The skull crusher has got to be the most bad ass exercise name ever invented. To the uninitiated, it won’t actually crush your skull – unless you happen to drop it on your head! It is far more likely to do gradual damage to your elbows, especially if you’re maxing out the weight.
The skull crusher is generally a safe exercise, so long as you don’t use a weight that’s beyond your ability. If you have inherent elbow problems, you will want to avoid this exercise.
Over my 35-year career as a personal trainer, I’ve worked with a lot of people with elbow issues, from 20-something bodybuilders to septuagenarian great-grandmothers.
As a result, I have come up with a number of skull crusher alternative exercises that work the triceps without overstressing the elbows.
In the paragraphs below, I’ll lay out those eight best skull crusher alternatives. I’ll also discuss the potential issues with the skull crusher, along with the criteria for choosing an effective skull crusher alternative.
- 1. Using a Straight or EZ Curl Bar
- 2. Lowering to the Forehead
- 3. Going Too Heavy
- 4. Lack of Shoulder and Elbow Mobility
- 1. Tricep Pushdown
- 2. Close Grip Push Up
- 3. Overhead Resistance Band Extension
- 4. Banded One Arm Tricep Extension
- 5. Decline Dumbbell Tricep Extension
- 6. Reverse Triceps Pushdown
- 7. Seated Overhead Tricep Extension
- 8. Close Grip Bench Press
What’s Wrong with the Skull Crusher?
The skull crusher, also known as the lying tricep extension, has a lot going for it. It is an early phase loaded triceps exercise. That means that it is harder at the beginning and easier at the end. That follows the strength curve of the triceps.
The skull crusher also extends the triceps through their full range of motion.
However, there are a few issues with the skullcrusher.
In the start position, when the dumbbells are down by your ears, the upper arms are a little farther away from their natural position than is ideal.
That’s why it is difficult to squeeze the triceps at the end position of the movement, especially when compared with an exercise like tricep pushdowns.
If you do a skull crusher with dumbbells and use proper form (provided you don’t have any pre-existing elbow) problems, you won’t have any problems. Here are the major mistakes people make that causes issues:
1. Using a Straight or EZ Curl Bar
Doing the skullcrusher with a straight bar is a bad idea. It forces your wrists into an unnatural straight position that stresses the joint as you bend the elbow down to your forehead.
The straight bar position also forces your elbows into a corkscrew position that will potentially cause pain, wear and tear.
While using an EZ curl bar is better than a straight bar, it is still nowhere near as good as using dumbbells. Dumbbells allow you to hold the weights in the ideal neutral position, with your palms facing each other.
2. Lowering to the Forehead
Bring the weight down to your forehead, or a lower position on the face, you will be placing an excessive amount of stress on your elbow joint, forcing it into an unnatural position.
The best way to perform the exercise is to lower the weights just beyond the top of your head.
3. Going Too Heavy
The skull crusher is not one of those exercises that are suited to using heavy weights. Using a weight that you can do for fewer than 10 reps will place a lot of stress on the elbow joint.
That is why I recommend using a rep range that doesn’t go below ten.
4. Lack of Shoulder and Elbow Mobility
Another issue I see with skull crushers is a lack of effective mobility. A lot of people (especially younger people) do a lot of training of their biceps, triceps and shoulders, but don’t do enough stretching and mobility work.
This makes their muscles tighter and limits mobility at the shoulder and elbow joints. This compromised mobility then makes exercises like the skull crusher more challenging, less effective, and potentially dangerous.
How To Do the Skull Crusher
- Lie on a flat bench with your feet firmly set on the floor. Hold a pair of dumbbells in your hands and hold them above your chest. Angle your arms slightly toward your head.
- Keeping your elbows in, bend at the elbows to slowly bring the weight down and over your head. Do not move the position of your upper arms as you lower the dumbbells.
- Press through the triceps to return to the start position.
Criteria for Selecting Skull Crusher Alternatives
When it comes to triceps exercises, your goal should be to move the muscle through its full range of motion. Research continually proves that a full range of motion is beneficial for muscle development.
The job of the triceps is simply to straighten the elbow.
The best skull crusher alternative exercises will position your arms in front of your body in the start position. It should also be early phase loaded with the harder part being at the beginning of the movement and be joint friendly.
Equipment Needed for These Exercises
- Cable Pulley Machine
- Weight Bench
- Resistance band
8 Skull Crusher Alternatives that Replicate the Same Movement Pattern
1. Tricep Pushdown
Equipment needed for the tricep pushdown:
- Cable Pulley Machine
How to do the tricep pushdown:
- Stand facing a high pulley machine and put either a rope or short bar handle on the cable. Set the handle height at mid chest level.
- Grab the handles with an overhand grip so that your thumbs are about six inches apart.
- Keeping your elbows in at your sides, extend your arms down. Stop a little short of full extension.
- Reverse the movement to return to the start position.
Tricep pushdown muscles worked:
2. Close Grip Push Up
Equipment needed for the close grip pushdown:
How to do the close grip push up:
- Get down in a push up position, with your feet together and your body forming a straight line from head to toe.
- Place your hands about 12 inches apart.
- From the top starting position, lower your body down toward the floor until your chest is about six inches off the ground.
- Push through the triceps to return to the start position.
Close grip push up muscles worked:
3. Overhead Resistance Band Extension
Equipment needed for overhead resistance band extension:
- Resistance band
How to do the overhead resistance band extension:
- Attach a resistance band to a secure upright at waist level.
- Stand about four feet in front of the upright, facing away from it with the band held overhead in both hands.
- Keeping your elbows at the sides of your head, bend at the elbows to lower your hands behind your head.
- Push through the triceps to return to the start position.
Overhead resistance band extension muscles worked:
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4. Banded One Arm Tricep Extension
Equipment needed for the banded one arm tricep extension:
- Resistance band
How to do the banded one arm tricep extension:
- Stand with a resistance band looped under your left rear foot. Hold the other end of the band in your left hand, knuckles facing forward.
- Lift the arm to shoulder level. Now extend your arm to full extension.
- Keeping your arm in at the side of your head, bend at the elbow to bring your hand down behind your head.
- Extend your arm back up to the start position, squeezing the triceps tightly in the fully extended position.
Banded one arm tricep extension muscles worked:
5. Decline Dumbbell Tricep Extension
Equipment needed for the decline dumbbell tricep extension:
- Adjustable weight bench
This is the weight bench we recommend for ‘most people’.
We compared over 70 benches against 12 criteria. This is our highest-ranked flat, incline & decline (FID) bench.
Some adjustable benches can be a bit wobbly when on the incline. But the AB-3000 is very sturdy.
With a height 18mm it’s comparable to benches that cost twice as much.
How to do the decline dumbbell tricep extension:
- Lie on a 40-degree decline bench with a pair of dumbbells in your hands, resting on your chest.
- Bring your arms up to full extension above your upper chest. Keep your elbows in at your sides.
- Lower the dumbbells to the sides of your head until the elbows are fully bent. This is the start position of the exercise.
- Push up until your arms are fully extended.
Decline dumbbell tricep extension muscles worked:
6. Reverse Triceps Pushdown
Equipment needed for the reverse tricep pushdown:
- Cable pulley machine
How to do the reverse tricep pushdown:
- Position the pulleys on a dual pulley cable machine at their highest vertical position and then adjust horizontally so that they are in line with your shoulders.
- Stand about a foot in front of the machine facing away from it.
- Reach up to grab the cable handles and bring them down to the start position with your elbows in at your sides, and hands at mid-chest level. Your upper arms should be slightly angled rather than squarely in at your ribs.
- Press down and out slightly to fully extend the arms, strongly contracting the triceps in the bottom position.
- Reverse and repeat.
Reverse tricep pushdown muscles worked:
7. Seated Overhead Tricep Extension
Equipment needed for the seated overhead tricep extension:
SMRFT Nüobell 80LB Adjustable Dumbbells
These are the dumbbells we recommend for ‘most people’.
We have spent over 50 hours of research and compared over 100 dumbbells. Adjustable dumbbells make sense for most home gyms as they save space.
The Nüobell dumbbells go all the way to 80lbs per hand. This means they are much more versatile than most 50lbs adjustable dumbbells. You can use these for heavy shrugs, squats and bench press etc.
The main reason they are the top pick is because of their shape. They actually feel like real dumbbells and are not awkward to lift like some others.
How to do the seated overhead tricep extension:
- Sit on a bench with a dumbbell resting on your upper legs in an upright position. Place your hands around the inner portion of the top plate.
- Lift the weight overhead. Throughout this movement, you should concentrate on keeping your elbows in at the sides of your head (do not let them flare out). This will keep the emphasis on the triceps throughout the movement.
- From a position where the weight is above your head at arm’s length, bend at the elbows to bring it down behind your head. Feel the stretch in your triceps as you bring the dumbbell down to full extension.
- Forcefully contract the triceps to power the weight back up to the start position.
Seated overhead tricep extension muscles worked:
Note: check out our overhead triceps extension alternatives if you want to get exercise ideas to substitute this one.
8. Close Grip Bench Press
Equipment needed for the close grip bench press:
- Bench press bench
- Olympic bar and weight plates
This is the bar that we recommend for ‘most people’.
We have spent over 120 hours of research and tested over 100 barbells.
It is affordable but comes with some high specs. The Rogue Work Hardening and 190k PSI tensile strength mean the bar will last a lifetime in a home gym.
It is a multi-purpose bar with a 28.5mm diameter shaft and composite bushings in the sleeves. This means it’s balanced for heavy slow bench presses but you can also perform snatches and fast overhead lifts.
How to do the close grip bench press:
- Lie down on the bench press bench and take hold of a barbell. Your grip distance should be slightly less than shoulder width.
- Unrack the bar and begin with it hovering over your chest and your arms extended.
- Keeping your elbows in tight to your body, slowly lower the bar down to your lower chest.
- When it touches, forcefully press the bar back up to the start position.
Close grip bench press muscles worked:
Skull Crusher Alternatives: The Bottom Line
These exercises will help to mimic the skull crusher, without the inherent danger of the exercise. Not only that, but they’ll also expand your tricep training repertoire, giving you a variety of new options when you want to hit your arms.
Run through our eight skull crusher alternatives to find out which ones give you the best tricep activation and feel most comfortable on your wrists and elbows.
Decide on your top three or four and then combine them into an 8-10 set workout, with rep ranges between 10 and 30 reps.
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