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Categories: Recovery & Rehab

5 Tips To Manage Elbow Pain From Weight Lifting

Pain is the body’s #1 warning sign that something is wrong and we should address the problem before it gets worse. Even if you are able to train around joint pains, it still doesn’t mean that you should ignore them.

For most people with elbow pain, a little bit of soft tissue work and corrective exercises can help decrease, or even eliminate the elbow pain. These corrective exercises are especially important if you work at a desk for a large majority of the day. Working at a desk combined with an intense training regimen can wreak havoc on joints such as your elbows.

The following is a simple guide to helping prevent and manage elbow pain from weight lifting.

NOTE: If your elbow pain is severe, chronic, or worsening, you should consult with your doctor right away. It’s worth the time and money to get an x-ray and consult a medical professional. It’s better to be safe than sorry because you are going to be using your elbows for the rest of your life.

Elbow Pain Causes

The most common cause of elbow pain I see on a daily basis is from overuse or repetitive motion from desk jobs. Over time, things like typing, reaching for something across your desk for a phone, or even regular bench pressing, or pushups can be deleterious to the health of your elbows.

Eventually small tears can begin accumulating in the surrounding tendons, which may cause inflammation and pain. This can become significantly worse as the tendon repairs and scar tissue forms around the area creating a lack of blood flow.

Elbow Pain Symptoms

Elbow pain can come from the inner or outer part of your elbow, and in some cases the pain can radiate down your arm. Anything from a muscle strain, to tendon strain, tendonitis, bursitis, arthritis, a fracture, or dislocation can cause elbow pain. The most common forms of elbow pain from overuse, or repetitive motions are muscle, or tendon sprains.

Most people will notice pain when twisting the forearm or wrist, especially while holding onto something heavy like a dumbbell.

Elbow Pain Treatment

First and foremost, the best way to treat elbow pain is to find the source of the pain and eliminate it at least temporarily. If you continue to do what caused the pain in the first place it is safe to say that the pain will linger.

Here are 5 strategies to help you mitigate, or even eliminate elbow pain:

Elbow Pain Treatment #1 | Get a Massage

Chances are that the pain in your elbow is the consequence of a muscle imbalance or soft tissue restriction elsewhere in your body.

For example, if you lack proper tissue length in your pecs and/or lats you will struggle when trying to externally rotate your shoulder (turn your hands outwards away from your body). You can only get away with this for so long until you have to press something over your head.

The two options here are to get a massage from a licensed professional or use daily self myofascial release (SMR) on your upper back, pecs, biceps, and lats. The better you move throughout your upper body, the better your elbows will feel.

Elbow Pain Treatment #2 | Stretch Your Elbow and Wrist Flexors

This goes along with #1 as it relates to the mobility of your upper extremities. If your elbows, wrists, and shoulders are tight you risk damaging the soft tissue around these joints .

In conjunction with foam rolling and SMR, it is a good idea to stretch these areas after improving the quality of the tissue.

One stretch I have become a huge fan of using with many of my clients is the elbow and wrist flexors stretch. You extend your elbow and wrist and gently use your opposite hand to pull them into greater extension.

Elbow Pain Treatment #3 | Limit Arm Isolation Exercises

In other words, ditch the single joint exercises like bicep curls, tricep kickbacks, and shoulder flies. Trust me on this one. Working the elbow joint in isolation is a sure fire way to keep that pain coming back.

Instead, opt for full body exercises like pushups, pull-ups and bodyweight rows once your elbows are feeling a little better. This will ensure that your elbows are stabilized by more muscles than just your biceps and triceps.

I have found that laying off the isolation stuff for even just a little while will help your elbows feel exponentially better. This way your training won’t skip a beat.

Elbow Pain Treatment #4 | Supplement With Omega-3s

Reducing inflammation is just one more reason you should be supplementing with Omega-3s or fish oil. This can help with the reduction of swelling and formation of scar tissue in your elbows.

The other option would be to get more Omega-3s in your diet from fish, walnuts, flax seeds and chia seeds. Sprinkling flax or chia on your breakfast or salads is a simple way to make sure you are getting them in daily as fish isn’t always the easiest option.

Elbow Pain Treatment #5 | Swap The Barbell For Dumbbells

I know this one may be hard to swallow for many bench press addicts but switching to dumbbell exercises temporarily might be one of the best ways to ease chronic elbow pain from training.

We all possess imbalances or asymmetries to some extent. Take for instance the hand with which you write. Chances are it is the same hand you throw with or carry your briefcase with. We all have a dominant side.

If you have apparent shoulder motion asymmetries, dumbbells should be swapped for all of your favorite exercises such as bench press, rows and overhead presses. Your elbows will thank you!

Summing It All Up

Just because you have elbow pain doesn’t mean you were born with “bad” elbows. Your best bet is to identify the cause then practice some of these strategies to keep you training longer and harder.

I hope this article has helped you gain some knowledge and insight into some of the possible causes of elbow pain and how you can eliminate or reduce that pain before you give up training all together.

As a reminder, if your elbow pain is severe, or worsening, it’s worth consulting a doctor right away. Let me know if you have any questions and I will answer below.

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30 Comments

  • PG says:

    Hi Seve, good article, some very solid training advice in hee, my problem seems to be made worse through bodyweight moves like pull ups on a straight bar and even having to grip something like the TRX system. Bicep curls don't cause me any pain at all, should I carry on doing these while I lay off the pull ups or do ou think I should be ok if it's not hurting?
    Thanks in advance.
    Phil

  • Jeff says:

    My left elbow on the outside, just in between the joint is killing me. Since the 4th of July 2012 up until now, 10/4/12. I haven't been able to sleep well and I'm guessing it is due to the pain.
    I think I might have hyper-extended my left arm while catching myself during a squash match. The pain didn't start right away until after a few hours. Now, sometimes it's really unbearable. A ortho doctor saw me but, didn't take take an MRI, just told me it was tennis elbow and to do exercises with my wrist.
    Shouldn't he have taken and MRI? It's been 3 months now and the pain is not easing up. The pain radiates now up into my upper arm and down into my wrist/fingers.
    Any help or ideas greatly appreciated.
    Sincerely,
    Jeff

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Jeff - I hope some others chime in, but my sense is to rest if completely (as in no exercise at all for 2 weeks) to see what happens. The inflammation may go down. If it doesn't feel any better after 2 weeks of rest, get the MRI! If cost is not an issue and you can get it covered, might as well get the MRI so that you can understand exactly what is wrong with your elbow. I have had some elbow problems myself, but eventually they all were resolved in time.

  • Sam says:

    I am 15 years old and i am a keen weight lifter. When I tense my arms my elbows feel weak and a slight pain every so often. I am not sure whether this is elbow tendontis (tennis elbow or golfers elbow) or that it is something more like tendonosis? This slight pain has been going on about a year and a half, yes it sometimes hurts after workouts, but only slightly. Is there any chance this is a muscle inbalance? or am i just cursed with tendonitis or tendonosis?
    I know I am too young to weight lift, but it's for GCSE PE, so i have to partcipate.
    Can elbow tendonitis/tendonosis fully cure?
    Thanks in advance - Sam

  • PG says:

    Hi again,

    Just an update, I've stopped doing straight bar pull ups and have noticed a real improvement in the general pain I was experiencing in my elbow.
    Is there any value in these neoprene elbow suports, can they help prevent injury or do they in any way speed up recovery in your opinion?

    Thanks

    Phil.
    p.s. Steve, sorry for calling you Seve, wireless keyboard playing up and I didn't read it back before sending.

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @PG - That's a GREAT question and one I don't know the answer to off the top of my head. Hopefully Steve can chime in on this one.

  • Jason says:

    Do I have to wait for my tendon sprain to feel better until I weight lift again? Or should I give it time for recovery?

    • Kristin says:

      Hi Jason,

      If you haven't already, I would recommend consulting with a physical therapist. They'll be able to assess and treat the sprain, give you rehab exercises, and let you know whether you're ready to get back to weight lifting or not. In general, if you strength train and the pain lingers or gets worse, then you should stop and let the injury rest. Also, avoid any movements that cause pain. Hope that helps!

      -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

  • Carole Fazio says:

    I have pain in my elbow I can't touch the bone it hurts and I feel a ball moving around and that hurts too, the pain goes down my arm and into my fingers

    • Kristin Rooke, CPT says:

      Carole, I'm sorry to hear you're experiencing elbow pain! That sounds really uncomfortable and limiting. I would highly recommend that you make an appointment with your primary care doctor or physical therapist. A physical therapist will be able to assess and diagnose the injury, and design a stretching and strengthening program to rehab the injury, correct muscular imbalances, and over time eliminate the pain. I hope that helps!

      -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

  • Fidel Tshabalala says:

    I fell on my elbow and attended medical treatment, and it has affected my hand grip strength. I have a physiotherapist, and am now being seen by a surgeon specialist saying it may get better. I've had the injury since May and still have pains when climbing or lifting. What should I do?

    • Kristin Rooke, CPT says:

      Fidel, I'm sorry to hear that you're dealing with an injury, but it sounds like you're working with a couple of great, qualified medical professionals. Coming back from an injury can take time. A combination of rest, rehab exercises, and progressive strength training can help you recover optimally. Recovery time can vary from person-to-person depending on your age, how well you heal, how closely you follow the rehab protocol that your physical therapist gives you, and making sure that you push yourself enough (but not too much). Doing too much too soon could aggravate the issue and extend your rehab time, so make sure to balance your work to rest ratio. If you're concerned about the pain that you're experiencing while lifting or climbing, I recommend checking in with your physical therapist to make sure everything is ok and going according to plan. I hope that helps!
      -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

  • Chris says:

    I get pain in my elbow area when I do bicep curls and bench press. It goes away but once i start doing those things again it comes back and I'll have to wait a couple days before it goes away. What do you think could cause it and what do you recommend me do to ease the pain and avoid it coming back? Thank you in advance.

  • Katerinee Montoya says:

    To anyone who can answer me,

    I started weightlifting with my boyfriend and I'm experiencing some inside elbow pain, and I can't stretch out my arm all the way because it hurts, I tried the elbows and wrist flexor stretch and that makes it better while I'm doing it but after I stop the pain is still there, specially when I stretch out my arms. Any tips you might have to stop the pain?

    • Kenneth Leung, DPT says:

      Hi Katerinee. If it hurts with just passively stretching out your arm, you need to rest the elbow as this sounds like a form of medial epicondylitis where the tendons in your elbow have been strained. If it's still hurting after over 2 weeks of stretching and resting, I would consult with a health professional in person.
      In the meantime, light stretching and massage can help relieve some of the symptoms.

    • Kristin says:

      I'm sorry to hear you've got an injury going on, Katerinee! It sounds to me like you're experiencing Golfer's Elbow. Basically, your inner elbow tendon is inflamed. I would recommend taking a break from weight lifting for awhile to let the pain subside. Also, definitely go see your primary care doctor or a physical therapist. A physical therapist in particular will be able to assess and diagnose the injury, do manual therapy to alleviate the pain, and provide you with rehab exercises so you can return to exercise stronger than before.

      If anything, avoid exercises that cause pain and inflammation. That will just continue to aggravate the area. Rest your arms, and focus on exercise that doesn't irritate your elbow. Good luck, and I hope you have a quick recovery!
      -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

  • Timur G says:

    Hi there, thank you for all the comments and information, I hope you can shed some light on my condition.

    I have been dealing with outer elbow pain for over 2 years now. It's been on and off depending on how long I work in front of a computer and how hard I train. It's getting frustrated because every time I go on a couple of weeks break, the nagging pain subdues until I start working out again. Is there a complete solution to fixing the tendons tears for good? It's tiring and de-motivating since I like having long workouts and push myself whether it's reps or weights.

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Hey Timur, please contact your doctor or a physical therapist, they are the best positioned to help you

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