The skullcrusher is a triceps exercise involving an EZ bar and a bench.
It’s a favorite among weightlifters because it trains all three heads of the triceps to a high degree.
This is important because it ensures your triceps grow proportionally and helps you strengthen your entire triceps, which should boost your performance on pressing exercises like the bench and overhead press.
In this article, you’ll learn what the skullcrusher is, why it’s beneficial, how to perform it with proper form, the best skullcrusher alternatives, and more.
What Is the Skullcrusher?
The skullcrusher (also known as the lying triceps extension) is a triceps isolation exercise. It involves holding a barbell above your chest while lying supine on a bench, lowering the bar toward your head (hence the name) by bending at the elbows, then straightening your arms.
While you can use any type of barbell to perform the skullcrusher, most prefer to use an EZ bar. That’s because the EZ bar’s slanted grip puts less strain on your wrists, which makes the exercise more comfortable. As such, the EZ bar skullcrusher is the variation we’ll focus on in this article.
You don't need supplements to build muscle, lose fat, and get healthy. But the right ones can help. Take this quiz to learn which ones are best for you.
Find the Perfect Supplements for You in Just 60 Seconds
You don't need supplements to build muscle, lose fat, and get healthy. But the right ones can help. Take this quiz to learn which ones are best for you.Take the Quiz
Each triceps has three sections or “heads”: the lateral head, medial head, and long head.
Unlike some triceps exercises that emphasize one head over the others, research shows that the skullcrusher effectively trains all three heads to a high degree. This makes it ideal for gaining all-around triceps size and strength.
The skullcrusher also allows you to train your triceps when your other “pushing” muscles are tired.
This is important because during all of the best pushing exercises, like the bench press, overhead press, and incline bench press, your chest and shoulders bear the brunt of the load.
If your chest, shoulder, or push workouts only consist of compound exercises like these, your pecs and delts may fatigue faster than your triceps. In other words, while your chest and shoulders may be bushed after 6 sets of these exercises, your triceps may be able to handle a few more.
The skullcrusher is a helpful workaround in this scenario, as it allows you to train your triceps after your other pushing muscles are fried.
This ensures you train your triceps with the volume they need to grow without your chest or shoulders becoming a limiting factor.
These benefits are why I always include the skullcrusher in my own training and my fitness programs for men and women, Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger.
(And if you’d like more specific advice about what exercises to include in your training program to reach your health and fitness goals, take the Legion Strength Training Quiz, and in less than a minute, you’ll know the perfect strength training program for you. Click here to check it out.)
How many calories should you eat? What about "macros?" What foods should you eat? Take our 60-second quiz to get science-based answers to these questions and more.
Find the Best Diet for You in Just 60 Seconds
How many calories should you eat? What about "macros?" What foods should you eat? Take our 60-second quiz to get science-based answers to these questions and more.Take the Quiz
Skullcrusher: Muscles Worked
The skullcrusher trains all three heads of the triceps. Here’s how they look on your body:
The best way to learn how to perform the skullcrusher is to split the exercise into three parts: set up, descend, and extend.
1. Set Up
Load an EZ bar with weights and place it in front of a bench. Sit on the edge of the bench, lean forward, and grab the EZ bar with both hands about 6-to-10 inches apart and your palms facing away from you.
Hoist the EZ bar onto your thighs and then simultaneously lean backward on the bench, using your thighs to push the EZ bar over your chest.
Plant your feet firmly on the floor about shoulder-width apart, pull your shoulder blades down and back, arch your back, and extend your arms to push the EZ bar over your chest.
Take a breath of air, and lower your hands toward your face until the bar is directly over your forehead.
If this irritates your elbows, modify it by lowering the bar over the top of your head until it almost touches the bench at the bottom of each rep. This takes some of the stress off of your elbows and increases the range of motion of the exercise (which is generally good for muscle growth).
Once the bar is 1-to-2 inches from your forehead, reverse the movement and return to the starting position. Don’t straighten your elbows too slowly—the entire “extension” should be controlled but only take about a second.
Here’s how it should look when you put it all together:
. . . and it's yours for free. Take our 60-second quiz and learn exactly how many calories you should eat, what your "macros" should be, what foods are best for you, and more.
Some Nutritionists Charge Hundreds of Dollars for This Diet "Hack" . . .
. . . and it's yours for free. Take our 60-second quiz and learn exactly how many calories you should eat, what your "macros" should be, what foods are best for you, and more.Take the Quiz
The Best Skullcrusher Alternatives
1. Barbell Skullcrusher
The only difference between the barbell skullcrusher and the regular skullcrusher is that in the barbell skullcrusher, you use a straight bar instead of an EZ bar.
While most people find the EZ bar version more comfortable on their wrists and elbows than the barbell skullcrusher, the barbell variation is a viable option if your gym doesn’t have an EZ bar.
2. Dumbbell Skullcrusher
You perform the dumbbell skullcrusher (or “dumbbell lying triceps extension”) using dumbbells instead of an EZ bar, which changes the form slightly: in the EZ bar version, you lower the bar toward your forehead, whereas in the dumbbell version, you lower the dumbbells to either side of your head.
Using dumbbells instead of a barbell allows you to take a neutral grip (palms facing each other), which some people find more comfortable. It also means you don’t have to lower a weight directly over your head, which some people prefer.
However, controlling dumbbells requires more coordination than lifting a barbell, which means the dumbbell skullcrusher may not be suitable for new weightlifters.
3. Cable Skullcrusher
The main benefit of the cable skullcrusher exercise (or “cable lying triceps extension”) is that by using a cable, there’s constant tension on your triceps throughout each rep. This taxes your triceps slightly differently than the regular skullcrusher.
The Best Skullcrusher Workout
Here’s a workout that includes all the best exercises for training your “pushing” muscles, including the skullcrusher:
- Bench Press: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- Overhead Press: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- Incline Dumbbell Bench Press: 3 sets of 6-to-8 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- Skullcrusher: 3 sets of 6-to-8 reps with 2-to-3 min rest