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  • Writer's pictureCoach Matt Pippin

Elbow Friendly Skull Crushers


Everyone in the gym knows that if you want bigger arms, it doesn’t start with the biceps, it’s all about the triceps. But if your elbows are always screaming after a hard training session, then it’s time to look for some alternatives, especially if the pain is coming after doing the classic barbell skull crusher.


Today, I'll show you one of my favorite skull crusher alternatives for elbow pain and how to adjust your depth for what’s appropriate for YOUR elbows, so you can continue to get those big guns while avoiding painful elbows.


WHAT IS A SKULL CRUSHER?

Skull crushers, also known as lying triceps extensions, are a popular isolation exercise targeting the triceps muscles. The movement involves lowering a weight—typically a barbell or EZ curl bar, from an over the chest position toward the forehead, hence the name "skull crusher.”


The beauty of this exercise is in how the load pulls the triceps into a unique range of motion, further lengthening the tissues, compared to a traditional standing triceps extension.  


BENEFITS OF SKULL CRUSHERS

Skull crushers offer a multitude of benefits, including:

  1. Triceps Strength: They primarily target the triceps muscle, helping to build strength and size in the back of your upper arms.

  2. Stability: This exercise forces the shoulders to act as a stabilizer to the humerus, giving you an excellent opportunity train all those tiny muscles that are so important for healthy shoulders.

  3. Versatility: Whether you're aiming for muscle growth or strength gains, skull crushers can be adapted to suit your training goals.


WHAT MUSCLES ARE WORKING DURING A SKULL CRUSHER

Skull crushers primarily target the triceps brachii muscles (the three muscles on the back of the humerus), with an emphasis on the long head of the triceps.


This is great because typically the long head isn’t a large contributor compared to the other heads of the triceps (medial and lateral heads) when doing standing press downs, since the humerus is in line with the torso.


By placing the humerus perpendicular to the torso, the long head is now the star of the exercise allowing you to attack the triceps in a whole new way. New stimulus equals more gains.  


Muscles that work during skull crushers

WHERE SHOULD YOU FEEL A SKULL CRUSHER?

During skull crushers, you should feel the stress on the back of the arms (the triceps), with an emphasis on the tissue of the triceps closest to the body (the long head). Other muscles and areas that you will feel include:

  • The other two heads of the triceps (medial and lateral heads)

  • Rotator cuff and lat muscles acting as stabilizers

  • Tiny muscles around the elbow that are preventing rotation


ARE SKULL CRUSHERS BAD FOR YOUR ELBOWS?

Skull crushers are not bad for your elbow, but if your elbow mobility is not up to par, then they can cause some issues. The two limiting factors of elbow mobility that can cause issues are:

  • A lack of pronation (rotating the palms down toward the floor from a flexed elbow position)

  • A lack of elbow flexion (how close can you bring your hand to your shoulder when bending at the elbow)


By changing your grip, the modality (barbell, dumbbell, EZ curl bar, rope attachment), and your range of motion, you can find an alternative that will allow you to continue to train without exacerbating the problem. 


PROPER ELBOW POSITION IN A SKULL CRUSHER

In a skull crusher, the elbows should be directly over your shoulder while laying on your back. As the load starts to lower towards your forehead, the elbows must stay completely still. They will have a tendency to move out away from the midline of the body or even drift toward the top of your head to make the movement a little easier. Just imagine the elbows are simply bending and extending while being completely still to ensure proper form.  


WHY DO SKULL CRUSHERS HURT MY ELBOWS?

Skull crushers may hurt your elbows due to improper form, such as elbow flare or using too heavy of weights, or due to a lack of mobility in the elbows. Additionally, an inadequate warm-up of the tissues or overuse of the exercise without proper recovery after other upper body workouts can contribute to elbow discomfort.  


WHAT NOT TO DO IF YOU HAVE ELBOW PAIN FROM SKULL CRUSHERS

If experiencing elbow pain from skull crushers, avoid the following:

  1. Ignoring pain: Continuing to perform skull crushers despite acute pain can worsen the condition.

  2. Overloading the joint: Reduce the weight lifted or switch to lighter weights until the elbows have fully recovered.

  3. Neglecting mobility work: Incorporate forearm stretches and mobility exercises to alleviate tightness and improve joint health.

  4. Wearing elbow sleeves/braces: The sleeve/brace makes the joint feel warm and safe but it doesn’t actually protect it or prevent further injury. This is just a temporary solution, not a permanent fix.  


WHAT HELPS ELBOW PAIN FROM SKULL CRUSHERS?

To alleviate elbow pain from skull crushers, consider the following strategies:

  1. Get a proper evaluation from a licensed professional: You heard me, get off of Google and go see someone. They can determine if it’s a lack of mobility or strength, or if there’s something else going on.  

  2. Switch to a pain-free alternative: Using the variation I describe below will allow you to keep training without making it worse. 

  3. Improve elbow flexion and elbow pronation mobility: Poor mobility in these areas is a prerequisite for elbow pain and discomfort. 

  4. Check your form and use lighter weights: Sometimes poor technique or continuing to use too much weight is all it takes to cause elbow pain. Swallow your pride, drop the weight and double check your form. Sometimes the simple act of using too much weight is what causes your form to get wonky so this is an important tip I wouldn't gloss over.


HOW TO DO SKULL CRUSHERS WITHOUT CAUSING ELBOW PAIN

Besides the elbow friendly alternative I'm about to show you, other tips for performing skull crushers without exacerbating elbow pain include:

  1. Appropriate variation for your specific elbow mobility: if you lack elbow flexion or pronation, you must adjust the exercise to place less stress on the elbows.  

  2. Optimal elbow positioning: Keep the elbows directly over your shoulders and prevent them from moving throughout the exercise to minimize strain on the elbows.

  3. Progressive overload: Gradually increase the weight lifted while ensuring proper form to stimulate muscle growth without risking injury.


THE BEST SKULL CRUSHER ALTERNATIVE FOR ELBOW PAIN

If traditional skull crushers are causing elbow discomfort, it’s time to switch things up and the easiest option is to simply switch from a barbell to a dumbbell skull crusher.


With a barbell, your grip will be in a pronated position with your palms facing away from you, and this will place a ton of stress on the muscles that rotate your elbow. If you’ve ever felt pain on the outside of your elbow, then you know what I’m talking about.


Dumbbells will position the palms so they’re facing each other and that places less stress on the elbow rotation muscles. To perform this exercise, we're going to first assess your elbow flexion and then we'll get into the skull crusher.


How to Assess your Elbow Flexion

  1. Sitting on a bench, raise your arms so that they’re straight and directly out and in front of your shoulders.  

  2. Keeping the elbows completely still, bend at the elbow and determine how close your hands come to your shoulders without your elbows moving.

  3. This range is what you should use during the dumbbell skull crusher. Going past this range will place undue stress on the tissues of the elbows and that's what we're trying to avoid.


How to assess elbow flexion

How to Perform a Dumbbell Skull Crusher:

  1. Holding a pair of dumbbells, lay back on a flat bench while holding the arms straight up to the ceiling.  

  2. With palms facing each other, keep the elbows completely still and slowly lower the weights toward your head.

  3. Pause at the range of motion you determined in the assessment.

  4. Drive the dumbbells pack up to the starting position.

  5. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions, focusing on good form and controlled movement.


Equipment Needed

  • 2 dumbbells

  • A flat bench


how to do a dumbbell skull crusher

HOW TO GET RID OF ELBOW PAIN

To effectively address elbow pain and prevent recurrence, follow these steps:

  1. Get a proper evaluation from a licensed professional: If you don’t know what’s wrong, how will you ever know how to fix it.  

  2. Increase elbow mobility: Developing more mobility in elbow pronation and supination is great step in the right direction for healthier elbows. The videos below are a great introduction into training both of these movements.  

  3. Work on your elbow pronation with this exercise: The #1 Exercise for Tennis Elbow

  4. Work on your elbow supination with this exercise: My Go To Exercise for Golfer's Elbow

  5. Listen to Your Body: Sounds simple but pay attention to what your body is telling you (there are always signals) and adjust your training accordingly to avoid overloading the elbows.



Elbow pain from skull crushers is a common issue but doesn't have to slow down your progress. By using this elbow friendly alternative, paying attention to your form and taking care of your elbow mobility, you can continue making those upper body gains, without the pain.


TAKE CARE OF THE REST OF YOUR BODY

If you liked today’s coaching and want even more ways to level up your tennis game, check out my 3 must-have mobility moves in the link below. It includes my all-time favorite mobility exercises that will be a game changer for you, I promise. It’s completely free, so check it out.

The best mobility exercises

 

ABOUT COACH MATT PIPPIN

Matt is a Strength and Mobility Coach with over 15 years experience in his field and has coached over a thousand professional, collegiate and everyday athletes with the goal to help them move, feel and perform at their highest level. He's incredibly passionate about bringing simple and effective online mobility training programs to everyone who wants to take control of their self care and make lasting change. CLICK HERE to learn more.

Certifications:

  • NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist

  • Level 3: Fascial Stretch Specialist

  • Level 1: Institute of Motion Health Coach

  • Certified FRC Mobility Specialist (FRCms)

  • Level 1 Kinstretch Instructor

  • Weck Method Qualified

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