Pain is the No. 1 warning sign that something is wrong with the body, and we should address the problem before it gets worse. Even if you can train around joint pain, that doesn't mean you should ignore them.
For most people with elbow pain, a little soft tissue and corrective exercises can help reduce or even eliminate elbow pain. These corrective exercises are especially important if you spend most of your day working at your desk. Working at a desk combined with a high-intensity training regimen can wreak havoc on joints like the elbows.
Here are simple guidelines to help prevent and manage elbow pain from weightlifting.
Note: If your elbow pain is severe, chronic, or worsening, you should consult your doctor immediately. It's worth spending time and money getting an X-ray and consulting a medical professional. Better to be safe than sorry because you'll be using your elbow for the rest of your life.
Causes of Elbow Pain
The most common cause of elbow pain I see on a daily basis is overuse or repetitive motion from desk work. Over time, things like typing, reaching for your phone at your desk, or even a regular bench press or push-up can be detrimental to your elbow health.
Eventually, small tears start to build up in the surrounding tendons, which can cause inflammation and pain. This can get worse as the tendon repairs and scar tissue forms around the area, resulting in insufficient blood flow.
Elbow Pain Symptoms
Elbow pain can come from the inside or outside of the elbow, and in some cases, the pain can radiate down the arm. Elbow pain can result from strained muscles to pulled tendons, tendonitis, bursitis, arthritis, fractures or dislocations. The most common form of elbow pain from overuse or repetitive motion is a muscle or tendon sprain.
Most people experience pain when twisting their forearm or wrist, especially when holding heavy objects like dumbbells.
Elbow Pain Treatment
First, the best way to treat elbow pain is to find the source of the pain and get rid of it, at least temporarily. If you keep doing the things that caused the pain in the first place, it's safe to say that the pain will persist.
Here are 5 strategies to help you reduce or even eliminate elbow pain:
Elbow Pain Treatment #1 | Massage
Elbow pain is most likely the result of muscle imbalances or soft tissue limitations elsewhere in the body.
For example, if your pecs and/or latissimus dorsi lack proper tissue length, you will have difficulty trying to externally rotate your shoulders (put your hands out and away from your body). You can only get away with it for so long until you have to put something on your head.
The two options here are getting a massage from a licensed professional or using daily self-myofascial release (SMR) on the upper back, pecs, biceps, and latissimus dorsi. The better your upper body moves, the better your elbows will feel.
Elbow Pain Treatment #2 | Stretching the Elbow and Wrist Flexors
This comes with #1 as it relates to upper limb mobility. If your elbows, wrists, and shoulders are too tight, you can damage the soft tissue around these joints.
In combination with foam rolling and SMR, it is a good idea to stretch these areas after improving tissue quality.
One stretch I use with many clients is the elbow and wrist flexor stretch. You stretch your elbows and wrists, then gently pull them wider with your other hand.
Elbow Pain Treatment #3 | Limiting Arm Isolation Exercises
In other words, give up single-joint exercises like bicep curls, tricep rebounds, and shoulder fly. Trust me on this. Working the elbow in isolation is a surefire way to keep pain from recurring.
Instead, once your elbows feel a little better, opt for full-body exercises like push-ups, pull-ups, and body-weight rows. This will ensure that your elbows are stabilized by more muscles than just your biceps and triceps.
I've found that even just temporarily laying down quarantined stuff can make your elbows feel so much better. This way your training doesn't skip a beat.
Elbow Pain Treatment #4 | Omega-3s Supplementation
Reducing inflammation is just another reason why you should supplement with omega-3 or fish oil. This helps reduce elbow swelling and scar tissue formation.
Another option is to get more omega-3s from fish, walnuts, flax and chia seeds. Sprinkling flax or chia seeds on breakfast or salads is an easy way to ensure your daily intake, since fish isn't always the easiest option.
Elbow Pain Treatment #5 | Swap Barbells for Dumbbells
I know this can be overwhelming for many bench press addicts, but switching to dumbbell exercises temporarily can be one of the best ways to relieve chronic elbow pain from training.
We all have imbalances or asymmetries in some way or another. Take your hand for writing, for example. Chances are it's the same hand you use to throw or carry your briefcase. We all have an edge.
If you have significant shoulder movement asymmetry, you should replace the dumbbells with all the exercises you enjoy, such as bench presses, rows, and overhead presses. Your elbows will thank you!
Elbow Pain Treatment #6 | Wear an Elbow Brace
A tennis elbow brace can really help relieve overworked tendon pain. It helps redirect force to the healthy part of the tendon. Also known as reaction support, this shoulder strap is designed to reduce stress on the elbows during daily activities. If you want to try it out, this cheap but effective tennis elbow brace is available on Amazon. Here's a quick video on how to use it.
In severe cases, we also sometimes prescribe a bracer. This helps reduce stress on the forearm muscles involved in tennis elbow and golfer's elbow. We generally recommend this wrist splint.
Just because you have elbow pain doesn't mean you were born with "bad" elbows. The best way is to find out why, and then practice some of these strategies to make you train 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 to eliminate or reduce this pain before you give up on training.
As a reminder, if your elbow pain is severe or worsening, it's worth consulting your doctor right away. Let me know if you have any questions and I'll answer them below.