Most of the isolation exercises you can do for your triceps will cause you elbow pain. Skullcrushers do not make an exception and people often complain that they are suffering from elbow pain caused by it. The question is why?
The number one reason why skullcrushers give you elbow pain is because they fall under the category of open chain exercises.
Open chain exercises are movements during which the hand or the foot is free to move. An example of an open chain exercise beside the skullcrusher would be leg extensions. At the same time a closed chain exercise would be the squat and bench press which do not allow your hand and foot to move freely. Your whole body forms a closed chain – like a circuit.
Open chain exercises are not supposed to be done with a lot of weight because they revolve around isolation. When you isolate, you immediately become weaker. Many people disrespect that and often load the bar with as many plates as possible. As a result you see the same people coming back to the gym next week but this time with wrapped elbows, hoping that this will save them from the torturing pain. They would rather train through the pain than give up an exercise or use less weight. That would be the worse. What would the other people in the gym think of them, if they were to use a bit less weight this time? Nobody wants to be labeled as ‘weak sauce’. You feel me?
Skullcrushers give you elbow pain because of the large lever. It’s worse if you have long arms because that makes your elbows an even weaker point. Additionally, most people don’t even know how to do skullcrushers correctly. They sit on the bench and start throwing the bar around while focusing solely on muscling up the weight. As a result their exercise form places more stress on the joints than on the elbows.
There are different ways to avoid elbow pain during skullcrushers. The most popular is to do the exercise on an incline or decline bench. Due to the different angles usually people experience less pain and can feel the triceps work better. However, nobody can guarantee that even that will save you from elbow pain during triceps isolation.
Giving up on skullcrushers may be needed in order to let your elbows heal. This should not be a problem for you because skullcrushers are largely inferior exercises for the most part. A much better exercise for your triceps would be dips and closed grip bench presses. Both exercises will build more mass in the triceps and are less stressful to the elbow joint due to being closed chain exercises.
If you still, however, want to do triceps isolation, we recommend the so-called PJR pullover. You can see how the exercise is done in the video below.
Unlike the regular skullcrushers the PJR pull-over requires you to have the dumbbells way behind your head. As result the angle formed between your armpit/upper arm and torso is larger than 90 degrees. This keeps constant stress on the triceps and if you do the exercises correctly, you will experience superb pump in the triceps and no elbow pain. Still, there are no guarantees and with triceps isolation there’s always a chance to get the shorter end of the stick.