What Are Skull Crushers and How to Do Them

Man Doing E-Z Curl Bar Skull Crusher

In all its forms and variations, the skull crusher is one of the most effective triceps workouts you can perform if you do it properly. The skull crusher is a workout also known as the French press, French extension, and lying triceps extension, to name a few. But why the name “Skull Crusher?” While there’s only mere speculation surrounding the skull crusher name, it’s a widespread belief that if a person performs the exercise in bad form, that’s precisely what will happen- a bit of skull crushing.

In any event, the name is pretty badass and makes you feel like one too! Let us let you in on the top pro-training tips for how to properly crush the skull crusher workout- all of the variations—every time—so you can be Brolic in no time. Read on to learn more about the perks of crushing your triceps workouts and how much is too much.

All You Need to Know About the Skull Crusher

It may seem pretty cut and dry; it’s a workout for the triceps that can either be the death of some while the rest of us can get ripped from adding it into our workout routines. But first, a little anatomy lesson to determine the target area.

The term “triceps” is Latin for “three heads.” Why is that important? The three heads that the term refers to are the three muscles in the upper arm in the group of the triceps muscle: the long head, the lateral head, and the medial head. The long head begins at the shoulder and runs to the elbow, where the muscle attaches. The lateral head lies directly behind the bicep and connects to the elbow. The medial head is a deep muscle between the lateral and long head. To get the pumped-up muscle tone you’re looking for, you’ll need to work all three heads of muscles in your upper arm.

When you get familiar with what exact primary muscles you’re trying to beef up, you’ll learn how to isolate them properly. The skull crusher exercise is just that! A targeted training of the triceps in the arm uses the isolation of the three primary muscles: the long head, lateral head, and medial head, to obtain stronger triceps. So, how do you attain these big guns that we’re talking about?

An athletic male does a set of lying tricep extensions, also known as skull crushers

Getting Started

First thing’s first, you’re going to need some equipment for this strength-training exercise, or at the very least a gym membership that includes the expertise and availability of a personal trainer. If you want to go it at home, buy a weight bench and a barbell. There are many variations, so you can use a dumbbell and do the exercise on the floor, but know that you’ll be sacrificing some range of motion. There are still many implements to be used, such as the EZ bar, cables, dumbbells, a barbell, and an EZ Curl Bar. In a greater need to intensify the skull crusher, you can use an angled bench. Once you’ve got your equipment ready, it’s time for you to start crushing the lying triceps extension!

Time to Skull Crush

Now, the thing that the skull crusher will always require, regardless of variations, is the elbow extension motion. This means that each rep will start with a bending of the elbow and will extend over the head before coming back to rest. In a more detailed version, it goes like this.

  1. You’ll lie on your back on a flat bench, and grab the straight bar or barbell with palms facing outward. Keep your core engaged and your elbows at a 90-degree angle from the floor. It would be best if you had your head at the edge of the bench with your feet flat on the floor at the other end of the bench.
  2. Next, begin by squeezing the dumbbell, barbell, or whatever weight you have and pushing your arms backward until the weight is behind your head. Keep your back straight by tightening the core muscle; you don’t want any arching or instances of the lower back popping up away from the bench.
  3. As you return to the starting position, use control and be purposeful. Keep squeezing your weight with your hands, and keep contracting your core muscles. You should end one rep in the same position as you first began the rep: with a perpendicular elbow to the floor.
  4. Now, repeat as many as possible while perfecting your technique before moving on to trickier or complex variations.
  5. Finally, treat yourself to a yummy post-workout shake or a sensible cookie- you’ve earned it!

You can safely use a stability ball as the flat bench with a dumbbell. It’s wise to start at a low weight between 5-10 lbs and then graduate to heavier weights when you feel ready. You want to focus on constant tension, and then you want to look out for a few things when you’re working on your triceps fitness.

vector cartoon of a man demonstrating a skull crusher exercise

A Word of Caution

A warning about technique; you can’t flare your elbow out while performing the skull crusher for two main reasons. First, you will inadvertently shift the isolation to your shoulder instead of the tricep muscle. Also, you may end up with some excruciating elbow pain that a personal trainer would call “tricep tendonitis,” which stems from either bad form or too many reps. It’s basically because of the repetitive motion of the exercise or the misfiring that occurs in improper technique causing elbow pain where the triceps muscle adjoins the elbow.

Dr. John Knight over at the Hand and Wrist Institute adds, “The two main causes of Triceps Tendonitis include overuse or traumatic injury. Overuse is most common and results from repetitive straightening or pushing the elbow. Activities such as hammering, forceful throwing, push-ups, or bench press exercises are common causes of this disorder. The recurrent stress on the tendon produces damage and inflammation over time. In the case of trauma, a direct blow or extreme force beyond what the triceps tendon can endure can also lead to Triceps Tendonitis.”

Secondly, there’s an ever-present danger of bringing the weight too near to your face while attempting to perform a skull crusher in a more literal sense. You should never rest the weight on your neck, head, or face.

Pro Tips to Crush the Skull Crushers Every Time

When you get excited at the prospect of bigger arms, shoulders, and the whole Brolic thing, remember there’s no contest: good technique is vital! Starting slowly is your best bet.

Lighter Weight Equals More Reps

Pick a lighter weight, especially when you’re just beginning to learn the skull crusher exercise. It’s not only for your safety but will help you perform more reps. Repetitions, or reps, are essential for the most gain. Besides, no one wants to see you actually crush your skull!

Check Your Form

For this exercise, which is a powerful, effective way to gain more muscle mass in the triceps area, always use good form. To prevent elbow pain, keep your elbows tucked into the body and employ core strength to keep your back flat when lifting. Avoid the eccentric movement of bringing the weight behind your head. Keep a neutral spine and don’t utilize your hips or your shoulder muscles to lift or move the weight; keep the isolation in the triceps muscle by maintaining stability and control at all times during the skull crusher exercise.

Don’t use your arms when you perform a rep of the skull crusher exercise. You are only using an elbow extension movement. On that note, don’t fully extend the elbow. You want to keep tension in the elbow at all times. Keeping the constant tension will help you avoid the dangerous flare of your elbows.

You’ll likely want to flare the elbows at first because they naturally attempt to bend this way to help ease the load on your triceps muscle. Don’t do it!

The skull crusher workout is to be performed with purpose; the goal here will never be speed. When you lift too hastily, you’re more likely to sustain injuries and delay results even if you take the time and effort to perform this exercise.

For perfect form, you must tuck the elbow, lift with purpose and stability, and be slow and deliberate with your movements. Use a light enough weight to permit more reps that are substantial and meaningful.

Young woman doing triceps extensions at the gym

Tighten Up Your Grip, Breathe, and Have a Spotter

You also want to keep a tight grip on your weight, squeezing and gripping tightly to ensure you don’t drop them or get hurt. Remember to breathe, as breathing helps you to endure the exercise.

A final tip is to use a spotter whether you’re at the gym or home. You should only perform heavy weightlifting activities with someone who can help you keep track of your reps and help in an emergency.

Skull Crushers Variations to Try

As you begin to perfect your technique of the skull crushers exercise, you’ll be able to do more reps. Those beginning reps will turn into sets. It’s recommended to perform 3 to 5 sets of 6 to 12 reps, but going further than that will do more harm than good. It’s also a widely recognized recommendation that you should do fewer sets and use these skull crushers exercises as the grand finale of a set workout routine. For instance, for an upper body workout, you could incorporate diamond pushups, triceps kickbacks, and a finish with the skull crushers.

There are so many variations to the family of skull crushers exercise in terms of the weight source and the positions in which you can successfully perform the skull crusher exercises. You can even perform the skull crusher workout on the floor instead of on a weight bench. So many variations have been added to the family. So here are a few most popular skull crusher variations which you can perform with a barbell, dumbbell, straight bar, an E Z bar or E Z curl bar, or a cable. Grab your favorite weight source and give these a try!

Cable Skull Crusher with a Rope Attachment Variation

This cable skull crusher is a bit trickier to do since it involves a more neutral grip on the cable’s rope and the timing of tension. You want to grip the rope and start it with your arms vertically positioned in relation to the floor. Perform the exercise normally, bringing the rope just above your head and keeping constant tension throughout each rep.

man doing skull crusher exercise with cable

Incline Skull Crusher and Decline Skull Crusher Variation

The incline skull crusher variation requires a bench that can be adjusted to a more vertical stance. From that inclined position of the bench, either sit with your back against the bench and grip the weight properly with the elbow bent at the same perpendicular angle to the floor. Then, start your reps while you breathe. This skull crusher variation isolates the long head part of the triceps muscle.

The opposing position of the bench is the decline, where you stack weight or two under the foot of the bench. From this angle, the lateral head of the triceps muscle.

In these skull crushers, variation points don’t overdo the incline or decline of the bench, or it loses its effect.

Standing Skull Crusher Variation

This may be compared to the incline skull crusher variation, but without the bench to lie against. In a standing position, you use whatever weight you’ve got and remember your form, elbow perpendicular to the floor and elbows in. Bring the weight just over your head but don’t fully extend the elbows. And return the weight to the starting position.

woman doing a triceps extension with a dumbbell in a gym

Skull Crushers Variations with an E Z Bar or E Z Curl Bar

In this variation of the skull crusher workout, you may find that using an E Z curl bar or a straight bar is a little easier or more accessible than the barbell. The E Z Bar and the E Z curl bar are perfect for beginners but even personal trainers like them for more advanced moves like in the following variations.

E Z Bar Skull Crusher Variation vs. Barbell Skull Crusher

You can use a close grip as you would with a close grip bench press, but you may want to start with your grip a bit further apart, such as shoulder width apart. Don’t try to raise the bar at eye or chin level; instead, try to aim the bar just over your head.

E Z Bar Cable Skull Crusher Variation

The same idea we mentioned in the cable skull crusher variation with the rope goes here, just with the E Z bar. Instead of the rope to grip, you’ll grip the E Z bar. You grip the E Z bar palms outward to see the top of your hand as you perform the elbow extension and use constant tension as you extend the cable over your head.

The Perks of Doing Your Skull Crushers

Other than the Hulk arms that we all strive for that few of us actually have, the benefits of building upon the triceps muscle are likely more than you realized.

First, the skull crusher can increase the size of your pectorals (nicknamed pecs) and beef up the deltoid muscle. The deltoid muscle is the triangular muscle on the outermost side of the shoulder. When doing your reps of the skull crusher, you’re using your pecs and deltoid muscle too, which will upgrade your bench press game.

Besides the bulging pecs and massive shoulders that the skull crusher workouts will give you over time, the way that the skull crusher activates the medial head in the triceps muscle is far superior to the triceps exercises in which the movements of the arm are at your side. By better activating the deep-set medial head with the skull crusher exercise, you’ll build more mass more efficiently. This is why bodybuilders love the skull crusher!

The next perk to the exercise is geared toward the people who want to up the ante in their football, baseball, tennis, or any sports wherein there’s a responsibility to throw well and accurately. With the regular practice of skull crusher exercises, you’ll be the best thrower on the team because the skull crusher develops the muscle which is required for throwing with force.

And don’t forget all the regular perks to doing your skull crusher exercise like the implementation of these in the rehabilitation of the arm from injury, performing everyday activities like carrying babies, groceries, or cleaning your house. Your regular workout, including the skull crusher or any of the skull crusher variations, can make swimming, making the bed, doing the laundry, and other activities faster and less likely to make you break a sweat!

It’s All Gain With the Skull Crusher

Whether you follow the Brolic movement on Twitter or Instagram, or you just want to have more muscular arms for the same reasons we just listed, skull crushers are the way to do it! No matter your skull crusher variation, you will effectively strengthen your arms and add mass to your triceps quickly and effectively. As long as you focus on your form and breathe, you will be posting your before-and-after pics proudly in no time. And to think, there’s no real crushing of your skull involved!

Was this article helpful?