Training

What Are Some Of The Best SkullCrusher Alternatives?

Updated January 27th 2022

The skull crusher is an exercise that is widely recommended for improving triceps development and for increasing overall bench press strength.

However, for those who are unable to perform the skull crusher, there are a couple of viable alternatives that work the same muscle group that the skull crusher works.

The key to understanding what alternative exercises are viable or not is by understanding the overall anatomy and understanding of what muscles the skull crusher works, and why the skull crusher is such a good exercise.

By doing so, you are taking your lifting into your own hands and instead of simply following a cookie-cutter list, you will hopefully be able to follow your own program in the future.

This is long down the road, but a concept that I introduce now so that you can understand why it is important to know what makes the skull crusher a great exercise so that you can find alternatives in case you are bored or unable to perform the skull crusher.

The skull crusher, when performed properly, places most of the emphasis on the long head of the triceps.

The long head of the triceps is a primary mover during the bench press so developing strength in the long head is important if you want to increase your bench press.

However, the long head is not worked during typical triceps exercises such as the triceps pushdown or kickback.

Instead, it can only be sufficiently worked when the arm is above overhead.

Or is it?

Just make sure you do not have any triceps pain during deadlifts.

Are Skullcrushers Good?

The skull crushers are a great compound arm exercise that works on the big muscles on your arms.

However, they only rank 7 out of 8 for the most tricep activation in both the concentric and eccentric phases.

Here are the six other exercises that activate the lateral and long heads of the triceps more:

  1. Triangle push-ups
  2. Dumbbell kickbacks
  3. Dips
  4. Dumbbell overhead tricep extensions (French press)
  5. Rope pushdowns
  6. Bar pushdowns

According to research, there is no significant difference among triangle push-ups, dumbbell kickbacks, and dips.

Though the triangle push-up activates the most triceps force generation on average, the statistical analysis does not show any huge deviations.

For the other skullcrusher alternatives, such as the dumbbell overhead tricep extensions, rope pushdowns, bar pushdowns, and close grip bench press, all of these exercises show significantly lower EMG tricep activation compared to the triangle push-ups.

Skullcrushers are also lumped into this category, just beating close grip bench press but right under bar pushdowns.

You might wonder why.

For triangle pushups, having a narrow base of support for your arms forces your triceps to activate and recruit more fibers.

The same logic applies to dips.

For dumbbell kickbacks, it is really difficult to cheat so it makes tricep activation inevitable.

 

Let us also dive into the numbers of how exactly the triangle push-ups are the best triceps exercise according to EMG research.

The numbers will be for the average EMG for both the long head and lateral head of the triceps:

  1. Triangle push-ups - 100
  2. Triceps kickbacks - 87 ± 26.58
  3. Dips - 87 ± 19.87
  4. Overhead triceps extensions (French press) - 76 ± 16.09
  5. Rope pushdowns - 74 ± 22.64
  6. Bar pushdowns - 67 ± 20.48
  7. Skullcrushers - 62 ± 16.25
  8. Close grip bench press - 62 ± 15.88

Skull crusher anatomy

The skull crusher is an exercise that primarily targets the triceps.

The triceps can be separated into three individual heads named after where they are located:

  • the long head
  • the lateral head
  • the medial head

The lateral head is the outside of your triceps and is primarily worked during triceps pushdowns which you most likely are already doing.

The lateral head works to extend your elbow, aka, straightening your arm.

The medial head is the inside of your triceps and has the same exact function as the lateral head.

Because of this, it can be trained with the same exercises that also hit the lateral head.

There is no special way to specifically target the medial head.

The long head of the triceps is the largest part of the triceps, is primarily responsible for triceps size, and is also the strongest head of the triceps.

The functions of the long head of the triceps are to extend the elbow and to extend the shoulder.

This is one reason why your triceps are tired from rows.

Because of its dual action, this is why the long head of the triceps can only be adequately worked with the arms overhead with the arms close together, such as during a proper skull crusher.

Simply doing more or heavier triceps pushdowns won’t result in bigger/stronger triceps.

It might make them more defined by increasing the size of the lateral/medial triceps, but remember, the primary muscle responsible for strength and size of the triceps is the long head.

The reason why the skull crusher is so widely recommended is that the skull crusher works the long head of the triceps.

Skuller Crushers muscles worked

You will predominately work muscles that are involved in elbow extension, straightening out your elbow.

Your triceps brachii long head, triceps brachii medial head, triceps brachii short head, and anconeus are four major muscle groups that will be stimulated during your skull crushers.

Lifters will get some activation with their forearm muscles as well but the main point of skull crushers is to overload and work the triceps.

Skull Crushers muscles worked

Now, we will go over several variations of the skull crushers so that you have an idea of what exactly the skull crusher works.

Then, you can figure out whether or not you want to include them in your program or just find a skull crusher alternative.

How to do skull crushers

Whether sitting, standing or laying on a bench, the lifter will have some weight in their hands around their skull, typically around the top of their head.

Then, lifters will extend their elbows, contracting their triceps and elbow extensors in order to push the weight overhead or in front of their face, depending on their orientation.

Here are two of the most common ways to do skull crushers:

  1. Cable skull crushers
  2. Narrow grip EZ bar skullcrushers

Cable skull crushers

These can be done either sitting or standing.

Most people do them standing with a staggered stance.

Facing away from the machine, the lifter will use a bar to connect to the cable machine and proceed to move the bar away from their forehead by extending your elbow.

Another way of doing cable skull crushers is to face the machine, either with a staggered stance or feet together.

They will extend their elbows downward, pulling the bar down and getting all their elbow extensors activated this way.

Narrow grip e-z bar skullcrushers

This is another very popular skullcrusher exercise that involves an EZ curl bar.

The lifter can do this exercise sitting, standing, or laying down on the bench.

It is very common to do this exercise while laying down on the bench and having a spotter hand you the Ez curl bar.

Once the Ez curl bar is loaded and in your hand, the lifter will press the bar away by extending their elbows, pushing the e-z bar away from their face.

What is the best tricep exercise?

You are curious about which tricep exercise hits all 3 heads

  1. Triangle push-ups 
  2. Triceps kickbacks  
  3. Dips 
  4. Overhead triceps extensions (French press) 
  5. Rope pushdowns 
  6. Bar pushdowns 
  7. Skullcrushers 
  8. Close grip bench press

According to research, these exercises are ranked from best to worst in terms of tricep activation.

Why do my elbows crack when I do skull crushers?

Joints crack naturally but under load, your tendon is snapping over soft tissue or bone inside your elbow joint.

As long as there is no pain, this is a normal reaction in life.

But if it occurs every single time you are performing skull crushers with a certain amount of weight, this would be your upper limit to what your body can handle safely.

You obviously know what normal elbow movement is and to have something different occurring when performing skull crushers is a no-go.

Find a different tricep isolation exercise since there are many more effective ones to choose from.

Best skullcrusher alternative for long head triceps

Triangle pushups, dips, and dumbbell kickbacks on an incline bench, laying chest first are the best skullcrusher alternatives to activate the long head of the triceps.

In no particular order, here are the other exercises that can help develop your long head of the triceps better than the skullcrusher:

  • French press
  • Rope pushdowns
  • Bar pushdowns

This list should not be a big surprise.

The long head of the triceps is the biggest section of the three, meaning that it should theoretically control most of the tricep function.

Best skullcrusher alternative for lateral head triceps

Triangle pushups, bar pushdowns, dumbbell kickbacks and dips are the best skullcrusher alternatives to activate the lateral head of the triceps.

In no particular order, here are other exercise substitutions that can help develop your lateral head of the triceps better than the skullcrusher:

  • French press
  • Rope pushdowns
  • Close grip bench press

It seems as though most exercises can rival the skullcrusher's efficiency at activating the lateral head of the triceps.

Many lifters should have no issues with this muscle group moving forward.

Long Head Of Triceps Or Do Bench Press Accessories First?

Is your bench press stalled?

If your goal is to get a stronger bench press and you’re limited during the lockout, it means that your triceps are weak, and you need to strengthen them in order to increase your bench.

You will do this by working on compound movements first.

Even if you have no issues with your lockout, doing big compound movements first will benefit you the most.

This is very similar to what you would do if you needed overhead press accessories.

In the next section, we will go over some triceps and bench press accessories that well-known strength athletes utilize in their program in order to develop a respectable bench press.

Bench press accessories other than skull crushers used by Pros

Eddie Hall

Eddie Hall was England’s world’s strongest man in 2017.

On top of winning a strongman competition, Eddie Hall also bench presses 628 lbs. He states that he trains arms two times a week and his triceps are one of the main reasons why his bench press is so strong.

  • Incline skull crushers with EZ-bar
  • Dumbbell overhead extension
  • Triceps pushdown (neutral grip)
  • Triceps pushdown narrow grip

Jen Thompson

Jen Thompson is a mother of 2 who holds the world record bench press for her weight class of 314 lbs.

This 5’5” mom outlifts most guys in the gym and she attributes her bench press primarily due to accessory work rather than by directly training the bench press.

Jen Thompson advocates training:

  • the close-grip bench press
  • decline bench press
  • board press
  • pin presses depending on your weakness

Bryce Krawcyzk

Bryce Krawcyzk of Calgary Barbell is a professional powerlifter and has a record of a 529 lb bench.

Bryce attributes his strength to a variety of accessory work he performs to get his weaknesses up and to improve his benching power over time.

Some of the accessories he himself states that he uses are:

  1. Paused bench press
  2. Feet-up bench (killing leg drive)
  3. Board presses
  4. Close grip bench
  5. Overload bench (slingshot/bands)

Bench Press Triceps More Than Chest

Having strong triceps is important for the bench press because, besides the pecs, the bench press also places heavy emphasis on the triceps.

However, if you ever had a sudden loss in strength bench pressing, having strong triceps is not the only muscle that determines a big bench press.

Paused bench vs touch and go... it does not matter. 

Lifters will activate more triceps than chest during a flat bench press with any grip.

It is the lats that are maximally activated compared to all other muscles during the flat bench press.

The triceps are important for locking out the elbow during the bench press. 

Having weak triceps will prevent you from doing this and you will find yourself struggling during the mid-point of the bench press.

Shaking during the bench press can be seen.

So, if you are having trouble between the mid-point of the bench press (where the bar is just hovering over your chest) and the lockout, then you should consider strengthening your triceps.

And one viable bench accessory that places more emphasis on the triceps is the close-grip bench press...

 

We should also be aware that push-ups are not a bad way to target the triceps.

We have three variations in terms of arm placement:

  • Narrow grip
  • Shoulder-width grip
  • Wide grip

It is also proven that narrow grip pushups will help strengthen and activate both your triceps and pec major more than the shoulder-width grip and wide grip pushups.

Conclusion

The triangle pushups are the gold standard skullcrusher alternative for maximal tricep activation. 

Lifters can also perform tricep dumbbell kickbacks and dips for non-significantly equal results.

It is important to hit all the major muscle groups so that you do not have a weak chain link.

This is one reason why I chose Greyskull LP when I was a beginner.

You only have so much energy during the day.

This is one reason why your entire workout is not filled with 5-6 compound exercises.

You do not have the energy to hit them all with maximum effort.

1-2 exercises will be okay.

In fact, just one is plenty.

This is why you usually have one main movement you are working on.

Next, you have a secondary movement that is also a compound movement but is less stressful than the main movement.

For example, in the flat bench press, a secondary movement would be a skullcrusher substitute like the triangle pushup.

After compound movements, if you still want to work on a particular muscle, like the triceps, you will exercises that will work the muscle but not be too stressful on the joints.

Here, you can do skullcrushers after bench press workout.

But if you are looking for skullcrusher alternatives, you also have the following:

  • Dumbbell kickbacks
  • Dumbbell overhead extension (French Press)
  • Tricep pushdowns with a rope 
  • Triceps pushdowns with a bar 

You will have an insane triceps pump if you pick from this list.

There are so many to choose from and if you follow the research, it is important that you pick exercises that help maximally activate your targetted muscles.

Usually, they are done at the end and you train to failure usually on these sets.

Are Skullcrushers bad for elbows?

For most people, they are a safe exercise to activate your triceps.

If you are one of the few lifters that experience elbow pain even with lightweight skullcrushers, pick a different exercise.

It usually boils down to two aspects—

  1. Your form
  2. The weight

With crappy form and too much weight, you will strain your tendons, causing elbow pain. 

But sometimes, even with perfect form, you may not be able to perform skullcrushers and that is okay.

There are a ton of other exercises that can target your triceps just as effectively, if not better as I detailed above.

Why do my shoulders hurt when doing tricep exercises?

Your triceps does have an attachment point of your scapula, which may disrupt shoulder mobility when irritated.

But a lot of tricep exercises are done with your arms overhead or arms at 90 degrees, which activates your shoulder muscles and kickstarts your shoulder stabilizers.

If anything is slightly off with this mechanism, you will experience shoulder pain when doing triceps exercises even though your triceps are fine.

Here are just. a few examples of the many things that could go from with shoulder rhythm—

  • Upper trap overactivation
  • Lower trap weakness
  • Middle trap weakness
  • Pec major tightness
  • Bicep tightness

There are so many tendons and muscle attachments that involve and surround the shoulder joint.

No one truly isolates their triceps without having your shoulder stabilizers activated since you need to hold the weights in front of you, overhead, or beside your body. 

Do dips work long head?

Dips not only have a high rating of working the long head of the triceps, but it also has an equally high rating of working the lateral head of the triceps as well.

Though it may not be the most effective exercise according to studies done, it is still a great compound lift to add to your program to emphasize tricep growth overall.

Research is static with ideal conditions if done properly.

Most real-world scenarios may not fall into such situations so take the research ideas with a grain of salt and train hard with whatever great tricep exercise works for you.

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