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The best skullcrusher alternative for triceps development revealed

Here are the best skull crusher alternatives after trying over 50 replacements.
Written By  James Jackson
Last Updated on 3rd September 2021
A man demonstrating some skullcrusher alternatives and replacements

The skullcrusher is a brilliant muscle-building movement for strengthening the tricep muscle—especially for the long head.

But sometimes, skull crushers simply aren't feasible.

Perhaps they hurt your elbows? Or maybe you don't have a bar or any weights?

Whatever the case may be, this guide will help you to select the best skullcrusher alternative for your particular situation.

Top 7 skullcrusher alternatives

We tried over 50 different exercises in order to pick the best alternative for skull crushers. Some of the movements are like-for-like replacements, whereas others work your triceps from a different angle.

1. Diamond push-ups

A man doing diamond push ups for his triceps

Diamond push-ups are accessible and remarkably effective for building the triceps. If you can't get to the gym to do skull crushers, then diamond push-ups are your best bet for growing your triceps at home.

Although they're harder to load incrementally than skull crushers, you can put objects on your back to increase the difficulty of diamond push-ups once the bodyweight version becomes too easy.

A weighted vest is ideal here because you can implement consistent progressive overload to really bulk up your triceps by making small weight increases.

The downside of diamond push-ups is that, unlike skull crushers, they're not particularly effective for working the long head of the triceps. This is because the movement is very elbow-centric since you can't bring your shoulders back (like you can in a skull crusher) to really stretch your triceps during the eccentric phase of the rep.

2. Improvised skull crusher

A man demonstrating a suitable skull crusher alternative for the triceps

If you want to do skull crushers without a bar, then the improvised skull crusher is the way to go.

This is the most versatile skull crusher alternative on the list because you can perform it with any object that fits in your hands.

As such, the improvised skull crusher is ideal if you're training at home.

You can use water bottles if you want to train your triceps isolaterally to ensure that both sides are receiving similar amounts of stimulation (great for developing muscle symmetry).

But in reality, any weighted object that you can comfortably grip will do.

That might be a vacuum cleaner, or it might be a backpack with some heavy books inside. The only limits are your creativity and the strength of your triceps.

3. Overhead extensions

A man doing a standing EZ bar overhead extension

Overhead extensions are a like-for-like skull crusher replacement and an excellent one at that.

Like skull crushers, overhead extensions are a multi-joint movement in that they have you perform elbow extension (a function of all three tricep heads) while your shoulders are in flexion.

This elevated shoulder position increases the recruitment of the long head of your triceps because the long head performs both shoulder extension and elbow extension.

The only downside of overhead extensions is that the shoulder position can cause rotator cuff strains for some people, especially those who have poor shoulder flexibility.

4. Bench dips

A man performing some tricep dips

Bench dips are a great skullcrusher substitute for many people because you can do them almost anywhere. And, since the resistance is based on your body weight, there's no need for extra equipment or a large workout area to enjoy their benefits.

You can perform tricep dips on a chair, sofa, or off the side of your bed.

And you can make the exercise harder—without adding weights—by elevating your feet to increase the percentage of your body weight that's used as resistance.

Bench dips, of course, aren't a like-for-like skull crushers alternative because they only train the triceps with elbow extension.

So while dips shouldn't be overlooked, you still need to pair them with a direct skullcrusher replacement if you want to maximize the hypertrophy of your triceps.

5. Tricep pushdowns

A man performing a cable rope pushdown for his triceps

If there's ever an elbow-friendly skull crusher alternative, it's tricep pushdowns.

This mass-building cable exercise completely isolates your triceps and offers plenty of variation via different grips and attachments to work all three heads.

Pushdowns are great for gaining strength because cable machine weight stacks typically increase in very manageable increments. As such, you don't have to drastically reduce your reps in order to increase the resistance when you perform pushdowns with cables.

The drawback of pushdowns is that you need access to a cable machine (so most likely access to a gym as well) to perform them. So if you don't have much equipment, then there are definitely better skull crusher alternatives out there.

6. Close grip bench press

A man performing a close grip bench press to work his triceps

While the close grip bench press isn't a straight skull crusher swap, it's one of the best alternatives for overloading your triceps with plenty of resistance to make them bigger and stronger.

Besides bulking up your triceps, the close grip bench press will power up your overhead pressing and bench press strength by improving your lockout.

So if you want to increase your compound pressing strength, then the close grip bench press is the best exercise for the job.

Like many of the other alternatives, however, the close grip bench press isn't optimal for training the long head of the triceps (though it's certainly still good).

7. Tricep kickbacks

A man doing a tricep kickback with dumbbells

Tricep kickbacks might not seem like the most obvious skullcrusher alternative because of how much you need to lighten the weight.

However, if there's one skullcrusher replacement that works the long head better than the rest, it's tricep kickbacks (and overhead extensions).

This is because the long head of the triceps performs shoulder extension as well as elbow extension.

So when you combine these functions in the same exercise, you get incredibly high levels of long head activation. That's why the kickback peak contraction is so intense; you're performing elbow extension while your shoulders are in extension themselves.

In other words, you're fulfilling both functions of the long head, the most crucial of the three tricep heads for gaining mass due to its size.

How to pick a replacement for skullcrushers

While there's no one alternative to skull crushers that's best for everyone, there are still some guidelines that you can follow to select the most effective exercise for you and your training goals.

Equipment availability

A man demonstrating a good skull crusher replacement

As mentioned, overhead extensions are an excellent skull crusher alternative because they're a like-for-like replacement.

But if you don't have access to weights, then you can't do tricep extensions the traditional way.

But you can still do extensions and skull crushers without a bar by swapping weights for any household object that provides enough resistance, such as a large water bottle or a loaded backpack.

Similarly, if you don't have much equipment, then you'll need to do more diamond push-ups and tricep dips to accumulate enough training volume to trigger hypertrophy.

Training goals

A man flexing his muscular triceps

Skull crushers are a great exercise, but they're by no means necessary unless you want to build maximum mass.

And even then, you can still maximize hypertrophy by switching them out for a direct replacement.

On the other hand, if you just want your triceps to be moderately muscular, then you can achieve your goal with basic exercises like push-ups and improvised skull crushers.

You can also simply do more training volume by performing extra sets of dips and push-ups in order to compensate for their reduced long head activation.

Similarly, if you want to get as strong as possible, then close grip bench presses are the way to go because they have more carryover than extensions and pushdowns to other compound presses.

Elbow health

Man with elbow pain

If you're experiencing elbow pain from skullcrushers, then it makes sense to seek out alternative exercises that are more-joint friendly.

You can, of course, modify your skull crusher technique to make the movement more comfortable.

For example, lowering the bar behind your head rather than to your face involves the shoulder joint more and thus takes tension off your elbows.

In a similar vein, if you have poor connective tissue recovery, then you'll want to stick to less elbow-intensive exercises like pushdowns, or at the very least, you'll need to modify skull crushers and the like to make them more tolerable.

The verdict: Which skullcrusher alternative is the best?

The best skullcrusher alternative primarily depends on your goals.

If you want to maximize triceps hypertrophy, then you need to train all three heads. For the long head, this involves combining elbow extension (a feature of any tricep exercise) with shoulder movement.

So in this regard, overhead extensions and kickbacks are the best alternatives for skull crushers because they're the most similar in terms of muscle activation.

If you want to boost your bench press strength and compound pressing power, however, then the close grip bench press is the way to go.

James Jackson
James Jackson is a personal trainer who uses his expertise in strength and conditioning to create helpful workout tutorials that show fitness enthusiasts how to build muscle while staying safe in the gym. He draws on the latest sports science data as well as tried and tested training techniques to get the best results for his clients without them having to live in the gym.
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