Why Am I Feeling Skull Crushers in My Chest? (Explained!)

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Are you feeling skull crushers in your chest?

Don’t worry, you’re not alone, as I’ve certainly experienced this, and I know many others have too.

Skull crushers are without doubt a fantastic exercise for the triceps.

However, I know only too well that you may not always feel the movement just in your triceps.

And this is typically when you start to feel skull crushers in your chest.

In this article, I’ll explain why this is happening and what you can do to fix it.

The main reason you’re feeling skull crushers in your chest is because you’re using too much weight. This will generally mean that you’ll have difficulty in maintaining a fixed elbow and upper arm position, which in turn means that you have turned the movement into a pressing exercise. Furthermore, if you’re extending your arms well behind your head, you may have turned the movement into a pullover, which will automatically engage the chest muscles even more.

You’re Using Too Much Weight

It’s usually the case that if you feel an exercise somewhere that you’re not supposed to, then you’re probably using too much weight.

I totally understand the principles of progressive overload and the willingness to add more weight.

However, it makes no sense to perform any exercise with poor form.

In fact, you’re more likely to work the target muscles, thus increasing strength and size, but adhering to great form.

So, first things first, reduce the amount of weight that you’re using for skull crushers.

A Man Performing Skull Crushers

When you initially put your arms back into the skull crusher position you’ll usually feel a slight pulling on the ligaments and tendons around your pecs.

So, in effect, your chest has already been activated to some extent.

This is absolutely fine, but when you’re using more weight than you can handle, you’ll no longer be working the triceps as well.

What usually happens here is that your elbows will drop and your upper arms will move.

Realistically, you have now turned skull crushers into a pressing movement, which can place more stress on the elbows.

And this will immediately activate the pecs even more.

Whenever you perform skull crushers you’ll want your upper arms and elbows to remain in a fixed position.

You’ve Turned the Skull Crusher into a Pullover

Something else to consider is that you may have potentially turned the movement into a pullover.

There’s often confusion about exactly where you should lower the bar too during skull crushers.

For me, the clue is in the name, and you should lower the bar to either your forehead, chin, or nose.

Now, you can actually perform skull crushers by lowering the bar behind your head.

However, in reality, this is exactly the same as a lying tricep extension.

When you lower the bar towards your face you’ll typically activate all three tricep heads equally.

But, once the bar goes behind your head, the long head of the tricep is stimulated much more.

Plus, you’ll get a greater stretch in the long head, as well as more time-under-tension.

Now, this is all well and good when it comes to working your triceps.

However, there is a fine line between perfectly training your triceps and turning skull crushers into more of a chest and lat exercise.

Once more this comes down to keeping your upper arms in a fixed position.

If you allow your upper arms to move back you are in effect performing the pullover exercise.

And this will immediately bring your chest far more into play.

This is also why I feel that you should perfect your technique with a lighter weight.

In fact, I see nothing wrong with performing skull crushers with extremely high reps, while you get your form on-point.

I have absolutely no issues with performing a few sets of 15-25 reps of skull crushers.

Not only will using a lighter weight ensure that your form is good, the high reps will also flood your triceps with blood.

Plus, adhering to perfect form will also mean that you’re less likely to feel skull crushers in your chest.

Keep Your Shoulder to Elbow Line Perpendicular

As you can probably tell, feeling skull crushers in your chest typically comes down to poor form.

In reality, when performing any arm exercise, biceps or triceps, you are either flexing or extending the elbow joint.

And to ensure that you do this correctly, it’s important that your elbow doesn’t move.

A great way to ensure you’re doing this during skull crushers is to maintain a perpendicular shoulder to elbow line.

In other words, once more, you’ll want to ensure that your upper arms remain in a fixed position.

Now, you may have seen people who typically allow their upper arms to angle back slightly.

This is usually the case when you’re taking the bar behind your head.

There is actually no problem in performing skull crushers this way, but this will largely depend on your shoulder flexibility and mobility.

If you have poor shoulder mobility, as soon as you take your upper arms past perpendicular, you’ll automatically feel a pulling on the chest and shoulder area.

This, once again, is down to the connective tissues around your chest and shoulders.

You can of course train cartilage, ligaments, and tendons to become stronger, but during skull crushers is not the time to do this.

Basically, when your shoulders and elbows are no longer in line, and you have poor shoulder mobility, it’s likely that the connective tissues, as opposed to the muscles, are doing all the work.

Your Triceps Are Weak

I guess this ties in with everything I’ve said so far, and this is especially true when it comes to using too much weight.

That being said, your triceps will generally be the limiting factor for the big pressing movements, e.g. bench press and overhead press.

However, in the same vein, if your triceps are weak and you’re performing tricep-specific exercises, then your other pushing muscles will generally take over.

So, in effect, you may be going through the motions of the skull crusher exercise, but you’re not really using your triceps to move the weight.

An obvious cue to see if this is happening is if your wrists bend backwards when performing the movement.

You may initially view this as poor wrist strength or simply poor form, but it’s generally because your triceps can’t take the load.

Therefore, as I say, a variety of other muscles (and use of poor form) will usually come into play.

So, while skull crushers are a fantastic exercise, I urge you to focus more on your triceps, and add some variety.

Key Learning Points

  • You’ll mainly feel skullcrushers in your chest due to using too much weight.
  • If you use more weight than you can handle you’ll find it more difficult to maintain a fixed elnow and upper arm position.
  • If you take the bar too far behind the back of the head you have effectively turned the movement into a pullover, which will immediately activate the chest more.
  • Weak triceps will mean that your triceps fatigue fairly quickly when performing skullcrushers. Ths in turn means that it’s likely that other supporting muscles will take over, e.g. chest, shoulders, etc.
  • If you always feel skullcrushers in your chest you should aim to perform a variety of tricep exercises to build up size and strength.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here’s some frequently asked questions (and answers) about skullcrushers.

Are SkullCrushers Considered Bad?

Skullcrushers aren’t inherently bad, although they do seem to cause many people a lot of problems.

The main issue with skullcrushers is typically elbow pain, but there is a great deal of involvement between the tricep tendon and the elbow tendon.

However, for the vast majority of people if their form is good this shouldn’t cause issues.

That being said, if you have a history of elbow pain then skullcrushers are probably best avoided.

One of the main issues with form is movement.

Realistically, nothing above your forearms should move, therefore your upper arms, elbows, shoulders, and torso should remain in a fixed position throughout your set.

Remember that skullcrushers are an isolation, single-joint exercise, so you need to keep as still as possible.

Personally, I absolutely love skullcrushers, simply because my preferred method of training is to activate the long head of the tricep

For me, this is best achieved by bringing a weight from above or slightly behind you.

But, I realise that some people may feel discomfort whenever they perform skullcrushers, so as I say, it would be better to focus your tricep training elsewhere.

Are Skull Crushers Better Lying Down or Sitting Up?

In truth, a “skullcrusher” performed either sitting or standing up is actually the tricep extension exercise.

With tricep extensions the bar should always go behind the head.

Skullcrushers are a type of lying tricep extension, although you can lower the bar to a variety of places.

Basically, you can lower the bar behind your head (which would then be a lying tricep extension), to your forehead, face, or chin.

That being said, when you lower the bar behind your head you actually reduce the stress placed on the elbows.

So, if you’re someone who suffers with elbow issues you may be better off performing the movement seated or standing.

However, for me, I’ve always found the seated or standing variations quite uncomfortable.

I believe this has to do with my overall shoulder mobility.

But, when lying down I definitely don’t feel my shoulders as much, and I guess this is because my shoulders and torso are supported by the bench.

Realistically, whether seated or lying down you’ll hit the long head of the tricep, so it’s just a case of using the movement that you personally find more comfortable and effective.

Something else you can do if you have elbow discomfort is to perform skullcrushers (and tricep extensions) with dumbbells.

The neutral grip will actually make the movement far easier on your joints.

Should You Go Heavy on SkullCrushers?

You can train skullcrushers for both strength and size.

However, I prefer not to go too heavy with skullcrushers.

The movement itself places a fair amount of stress on the wrists and elbows, and this will only become greater with the more weight that you use.

Furthermore, I like to train my triceps (and biceps) with high reps and high volume in order to get the blood flowing and achieve a pump.

So, I would much rather be performing skullcrushers in the 8-15 rep range, which means that I won’t go particularly heavy.

My main “heavy” lift for triceps will usually be close-grip bench press, which I’ll perform first.

So, this may involve 5 sets of 5 heavy reps.

The remainder of my triceps training, which will typically involve skullcrushers, will be performed with lighter weights and higher reps.

Admittedly, this is a matter of personal opinion, but it’s what I find works best for me.

Should Skullcrushers Go Behind Your Head or to Your Forehead?

As I’ve mentioned above, realistically if the bar goes behind your head (whether sitting, standing or lying down) this is in fact a tricep extension.

The skullcrusher exercise should really be lowered to your forehead, as the name implies.

However, there is nothing wrong with lowering the bar to your forehead, face, or chin.

That being said, this obviously increases the potential danger of the exercise, as one false slip and you’ll end up doing a lot of damage to your face.

Furthermore, I actually prefer taking skullcrushers behind my head (so a lying tricep extension in reality), as this provides the greatest stretch to the tricep long head.

And it is the long head of the tricep that is responsible for producing the most mass.

But, as I say, as the name implies, skullcrushers are usually lowered towards your forehead.

This also allows the elbow joint to completely close which should allow you to use more weight.

However, often with more weight it becomes more of a pressing movement than an extension.

As with most things, find what works best for you, what feels right, and what seems to be most effective.

Basically, if you’re stretching the long head of the tricep under a load you have the potential for growth, regardless of where you lower the weight to.

Should Skullcrushers be Performed on a Flat or Incline Bench?

You’ll generally see gym-goers perform skullcrushers on either a flat bench or an incline bench.

But, is one better than the other?

In truth, this comes down to a matter of personal preference and which you find most comfortable.

But unfortunately, there is a lot of differing advice given about which one is better.

Firstly, incline bench skullcrushers should reduce the stress on your elbows, however, I know that some people claim that incline hurts their elbows more.

Furthermore, using an incline bench allows for a slighter wider grip.

But, what you may find when using an incline bench is that other supporting muscles are also activated to a greater extent.

So, performing skullcrushers on a flat bench should activate and isolate the long head of the triceps much better.

However, this also means that you’ll apply more stress to the elbow joint.

Additionally, a flat bench should allow you to use a slightly narrower grip, which helps with keeping your elbows tucked in.

For me, I’m not entirely sure where I first read or heard this, but I remember learning that decline bench was the best way to go with skullcrushers.

I can confirm that I now always perform skullcrushers on a decline bench, which hits my triceps fantastically well, and doesn’t cause me any joint issues.

Should You Do Skullcrushers With a Wide or Narrow Grip?

Skullcrushers are best performed with a shoulder-width grip.

However, when using a barbell you have the ability to go narrow or to go wide.

Neither one is better than the other, but rather what feels comfortable for you.

Furthermore, you don’t want your elbows to flare out to the sides, which can occur with too wide a grip.

If you want to use a wider grip for skullcrushers then it’s best to do them with an EZ-bar rather than a barbell.

Not only does this allow for a wider grip, but the bar will feel better balanced in your hands, and it will also reduce potential elbow flare.

Additionally, using an EZ-bar for skullcrushers places far less stress on the wrists.

I have always preferred to use a shoulder-width grip and an EZ-bar, as this is what is most comfortable for me.

I’ve mentioned that my favoured strength-building movement for triceps is close-grip bench press.

This allows me to go heavy and train in the lower rep ranges.

However, I know that a lot of people struggle with the exercise, especially feeling the target muscles working.

So, I have also written about exactly why you potentially can’t feel your triceps during close-grip bench press.

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