Skull Crushers – How To, Variations, And Why It Can Help Build Arm Strength

Understand how and why skull crushers work, how to master it, its benefits, and variations for powerful triceps

woman training with an ez curl bar

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The ultimate guide to building strong powerful arms with skull crushers

Skull crushers, also known as lying triceps extensions, target the triceps muscle in the upper arm. They are one of the most potent exercises that can help you add size and definition to the back of your arms.

Skullcrushers are challenging exercises, and many exercisers struggle to do the movement correctly.

skull crushers with a barbell

We will explain what skull crushers are, how and why they work, and how to master the movement with proper form to help you incorporate them effectively into your workout regimen and achieve the most from the exercise.

Skull crushers target muscles

Skull crushers are isolation exercises for the triceps and can help build strength and size in the muscle.

The triceps muscle targeted by skullcrushers comprises three heads: the long head, lateral head, and medial head.

Skull crushers focus on all three heads of the triceps, making it an excellent exercise for targeting and working the muscle group.

Required equipment

You will need the following equipment to perform skull crushers.

Flat weight bench, barbell or EZ curl bar, or pair of dumbbells
You will also need weight or bumper plates if you use a barbell or EZ curl bar.

For exercisers who prefer to exercise at home, investing in a set of dumbbells or better still, a pair of space-saving adjustable dumbbells can be a versatile and space-saving option.

Additionally, those unable to access a weight bench can modify the exercise by lying on the floor or using a stability ball to work their triceps. However, a weight bench provides better stability and support for proper execution.

How to do skull crushers with proper form

Performing skull crushers with proper form is crucial to avoid injury and effectively target the triceps.

Steps to follow

  • Position a flat weight bench in an open area.
  • Place the barbell, dumbbells, or EZ curl bar on the floor behind the bench.
  • If using a barbell, load it with an appropriate weight. Ensure you use collars to secure the weight plates in place.
  • Sit on the bench with your feet flat on the floor.
  • Lie with your back on the Weight bench.
  • Ensure your head, upper back, and butt touch the bench. Your whole body, apart from your lower legs, must be on the weight bench.
  • Bend your knees and plant your feet flat on the floor.
  • Reach behind your head and grasp the barbell, dumbbells, or EZ curl bar with an overhand grip, palms facing down. Your hands should be shoulder-width apart or slightly narrower.
  • Reach out and lift the weight off the floor, or ask a spotter to hand it to you.
  • Extend your arms fully so that the weight is directly above your shoulders.
  • Bend your elbows and slowly lower the weight towards your forehead with control. Ensure your upper arms are stationary and perpendicular to the floor or slightly lower for a full range of motion and better triceps engagement. The movement should resemble a “skull-crushing” motion.
  • Pause briefly at the bottom of the movement when the weight is close to your forehead. Ensure not to rest the weight on your head or bounce it back.
  • Engage your triceps and press the weight back up to the starting position by extending your elbows. Exhale as you perform this phase of the movement.
  • Repeat 4-6 reps per set and 4-6 sets for a session to build strength and power, or
  • Repeat 8-12 reps for a set and 3-4 sets to complete a session for muscle growth and hypertrophy or
  • Repeat 15-20 reps per set and 3-4 sets to make a session to improve muscular endurance and achieve more definition in your triceps.


  • Keep your elbows in and avoid flaring them out to the sides.
  • Avoid arching your back or using momentum to lift the weight.
  • Keep your wrists firm and straight to avoid strain.
  • Maintain a stable and firm grip on the barbell or dumbbells.
  • Perform the exercise slowly and under control, focusing on the muscle contraction in the triceps.

Tips and best practices to help perform for skull crushers with proper form.

  • Warm-Up
    Always warm up your triceps and surrounding muscles before starting skull crushers.
    Perform light cardio, like brisk walking or cycling, and do dynamic stretches for your arms and shoulders.
  • Use appropriate weight
    Choose a weight that allows you to perform the exercise with proper form while challenging your triceps.
    Avoid using heavier weights that may compromise your technique.
  • Engage your core muscles.
    Keep your core muscles tight throughout the exercise to stabilize your body and maintain proper form on the bench.
  • Control the movement
    Maintain control over the weight during the lowering and lifting phases.
    Avoid using momentum or swinging the weight. That will reduce the effectiveness of the exercise.
  • Elbows position
    Keep your elbows close to your head and pointed towards the ceiling throughout the movement.
    Do not flare your elbows out to the sides, as this can put unnecessary stress on your shoulders.
  • Full range of motion
    Aim to achieve a full range of motion by lowering the weight towards your forehead or slightly past it.
    That allows for optimal triceps activation.
  • Do not lock out.
    Do not fully lock out your elbows at the top of the movement.
    Keep a slight bend in your elbows to help maintain tension on the triceps and reduce stress on the elbow joints.
  • Protect your wrists
    Keep your wrists straight and firm during the exercise.
    Avoid excessive bending or overextension of the wrists if using a barbell.
  • Breathing
    Inhale as you lower the weight and exhale as you press it back up.
    Focus on controlled breathing throughout the exercise.
  • Use a spotter
    Consider having a spotter to assist you if you are lifting heavy weights.
    Ensure your safety during the exercise.
  • Add variety
    Barbell skull crushers are the most common variation, but you can also use dumbbells or an EZ curl bar to target the triceps from different angles and reduce strain on the wrists.
  • Recovery
    Allow sufficient rest between sets to recover and avoid overtraining.
    Like all muscle groups, the triceps need time to repair and grow stronger.
  • Listen to your body.
    Stop immediately and assess your form if you experience pain or discomfort during the exercise.
    Consult a healthcare professional if the pain persists.
  • Stretch after your workout.
    Perform static stretches for the triceps after completing your skull crusher sets.
    That will help improve flexibility and reduce muscle tightness.

Skull crushers common mistakes

Skull crushers are one of the best tricep exercises. But making mistakes or not performing them correctly can hinder your progress and potentially lead to injury.

Below are some common mistakes to watch out for when performing skull crushers.

  • Using too much weight
    One of the most common mistakes is using excessive weight that you can’t handle with proper form.
    That can lead to compromised technique and put unnecessary stress on your joints, especially your elbows.
  • Flaring elbows
    Allowing your elbows to flare out to the sides during the exercise can shift the focus away from the triceps and strain your shoulder joints.
    Keep your elbows close to your head throughout the movement.
  • Lack of control
    Swinging the weight or using momentum to lift it can reduce the effectiveness of the exercise.
    Maintain control during the lowering and lifting phases to keep tension on your triceps.
  • Not achieving full range of motion
    Failing to lower the weight enough to achieve a full range of motion can limit the engagement of the triceps.
    Lower the weight towards your forehead or slightly past parallel to the ground for optimal results.
  • Locking out elbows
    Extending your elbows fully at the top of the movement can shift the tension away from your triceps and put more stress on your elbow joints.
    Maintain a slight bend in your elbows to keep tension on your triceps throughout the exercise.
  • Improper wrist position
    Bending or overextending your wrists during skull crushers can strain your joints. Keep your wrists straight and firm throughout the exercise.
  • Arching your Back
    Arching your back excessively while performing the exercise can strain your lower back.
    Keep your core engaged and maintain a stable, flat back position on the bench.
  • Speeding through the reps
    Performing the exercise too quickly can make you lose control and proper form.
    Focus on a slow and controlled movement to maximize the effectiveness of the exercise.
  • Incorrect grip
    Grasping the weight in the wrong way can affect the mechanics of the exercise.
    Make sure your hands are shoulder-width apart or slightly narrower, and use an overhand grip with palms facing down.
  • Neglecting breathing
    Not breathing properly during skull crushers can lead to improper oxygenation and performance.
    Inhale as you lower the weight and exhale as you press it back up.
  • Overtraining
    Like any exercise, performing skull crushers excessively without proper rest and recovery can lead to overtraining and potential injuries.
    Allow your triceps sufficient time to recover between sessions.

Skull crushers benefits

skull crushers - man training with a barbell-05

Skull crushers, when performed with proper form and as part of a well-rounded strength-training regimen, offer several benefits for your upper body and fitness.

Triceps strengthening

The main benefit of skull crushers is the activation and strengthening of the triceps muscle.

The exercise targets all three heads of the triceps, helping to build muscle mass and enhance triceps strength.

Isolation Exercise

Skull crushers are isolation exercises. That means they target a specific muscle group without involving others.

That makes them great for isolating and focusing on the triceps, which can lead to better muscle development in this area.

Upper body definition

Skull crushers can help give you a more defined and sculpted upper arm appearance.

That can be appealing for athletes looking to improve the aesthetics of their arms.

Improved pushing strength

Strong triceps are essential for various pushing movements, such as bench press, shoulder press, and push-ups.

You can enhance your pushing strength by strengthening your triceps with skull crushers.

dumbbell tricep extension


You can perform skull crushers with various equipment, such as a barbell, dumbbells, or an EZ curl bar.

That allows you to switch up your routine and target the triceps from different angles.

Joint Stability

Skull crushers can help improve the stability of your elbow and shoulder joints.

That can benefit athletes in activities that require upper body strength and stability.

Time Efficiency

Skull crushers is a simple exercise that doesn’t require complicated equipment or setup.

You can easily incorporate the movement into your upper body workout regimen, saving time.

Muscle Balance

Many exercisers focus on training the biceps and neglect their triceps.

Skull crushers can help address that imbalance, helping to promote upper-body muscle symmetry.

Increased Metabolism

Like other resistance training exercises, skull crushers can help increase your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which means you can burn more calories even at rest.

That can aid in weight management and fat loss.

Bone Health

Strength training exercises, including skull crushers, can help improve bone density and reduce the risk of osteoporosis, particularly as we age.

Skull crushers limitations

While skull crushers offer several benefits for triceps strength and upper body development, they also have some limitations.

  • Elbow and wrist strain
    Skull crushers place significant stress on the elbow and wrist joints when performed with heavy weights or improper form.
    Exercisers with pre-existing elbow or wrist issues should take caution and may need to choose alternative exercises that are gentler on those joints.
  • Shoulder mobility
    Individuals with limited shoulder mobility may find skull crushers uncomfortable or challenging to perform correctly.
    It is essential to stop and consult a fitness professional or healthcare provider for guidance if you experience discomfort or pain in your shoulders during the exercise.
  • Not suitable for novices
    Skull crushers are intermediate to advanced exercises, and beginners may find it challenging.
    Novices should build foundational strength with less complex exercises before attempting skull crushers.
  • Risk of injury
    Like any resistance exercise, improper form or using too much weight can increase the risk of injury, particularly to the elbows, wrists, and shoulders.
    Always start with lighter weights and focus on maintaining proper technique throughout the movement.
  • Isolation exercise
    While the isolation aspect of skull crushers can be beneficial for targeting the triceps, it also means that it’s not a highly functional movement like compound exercises.
    Most compound exercises, such as bench press and push-ups, involve multiple muscles and mimic more natural movements.
  • Limited muscle activation
    While skull crushers primarily target the triceps, they do not engage other major muscles as extensively as compound exercises.
    Include a variety of exercises that target different muscle groups to help achieve a well-rounded upper body workout.
  • Equipment and Space Requirements
    Skull crushers require access to a weight bench and equipment like a barbell, dumbbells, or an EZ curl bar.
    Exesiers working out at home with limited space or equipment may need to consider alternative triceps exercises.
  • Triceps Overuse
    Performing skull crushers too frequently without adequate rest and recovery may risk overtraining the triceps.
    That could lead to decreased performance and potential injury.

Skull crushers variations

man training with dumbbells

Skull crusher variations offer different angles of resistance, targeting the triceps from various positions and providing muscle stimulation through unique movement patterns.

Diversifying your triceps exercises with variations can help prevent plateaus, improve muscle balance, and enhance triceps development.

Additionally, the variations can benefit exercisers with wrist or elbow discomfort, as they offer alternative grips and positions that may be more comfortable and accommodating for their needs.

Below are some popular skull crusher variations to incorporate into your training regimen.

Barbell Skull Crushers

The traditional version uses a barbell, where you lie on a bench and perform the exercise with both hands gripping the barbell.

Dumbbell Skull Crushers

Instead of a barbell, you can use dumbbells to perform the exercise.

The variation allows for greater freedom of movement and may put less pressure on the wrists.

EZ Bar Skull Crushers

Using an EZ curl bar with a zigzag shape for the exercise can reduce wrist strain and offer a more comfortable grip.

Incline Skull Crushers

This variation emphasizes the long head of the triceps and can increase the stretch of the muscle.

You perform the variation on an incline bench.

Decline Skull Crushers

In contrast to incline skull crushers, you perform this variation on a decline bench.

It emphasizes the lateral and medial heads of the triceps.

Seated Skull Crushers

Instead of lying on a bench, this variation involves sitting upright on a bench or chair to perform the movement.

You can either use dumbbells or a barbell.

One-Arm Dumbbell Skull Crushers

The variation involves using a single dumbbell and performing skull crushers with one arm at a time.

It can help improve symmetry and address any strength imbalances between the arms.

Standing Skull Crushers

Standing skull crushers or Overhead tricep extensions involve using a dumbbell or cable attachment and extending the arm overhead.

The exercise targets the triceps from a different angle.

Bodyweight Skull Crushers

You can perform bodyweight skull crushers using a sturdy bar or suspension trainer if you don’t have access to weights or equipment.

You perform the movement with your body weight.

Final words from LiveLIfe

Many athletes concentrate more on building their biceps and ignore other arm muscles like the triceps. That can cause muscle imbalances and affect their general physique and appearance.

We recommend including exercises that target other arm muscles in your training regimen. One of such exercises is skull crushers.

Skull crushers are one of the best and most effective exercises that can help target and build your triceps to help give you a more sculpted upper arm.

Include the skull crushers in your workout to help improve your physique and push you toward your fitness goal.

  1. Alves D, Matta T, Oliveira L. 2017. Effect of shoulder position on triceps brachii heads activity in dumbbell elbow extension exercises. J Spors Med Phys Fitn. 2017;58(9):1247-52. doi:10.23736/s0022-4707.17.06849-9
  2. Boehler B, Porcari JP, et al. 2011. ACE-sponsored research: Best triceps exercises. American Council on Exercise.

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