Why do I have pain in my elbow during skull crushers?

Written by: Nurudeen Tijani

The article below answers common questions about elbow pain during or after skull crushersHowever, if you want an immediate solution, you can get instant access to TitaniumPhysique. Our program will guide you to a pain-free lifting experience. Ready to get started?

Elbow pain during skull crushers - Nurudeen performing skull crushers aka lying triceps extension
skull crushers elbow pain - Nurudeen performing skull crushers aka lying triceps extension
YouTube video

Skull Crushers and Elbow Pain (FAQs)


1.  Why do I have pain in my elbow during skull crushers and how do I fix it?

Elbow pain during skull crushers can occur for several reasons, including restricted forearm muscles, an inadequate warm-up of the triceps and forearm muscles before exercising, excessive resistance (e.g., heavy skull crushers), poor form or lifting technique during skull crushers, and a sudden increase in training volume (i.e., performing an excessive amount of skull crushers during a workout).

These factors, individually or in combination, can cause your elbow to hurt during skull crushers. However, the primary cause for most athletes is restricted (shortened, tight, and tense) triceps and forearm muscles.

To prevent elbow pain, prioritize proper form, gradually increase resistance, and, most importantly, maintain pliable triceps and forearm muscles through self-myofascial release (SMR) exercises. These exercises can instantly relieve the restrictions in the muscles and minimize the risk of injury, overuse, and inflammation.

If you want an easy-to-follow video guide to treat and prevent elbow issues, click the following link to access my TitaniumPhysique Program.

2.  Why does my elbow hurt after doing skull crushers?

"Push" exercises such as skull crushers can trigger or aggravate elbow pain because the exercise involves the triceps and elbow tendons. The repetitive use of the elbow during skull crushers can strain and inflame the triceps tendon and elbow tendons. When the elbow tendons become inflamed, it causes acute elbow pain after the workout - and causes your elbow to hurt after doing skull crushers or triceps extensions.

Acute elbow pain is an inflammatory pain experienced during or immediately after working out. In this case, it includes:

  • Burning pain at the tip of the elbow and around the elbow joint after skull crushers
  • A sensation of heat, swelling, or redness around the elbow after skull crushers
  • Sore elbow after working out the triceps muscle
  • Elbow pain when bending and straightening arm after skull crushers
  • Sharp or severe elbow pain during or after skull crushers
A side-by-side comparison photo of the triceps and forearm flexor muscles. Illustration of the shoulder joint, scapula, arm bone, and triceps brachii muscle and tendon. Illustration of the forearm flexor muscles and tendon

A side-by-side comparison photo of the triceps and forearm flexor muscles. Left photo: Illustration of the shoulder joint, scapula, arm bone, and triceps brachii muscle and tendon. Right photo: Illustration of the forearm flexor muscles and tendon. When these muscles groups become shortened, they cause posterior and inner elbow pain during skull crushers.

The "X" indicated on each photo is where trigger points in the forearm flexors and triceps muscle tend to occur. Trigger points, also known as muscle knots, are small, hyperirritable spots within a muscle. They cause pain and tenderness and can develop due to muscle overuse, stress, or injury. Image source: Google

3.  Why am I experiencing inner elbow pain (or pain at the back of the elbow) while doing skull crushers?

If you experience inner elbow pain (or pain at the back of the elbow) while doing skull crushers, the cause is usually a combination of the following: 1) restricted triceps and forearm muscles; 2) inflamed triceps tendon and elbow tendon. During skull crushers, the forearm flexor muscles and triceps muscle extend and contract, and as a result, they pull and put tension on the inner elbow tendon and triceps tendon.

The forearm flexor muscles can overstretch and exert tension on the inner elbow tendon and cause inner elbow pain (also known as golfer's elbow). Likewise, the triceps muscles can overstretch and strain the tendon at the back of the elbow and cause posterior elbow pain (also known as triceps tendonitis).

Posterior elbow pain and inner elbow pain can be chronic (develop over time) or acute (occur suddenly from overloading the elbow). Acute pain is an inflammatory pain experienced during or immediately after an exercise. In this case, experiencing inner elbow pain or posterior elbow pain while doing skull crushers is a sign of acute elbow pain.

Nurudeen performing skull crushers during a shoulders and arms workout at the gym (2021). Skull crushers are a variation of the Overhead Triceps Extension and an effective exercise to build arm strength, primarily targeting the triceps muscle. However, "pull" exercises such as skull crushers can trigger or worsen triceps tendonitis and golfer's elbow.

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Nurudeen Tijani, founder of TitaniumPhysique

4.  Why do I suddenly have (feel) elbow pain during skull crushers without apparent cause?

The muscle conditions that lead to elbow pain are gradual and cumulative. Through repetitive use and over time, the forearm muscles and triceps muscle become restricted (shortened, inelastic). This process of muscle restriction can take months or years to develop.

When the triceps muscles become chronically restricted (lasting over three months), a routine activity at home or work (carrying a bag of groceries, holding or gripping something tightly), or at the gym (e.g. routine skull crushers workout) can suddenly trigger elbow pain.

Unfortunately, most people do not realize their forearm or triceps are restricted until a routine activity unexpectedly triggers elbow pain.

5.  What causes pain in the elbow during skull crushers?

When you perform an exercise involving the arms, for example, skull crushers, the triceps and forearm muscles contract. Over time, as you exercise, the forearm flexor muscles and triceps muscle become tighter and shorter. Shortened forearm muscles and triceps muscle pull and put tension on the elbow and triceps tendon - and decrease the elasticity of the tendons. As a result, the tendons get overloaded and inflamed, and it causes elbow pain during skull crushers and other triceps extension exercises.

The pain usually occurs on the inside part of the elbow (golfer's elbow) or at the back of the elbow (triceps tendonitis). The elbow tendons that cause elbow pain during skull crushers include the medial elbow tendon (inner elbow tendon) and triceps brachii tendon (posterior elbow tendon).

For a detailed article on the root causes of elbow pain, the types of elbow tendonitis injuries (tennis elbow, golfer's elbow, triceps tendonitis), elbow bursitis, chronic vs. acute pain, and the fastest way to fix these conditions, check out our complete guide on elbow pain or elbow injuries in weight lifters.

A side-by-side comparison photo of forearm extensors and flexor muscles. Left photo: Illustration of the forearm extensor muscle group and tendon. Right photo: Illustration of the forearm flexor muscles and tendon

A side-by-side comparison photo of the forearm extensors and flexor muscles. Left photo: Illustration of the forearm extensor muscle group and tendon. Right photo: Illustration of the forearm flexor muscles and tendon. When these muscles groups become shortened, they cause outer and inner elbow pain during tricep extension exercises.

The "X" indicated on each photo is where trigger points in the forearm muscles tend to occur. Trigger points cause pain and tenderness and can develop due to muscle overuse, stress, or injury. Image source: Google

6.  Is skull crushers (lying triceps extension) bad for elbows?

Performed with good technique, skull crushers (or other variations of triceps extension) are not bad for the elbows. However performing skull crushers without first warming up (e.g. stretching the forearm muscles, triceps muscle, and elbow tendons), excessive resistance, or a sudden increase in training volume (i.e. performing an excessive amount of skull crushers) can overload the elbow tendons and triceps tendon, and cause elbow tendonitis and elbow pain.

7.  Can skull crushers cause elbow pain?

Skull crushers do not cause elbow pain when performed with good technique. However, skull crushers can trigger or aggravate elbow tendonitis, elbow pain, and forearm pain. "Push" exercises such as skull crushers involve the forearm muscles, triceps muscle, elbow tendons, and triceps tendon. During skull crushers, the forearm muscles and triceps muscle can get overloaded. When these muscles become overloaded, they can overstretch and inflame the elbow tendons and causes acute elbow pain (sharp pain) or aggravate chronic elbow pain (dull pain).

Nurudeen of Titaniumphysique, performing overhead barbell triceps extension at gym

Nurudeen performing overhead barbell triceps extension at gym (2019). The overhead triceps extension is a "push" exercise. It targets and develop the triceps muscle (triceps brachii and triceps tendon). It is a very effective exercise to build bigger arms. "Push" exercises such as triceps extension can aggravate golfer's elbow (pain on the inner part of the elbow) and triceps tendonitis (pain at the back of the elbow).

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Nurudeen Tijani, founder of TitaniumPhysique

8.  Can skull crushers damage the elbows?

Skull crushers do not damage elbows when performed with good technique. However, for a person experiencing elbow tendonitis, skull crushers can trigger acute elbow pain or aggravate chronic elbow pain, leading to elbow tendinosis.

Tendinosis is the deterioration of tendon collagen due to repetitive stress and chronic injury. Tendinosis results in the loss of strength in the tendon and often leads to tendon tear or rupture. So doing skull crushers with elbow tendonitis or triceps tendonitis (i.e. inflammatory tendon pain) can lead to elbow tendinosis (i.e. degeneration of elbow tendon) and damage the elbows.

9.  Can you hurt your elbow doing skull crushers?

Skull crushers are a safe exercise and will not cause injury to the elbow when performed with good technique. However, any or a combination of the following factors can cause you to hurt your elbow during skull crushers:

  • Inadequate warm-up of the triceps, forearms, elbow tendons, and triceps tendon before doing skull crushers
  • Inadequate stretching of the triceps and forearm muscles before doing skull crushers
  • Using excessive weights (e.g. heavy skull crusher sets)
  • Poor skull crushers lifting form. To learn the proper skull crusher form, check out this video.
  • A sudden increase in training volume (i.e. performing an excessive amount of skull crusher sets)
  • Doing skull crushers while experiencing ongoing mild-to-severe elbow or triceps tendonitis

          10.  Can I still do skull crushers with elbow pain?

          It depends on the severity of the elbow pain. Suppose the elbow or triceps tendonitis causes "low to mild" pain. In that case, most people can use sports tape, kino tape, elbow sleeves, elbow brace, elbow straps, or other conventional remedies to reduce pain during skull crushers. If the elbow or triceps tendonitis is chronic and severe or causes sharp pain in the elbow during skull crushers, it's best to treat the root cause of the pain before resuming strength training.

          Ready to start lifting without pain or injury?

          Get instant access to TitaniumPhysique. My program will guide you to a pain-free lifting experience.

          Nurudeen Tijani, founder of TitaniumPhysique

          11.  Which skull crusher variation is better to avoid elbow pain (dumbbell or barbell)?

          Both dumbbell skull crushers and barbell skull crushers can trigger or aggravate elbow pain; however, dumbbell skull crushers is better. Here is why:

          Dumbbell skull crushers isolate each arm and therefore require less weight. The barbell skull crusher is a more effective exercise for growing bigger triceps. As such, barbell skull crushers enable the use of more weight.

          Most people naturally lift heavier weights during barbell exercises compared to dumbbell exercises. For this reason, if you experience skull crushers elbow pain, dumbbell skull crushers are less likely to trigger or aggravate elbow pain. You can also experiment with different variations of triceps extension exercises (see below).

          12.  What are alternatives to skull crushers for elbow pain?

          Unlike skull crushers which put excessive tension on the triceps tendon, the following exercises minimize tension on the triceps tendon, and as a result, cause less pain in the elbow. Here are 12 alternatives to skull crushers to reduce elbow pain:

          1. Cable Rope Triceps Pushdown
          2. Cable Triceps Pushdown
          3. Triceps Pushdown V Bar
          4. Machine Triceps Extension
          5. Cable Triceps Kickback
          6. Cable Reverse Grip Triceps Pushdown
          7. Band Back Flys
          8. Cable Kneeling Triceps Extension
          9. Stability Ball Weight Plate Pullover
          10. Cable Triceps Incline Pushdown
          11. Cable Low Triceps Extension
          12. Cable Rope Supine Triceps Extension

          13.  How long does it take to heal elbow pain from skull crushers?

          Using a combination of post-workout treatments, for example - RICE therapy (to relieve burning pain), magnesium supplementation (to reduce inflammation), self-myofascial release (to relieve sharp, shooting, dull pain), it's possible to treat and heal elbow pain from skull crushers within 7-10 days.

          To accomplish this, it will require performing self-myofascial release (SMR) on the triceps and forearm muscles, at least 2-3 times a day.

          Remember that simply resting the elbow (i.e., taking a break from physical activity) might temporarily provide relief. Still, it will not fix the underlying factors of the injury (e.g., restricted triceps and forearm muscles that overload the elbow tendons and cause elbow pain during skull crushers).

          14.  How do I perform lying skull crushers without elbow pain?

          As explained above, when performed with good technique, skull crushers are a safe exercise and will not cause injury to the elbow. However, if an individual has forearm pain, inner elbow pain, or pain at the back or elbow, performing lying skull crushers will cause some elbow discomfort.

          With that understanding, here are five tips on how to perform skull crushers without elbow pain:

          1. Stretch the forearm and triceps muscles before working out
          2. Perform skull crushers with cables or dumbbells instead of barbells
          3. Perform two warm-up sets with lighter weights before increasing the resistance
          4. Use lifting straps to help reduce forearm muscle tension from gripping the weights
          5. Use elbow sleeves or elbow wraps to help compress the elbow and triceps tendon

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          Get instant access to TitaniumPhysique. My program will guide you to a pain-free lifting experience.

          Nurudeen Tijani, founder of TitaniumPhysique

          15.  What options do I have to stop my elbows from hurting during skull crushers?

          To stop elbow pain during skull crushers, you have two approaches: short-term relief remedies and addressing the root cause of the pain.

          Short-term pain relief remedies include joint supplements and vitamins, anti-inflammatory painkillers (NSAIDs), physical therapy, stretching, ice and rest therapy, elbow braces, elbow straps, kinesiology tape, and topical anti-inflammatory solutions (oils and creams).

          To prevent it from affecting your workouts, it's essential to address the root causes, which include chronic inflammation, magnesium deficiency, and muscle restriction.

          My TitaniumPhysique Program can help you achieve this goal.

          16.  How can I avoid and prevent elbow pain from skull crushers?

          Important: part of avoiding chronic elbow pain is preventing acute elbow pain. If you feel elbow pain during skull crushers, reduce the weight. If the pain persists, stop the exercise and train another body part that does not involve your elbow.

          Pushing through a workout with elbow pain will intensify the degree of post-workout acute inflammation, worsen the pain symptoms, and prolong the recovery of the elbow.

          To avoid and prevent elbow pain, follow these steps:

          1. Stretch the forearms and triceps before doing skull crushers. See examples of forearm stretches here.
          2. Start your triceps workout by warming the elbow tendons (e.g., resistance band pull-apart).
          3. If performing heavy-lying skull crushers or barbell overhead triceps extensions, incrementally add weights to avoid sudden overload of the forearm muscles, triceps tendon, and elbow tendons.
          4. Learn and always use proper skull crusher lifting techniques. To learn the proper technique, check out this video.
          5. Incrementally increase training volume (i.e., be mindful about doing an excessive amount of skull crusher sets).
          6. Supplement with magnesium to counteract inflammation and decalcify the elbow tendons. Magnesium also relaxes muscles to reduce pain.
          7. Incorporate self-myofascial release for elbow pain into your recovery routine. Perform SMR on the forearm extensors, forearm flexors, and triceps muscle/tendon at least twice a week to keep the forearms and triceps pliable.

          If you want an easy-to-follow video guide to treat and prevent elbow issues, click the following link to access my TitaniumPhysique Program.

          TitaniumPhysique
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          This program can help treat and fix:

          Elbow tendonitis
          Elbow pain and injuries
          Golfer's elbow (inner pain)
          Tennis elbow (outer pain)
          Triceps tendonitis (back of elbow)
          Prevent elbow injuries

          Written by: Nurudeen Tijani

          Nurudeen (aka TJ) is passionate about helping people build the body they desire through weight training. He is a physique and fitness trainer, nutritionist, yoga instructor, vegan natural bodybuilder, National Physique Committee (NPC) competitor, and founder at TitaniumPhysique. Nurudeen is a member of the International Association Study of Pain (IASP) and the American Chronic Pain Association (ACPA).

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