If you are after big arms, then you need to be working your triceps hard and often. Of the three triceps heads, the long head can be the most stubborn. In this article, we’re going to talk about a great exercise to target the long head of the triceps — standing skull crushers.
In This Exercise:
- Target Muscle Group: Triceps
- Type: Hypertrophy, strength
- Mechanics: Isolation
- Equipment: EZ Curl Barbell
- Difficulty: Beginner to Advanced
The triceps is the muscle at the back of your upper arm and consists of three heads — the long, medial, and lateral heads. Of the three, the long head is the meatiest, accounting for around two-thirds of the mass of the triceps.
The job of the triceps is to extend the elbow, moving it from a bent to a straight arm position. All three triceps heads have the same insertion point, the olecranon, at the base of the ulna bone. However, they have different points of origin.
The long head originates on the scapula, just below the shoulder blade socket. Because it is attached to the shoulder blade, the long head can participate in pulling the upper arm downward. However, the other two muscles only participate in elbow extension. So, the long head is involved in both elbow extension and shoulder extension.
The Standing Skullcrusher targets the triceps. The backward bend of the arm, followed by a full extension moves the triceps through its full range of motion. The exercise works all three heads of the triceps. The overhead position, which involves shoulder extension, stretches the long head of the triceps more than exercises that are done with the arms by your sides.
Benefits of the Standing Skull Crusher
The skull crusher, also known as the triceps extension, is an effective exercise for building triceps mass. It has been a favorite of bodybuilders for decades and can be done with either a barbell or dumbbells.
This movement is early phase loaded, meaning it is relatively harder at the beginning than towards the end of the range of motion. This early phase loading follows the natural strength curve of the triceps muscle. It also helps move the triceps through its full range of motion.
The standard skull crusher is done lying on a bench. However, the standing skull crusher helps put a greater focus on the long triceps head due to the increased range of motion.
How to Do the Standing Skull Crushers
This is how to perform the lift with the correct form:
- Stand in front of a loaded EZ curl bar. Bend down to grab the bar with a narrow grip, palms facing toward your body. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart.
- Stand up to bring the bar up and over your head to full arm extension. Maintain a neutral spine, tense your core and squeeze your glutes to stabilize your body.
- At the starting position, your arms should be extended straight overhead and your elbows locked out.
- Lower the bar behind your head by bending at your elbows while keeping them pinned in position and as close to your head as possible.
- Lower the bar as close to the back of your neck as possible.
- Straighten the arms to return to the start position.
- Repeat for reps.
- Using an EZ curl bar will allow you to position your hands at an angle. This puts your wrists in a more ergonomically safe position when you are bringing the bar down behind your head.
- Do not use a weight that is too heavy. The idea here is to isolate the working muscle. Remember that triceps are small muscles. If you have to use momentum by kipping at the hips or swinging your torso, the weight is too heavy.
- Focus on keeping your elbows close to your head throughout the entire movement.
Related: Bodyweight Skull Crushers Guide: Anatomy, How-To, Variations
Some of the most common mistakes when performing the standing skull crusher include:
1. Flaring Out Elbows
When you flare your elbows to the sides, you take the emphasis off the triceps and onto the shoulder joint. You also bring your scapula and trapezius into the movement.
2. Back Swing
Many lifters make the mistake of using momentum to bring the weight back to the starting position. Doing so takes off the tension from your triceps. Your back should remain in a neutral upright position throughout the exercise.
3. Kipping of the Hips
Kipping or bucking the hips forward brings momentum into the movement to make it easier to get the weight up. Your hips should remain in a straight line with your shoulders throughout the movement.
Standing Skull Crushers Variations
Below are a few standing skull crusher variations and alternatives worth trying:
Dumbbell Standing Skull Crushers
You can also do the standing skull crusher with a pair of dumbbells. There are a couple of advantages of doing the exercise with dumbbells:
- With dumbbells, your hands are not locked in a set position, which can take unnecessary tension off your wrists, lower arms, and elbow joints.
- Dumbbells allow you to work each arm separately, meaning you can ensure overall triceps development through unilateral training. When you do the exercise with a barbell, the stronger side usually takes over, causing the bar to move at an angle throughout the lift, which can worsen the muscle imbalance. However, dumbbells can overcome this problem.
While it is true that you cannot lift as heavy when using dumbbells, it shouldn’t be a point of concern. Many people find that dumbbells allow them to follow a strict range of motion, which better targets the long triceps head. Remember, your muscle doesn’t know how heavy the weight is; all it knows is how hard it is being worked.
Seated Skull Crushers
The seated skull crusher is a stricter version of the exercise than the standing version. That is because, when you sit down, you remove the possibility of kipping your hips to assist the movement. You want to remove all momentum from this exercise.
You will probably find that you can’t lift as much weight on the seated skull crusher compared to the standing variations. But you will be doing the exercise with a better form, and that is what really matters.
Decline Skull Crushers
The standard way of doing the skull crusher is while lying on a flat bench. While this is an effective variation, you could improve the intensity by moving to a decline bench. Many people find it hard to squeeze the triceps at the top of the movement while performing the flat bench skull crusher.
When you use a decline bench with an angle of about 40 degrees, you place your humerus (upper arm) in a more natural position. In fact, it is similar to what it would be on a triceps pushdown, allowing for a more ideal direction of anatomical movement. Try doing the lying skull crusher on a decline bench, and you might experience better muscle engagement, especially at the top of the movement.
Read our in-depth guide on the decline skull crushers here.
Standing Skull Crushers Sets & Reps
I recommend using a wide range of reps on this triceps movement. That will allow you to work both the fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers for overall development. Here is a rep scheme you should give a try in your next triceps workout:
- Set One: 30 reps
- Set Two: 20 reps
- Set Three: 15 reps
- Set Four: 10 reps
- Set Five: 8 reps
- Set Six: 8 reps
Increase the resistance on every set. Your rest between sets should be 1-2 minutes.
Should you go heavy on the skull crusher?
You should use a weight that allows you to perform your reps with good form. Most people find that when they use a weight that limits them to eight or fewer reps on the skull crusher, their elbows tend to flare out, which takes the emphasis off the triceps.
What bar is best for skullcrushers?
The best bar for skullcrushers is the EZ curl bar. This bar lets you hold the bar in a semi-pronated position. This position is more natural and comfortable than the fully pronated grip you must use with a straight bar.
Do skullcrushers work the entire triceps?
Yes, the skull crusher does work the entire triceps. While all three heads are activated, the long head gets the greatest degree of engagement because it is attached to the scapula. The medial and lateral heads are only attached to the humerus.
The standing skull crusher is an effective exercise to add to your triceps training arsenal, especially if you want to bring out the long head of the triceps. We recommend using an EZ curl bar to put your wrists in a more comfortable position.
Do the standing skull crusher after triceps pushdowns and then finish with reverse dips, and your triceps will have no other option but to grow. Make sure, though, that you use a weight that will allow you to maintain proper form, keep your elbows in, and do not kip with your hips.
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