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    Skullcrusher Pain

    In the quest for mass, many people have used skullcrushers as a tricep exercise, only to end up with aching and tender elbows. If you google "skullcrusher pain" you get an idea of just how prevalent it is. After reading numerous posts on a variety of fitness forums, I think it's safe to say that the number of pain sufferers far exceeds the painfree.

    It seems like it affects almost everyone who does this exercise. Surprisingly however, I couldn't find a single article on the biomechanics that cause it, so I had to dig a little deeper and do my own write-up.

    I posted it in my training journal but since a few folks thought it would be a helpful post for others, I'm putting it here as well.

    Skullcrushers and Elbow Pain

    In this write-up, I will address the following topics:

    Elbow Anatomy
    Skullcrusher Biomechanics
    Why It Hurts
    What To Do About It


    The Anatomy of the Elbow

    The elbow is made up of three bones, connected by muscles, ligaments and tendons. The humerus is the large upper arm bone. The ulna and radius are the two bones in the forearm.



    The elbow joint is actually three separate joints; the ulnohumeral joint, the radiohumeral joint and the superior radioulnar joint. This allows the forearm to move up & down, side-to-side and rotationally.

    The elbow also has four main ligaments. On the medial aspect of the elbow is the ulnar collateral ligament that connects the ulna to the humerus. On lateral aspect of the elbow is the radial collateral ligament that connects the radius to the humerus. The other two ligaments are the annular ligament and the quadrate ligament. They connect the radius to the ulna. There is articular cartilage anywhere that two bony surfaces come into contact with each other, allowing the elbow bones to move easily as the elbow bends.

    The biceps, brachialis and brachioradialis muscles flex the elbow. The triceps muscle extends the elbow. Other muscles that move the hand at the wrist also originate at the elbow. These muscles attach via tendons to the medial and lateral epicondyles.

    The bursa is a small fluid filled sac that decreases the friction between two tissues. Bursae also protect the bony protrusions on the elbow bones. There are three different bursae around the elbow the largest of which is the olecranon bursa in the back of the elbow.






    The Biomechanics of Skullcrusher Pain

    Looking at the anatomy of the elbow, it's easy to see that the human arm wasn't designed to hold a heavy weight in an inverted, suspended position. In part, this is why skullcrushers are so effective at isolating the triceps but it's also the reason why they end up hurting.

    In addition to the stresses that are placed on the tricep muscle, it's a movement that compresses the outer elbow joint. This compression increases the amount of friction on the tricep tendon as it inserts into the olecranon at the tip of the elbow. This friction in turn irritates the olecranon bursa, which reacts by becoming inflamed. This is called Olecranon bursitis.


    Why Does Olecranon Bursitis Hurt like Hell?

    As anyone who's bumped their funnybone knows, there are a surprising number of nerve endings in the elbow joint. A swollen bursa is no different than a water balloon and any engineer can tell you that water cannot be compressed. So every time you bend your elbow, you're squeezing that water balloon and the pressure is being transferred directly to those nerve endings.

    More bending = more pressure = more inflammation, which is why your elbows can hurt for days after doing skullcrushers. People who attempt to ignore the pain and not let the inflammation subside, tend to regret it:





    So What's The Cure?

    For starters, stop doing skullcrushers when your elbows begin to hurt and don't try to macho it out with that stupid "no pain, no gain" cliché.

    Rest is the most effective treatment. Ice will reduce the inflammation. Cortisone injections will alleviate elbow pain and swelling but almost always deteriorate the ligaments after repetitive doses.


    Alternative Exercises

    There are a variety of equally effective tricep exercises that will not place as much stress on the elbow joint. Dips and Close-grip Bench Press are the first two that come to mind.


    The important thing is to not lock yourself into a paradigm of thinking that there is only one exercise that is going to get you larger triceps and then to ignore your body's warning signs. Rather than injure yourself and end up not growing at all, find an alternative path to your goal. You may get there slower, but it's better than not arriving at all.



    References:
    JointPainInfo.com
    MedicineNet.com
    Dartmouth.edu
    AidYourPain.com
    ChiroCommunity.com


    I'll add the caveat that I'm neither a doctor nor a kinesiologist...this is simply what I've put together from my own research. Doubtless there are a whole lot of folks out there far more qualified than me to describe why skullcrushers hurt but until they step up and add their $0.02, this is the best conclusion I've got.

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  2. #2
    I'm not that bright phikappa's Avatar
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    Wow great post. I know I am a newbie here but I'd still like to vote for a sticky!
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    Wow, I got such good gains using the pre-weighted 90-100lb EZ bars for that exercise. Been doing them for years and no adverse affects from it.
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    Boise State Fanatic justtryn's Avatar
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    You know, Chris... I was thinking about this last night after I got home. When I do these with an EZ Curl Bar, and a spotter, I have the pain. But since I started doing them sans spotter on the Paramount Cable Machine, I haven't had any problems with pain at all. Any ideas why? Not that I'm complaining or anything... I would assume it's some sort of ROM issue, but that is strictly a guess.,
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    Boise State Fanatic justtryn's Avatar
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    Oh - by the way - STICKY!!!
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    Squit...great job. The muscle mags pay $500 for articles like this. I'll be your agent.....20%??
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    Registered User StartinOver-68's Avatar
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    Originally Posted by Baldsnake View Post
    Squit...great job. The muscle mags pay $500 for articles like this. I'll be your agent.....20%??
    I like to do my tri extensions with cables, that way my hand positioning is not locked into any one position. Also I'm told if you do skull crushers the elbows should be held high to take the stress off the elbow. In effect that will cause the bar to miss the head completely.
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    Chris nice post !
    Love the illustrations too.

    I myself do skulls with an ez-bar and have had no problems whatsoever.
    Just lucky I guess.
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  10. #10
    Registered User cookiecrumb's Avatar
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    Wow, great post.....and I thought it was just me. I have had left elbow pain when doing these. For some reason I have been ignoring the pain thinking it would work itself out. A gym buddy said to extend the range of motion so to speak and bring the bar a bit past my head. For some reason, the pain is minimal when I do this, and the triceps still seem isolated. I am not sure if this is the best thing to do, but it seems to work.
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    Excellent post, Chris. Much good info in there.

    To second your exercise suggestions, I cannot do skullcrushers due to elbow pain but can weighted dips and heavy cgbps with any discomfort at all.

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    I do skull crushers each tricep workout but I use a tri cep bar (I think that is what it is called). I haven't gotten pain in my elbow but I have pain in my right forearm about mid way on the outside. I can't determine if it is from working tri's or curling. I do skull crushers each tricep workout but I use a tri cep bar (I think that is what it is called).
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    Good article. I noticed a little pain the first couple of times I did them, but a little rest did seem to help. I only do them about every couple of weeks now, so I don't stress the joints too much...
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    Very nice article. I, too, like skullcrushers and include them with every tricep day. I use an ez curl bar as well and pass the bar just past my forehead, and bring the bar to the top of my head in the low position if that makes sense. If I were to fail a rep, I'd rather not crush my forehead as the name of the exercise implies.
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    Originally Posted by StartinOver-68 View Post
    I like to do my tri extensions with cables, that way my hand positioning is not locked into any one position. Also I'm told if you do skull crushers the elbows should be held high to take the stress off the elbow. In effect that will cause the bar to miss the head completely.
    StartinOver, I posted before I read your post. Yes, this works well....holding the elbows high and missing the head completely. It was such a small modification that made such a big difference. Now I have to figure out why my left wrist/ inner forearm is killin me when doing bicep curls.
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    Registered User StartinOver-68's Avatar
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    Originally Posted by cookiecrumb View Post
    StartinOver, I posted before I read your post. Yes, this works well....holding the elbows high and missing the head completely. It was such a small modification that made such a big difference. Now I have to figure out why my left wrist/ inner forearm is killin me when doing bicep curls.
    When you find out let me know. I have a problem doing any pull motion on my left arm. Just about in the elbow area where the tie in from the forearm to the bicep begins.
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    Originally Posted by StartinOver-68 View Post
    When you find out let me know. I have a problem doing any pull motion on my left arm. Just about in the elbow area where the tie in from the forearm to the bicep begins.
    I have that in my right elbow. I think i got it from vertical dumbell rows (if there is such an exercise) which i don't do anymore. Seems like it gets agrivated by any pronated pulling motion.
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    Hey, I was only ranting when I brought this up.....didn't mean for you to actually dig into it like this! Great post Chris!

    Dante knows about my tendonitis issues and the fact they have been slow to heal, so my tri rotation is dips, reverse grip and close grip BP's, none of which bother my tendons in the slightest.....great mass builders as well.
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    I tried them once and could tell they would not be good for my elbows.

    Do you think the biomechanics are similar for leg extensions?
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    bump for wubby's question
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    Thanks kimsquit - it is nice to see that others think it is ok to stick with CGBP and dips as that is what I have been doing for quite a while with no pain.
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  22. #22
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    Originally Posted by batteryrequired View Post
    Wow, I got such good gains using the pre-weighted 90-100lb EZ bars for that exercise. Been doing them for years and no adverse affects from it.
    Likewise for me and doing them since I started a bit over two years ago.
    I use the curl bar for these too and do them every other week.

    No probs thus far and just bumpred the wt to 85# for these.

    I did have two significant bouts of the elbow pain tendonitis though.

    Thanks for pointing this out as I will keep aware if pain starts rearing it's ugly head.
    Last edited by Wayne Evans; 08-22-2007 at 12:48 PM.
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  23. #23
    Resident fatty tryn2getstrong's Avatar
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    Originally Posted by cookiecrumb View Post
    StartinOver, I posted before I read your post. Yes, this works well....holding the elbows high and missing the head completely. It was such a small modification that made such a big difference. Now I have to figure out why my left wrist/ inner forearm is killin me when doing bicep curls.

    I've found that if I curl my wrists doing bicep curls it causes pain to both those areas. If I keep my wrists in line with my forearms that pain goes away. Might not be your problem, but I figured I'd throw it out there.
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  24. #24
    Everyting Irie wubby's Avatar
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    Originally Posted by tomsmither View Post
    I've found that if I curl my wrists doing bicep curls it causes pain to both those areas. If I keep my wrists in line with my forearms that pain goes away. Might not be your problem, but I figured I'd throw it out there.
    Me too. Also bought a neoprene wrist strap and used that for a couple months till it healed. Helped me keep the wrist straight and stabilized.
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  25. #25
    From Dude to Dad michaeljazz's Avatar
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    Hey this is a great writeup man.

    I've been experimenting with DB skullcrushers, because there isn't a barbell set with plates in my apartment's workout center.

    I haven't heard of anybody doing them, but I'm wondering if there might be some benefit to doing these.. as opposed to the standard bar version (or maybe I'm just hitting a different head on my tri's? The motion feels really natural and smooth, as I'm holding the DB's in the natural up and down position of the hand (knuckles out), instead of knuckles up.. and it still works the heck out of my tri's!!

    I would love to hear some thoughts on DB skulls if anybody has any.
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  26. #26
    Registered User Bob45's Avatar
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    Good post Chris. When I first started working out I did skull crushers. They bothered my elbows right away. By just lowering the weight behind my head instead of to my forehead it relieved it. I like the way it hit the tri's better behind the head anyway.
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  27. #27
    Registered User Bob45's Avatar
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    Originally Posted by michaeljazz View Post
    Hey this is a great writeup man.

    I've been experimenting with DB skullcrushers, because there isn't a barbell set with plates in my apartment's workout center.

    I haven't heard of anybody doing them, but I'm wondering if there might be some benefit to doing these.. as opposed to the standard bar version (or maybe I'm just hitting a different head on my tri's? The motion feels really natural and smooth, as I'm holding the DB's in the natural up and down position of the hand (knuckles out), instead of knuckles up.. and it still works the heck out of my tri's!!

    I would love to hear some thoughts on DB skulls if anybody has any.
    I do them with db's once in a while. I like them too. Like I said in my last post I lower the weight behind my head intead of to the forehead. Keeping the elbows high and back gives the tris a good stretch too.
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  28. #28
    From Dude to Dad michaeljazz's Avatar
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    Originally Posted by Bob45 View Post
    I do them with db's once in a while. I like them too. Like I said in my last post I lower the weight behind my head intead of to the forehead. Keeping the elbows high and back gives the tris a good stretch too.
    Same here; I do them that way also. Actually I find that doing them DB style makes it a lot easier to go down past your head without using too much shoulder.
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  29. #29
    Banned Arlecchino's Avatar
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    I like DB skulls. Doing them this microcycle. Get a really good stretch, as I lower them until the db is almost touching the top of my shoulder.

    BB skulls I lower either to eye level (roughly), or down near the throat (California press-style).
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  30. #30
    Registered User drjoe's Avatar
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    Been doing skull crushers for years with no problems. My favorite is skull crushers that you lower the bar to the neck on a decline bench. Great stretch on the triceps!
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