You know why they call them skull crushers? The answer is in the name. But, that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all the info we have for you on skull crushers.
Skull crushers are one of the best exercises to perform for hitting the triceps hard. But, it is one of the more risky exercises.
The reason is because your body’s position is under the weight. As a result, this exercise should be done with attention to safety. After all, it does get the name skull crusher for a reason. Lose grip of the barbell or EZ-bar and you will be in severe trouble.
This is not to scare you away from the skull crusher exercise. It holds many benefits if you are looking for muscle and strength gains. It’s just a forewarning to not be complacent during training, especially when you are alone.
What Are Skull Crushers?
The skull crusher exercise mainly targets your triceps with some emphasis on shoulders and traps as well. This exercise can be called lying triceps extensions with incline, decline, etc. added on the front. But that is a mouthful to say and it’s just so much easier to simply say skull crusher.
This exercise is one that can be done with many types of equipment. That includes such things as dumbbells, barbell, Ez-bar and even the cable machine. Each may provide a better advantage for your triceps workout, but it really depends on the person doing the exercise. You also can do this exercise in varying bench levels (incline, decline and flat bench). Basically each week of the month you can perform two different skull crusher exercises.
The close grip bench press used to be the most desired exercise to do for significant triceps gains in strength and mass. But, studies have come to find that skull crushers are just as effective along with the reverse close grip press. Another cool thing about skull crushers is that they can be easily inserted into a superset as well.
As mentioned, you are performing an exercise named after what could happen if an accident occurs. Basically, when you lower the bar or dumbbells, you keep your elbows tight to the body and stop right before touching your forehead. It sounds easy. The truth is that it takes a little practice to perfectly hit your triceps.
Dumbbell vs. Bar
People tend to argue about which one of these types of equipment is more effective. It depends on which one you are more comfortable with. You really won’t get any deeper of a contraction using the EZ-bar. But, some do believe this because it has humps in the bar.
These humps just allow you to get a better grip on the bar for wrist comfort. A regular straight barbell helps your hands maintain an even grip. Plus you are able to lower the bar evenly instead of one side falling faster than the other.
Dumbbells help you lower the resistance further if you wish to hit the muscle stretch by stopping close to your ears. They also allow you to do single arm movements if you wish, but overall everything maintains the same contraction. Varying levels matter more.
The thing that makes dumbbell use interesting comes from the fact that you can change your grip. Bars only allow pronated (palms facing away) and supinated (palms facing towards you) grips. However, the dumbbell lets you do neutral grip movements. Of course, this is when both palms face in towards your body. This helps place more emphasis on the triceps long head. Dumbbells can also be used for muscle correction if one triceps is developing faster than the other.
Different Variations Of Skull Crushers
As mentioned, there are a lot of different skull crushers to choose from. We will cover the most common ones with some notes on how you can mix it up. Certain ones place more emphasis on specific muscle heads on the triceps. But overall, you are achieving the same task of strengthening and building muscle with elbow extension.
Flat Bench Skull Crushers
The flat bench version is the one that is most commonly performed. Some people likely don’t even know you can go incline and decline with the exercise. This version does not really place any special emphasis on particular triceps heads, but it is still a good version to do.
Incline Skull Crushers
The incline slant places a little more emphasis on your triceps long head. The thing to note is that the incline can’t be too steep. The reason is because it takes the resistance off your triceps and, in a sense, places it more towards your shoulders. A good rule of thumb is to set the incline at the midway point of its max setting.
Decline Skull Crushers
Studies show that doing movements on the decline bench places more emphasis on the triceps muscle. Extra emphasis is on the lateral triceps head. Essentially this is the variation you want to start focusing on instead of the flat bench (assuming you want to get more gains). Decline means the bench needs to be slanted below the flat bench. Most benches are only one setting, but if it’s adjustable, lower it to the last setting.
45-Degree Skull Crushers
This version of skull crushers is a bit different. Be sure to give it a try the next time you train. During this movement, you place your upper arms in a 45-degree angle towards your back. Basically, the weight can clear your head more through the arch of the movement and also the position prevents any chances of resting at the top due to the angle.
Cable Skull Crushers Ez-Bar/Straight Bar
This is a good exercise to place your triceps under constant tension as the pulley is trying to always drop back. Time under tension is the whole point of resistance training, and that is one of the main reasons cable pulleys are good for isolation movements. Be careful with this exercise.
If you allow the tension to release, the weight stack will go down quickly.
Cable Skull Crushers With A Rope
Using the cable rope instead of a bar is about the same in terms of resistance and contraction. The thing to note with this version of the skull crusher is that you can exaggerate the muscle squeeze. You do this by pronating your grip at the end range of motion. This is a very good way to try new techniques to get your triceps growing past a plateau.
How To Do Skull Crushers
Elbow placement and lowering the weight is crucial to get the most from this big arms workout. Of course, safety is key. Never perform this exercise on your own if you are using heavy weight. Also, be sure that you do not use heavy weight if it is your first time trying skull crushers no matter how much you can lift with overhead extensions.
Lie on the bench and ensure your back is properly against it. You should be in the same position as you would with a bench press. Keep in mind that you can easily hurt your shoulders if one side hangs over more than the other.
Press the weight up and ensure your upper arms are perpendicular to the floor. Naturally, they will be this way on the flat bench, but keep this is mind when using decline and incline positions.
Don’t move your upper arms while you lower and extend your arms. You should only be flexing your elbows to prevent any load being placed on your shoulders also getting a decent forearm workouts.
Lower the weight down towards your forehead slowly as if performing negatives during this portion. Too much weight or speed will most certainly let the weight crush your skull.
Flex your elbows and extend the weight back up. You actually stop just before locking your arms out, as this will allow your triceps to rest. Keep a slight bend in your elbows at all times. Your elbows need to remain close to your body during the entire movement. Don’t flare your elbows out because this reduces the load your triceps can handle.
Easy Supersets With Bar Skull Crushers
Skull crushers offer the easy ability to keep your triceps under constant tension during a superset. Supersets are when you perform an exercise set right after another set of a different exercise. This is like doing a biceps exercise and then doing a triceps exercise right after it.
The problem is most supersets require you to stop the tension to get set for the next exercise. But with skull crushers you move right away into the next triceps movement without stopping the tension. The other exercise that pairs nicely is triceps presses while you use the EZ-bar or straight bar.
On another note, you can add more resistance to your Ez-bar skull crushers by adding bands to the end of the bar like with squats and bench presses. A partner is definitely needed. The extra tension will build awesome triceps power.
Keep Your Elbows Safe And Triceps Loose
A proper warm up is truly needed if you wish to have a great triceps workout. This muscle tends to tighten up quickly and keeping muscles from tightening is crucial.
When muscles become tight they aren’t able to lengthen and shorten properly. This could cause an injury.
Your elbows are joints. They need to be put through active stretches in order to get warmed up. You can actually pick up very light dumbbells and just perform movements that loosen your shoulders since most involve elbow movement. Plus your shoulders can be injured while performing skull crushers if they are tight as well.
When you get to the heavy lifting consider wearing elbow sleeves like the ones you may have for your knees. This could help prevent too much impact being placed on your elbow joints and possibly prevent even an injury.
You could even benefit from wearing wrist wraps since they keep your wrist straight during the movement. Allowing your wrist to bend unnaturally takes your focus off the exercise and could even cause pain. This is not to be confused with wrist straps, which are what you wrap around the bar.
Having a spotter is pretty important too. After all, they help keep the weight from crushing your skull. They could also help you to perform more reps. As well, when you are finished with your set, your body is in an awkward position under the weight. Let the spotter simply grab the bar when your arms are locked out above.
With all of this info, you should have the confidence to start doing some skull crushers.
Simply choose one you would like to perform, and do three sets of 8 to 10 reps to see how you like them. Beginners should always use low weight or just the bar while practicing with proper form.
Try to always have a spotter with you unless you plan on using only lighter weight. This can’t really be stressed enough. Many people get injured trying to lift too much weight. Another safety fact to think about is using clamps at the end of your bar to keep the weight from sliding off.
If you happen to notice the weight move, your focus is broken and most begin to distress, even more, causing the weight to come crashing down. Usually, the person doing the exercise does not get hurt. Be smart and use bar clamps when applicable, and with dumbbells do not use wrist straps. They basically tie your hands to the weight and if something happens you are stuck. This is a great way to dislocate your shoulder.
Perform a warm up. Don’t forget to use all of these safety tips and have a great workout including some variation of the skull crusher.
By Brian Pankau, CPT