Most gym-goers want bigger, stronger arms. Bulging baseball-shaped biceps and horseshoe-shaped triceps will add a lot to your physique and single you out as someone who takes their workouts seriously. Ask any kid to show you a muscle, and invariably they’ll raise their arms and show you their biceps. Even children understand the importance and appeal of big guns!
There are plenty of different biceps builders to choose from but, when it comes to triceps training, a lot of exercisers limit themselves to a few sets of cable pushdowns. That’s a shame because, when it comes to arms size, your triceps are actually more important than your biceps.
The truth is that your triceps make up about two-thirds of your upper arm mass while the biceps only make up one third. If you want bigger arms, you need to prioritize your triceps training.
One of the best exercises you can do for your triceps is supine triceps extensions, more commonly called skull crushers.
The triceps, full name triceps brachii, is located on the back of your upper arm. It has two main functions – an extension of the elbow joint and extension of the shoulder joint. The word triceps means three-headed muscle.
The three heads are:
The long head
The lateral head
The medial head
The long head crosses the shoulder and the elbow and affects both of these joints. The lateral and medial heads only cross the elbow.
While all triceps exercises work all three heads, it is possible to emphasize one head at a time by altering the position of your upper arm. Because of this, your triceps routine should include exercises with your upper arms by your sides (e.g., pushdowns), out in front of you (e.g., skull crushers), and overhead (e.g., overhead triceps extensions).
How to do skull crushers properly
Skull crushers work your triceps through a wide range of motion using moderate to heavyweights. According to studies, this is a perfect recipe for muscle building. However, to get the best from this or any other exercise, you must do them correctly. Doing skull crushers with incorrect form increases the stress on your joints and also transfers tension onto other muscles. This will make the exercise less effective.
How to do skull crushers correctly:
- Lie on a flat bench and hold a barbell or EZ Bar with a shoulder-width, overhand grip. Place your feet flat on the floor and brace your abs.
- Press the bar up to arms’ length, so your upper arms are perpendicular to the floor. In other words, your upper arms should be vertical.
- Without moving your upper arms, bend your elbows and lower the bar down to your forehead. You can either lightly touch your head with the bar or stop half an inch above it. Keep your elbows tucked in and your wrists straight.
- Lift the bar back up to the start position by extending your elbows only; do not move your shoulders or your upper arms. Repeat for the desired number of reps.
Safety note: This exercise is called skull crushers for a good reason; you could injure yourself if you lower the bar too fast or are unable to complete a rep. Always have a spotter on hand to help you in case you run into trouble.
Skull crusher variations
The standard variation of skull crushers is an awesome exercise and one that no bodybuilder ever outgrows. However, there are several different variations of this exercise that you can use to spice up your triceps workouts and produce even better results. In studies, exercise variety has proven to be as important as loading for muscle hypertrophy.
1. Dumbbell skull crushers
Using dumbbells allows you to lower the weight below the level of your head. The further the load has to travel, the more work your muscles need to do, and the harder the exercise becomes. Use a neutral palms-in grip to add even more variety to your triceps workout.
As an added benefit, dumbbell skull crushers are safer than the barbell and EZ Bar version. If you are unable to complete a rep, you can simply lower the dumbbells down to the side of your head, avoiding any kind of skull-crushing accident.
2. Alternating skull crushers
Another dumbbell skull crusher exercise, this variation increases your time under tension per set. In other words, it forces your muscles to work for longer. This increases lactic acid production for a bigger muscle-building pump. This variation also makes light weights feel heavier, which means it’s easier on your joints while still providing your muscles with the stimulus they need to grow.
How to do it:
1. Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in each hand and lie back on a flat exercise bench. Press the dumbbells up to arms’ length with your palms facing inward. Keeping your upper arms perpendicular to the floor, lower the weights down to either side of your head. This is your starting position.
2. Keeping your right arm stationary, extend your left arm until it is straight, and then lower it back to the starting position. Next, extend your right arm while keeping your left arm stationary. Continue alternating arms for the duration of your set.
3. Decline skull crushers
Doing skull crushers on a decline bench means you have to use the long head of your triceps to hold your arm in position against the pull of gravity. Decline Skull crushers are a total triceps exercise that works all three heads of the triceps muscle. Triceps brachii, the proper name for the triceps, actually means three-headed arm muscle.
Set your bench to a 10 to 30-degree decline. The steeper the angle, the harder you’ll have to work to hold your upper arms in position. You can do decline skull crushers using a kettlebell, barbell, EZ bar, dumbbells, or a low cable machine as preferred.
Try them all and see which one feels most effective. Don’t be surprised if, the next day, you feel soreness at the very top of your triceps. That’s where the long head of triceps attaches to the back of your shoulder.
4. Rolling skull crushers
This skull crusher variation combines three exercises into one – regular skull crushers, pullovers, and close grip bench presses. It allows you to use more weight than usual, which will help you build muscle strength as well as size. You can do this exercise with a barbell, EZ bar, or dumbbells.
How to do it:
1. Lie on your back and press your weight(s) up to arms’ length. Keeping your upper arms stationary, lower the weight slowly down to your head.
2. Keeping your arms bent, pull the weight(s) forward and over your chest.
3. Press the weight(s) up to arms’ length and return to the starting position.
4. Bend your elbows and perform another rep.
5. Skull crusher and close grip bench press superset
Skull crushers are an isolation exercise. That means they only work one joint at a time. This means that, once your triceps fatigue and fail, your set will come to an end. However, you can extend your set and continue working your triceps for longer by swapping from skull crushers to close grip bench presses. Close grip bench presses are a multi-joint compound exercise. This means other muscles come into play that will assist your fatigued triceps.
To do this exercise:
1. Do your skull crushers as usual, continuing your set until your triceps fail, and you are unable to complete any more reps.
2. Without resting, pull the bar over your chest and switch to close grip bench presses. Rep out until you are unable to continue.
There is nothing wrong with cable push downs, and your triceps get a lot of work when you do push-ups, bench presses, and shoulder presses. But, if you are serious about developing your arms, you must pay attention to your triceps, working them with a variety of exercises and using several different set and rep schemes.
Don’t just do three sets of ten or four sets of eight – mix it up! Combining different set and rep schemes with a range of exercises is the best way to build muscle fast.
- PubMed: The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training https://www.bodybuilding-natural.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/1_158907702.pdf
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: Changes in Exercises Are More Effective Than in Loading Schemes to Improve Muscle Strength https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/fulltext/2014/11000/Changes_in_Exercises_Are_More_Effective_Than_in.9.aspx