Right Link/Wrong Link: Triceps Kickbacks vs. Skull Crushers

spiderman tricepsTriceps are where it’s at. Biceps get all the credit, but it’s the three-headed next door neighbor that deserves the spotlight. Whether you’re benching 315, delivering a block in football or filling out your shirt sleeves, the triceps should be a priority in your arm training.

Training arms reminds me of choosing a favorite Metallica song. Biceps are kind of like Enter Sandman. Sure, everyone’s heard it and everyone’s in love with that huge main riff and infectious chorus. Even the wimpiest XM Octane-loving poseur knows what line comes after “EXIT LIGHT-AH!” Triceps are kind of like Master of Puppets – twice as big, much more complex and a lot more telling about your level of heavy metal (in this case, heavy iron) sophistication. So if you wanna be a badass like James Hetfield in 1986, keep reading.

There are lots of ways to hit the triceps, but they are certainly not created equal. I dare say that some popular triceps exercises are downright useless. Today’s exercise on the chopping block:



Triceps kickbacks are popular for a couple reasons. They require minimal equipment and coordination, meaning almost anyone can do them almost anywhere. Unfortunately, that’s where the list of pro’s ends and the con’s begin.


The popular argument in favor of kickbacks is that you get the most tension during the exercise when the triceps are fully contracted. That may be true, but you get virtually no tension for about two-thirds of the range of motion.

Weight lifting relies heavily upon this novel theory of gravity, and to lift properly, gravity needs to oppose the movement of the target muscle. If you look at the picture above, you’ll see that the dumbbell moves horizontally (perpendicular to gravity) and no resistance is applied to the triceps until the dumbbell is turned on its end. That’s not til the end of the rep, rendering the first two-thirds of the exercise entirely useless.

We’ve talked before about the importance of time under tension for building huge arms. When you do kickbacks, the triceps aren’t under any tension for two-thirds of the set. Doesn’t sound like a great way to get big guns, does it?


Heavy weight isn’t the only key ingredient for building muscle, but it’s pretty high on the list. Because kickbacks put the triceps at such a mechanical disadvantage, it’s damn near impossible to use heavy weights without your form going to shit.

If you can’t increase the weight on kickbacks, what else can you do? More sets? More reps? No one ever built huge triceps doing 100 sets of 100 reps with soup cans.

We’ve talked before about moment arms and their importance for effective lifting. The length of a moment arm is the distance between the axis of rotation (in this case, the elbow) and the application of force (in this case, the hand). A longer moment arm makes it easier to apply force. For example, if you needed to pry open your garage door, would you use a really short crowbar or a long crowbar? (Hint: in case you’ve never had your garage door freeze shut on a cold Vermont morning, you’re gonna wanna use the long crowbar.)

The triceps are in such a lousy position to produce force at the bottom of the kickback that you end up slinging the weight and using terrible form. That is, unless you use a weight so light that you can use perfect form. Good luck building muscle with those cute pink dumbbells.


Piggy-backing on strike 2, it’s way too easy to use bad form and slip into bad habits with kickbacks. The harder the set gets, the more people slip into a shrugged position with forward head posture, turning the exercise into some sort of flailing sea turtle swimming stroke.

Some people try to get around this by lifting the elbow above the back to make it easier to achieve full range of motion. As you’ll see with your friendly neighborhood Spiderman at the top of this post, this  pushes the shoulder into anterior humeral glide, which is a great way to irritate the shoulder and ruin posture.

That’s three strikes. So what should we do instead?


Instead of futzing around with wimpy kickbacks, use an exercise that you can load heavy and hits the triceps from the right angles at the right times.


Because you’re on your back and the weight starts straight overhead, you lower the bar into a mechanically advantageous position, allowing you to apply lots of force when you press the bar back up. This way, there’s no swinging or cheating. 

Skull crushers come in many shapes and sizes, all of which provide a slightly different feel:



EZ Bar

Swiss Bar

My favorite variations are dumbbells with palms facing together or the Swiss bar. Barbells aren’t my favorite because they can irritate the elbows and wrists, but they’ve been used by old-school powerlifters for years to build huge, strong triceps. Go with dumbbells on an EZ Bar first, but if a barbell doesn’t bug your joints, give it a try.

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One comment on “Right Link/Wrong Link: Triceps Kickbacks vs. Skull Crushers
  1. […] this article, I share my three favorite triceps exercises (hint: none of them are kickbacks) and show you how to design a workout that builds strong and massive arms. Check it […]

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