts, which, by the way, work a variety of muscles including biceps, triceps, chest and shoulders.
Moreover, it is a beginner-friendly move that does not require any special equipment. Your couch, a chair, a bench, anything that can support your bodyweight is sufficient.
How to do Reverse Dips
There are several variations of the reverse dips out there. But we will focus on the simplest and most common one.
- Step 1 - Sit on the edge of a sturdy bench or chair with your palms facing each other.
- Step 2 - Place your feet out in front of you, shoulder-width apart, and slowly lower your body down by bending your elbows. Keep your back close to the bench/chair and stop when your upper arms are parallel to the ground.
- Step 3 - Push yourself back up to the starting position, using your triceps to push your body upwards. Repeat for the desired number of reps.
If you find the exercise too easy, you can place a weight plate or dumbbell on your lap. Another way to make it more challenging is to place a chair in front of you and do the dips with your feet elevated on the chair.
When even this becomes easy, do it one-legged with a weighted plate.
Reverse Dips Muscles Worked
The Reverse Dip primarily works the medial head of the triceps, but it also engages the chest and shoulder muscles.
Medial Head of the Triceps
The medial head of the triceps is a smaller, triangular muscle that originates on the humerus (upper arm bone) and inserts on the olecranon process of the ulna (one of two bones in the forearm). It is responsible for extending the elbow.
In terms of aesthetics, it is the head of the triceps that gives the muscle that 'horseshoe' shape.
The pectoralis major is a large, fan-shaped muscle that originates on the sternum ( breastbone) and inserts on the humerus (upper arm bone). It is responsible for pushing motions such as the bench press and the overhead press.
The anterior deltoid is a small, triangular muscle that originates on the clavicle (collarbone) and inserts on the humerus (upper arm bone). It is responsible for abducting (lifting away from the body) the arm and flexing it at the shoulder.
8-10 reps is a good number to start with, but feel free to adjust according to your fitness level. If you are more advanced, try 12-15 reps per set. As always, take each set to failure.
The Most Effective Alternative to Skull Crushers
All four of the alternatives that we've listed above are our personal favourites and, in our opinion, the most effective alternatives to skull crushers. But this exercise tops them all.
#1 - Triceps Kickback
It's called the 'Tricep Kickback' and it is, without a doubt, the best triceps exercise out there. It is an ultimate compound move that works not just the triceps but also the chest, shoulders, and even the lower body muscles to an extent considering the isometric holds.
How to do the Triceps Kickback
There are numerous ways to do the Tricep Kickback. You can do them with both hands, isolate each hand, do them with dumbbells or even with resistance bands. We will discuss how to do this with dumbbells.
- Step 1 - Place your feet hip-width apart and hold a dumbbell in your left hand with your palm facing your torso.
- Step 2 - Bend at the waist until your torso is almost parallel to the floor and raise the dumbbell until your upper arm is parallel to your torso and elbows bent. This is the starting position.
- Step 3 - From here, kick your triceps back while maintaining the upper arm stationary. Your forearm should do all the work as it moves the weight up and down. Extend the weight until your arm is straight.
- Step 4 - Return to the starting position and repeat for the desired number of reps.
The Tricep Kickback is a great exercise. But it can be quite challenging. If you are a beginner, we recommend that you start with very light weight and gradually increase the difficulty level as you get used to the movement.
You can also use resistance bands instead of dumbbells. Just anchor the band to a sturdy object at about waist level and hold the other end in your hand. Perform the exercise as described above.
Muscles worked with Triceps Kickback
The Tricep Kickback is one of the best isolation exercises for the lateral head of the triceps, which is the muscle that makes up the majority of the upper arm. At the same time, it also engages the core, making it a great way to add stability training to your routine.
Lateral head of the triceps
The lateral head of the triceps is the largest of the three heads, and is responsible for most of the mass of the triceps. The kickback targets this head specifically, making it an ideal exercise for adding size and strength to the triceps.
As you bend at the waist and lock your elbow to raise the weight, you’ll also be working your core. Your abdominal muscles, the lats and the rhomboids in your back will all be engaged in order to keep your body stable. This makes the kickback a great exercise for improving posture and preventing lower back pain.
Haven't found the answers to your questions on skull crusher alternatives yet? Here are some more details worth checking out.
Q. What can I do instead of Skull Crusher exercise?
A. There are five great alternatives to the Skull Crusher in this article. These are the: Close-grip Bench Press, Cable Skull crushers, Rope pushdowns, Reverse dips, and Triceps Kickbacks. Each of these exercises works the triceps in a slightly different way. So you can choose the one that best suits your needs.
Q. What is the easiest substitute for Skull Crusher Exercise?
A. We'd go with Rope pushdowns. This is a very easy exercise to learn and execute, and it's very effective in targeting the triceps. You can do it with very light weight or resistance bands making it a great option for beginners or those who are just starting out on their triceps workout routine.
Q. Why is Skull Crusher exercise so hard?
A. Any exercise that involves free weight is going to be more challenging that an exercise that uses machines. With the Skull Crusher, you are lifting a weight in a vertical position, which puts a lot of stress on the shoulder joint. This can lead to pain and injuries if you’re not careful. Choose one of the alternatives listed here to reduce the risk of injury. If you are a lady opting to do the skull crusher, I advise you get a set of specific dumbbells for women just to be on the safe side.
Q. Are Skull Crusher variation and modification effective?
A. Personally, we do not recommend making modifications to Skull Crushers. They are quite effective as they are and don’t require any changes. If you’re looking for an easier alternative, we suggest one of the exercises listed in this article. But if you have some experience with weightlifting and are confident in your ability to perform the Skull Crusher safely, then you can try modifying them as well.
Q. Is there any workout better than Skull Crushers?
A. There are several that help isolate the triceps muscles. The best exercises are those that work the muscle through a full range of motion and add stability training. We suggest trying Rope pushdowns or triceps kickbacks.
Q. What is the best Skull Crusher replacement for beginners?
A. Reverse dips are the best Skull Crusher alternative for beginners. They are relatively easy to perform and don’t require any special equipment. All you need is a sturdy chair or bench and you can get started.
Q. How do you do Skull Crushers without a bench?
A. It's a little tricky. But you can do them by lying on the floor and using a dumbbell in each hand. Or you can use a resistance band and wrap it around a sturdy object like a pole or door handle.
Q. Is there any good triceps exercise to replace skull crushers?
A. While this is not an exhaustive list of options, these five exercises are all great alternatives to the Skull Crusher. They each work the triceps along with a bunch of supporting muscles. The Close-grip Bench Press is a great exercise for those who want to focus on increasing their strength. The Cable Skull crushers are a good option for those who want to add size. Each exercise comes with its own advantages.
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