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.
Feeling Skull Crushers in Chest
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.
1. 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.
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.
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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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
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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.
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So, while skull crushers are a fantastic exercise, I urge you to focus more on your triceps, and add some variety.
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So, as you can see, there are a variety of reasons why you feel skull crushers in your chest.
However, in truth, this mainly comes down to using too much weight, as well as not maintaining a fixed elbow and upper arm position.
Furthermore, if you take the bar too far beyond the back of your head, you may have inadvertently turned the movement into a pullover.
This will automatically engage the chest much more.
Additionally, this could also be a sign of weak triceps.
Basically, your triceps fatigue very quickly, so your other supporting muscles, e.g. your chest, take over.
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Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.