Exercises to Avoid: French Press (aka Skullcrushers)

Lying-close-grip-triceps-press-to-chin-1“They should rename these to ‘elbow destroyers'” — me

Most of you are familiar with the French Press, aka Skullcrushers, a triceps exercise usually performed lying on a bench, elbows pointed at the ceiling and griping a bar while you raise and lower it to your forehead, or to a spot just above your head, all the while keeping your elbows stationary.

Great exercise, right? Hit those triceps, crank out some reps, get that country ham-sized meat blob hanging off the underside of your arm…

Eh…. not so much.

Lemme tell you a story.

By the time I was 45 I was having a lot of elbow pain whenever I tried to fully extend my elbows, especially my left. I couldn’t ride a bike because I couldn’t lean on the handlebars. When I did bench press, I couldn’t go all the way up. Tricep press downs were out of the question unless I went very light. Ditto for overhead dumbbell or barbell extensions.

Just about any sort of pushing movement was uncomfortable.

olecrenon-spurTurns out I had extremely large bone spurs on my elbows, large enough to interfere with extending my arm, especially my left arm. I also had bursitis and tendinitis.

All of this formed a perfect storm of bad in my left elbow and had started causing compression of my ulnar nerve, the result being if my left arm was in a bent position for a length of time, the pinkie, ring finger, and inside of my middle finger would start to get all numb and tingly. This especially happened at night and would wake me up from a sound sleep.

After a few months of this, I finally went to the doctor, an osteopath. I remember sitting in the exam room at the end of a hall. At the other end was the room where the doctor looked at x-rays. He had one of those lighted panels on the wall he clipped the x-rays on to. I could see him from where I sat in the exam room.

So I’m sitting there, he’s already taken the x-rays, and he’s into the room looking. I can see his back as he hangs them on the light board. And then I hear him say:

“Look at the size of those bone spurs!”

I figured that wasn’t a good thing.

Yep, had them on both elbows, and turns out I’d broken the left one and it had healed in such a way that it was causing even more problems. It had to come off.

Here’s the warning part:

The doctor told me he saw them all the time, especially in older lifters. They’re caused by doing single joint triceps exercises using heavy weight, exercises like skull-crushers/French press, triceps extensions, kickbacks, dumbbell and barbell extensions…. pretty much anything where the arm stays stationary and the elbow is the fulcrum for the motion. OK to do with light weight, not OK to do for years and years with heavy weight while ignoring the discomfort it caused. Even though I hadn’t done them in over a decade, the damage was already done.

I scheduled the surgery and a few weeks later I was being led out to the car by my wife, my arm in a sling and the bone spur chiseled off and ground down.

It healed up pretty well and in a few months my left elbow was feeling the best it had in years. No more numbness at night or when holding my arm bent (like at a keyboard).

I took advantage of the forced time off to do rehab on the right (rest and alternating ice and heat) and it was feeling pretty good too. I got back in the gym, was pressing again without pain, and could ride a bike no problem.

I still have some range of motion problems with my right arm, and over the last year it’s started to show the symptoms of ulnar compression as well, so I imagine surgery is sometime in the future for that one too. I have to wear a ulnar brace at night now to keep it from waking me up with the numbness and tingling.

The takeaway?

Just say no to French press (and all the other heavy, elbow movement only exercises).


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