Skull Crusher Alternatives: How to Target the Same Muscles

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
March 18, 2022

The skull crusher exercise is an aptly named isolation movement functionally and visually similar to the lying triceps extension, but with a somewhat altered angle of resistance that imparts a distinct isometric training stimuli to the triceps brachii.

However, certain problems relating to the safety and effectiveness of the skull crusher exercise may require that a suitable alternative be found so as to increase the muscular hypertrophy accrued by the exerciser or to reduce their risk of injury during the process.

Fortunately, quite a few potential substitute exercises may replace the skull crusher, both in the capacity of triceps brachii isolation training and as an auxiliary exercise adjunct to heavier triceps-activating compound movements.

What Muscles are Trained by the Skull Crusher and its Alternative Exercises?

Being an isolation exercise, the skull crusher exercise and its possible alternative exercises primarily train the three heads of the triceps brachii alone, with the brachioradialis and deltoids acting in a relatively minor stabilizing capacity that imparts very little to no training stimulus at all.

barbell lying skullcrusher

Certain alternative exercises of the skull crusher may not actually function in an isolationary capacity and as such will activate other muscle groups connected to the triceps brachii, requiring that the workout routine be altered if such alternative exercises are used instead.

Why Should the Skull Crusher be Substituted in a Workout Routine?

The skull crusher, regardless of whether it is performed with a dumbbell, EZ curl bar or set of weight plates, presents a pair of drawbacks that may make finding a similar alternative exercise a rather advisable route to take.

The first and more common of these drawbacks when performing the skull crusher is the significant amount of strain placed on the trochlea and capitulum, two connective tissue bodies located at the junction between the humerus and the two bones of the forearm - of what is otherwise known as the elbow.

The particular angle at which the skull crusher is performed at can place a certain level of physical tension on this area, resulting in such injuries like impingement and tears if performed with excess volume or resistance.

This, of course, may be avoided by improving the exerciser’s flexibility, altering the form of the exercise, as well as utilizing a proper amount of weight and volume - though the risk of such injuries will still be posed, albeit at a lesser level.

The other drawback native to the skull crusher is the fact that it may be difficult to progress in the exercise as time passes. 

This is primarily due to the fragility of the elbow joint and the angle at which the triceps brachii is placed under mechanical tension.

This does not apply to other exercises that can have their level of resistance changed in smaller increments, such as in the case of cable triceps extensions, and as such the best way to instill progressive overload in the triceps brachii within the context of an isolation exercise is to simply substitute the skull crusher instead.

Free Weight Skull Crusher Alternatives

The skull crusher is a free weight exercise primarily performed with the use of a dumbbell or barbell in order to provide the best possible training stimuli to the triceps brachii.

As such, when choosing a suitable alternative exercise to the skull crusher, exercisers and coaches may find that also utilizing a similar free weight exercise can provide the closest possible match to the sort of training stimuli and intensity that one would expect from the skull crusher.

Close Grip Bench Press

A compound exercise instead of the usual isolation type exercise found in most alternatives to the skull crusher, the close grip bench press is a variation of the barbell bench press - otherwise known as the king of upper body push exercises.

close grip bench press

The close grip bench press may act as a skull crusher alternative due to the rather intense manner in which it is capable of activating the triceps brachii, though the exerciser must take note of the fact that the close grip bench press also activates other muscle groups located in the upper body, such as the pectorals and the deltoids.

As such, when substituting the skull crusher (of which is usually reserved in the capacity of an auxiliary exercise), it is important for the exerciser or their athletic coach to alter their training program in order to prevent collective muscular fatigue from slowing down their recovery.

Triceps Extensions

Similar in form to the skull crusher save for the fact that the exerciser remains upright as they do so, the triceps extension is considered the somewhat safer cousin to the former exercise due to the more natural angle at which the resistance is placed on the elbow and shoulder joints.

tricep overhead extensions

The triceps extension, much like the skull crusher itself, is a closed kinetic chain movement with an isolation exercise capacity, allowing it to substitute the skull crusher in the exact same volume and level of intensity with practically no change in the workout routine.

Triceps extensions are generally performed with the use of a dumbbell or kettlebell, however, and as such may require some difference in equipment used if the exerciser normally performs skull crushers with a barbell or EZ curl bar instead.

Tricep Kickbacks

Also a triceps brachii isolation exercise making use of dumbbells or kettlebells, the triceps kickback is considerably close to the skull crusher in terms of intensity without presenting the same connective tissue damage related risks that one would normally find in the latter exercise.

dumbbell tricep kickback

A drawback to alternating the skull crusher with the triceps kickback is the fact that it is usually performed bilaterally, meaning that only one arm is worked out at a time and as such more time and energy will be spent as opposed to the unilateral skull crusher exercise.

However, the similarity in training stimuli and muscle group activation pattern means that the triceps kickback may be performed in a volume identical, if not superior, to that of the skull crusher exercise, allowing the same muscular hypertrophy and conditioning to occur with considerably lower injury risk.

As such, if alternating the skull crusher exercise with tricep kickbacks, a one to one volume ratio is more than sufficient, and no extra programming of the workout routine will be required.

Calisthenic/Bodyweight Skullcrusher Alternatives

If the alternation or substitution of the skull crusher exercise is due to a lack of available equipment for the exerciser, simply utilizing a calisthenic or bodyweight based exercise instead should readily solve this problem.

It is important for the coach and their exerciser to note, however, that the biomechanics, resistance and training stimuli imparted by bodyweight exercises differ somewhat from weighted resistance exercises, and as such results may not be exactly the same as expected.

Bench Dips

A classic bodyweight compound exercise only requiring a ledge or bench from which the exerciser will leverage their body from, the bench dip activates the triceps brachii alongside the latissimus dorsi, pectoral muscles and rear deltoid heads in a single simplistic movement.

bench dip

The exact intensity of the bench dip will depend on the exerciser’s own biomechanics as well as their body weight relative to their physical strength level, and as such no concrete ratio of volume is possible between individuals.

However, being a compound exercise that activates both the latissimus and pectoral muscle groups, alternating the skull crusher with bench dips in an exercise routine will require that some reduction of stimuli in these muscle groups be programmed out of said routine in order to avoid fatigue and overtraining.

Diamond Push Ups

A variation on the classic bodyweight pushup exercise, diamond pushups make an excellent substitution to the skull crusher without requiring any extra equipment or advanced exercise knowledge - with the sole difference between a diamond pushup and a regular push up being the hand placement of the exerciser.

Placing their palms closer together beneath their chest, the exerciser will cause a larger amount of the resistance from their bodyweight to be supported by the triceps brachii, imparting a larger level of training stimulus and reducing the fatigue on other muscle groups.

Nonetheless, however, diamond push ups are still considered an upper body compound exercise, and as such if an alternative isolation exercise is what is required in the workout program, diamond push ups are an unsuitable candidate.

Machine Based Skullcrusher Alternatives

The type of resistance exercises where triceps brachii isolation truly shines is in that of machine based movements, wherein the constant time under tension and adjustable angle of the machine allow the exerciser to truly achieve complete and effective triceps brachii activation.

As such, if equipment availability is not a concern in the substitution of the skull crusher exercise, choosing a machine based alternative exercise should be among one of the first choices on the exerciser’s list.

Rope Tricep Pushdowns

Performed with the use of a cable machine and a rope handle attachment or similar implement, the rope triceps pushdown provides excellent isolation type muscular activation to the triceps brachii in an intensity similar to that of the skull crusher - with the added benefit of also providing a constant time under tension.

cable tricep pushdown

As such, depending on the exerciser’s particular goals, the skull crusher may be substituted with the rope triceps pushdown in a direct one to one volume ratio, or even with a higher amount of volume per set of rope tricep pushdowns so as to induce further muscular hypertrophy and activation.

This particular exercise may even be modified so as to fit the exerciser’s own unique biomechanics, with different cable attachment handles altering the angle of resistance but imparting much the same intensity.

Cable Tricep Overhead Extensions

One of the best possible alternatives to the skull crusher exercise due to the extremely similarity in function, form, angle of resistance and recommended volume - the cable tricep overhead extension places the angle of resistance behind the head of the exerciser, as if they were performing a skull crusher but with the added benefits of reduced injury risk and constant time under tension.

cable tricep overhead extensions

Depending on the resistance and the exerciser’s own body proportions, the overhead cable tricep extension may be modified to either extend from below the exerciser’s torso or above their head, both of which provide their own benefits, especially in comparison to the angle of resistance of the skull crusher.

Much like the rope tricep pushdown exercise, the overhead cable triceps extension may substitute the skull crusher in a direct one to one ratio of volume, with no extra programming required in the workout routine.

If one is unable to choose between the variety of alternative exercises presented in this article, it is our recommendation that this one be picked first due to the fact that it is practically a direct upgrade to the skull crusher exercise itself.

Conclusions

The skull crusher exercise doubtless has a few distinct flaws that make finding an alternative exercise an advisable route to take - something that is rather easy to achieve, considering the wide array of possible substitutes.

However, it is important for the exerciser to first consult with their personal trainer or other exercise related professional prior to choosing an alternative exercise, especially if they have a history of elbow or shoulder injuries.

In the event that these alternative exercises are not suitable for the exerciser’s needs, however, it is possible to use a variation of the skull crusher or to modify it so as to meet said exerciser’s needs, removing the need for another exercise instead.

References

1. Gentil, Paulo & Oliveira, Elke & Junior, Valdinar & Carmo, Jake & Bottaro, Martim. (2007). Effects of Exercise Order on Upper-Body Muscle Activation and Exercise Performance. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association. 21. 1082-6. 10.1519/R-21216.1.

2. Wilk, Kevin E., et al. “Rehabilitation of the Overhead Athlete’s Elbow.” Sports Health, vol. 4, no. 5, Sept. 2012, pp. 404–414, doi:10.1177/1941738112455006.

3. Stasinaki, Angeliki-Nikoletta, Nikolaos Zaras, Spyridon Methenitis, Stavroula Tsitkanou, Argyro Krase, Angeliki Kavvoura, and Gerasimos Terzis. 2018. "Triceps Brachii Muscle Strength and Architectural Adaptations with Resistance Training Exercises at Short or Long Fascicle Length" Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology 3, no. 2: 28. https://doi.org/10.3390/jfmk3020028

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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