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 knowing 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.
We will get into much more detail on the specific anatomy and movements that are involved, but understanding this fact, that the long head can only be worked in an overhead position, will help you to understand what sorts of exercises are viable for development.
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, lateral head, and 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.
Because of its dual action, this is why the long head of the triceps can only be adequately worked with the arms overhead, 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 through 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.
And if you can’t do skull crushers, for whatever reason, you can still work the long head adequately through exercises that involve elbow extension while your arm is overhead.
Some examples are:
- Overhead cable triceps extension
- Overhead dumbbell extensions
We will have separate articles that can go into more detail on these different types of exercises, but just from reading this section, you know that the long head can only be worked sufficiently when the arm is above over the head in shoulder flexion, which stretches and places emphasis on the muscle.
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.
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.
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.
Should you focus on working the long head of triceps or do bench press accessories?
The answer: it depends.
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.
On the other hand, if you do not have trouble with the lockout but wish to increase your bench press, then doing bench press accessory work will benefit you the most.
Rather than focusing on your strengths, you want to do the accessory exercise that targets your specific weaknesses and limitations that are holding you back from progressing in your bench press.
We have an entire article on the different types of bench press accessory exercises and how to perform them here.
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 big bench.
Bench press accessories other than skull crusher used by Pros
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 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, and pin presses depending on your weakness.
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 overtime.
Some of the accessories he himself states that he uses are:
Paused bench press, feet-up bench (killing leg drive), board presses, close grip bench, overload bench (slingshot/bands)
How important are triceps workouts for a big bench press?
Having strong triceps is important for the bench press because, besides the pecs, the bench press also places heavy emphasis on the triceps.
If you’ve read our other articles, you will know that 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.
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.
Understand this though… Are skullcrushers good?
The skullercrusher is a great compound arm exercise to that works on the big muscles on your arms without stimulating the deltoids or chest.
It is important to hit all the major muscle groups so that you do not have a weak chain link.
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 close grip bench or an incline press.
After compound movements, if you still want to work on a particular muscle, you will exercises that will work the muscle but not be too stressful on the joints.
Here, you have skullcrushers for a bench press workout.
But if you are looking for skullcrusher alternatives, you also have the following:
- Dumbbell overhead extension
- Tricep extensions with a rope or machine
- Triceps pushdowns with a bar or rope
- Tricep kickbacks
There are so many to choose from and these are not so important to do.
Usually, they are done at the end and you train to failure usually on these sets.