Dumbbell Skull Crushers are an excellent exercise for developing strong triceps. They’re also very versatile and give lifters the ability to go single-arm if necessary.
However, there may be some situations where you need an alternative for Dumbbell Skull Crushers.
Maybe you simply don’t have dumbbells. Or maybe you just want some ideas to change up your workout routine.
Whatever the case, if you’re looking for Dumbbell Skull Crusher Alternatives then you are in the right place. I’m about to give you 10 of my favorite substitutions and hopefully at least one of them can work, regardless of your situation.
Dumbbell Skull Crusher Alternatives
In this list of 10 exercises, I’ve tried to include exercises that would fit all kinds of scenarios. Alternatives that still use dumbbells along with exercises that use a barbell, bands and even a cable machine.
One thing to note before I get into the exercises, you do not need a bench to do skull crushers. I didn’t have a bench for the first year I worked out in my garage gym and did skull crushers on the floor. Wasn’t an issue at all.
Barbell Skull Crushers
Barbell Skull Crushers are the closest exercise in form and function to a Dumbbell Skull Crusher. Using a barbell will allow you to use more weight and is my preferred variation of the two when it comes to building pure strength.
The barbell version can be done with either a barbell or a cambered bar (EZ Curl Bar), both of which have their pros and cons.
First, most lifters will find EZ Bar Skull Crushers much easier on their wrists. The angle of the cambered bar puts the wrist in a much more forgiving position and many (myself included) find it much more comfortable.
Second, the shorter bar comes with its own pros and cons. Being shorter makes it less cumbersome to move around than the much longer barbell. On the other hand, curl bars are generally too short to be racked on a squat rack. Depending on your situation, the shorter bar may be a plus or a negative.
- Bar* (Can be a barbell or a Curl Bar)
- Bench (Preferrable but they can be done on the floor as well)
- Grab a bar with an overhand grip, lie flat on a bench with head down, chin up. If you don’t have a bench, you can simply lay on the floor.
- Press the bar to arm’s length above the shoulder.
- Lower the bar until it almost touches the top of the forehead, bending arms at the elbows, keeping upper arm vertical and elbows in.
- Drive the bar back up to the starting position and repeat.
Keep the elbows high throughout. When Skull Crushers start to become difficult, the natural tendency of the lifter is to drop the elbows. Keep the elbows high and tight (try not to let them flare out to the side either).
Single Dumbbell Skull Crusher
This skull crusher variation is a very slight tweak to Dumbbell Skull Crushers and is really a hybrid of the barbell and dumbbell versions.
Take a single dumbbell and hold it by the head of the dumbbell with both hands. Now lay back and do skull crushers like normal with the single dumbbell.
Pro Tip: Make a diamond shape with your hands to support the inside head of the dumbbell. This is the safest way of preventing this exercise to living up to its name.
Band Skull Crusher
The last skull crusher variation I’m going to mention is Band Skull Crushers. I love throwing a resistance band in my bag if I’m going on a road trip because you can do so many things with just a resistance band.
Simply wrap the band around your back and lay on a bench (or the floor). Grab the resistance band and do skull crushers – just like you would with a barbell or dumbbell. It’s surprisingly effective.
Seated Triceps Overhead Extension
Seated Triceps Overhead Extensions is another excellent Skull Crusher alternative that can be done with a single dumbbell (technically you can do it with two dumbbells, or even a barbell, if you like).
This movement can also be done with a bar, but it’s a lot more cumbersome and you’ll probably want the help of a partner to hand you the bar and grab it once your set is over.
- Sit on the edge of a bench with a single dumbbell.
- Raise the dumbbell straight up overhead with both hands.
- Keep the elbows high, bend the arms and bring the dumbbell behind the head.
- Now drive the arms back to the overhead starting position.
- Repeat for the designated number of reps.
This exercise can technically be done seated or standing with no real difference in the functionality of the movement. It’s more of a matter of personal preference.
Make sure to keep the core braced so you avoid overarching the back.
Pro Tip: Can also be done as a single-arm exercise using a dumbbell.
Close Grip Bench Press
Close Grip Bench Press might be the most effective Skull Crusher alternative for developing strength.
By using a narrower grip than regular Bench Press, more emphasis is placed on the triceps which makes it an excellent replacement for Skull Crushers.
- Multi-purpose lifting rack
- Bumper or Iron plates
- Set the height of the barbell so that when you unrack the barbell, you are only doing a very short upward concentric movement.
- Lie flat on your back on the bench.
- Keep your feet flat on the floor. (Some do find it comfortable to pull the feet back toward their butt as they arch).
- Keep your butt on the bench.
- Pull your shoulder blades together and keep the back of your head on the bench. You will slightly arch your back. Keep your core tight and keep the shoulder blades pulled back tight.
- Take a narrow grip, right at the start of the knurling and completely close your grip. Keep your knuckles pointing toward the ceiling and squeeze the barbell.
- Unrack the weight and take a deep breath.
- Control the barbell down during the eccentric movement and draw the barbell in, keeping the elbows tight to the body.
- The barbell will make contact with your torso right at the nipple line on the chest.
- Once contact is made, drive the barbell back up to the starting position.
When doing Close Grip Bench Press, do not let the elbows flare out away from the midline. The shoulders are incredibly vulnerable in these positions and the sheer force placed on the shoulders will lead to injury if the technique is not made a priority.
Floor Press is one of my favorite strength-building triceps exercises that I normally program using a barbell, but it can be done with dumbbells as well.
Floor Press is basically Close Grip Bench Press while laying on the floor. Laying on the floor restricts the range of motion, similar to how a Board Press would do. This puts the focus of the lift on the triceps and the lockout.
Set yourself up in a rack, use a close grip and lower the bar down until your triceps lightly touch the floor and then drive back up. Make sure to have a spotter for this movement.
- Squat Rack
- Set your barbell up in the rack at the proper height to be able to rack and unrack the bar safely*.
- Lay on your back with knees bent, feet flat on the floor.
- Engage your lats and set yourself up basically the same as you would for Bench Press.
- Grab the bar using a close grip**, hands right about on the edge of the knurling.
- Unrack the bar, lower it down until the triceps lightly tap the floor and then press it back to extension.
- Repeat for the designated amount of reps.
*Always test your barbell height with an empty bar. I’ve been doing Floor Presses for twenty years now and can still struggle with nailing the best height on my first try.
**Floor Press is generally done using a close grip to emphasize the demand on the triceps, however you can go with a wider grip if you choose to.
If you’re limited on equipment options, look no further than Diamond Pushups (or Close Grip Push-ups)
Diamond Push-ups require no equipment and can be done anywhere at any time. They also happen to be extremely effective in building crazy strong triceps.
Pro Tip: Yes, you can put your hand in the diamond formation, but what you really want to focus on is the elbows. Keep the elbows tight to the body to emphasize the triceps (like in the pic above).
- Start by positioning yourself in a plank position on the floor, with your hands placed close together and forming a diamond shape with your index fingers and thumbs.
- Your feet should be shoulder-width apart and your body should be straight and in a straight line from head to ankles.
- Lower your body down toward the floor by bending your elbows and keeping them close to your body.
- Once your chest nearly touches the floor, push back up to the starting position.
- Repeat the exercise for the desired number of repetitions, making sure to keep your core engaged and your body straight throughout the movement.
To make the exercise easier, you can perform the push-ups with your knees on the floor. To make it more challenging, you can try placing your feet on an elevated surface or adding weight (like a weight vest) to your upper body.
Keep your elbows close to your body. As you lower down and push back up, make sure to keep your elbows close to your body to maximize the triceps activation.
Walk into any gym in the country right now and I can almost guarantee there are two exercises being done – Bench Press and Triceps Pushdown.
If Dumbbell Skull Crushers bother your wrists, Triceps Pushdowns are a great alternative. There are plenty of different attachments to choose from and it shouldn’t be hard to find at least one that you really like.
The other place where Triceps Pushdowns work as a great substitute is at the hotel gym. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a hotel gym that had a barbell, but almost all of them will have a universal cable machine.
- Cable Machine
- Cable Attachment of your choice (V-Bar, Straight Bar, Rope, etc)
- Step up a cable machine by sliding the pin all the way to the top of the beam.
- Attach the rack attachment of your choice.
- Grab the attachment and pull the attachment down until your elbows are next to your sides (arms should still be bent).
- Now, extend the arms down by flexing the triceps and driving the attachment toward the floor.
- Squeeze the triceps at full extension for one second and then slowly allow the attachment to raise back to the starting position.
- Keep elbows tucked into the sides throughout the movement.
Do not swing and use momentum at the top of the movement in an attempt to use more weight. Stay in control of the weight at all times and use proper form.
If using a heavy weight, you can lean slightly forward at the waist to give yourself more stability and to help keep yourself anchored to the floor.
Band Triceps Pushdown
If you want to use Triceps Pushdowns at home, but don’t want to shell out a couple of grand for a cable machine, try Band Triceps Pushdowns.
Resistance bands are relatively cheap and have an endless amount of uses. One of which, is wrapping the band around the top of your squat rack and doing triceps pushdowns. They’re probably worth the cost just for this one exercise alone.
- Band Anchor (The top of a rack and/or a pull-up bar are good options)
First, loop a band around the top of a rack or any other piece of equipment that can solidly hold the band.
- Stand tall, head up.
- Hold the band with hands eight inches apart, palms down.
- Bring upper arms to the sides and keep them there.
- Start with forearms and biceps touching.
- Press the band down to arm’s length.
- Return slowly and under control to starting position.
To make the exercise more challenging, either use a thicker band or choke up on the band.
If you’re unable to get full range of motion, lower your hands on the band, use a thinner band or stand on something to make the movement easier.
There is no way I can do a list of triceps exercises without including Dips. Dips are the absolute king of triceps exercises and one of the best exercises period for building a strong upper body.
Whether it’s higher volume bodyweight Dips or lower rep weighted Dips, one way or the other, you should have Dips in your training program at least once a week.
- Squat Rack
- Dip Attachment
- A Dip Station can be used as well if you have access to one.
Step By Step Instructions
- Attach your dip rack to your rack. This process will vary based on your rack and dip attachment. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions closely.
- Set your dip rack just above waist height. This will allow enough room for your feet not to hit the ground while doing reps, but not so high you feel you have to jump up into your first rep.
- Starting position is hands on bars, arms extended, knees slightly bent and feet crossed (crossing feet is optional but does help with unwanted swinging in my experience.
- Descend down by bending the elbows and slightly leaning forward.
- Lower yourself under control until the triceps become parallel with the ground and then drive yourself back up to the starting position.
- Repeat until all reps are completed.
The biggest mistake I see with dips is poor range of motion. If someone is struggling to be able to do reps, the easiest solution is to simply not lower yourself into a full rep, but this is incorrect.
If a lifter cannot perform a full rep they should switch to one of the variations listed below.
This final exercise is a combo set combining three different exercises into one giant back-to-back superset. I’ve used it for quite some time with the teams that I’ve worked with and it always adopted the name of the school I was currently at.
The three exercises used are Barbell Pullovers, Skull Crushers and finally Close Grip Bench.
The three exercises are done in that order, 10 reps each, all with no rest in between. You can use a barbell or an EZ Curl Bar if you prefer.
One thing is certain with Owl Presses – they will absolutely light your triceps up. If you’ve been looking for something unique to add something fresh to your workout routine, this is the one I would highly recommend.
Dumbbell Skull Crushers are an awesome exercise, one I use in my programming all the time. In fact, they’re one of my favorite dumbbell exercises for training arms.
However, sometimes you need an alternative for Dumbbell Skull Crushers. No matter the reason why you’re looking for an exercise to use as a substitution, I hope at least one of the ten exercises I’ve listed above fits what you were looking for.