Ever wondered, “Why Do Skull Crushers Hurt My Elbows?”
I think we can all agree that skull crushers are an awesome tricep exercise.
However, I’m sure I’m not the only one that occasionally feels an intense pain in the elbows when doing skull crushers.
So, what exactly is going on here?
Why Do Skull Crushers Hurt My Elbows?
The main reason that skull crushers hurt your elbows is because of an incorrect arm position. Your upper arms should be slightly stretched back, as opposed to being vertical. The bar should start more in line with the top of your head, which places less stress on the elbows and creates a greater stretch in the long head of the tricep.
1. Don’t Hold The Bar Above Your Face During Skull Crushers
Your form when performing skull crushers may actually appear fine to you and others.
And yet your elbows still hurt.
What I often see is that many people keep their upper arms perpendicular to the body throughout the movement.
However, it is this “arm angle” that tends to place greater stress on the elbow joint.
For me, I prefer to have my upper arms slightly back.
I would guess that my upper arms form around a 120 degree angle to the body, as opposed to the standard 90 degree angle.
So, in reality the bar is probably over the top of my head, or just behind, rather than over my face.
This additional angle in the upper arms immediately takes the stress off the elbows.
Another fantastic reason to have this extra upper arm angle is that it stretches the long head of the tricep to greater effect.
This in turn works the triceps much better.
I think many of us are used to performing the bench press or close-grip bench press by having our arms at a perfect 90 degree angle to the body.
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However, this small shift in angle when performing skull crushers will make all the difference.
Plus, it will help to protect the elbow joints.
How To: Skull Crushers
2. Never Do Skull Crushers With a Straight Bar
There’s a reason that the vast majority of gyms have EZ curl bars.
It doesn’t matter if your gym of choice is modern, traditional, old school, spit-and-sawdust, or commercial.
If you look hard enough you’ll find an EZ bar.
I’ll sometimes watch people perform skull crushers or some other type of tricep extension exercise with a straight bar.
And, in truth, I find myself wincing.
Admittedly, the EZ bar is probably more commonly associated with protecting the wrist joint.
You’ll typically see people using the EZ for a variety of bicep curls and tricep extension exercises.
However, the EZ bar can also go a long way to protect the elbow joints too.
If you look at the joints that run down the arm, from top-to-bottom, you’ll notice that they are all capable of different things.
Plus, they have a varying range of motion.
The shoulder joint has a ball-and-socket, so you can literally swing your arms around wildly without causing any issues to the shoulders.
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Try doing the same with the elbow or wrist joints.
If you succeed, you’re either seriously double-jointed, or you’ve just fractured something.
When I do watch people perform skull crushers with a straight bar, it’s not uncommon to see them rubbing their wrists or elbows straight afterwards with a grimace on their face.
So, please do yourself a favour, do not perform skull crushers with a straight bar.
3. Try Skull Crushers With Dumbbells & A Hammer-Grip
You can actually take even more stress off the elbow joints by dumping the bars altogether.
I have previously spoken about doing pull ups with a neutral-grip if you feel joint discomfort.
The neutral-grip, also known as the hammer-grip, actually takes a huge amount of stress off the joints when performing a wide variety of exercises.
The hammer-grip basically means that your palms are facing each other.
And in this position your elbows joints are allowed to literally “hang” naturally.
Going back to pull ups once more, if you think about standard pull ups and chin ups, you’re having to almost “twist” the joints slightly.
The shoulder, elbow, and wrist joints have to all move slightly out of their natural position in order for you to grasp the bar.
The exact same thing occurs when you perform conventional skull crushers with a bar.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t perform bar-related skull crushers (well you can stop straight-bar skull crushers right now please).
However, it’s important to remember that the joints will generally be in an “unnatural” position throughout.
So, in the long-term this may lead to certain joint issues.
A much easier solution is to vary the type of skull crushers you perform.
So, not only are you giving the joints a well-earned rest, but the variety could actually help to spark some new muscle growth.
If you perform skull crushers with dumbbells, while using a hammer-grip, you can kill two birds with one stone.
The joints get to rest, and the different grip and apparatus can help to stimulate new growth.
How to Skull Crushers With Dumbbells
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4. Reduce the Load & Aim For Higher Reps
There’s no two ways about it, most of us try to lift far too much weight.
Basically, ego takes over.
I’ve said many times before that I’d much rather perform an exercise with perfect form, thus ensuring that the target muscle really does get worked.
When you have too much weight on the bar, irrespective of the exercise, there is a tendency to use all the surrounding muscles and momentum to lift the weight.
If you’re not hitting the target muscle is there really any point in doing the exercise?
I also think that there are certain exercises that are far better suited to heavy loads and low reps.
Whereas, other exercises work much better with a lighter load and higher reps.
As an example, I typically always perform deadlift variations with a heavy load and fewer reps.
I would say that skull crushers are definitely in the other corner for me.
In fact, I can’t remember the last time I did skull crushers for less than 10-12 reps, and I generally aim for 15 reps.
If you think about it, the triceps get a great deal of heavy load, low rep work with most pushing exercises.
Try telling me that the triceps aren’t working hard during heavy bench presses or overhead presses.
So, I always view skull crushers as the perfect opportunity to get a high volume of reps in and really work the target muscle.
So, please leave your ego at the door, reduce the weight, and aim for more reps.
Your elbows will thank you for it.
5. Avoid Doing Skull Crushers For an Extended Period
I’ve already spoken about the stress that the joints go through with certain exercises.
This typically occurs because the joints aren’t “hanging” in their natural position.
And this is true of performing skull crushers, although the dumbbell hammer-grip version does provide some light relief.
However, I always think that any exercise that requires this “unnatural” joint placement shouldn’t be done for an extended period.
Basically, perform the exercise at a maximum of 2-3 times a week, for up to 6-8 weeks, and then take a break from the movement.
I’d include the vast majority of upper body compound and isolation exercises in this.
And once again, skull crushers are no different.
If you asked me what my favourite tricep builders are, I would include skull crushers, as well as close-grip bench press and dips.
Plus, there are many more isolation tricep exercises you can use.
So, my advice would be to not overdo it with skull crushers.
Move onto another tricep builder after a couple of months and give the elbows a bit of a break.
6 Best Tricep Exercises
Feeling your elbows hurt during skull crushers is a fairly common occurrence.
But, as you can see there are various reasons for this.
The most important point for me is to not have the upper arms at 90 degrees to the body when performing skull crushers.
This simply adds to elbow stress.
Just let the upper arms stretch back slightly.
Not only will you relieve the stress on the elbow joints, but you’ll also get a far greater stretch in the triceps.
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Hi, I’m Partha, the founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I’m someone who’s been passionate about exercise and nutrition for more years than I care to remember. I’ve studied, researched, and honed my skills for a number of decades now. So, I’ve created this website to hopefully share my knowledge with you. Whether your goal is to lose weight, burn fat, get fitter, or build muscle and strength, I’ve got you covered.