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November 07, 2021 8 min read

Whether you are a professional bodybuilder or your average weightlifter, you probably know how important it is to hit your upper body often. Everyone wants big and shapely arms, but you’ll need to work hard for that. Barbell skull crushers are a great place to start.

Skull crushers are a popular workout to maximize muscle growth in your triceps.

They sound intimidating but don’t worry, you won’t actually be crushing your skull. Read on to learn more about this move and why you should incorporate it into your workout routine.

What Are Barbell Skull Crushers?

Barbell skull crushers are a lying triceps extension exercise that effectively isolates your triceps. You perform them by laying on your back, gripping your barbell across your chest with your palms facing outward, and lowering the bar towards your face by bending at the elbow. We’ll go into the details of what this should look like below.

Barbell skull crushers are a variation of skull crushers, an exercise popular amongst your average gym goer as well as famously ripped people. Christian Bale incorporated them into his  workout when prepping for his role as Batman. So, if you want to get shredded like Batman, start working on your skull crushers.

How To Do Barbell Skull Crushers

Before you get started, complete a dynamic warm-up to loosen up your arms and prep your triceps for some serious work. You’ll need a bench and a barbell for this workout, so get your equipment in order before we begin.


  1. Starting Position: Start lying on your back on your bench with your feet on the floor. Grip your barbell with your hands about shoulder-width apart and your palms facing away from you. Extend your arms all the way, locking out your elbows with the barbell suspended above your chest.
  2. Lower the barbell towards your forehead, keeping your elbows as tucked in as possible. Be sure to keep a tight grip on your barbell as you bring the weight down.
  3. Once the barbell reaches your forehead, lower the bar behind your head in a slow and controlled motion. You will feel your shoulders lower and your arms roll back as you complete this step. You should feel it in the back of your arm.
  4. Pause at the bottom.
  5. Lift the bar back to your starting position, following the same path of movement that the bar took on the way down. Continue to focus on keeping your elbows tucked and your grip tight on the barbell.
  6. Repeat for your desired number of repetitions.

Proper Form

Maintaining proper form throughout this exercise is essential to avoid injury and get the most out of every rep.

Good form for barbell skull crushers looks like this:

  • Your elbows remain as tucked in as possible for the duration of each rep. If they flare out a little bit, that is usually okay, but too much, and you will lose the isolation of your triceps.
  • You are squeezing the barbell, not just holding it. Doing so will activate your muscles during this exercise.
  • You are pressing your lower body against the bench without arching or popping up into the air. Your back is not hyperextending to lower and lift the weight.
  • You are moving slowly, without quickly dropping the weight back behind your head. You are in control.
  • The barbell follows the same path of movement on the way down as it does on the way up. Maintaining this movement path is vital to avoid potential injury to your arm or shoulder.
  • Your hands are gripping the barbell shoulder-width apart. Gripping the barbell in other ways can stress your elbow joints, which we want to avoid doing here.


If the barbell skull crusher feels too intense for your workout routine or if you are recovering from an injury, try these modifications:

  • Lower the weight: Lower the weight on your barbell, bring it down to just the bar or get rid of the barbell completely to use just your bodyweight for this exercise. Lowering the weight will still provide you with a triceps isolation exercise, and you can up it back up when you feel ready.
  • Change equipment: If the barbell is too challenging or you are uncomfortable using it, try a different equipment variation. We recommend starting with a light pair of dumbbells if you are looking for an equipment modification here.

Skull Crusher Variations: Other Equipment

As we mentioned earlier, skull crushers are an extremely popular workout that you can complete with various equipment types. We love the barbell because it is versatile and has proven success in building muscle mass.

This study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared the barbell to other types of equipment and found that it was superior in achieving results.

The following are other popular equipment options for your skull crushers:

    1. Dumbbell skull crusher:

    A muscular and buff asian man does a set of lying dumbbell tricep extensions.

    Hold a dumbbell in each hand while completing your skull crushers. You can modify to make your reps easier by using dumbbells that are lighter than your barbell. You can also use dumbbells to modify up by choosing a heavier set, forcing you to isolate the weight in each arm instead of distributing it across your body.

      2. EZ Bar skull crusher:

      French press with a barbell lying

      The EZ curl bar might be the most popular barbell alternative in skull crushers. You use the EZ bar in the same way that you would the barbell. Some find it easier to grip the EZ bar than a traditional barbell. If you want more EZ bar moves, check out this article on EZ bar exercises for arm strength and size.

        3. Lose the bench: Some weightlifters prefer to complete their skull crushers lying on the floor instead of on a workout bench. If you do not have access to a bench, this is a great way to fit this move into your workout. It is also popular with people who have back issues that make lying on a bench uncomfortable. Keep in mind that this will reduce your range of motion, as you will not be able to dip the weight beneath your head.

        4. Use an incline bench: Lay on an incline bench to complete your skull crushers instead of a regular bench. Using an incline bench will target more than just your triceps, turning this isolation exercise into something that hits more muscle groups.

        What Muscles Do Barbell Skull Crushers Target?

        Barbell skull crushers target and isolate your triceps, hitting every part of the muscle group. This exercise targets the long head, lateral head, and medial head of your triceps. Although you are hitting all three heads here, it has a more significant impact on the long and lateral heads of your triceps.

        You might not expect this one, but skull crushers will also hit your shoulders, back, and pecs because you will use them for stabilization. As you stabilize yourself on the bench, you use your anterior and posterior deltoids and your latissimus dorsi (lats) to keep from moving on the bench. You are also using your pecs to stabilize, so you might feel it there too.

        You will also notice that you use your wrist flexors for stabilization during your barbell skull crushers. The grip and movement pattern associated with this exercise will strengthen your wrist flexors with every extension.

        This can maximize the impact of building muscle mass from performing skull crushers consistently.

        What are the Benefits of Barbell Skull Crushers?

        There are plenty of benefits from regularly completing barbell skull crushers that you will feel both inside and outside the gym.

          • Elbow health: Skull crushers work the triceps, which will help protect your elbow joints in other settings. Your elbows are essential in everything, but according to this study in the Hand Clinics journal, the elbow is the second most commonly dislocated major joints in adults. You use them to carry heavy items, type on a keyboard, and write on a piece of paper. We want them to be strong, and barbell skull crushers are a great way to keep them working.  
            • Stronger triceps: Triceps are crucial to getting bigger arms. While other upper body workouts will hit your triceps, such as the bench press, few will isolate your triceps as well as skull crushers. If you are looking for other great triceps moves, look at this article on the best triceps exercises for super strength arms.
            • Functional Fitness: Strengthening your triceps is a great way to work on your functional fitness and make sure that the work you do in the gym also benefits you in your everyday life. You use your triceps to lift things and improve fine motor skills.
            • Improved performance in other workouts: Strong triceps will help you lift heavier and succeed in different moves, especially with a press, like a bench press or overhead press. Barbell skull crushers will also help you with other triceps-focused exercises like triceps dips or triceps pushdowns.

            Frequently Asked Questions

            Before you grab that barbell, let’s address some of the most frequently asked questions about barbell skull crushers.

            Where Do Barbell Skull Crushers Fit into My Workout Routine?

            Barbell skull crushers belong in your upper body/arm days. These skull crushers are an isolation exercise for your triceps, so you can pair them with workouts that target other parts of your arms, such as a French press or bench press. Alternatively, you can focus on burning out your triceps by pairing them with workouts that also target your upper arms, such as triceps dips, triceps kickbacks, or triceps pushdowns.

            Barbell skull crushers are a strength exercise, so you will want to complete them on strength days. If you do not have enough time in your schedule to complete strength and cardio on different days, structure your workout to meet your goals. If you are looking to lift heavier, finish your strength before cardio. If you are looking to improve your endurance, complete cardio before strength. A personal trainer can help figure out a strength vs. cardio schedule that best fits your needs.

            How Much Weight Should I Use for Barbell Skull Crushers?

            You might notice that this exercise looks and sounds a little dangerous. In fact, we call this exercise “skull crushers” because you can crush your skull if you slip or mess it up. For this reason, we recommend that you start with a lower weight than you would typically use for a triceps-focused move and work your way up from there.

            However, once you are comfortable with the movement, you can lift somewhat heavy for this exercise. As long as you can complete your repetitions safely and with good form, there is no need to hold yourself back on this one.

            Are Barbell Skull Crushers Safe?

            As we just mentioned, barbell skull crushers don’t sound very safe. However, if you use an appropriate amount of weight and maintain proper form during your repetitions, you can absolutely complete them safely.  

            We recommend completing the motion first with no weight to become accustomed to its feel. Once you feel comfortable, gradually add weight until you have your desired amount on the barbell.

            If you are concerned about safety, grab a friend to be your spotter. Have them stand behind you while you complete your repetitions. If you falter or need help with your barbell, your spotter can help by grabbing the weight to support you in finishing your rep and safely removing the barbell.


            Now that you are an expert at barbell skull crushers, it’s time to get working for those bigger arms. Let’s hit the gym! Grab a bench and a barbell to complete your reps to isolate your triceps. Once you make these a regular part of your routine, you will progress in other exercises and your everyday life.