How to Stop Elbow Pain When Lifting Weights

How to Stop Elbow Pain When Lifting Weights

As an orthopaedic surgeon, I can tell you that elbow pain when lifting weights is a very common problem. On this site, we focus on lifting weights and exercising, but you can also experience elbow pain at home or at work. Typing, packing, loading, and hand tools are all common ways to cause elbow pain. Take up a job like this and add to your daily fitness routine? Soon your elbows will tell you this!

Common Causes of Elbow Pain When Lifting Weights


The most common causes of elbow pain when lifting weights are different types of tendonitis, including:

  • tennis elbow
  • golfer's elbow
  • triceps tendonitis
  • biceps tendonitis

Tennis elbow is injured on the outside of the elbow, while golfer's elbow is injured on the inside. Both methods can hurt when you're holding something, such as lifting a barbell. The best way to diagnose tennis elbow is to try lifting a small dumbbell, palms down, straight in front of you. Does your elbow hurt when you lift that lightweight thing? You may have tennis elbow.

Triceps tendinitis can cause pain in the back, near the bony point at the back of the elbow. Does pushing or timing hurt my elbow? Probably triceps tendonitis.

Biceps tendonitis can cause pain deep in the front of the elbow. The biceps are injured when you bend your elbows or do curls. And don't be fooled by the pain that shoots into your forearm: these problems all radiate pain in this way.

Tennis elbow tendonitis

Tennis elbow is caused by repeated injuries to the tendons on the outside of the elbow. This can lead to microscopic tears and tendon damage, which can lead to pain.

Other common causes of elbow pain when lifting weights include injuries to the inside of the joint, such as:

  • arthritis
  • olecranon bursitis
  • Osteochondritis (OCD)
  • stress fracture

In general, elbow arthritis is much less common than hip or knee arthritis. But it is more common in my patients to lift weights. It is usually characterized by loss of motion and grinding of the elbow.

Olecranon bursitis is easy to identify. There is a large, noticeable swelling at the back of the elbow. Take a look at the image below to see how remarkable it is.

Osteochondritis (OCD) and stress fractures commonly affect throwing athletes, especially young baseball and softball pitchers. So if your child starts to experience elbow pain while pitching, take it seriously

What is Tennis Elbow and the Benefits of Using a Tennis Elbow Brace

Elbow pain from weightlifting, elbow pain when lifting weights, olecranon bursitis, elbow swelling

The bursa at the back of the elbow can become swollen and inflamed from exercises like the bench press or low plank, leading to olecranon bursitis.

nerve entrapment

Repetitive flexion of the elbow when lifted can cause peripheral nerve damage, such as:

pronation syndrome

Pronator syndrome is caused by compression of the median nerve in the forearm, which causes pain in the forearm and front of the elbow. It can be caused by weightlifting exercises such as pull-ups or rowing. While the condition itself is rare, I do see it more often among avid weight lifters.

cubital tunnel syndrome

Cubital tunnel syndrome is caused by compression of the ulnar nerve at the back of the elbow. If you've ever hit your "fun bone," you've actually hit your ulnar nerve. This can cause pain in the elbow and numbness in the hand. You may notice that your symptoms actually get worse when you sleep, not just during exercise.

What is tendonitis?

Tendonitis is by far the most common cause of elbow pain when lifting weights. Your tendons are made up of many tiny protein fibers that all hold together, kind of like a rope. Tendonitis is caused by cumulative damage to these fibers. If you want to learn more about this issue, you can check out our article "What is Tendonitis?"

Treat Elbow Pain From Exercise

Most of the time, simple remedies can stop elbow pain when lifting weights. However, these treatments work best in the early stages. It is crucial to address elbow pain before it becomes a problem that may require surgery. My main recommendations for early treatment of elbow pain include:

  • pain-reducing activities
  • support elbow or wrist
  • Apply damp heat
  • stretch arm
  • Shoulder and forearm strengthening
  • lighten grip

If all else fails, see a plastic surgeon!

Give your elbow a chance to heal! This may mean stopping some exercise altogether. Pull-ups, curls, push-ups, toe-to-bar, and bench presses can all be sources of persistent elbow injury. You can stop them completely or modify them to reduce gripping.

Why You Should Use Golfer's Elbow Support Over Compression Sleeves

Buy Tennis Elbow Rehabilitation Equipment

  • stop grabbing the bar
  • reduce grip strength
  • ease grip
  • support elbow or wrist

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 a reaction brace, this shoulder strap is designed to reduce stress on the elbows during everyday 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.

Apply damp heat

Most of the time, elbow pain when lifting weights is caused by some kind of tendonitis. Tendonitis usually responds better to heat than to ice. Ice may relieve symptoms in the short term, but heat seems to help these tissues heal better. Heat relaxes muscles and tendons, increases blood flow, and helps muscles recover from exercise. That's why it works better than icing. If you want to learn more about the heat versus ice debate, read our previous article, "Ice or Heat: Strategies for Treating Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness."

stretch arm

Stretching is a great way to relieve pain in almost any joint, and it works on the elbows as well. Stretch the muscles that cause golfer's elbow and tennis elbow by exercising on the wrist. Those tendons start at the elbow and go all the way to the hand. A two-way stretch at the wrist can relieve tension and reduce pain. But don't stop there! Elbow pain can be caused by a loss of mobility in the shoulders, so make sure they are also kept soft.

Elbow Pain Relief, Eliminate Elbow Pain While Lifting, Treat Elbow Pain, Elbow Stretch

Stretch the damaged tendon by bending the wrist while the elbow is straight.

Elbow Pain Relief, Eliminate Elbow Pain While Lifting, Treat Elbow Pain, Elbow Stretch

Stretch the muscles on the other side of the joint. This helps reduce tension in the injured area.

Shoulder and forearm strengthening

I know we've been talking about reducing the load on the elbows for most of this article. But there are some very specific exercises that can help heal tendons instead of hurting them. These are called eccentric exercises. Eccentric strength training is where you slowly resist forces that are working against you. You can easily buy some cheap off-center elbow reinforcement straps on Amazon. Just click this link! Don't forget shoulder rehab! Research shows that strengthening the rotator cuff can also help reduce elbow pain.

lighten grip

If you notice elbow pain during barbell exercises, try using dumbbells instead. Dumbbells don't lock your elbows into awkward positions like barbells do. This reduces the pressure on the elbow and reduces pain. A larger grip point also reduces stress on the elbows. So look for equipment with thick handles or rods. This can help you reduce pain while exercising.

When to see a doctor about elbow pain

If you've tried these changes within a few weeks without seeing any relief, it may be time to see a professional. This way you can get the correct diagnosis and determine what you should do to fix it. Some problems, like tendinitis, can take up to 6 months to get better.

Your doctor may offer injections of steroids, anti-inflammatory drugs, or platelet-rich plasma to help relieve pain and speed healing. Or they may recommend you physical therapy such as dry needling, soft tissue loosening (Graston or IASTM), cold lasers, ultrasound, or other methods to help heal your elbow. In severe cases, surgery may be needed to relieve pain.

Back to blog