Do You Have Elbow Pain When Lifting Weights?

People often overlook their elbows when designing exercise routines and self-care plans, but these joints take a lot of abuse in the course of a workout.

Incorrect repetitive motions in something as simple as push-ups may cause a misalignment in your joints, including the elbows, leading to pain.

How can you plan to avoid elbow pain, and what can you do if you experience elbow pain while lifting weights or even light objects?

We first need to look into what may be causing your elbow pain.

There are several reasons why your elbows may hurt while lifting, but these are the most common culprits. They are caused by elbow tendonitis, which is the inflammation or irritation of the tendons in the elbow.

Medial epicondylitis

Tendonitis of the common flexor tendon is commonly known as golfer’s elbow. While you may not be a golfer, you use many of the same joints and muscles lifting weights as golfers do when they swing.

Medial Epicondylitis Elbow Pain

With this condition, you’ll experience pain on the inside of your elbow and forearm because it affects the flexor tendons of the inner elbow. Medial epicondylitis most often occurs as a result of back and bicep exercises like curls, pull-ups, chin-ups, and lat pulldowns.

Lateral epicondylitis

Where golfer’s elbow affects the inner elbow tendon, lateral epicondylitis affects the outside extensor tendons. This condition is also known as tennis elbow. It is also known as tendonitis of the common extensor tendon.

lateral epicondylitis

And like the above condition, you don’t have to be a tennis player to encounter this elbow condition. Any repetitive stress can be the offender, including weightlifting. You’re likely to experience tennis elbow as a result of chest, triceps, and upper arm exercises like triceps extensions and chest presses.

Distal bicep tendonitis

Similar to the two conditions above, this form of tendonitis occurs in the distal biceps tendon.  This is the tendon that connects your biceps muscle to the radius bone in your forearm. When this tendon is inflamed, it can cause pain on the inside of the elbow and forearm. Though lifting anything can set off this pain, it is most commonly associated with repetitive lifting activities, including biceps curls and rowing exercises.

Elbow Anatomy

Triceps tendonitis

If the back of your elbow hurts, you may be experiencing triceps tendonitis in the corresponding tendon that runs down the back of your arm to your elbow. The aptly named condition “weightlifter’s elbow” is usually the result of chronic overtraining. You may experience sharp elbow pain or weakness when pushing, swelling, or aching deep in your elbow joint. Exercises like bench press, push-ups, and burpees can cause tiny tears in this tendon.

Now that you know what may be causing your elbow pain, what can you do about it?

Preventing elbow pain

There’s a saying that goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” And that’s true of any pain you may experience while lifting weights, too. The best way to stop elbow pain when weightlifting is to stop it from happening in the first place. Prevention doesn’t require you to go above and beyond your regular routine. It’s the opposite. You can avert elbow injuries before they happen by thinking smart, focusing on your form, and having a well-rounded workout routine.

Keep your reps in check

Since bicep and tricep exercises are among those that are the most likely to contribute to elbow pain, you need to take special care when performing them. These are isolation exercises focused on a particular muscle, and they involve a lot of elbow movement. You don’t want to put too much tension on the elbow by lifting too heavy for these exercises. Instead, lighten your weights and increase your reps. Are you going heavy for 4-8 reps with your bicep curls? Consider your elbows, and go for 8-15 reps at a lower weight.

It is essential to stretch elbows thoroughly between reps. A lot of tendons and soft tissue structures make up the elbows. These affect flexibility. If you want your elbows to remain flexible enough to handle your reps without injury, be sure to stretch. 

Take breaks – your elbows need them

You may think you’re doing your body a favor by spending every single day at the gym. In actuality, your body needs a break. You can’t lift weights every day without putting significant wear and tear on your joints, tendons, and ligaments – and the elbows are no exception.

To prevent injury, you have to give your body a chance to rest, recover, and heal after a workout. You don’t have to stop working out altogether – work in some cardio or lighter weight training for a few days before you return to your regular weight routine. Try deloading by reducing your intensity, the number of sets, or a combination of both for a week.

Reverse Wrist Curls

Forearm curls can help improve wrist strength.

Maintain a balanced routine

Balance is the key to injury prevention. It goes along the same lines as giving your body a break: try to switch up your weightlifting routine to work different arm muscles. Make sure to give some attention to your wrist muscles instead of putting all of your focus on the standard bi- and tri- exercises. Incorporate wrist curls and reverse wrist curls to strengthen the wrist extensor and flexor muscles. Strengthening your wrists and forearm muscles will put less strain on your elbows, decreasing the pain you feel when you lift.

Useful Resources: Broken Wrist Recovery Exercises

Use proper alignment

Sometimes elbow pain can be caused by doing exercises incorrectly. Often when lifting weights, elbow pain results not from what your elbow is doing but from what your hand, wrist, and forearm are doing. After all, this is where all of those tendons connect. The misalignment of your wrist can make your elbow hurt and cause lasting damage.

It’s essential to pay attention to your form – especially when you’re doing an exercise that can put stress on your elbows. Ensure that everything stays in line behind the other concerning the line of resistance for the workout. Ensuring proper alignment can help take a lot of stress off your elbows and prevent pain in the long run.

What to do if you have elbow pain

The best thing is to prevent elbow pain, but what can you do if you’re already experiencing it? Before beginning any treatment, you should consult with your doctor or physical therapist to determine what is causing your elbow pain. You can, however, alleviate the symptoms of elbow pain in the following ways.

Apply heat

When it comes to tendonitis of the elbow, heat might be a better choice than ice, even though ice may help with pain relief in the short term. Applying heat to your painful elbow helps increase the blood flow and bring nutrients to the area, which can aid in the healing process. When you apply heat, be sure to avoid direct contact with your skin. Your best bet is to use a moist hot pack and place it around your elbow and forearm.

Bending the Wrist with a Wrist Flexor stretch

Stretching the wrists and shoulders helps with elbow pain.

Take time to stretch

If your elbows hurt, a little bit of light stretching might help with some of the symptoms. Flexion and extension stretching can help to promote mobility and flexibility in the tendons. Since the elbow tendons go all the way to the hand, stretching the wrist in both directions can relieve elbow pain and release some of that tension. Don’t forget to include the shoulders when you stretch, since the upper body can lose mobility when you have elbow issues. You want to make sure that you’re not stretching too hard – these stretches should not hurt!

Consider a brace

Wearing a brace can also help to ease your elbow pain. Depending on the type of elbow pain you are considering, you may benefit from a counterforce brace. A counterforce brace is a small strap worn around the forearm that works to dissipate the force from your muscles before they reach the elbow. Make sure you have a proper fit for the brace – you don’t want it to be so tight that you cut off circulation.

Additionally, you may consider a wrist immobilization brace. Immobilizing the wrist allows the muscles to rest – and it also leaves them in a good position to heal. Proper wrist health and alignment can play a role in easing elbow pain. For the best results, always wear your wrist wrap when lifting, even at a low weight, and especially when lifting overhead. Consistent wear will help prevent injury, prevent muscle strain, and give you a better grip on the barbells and dumbbells.

Avoid arm isolation exercises

If taking a break from exercising is out of the question, try to limit exercises that isolate single joints (that would be the elbow joint in this case) like bicep curls and tricep kickbacks. Instead, focus on full-body exercises until your elbows get back in good working order. These include pull-ups, push-ups, bench press, and bodyweight rows. Gaining strength in other upper body muscles will help to stabilize your elbow joints and tendons. You might be surprised at how quickly pain in the elbows dissipates when you simply switch up your routine.

Reduce Grip Tension

You don’t have to stop lifting weights altogether when you have elbow pain. Relieving that pain may be as simple as modifying your equipment when weight lifting. The best way to do this is by reducing grip tension. Many people don’t realize the impact that handgrip has on the elbows. But when you think about it, conditions like tennis elbow and golfer’s elbow both involve a constant grip on equipment, be it a tennis racquet or golf club.

Bicep Curls

Swap dumbbells for barbells when doing curls

Try switching out barbells for dumbbells. Dumbbells don’t lock your elbows into position in exercises like the bench press or bicep curls. And they offer a larger point of grip. Opt for equipment with a fat handle or bars, or consider using grip wraps that secure around your wrist. 

All of these factors can reduce the strain on your elbows.

Another excellent swap is ditching the classic straight bar for an EZ Curl Bar. When doing curls, this piece of equipment puts your body in a more natural position as you lift. This better alignment makes for a safer workout and less pain in the elbow.


Take care of your elbows

While you’re lifting and training hard, make sure you take care of those elbows. Start taking care of them now, and your elbows will be able to support you through all your workout goals – through 2020 and beyond. Are you experiencing elbow pain? It’s a good idea to consult a physician before you continue with your regular workout routine. Arm yourself with an effective physical therapy routine and after-workout recovery plan every time you hit the gym.

Photo of author

Dr. Kristina DeMatas

Dr. DeMatas practices holistic, evidence-based family medicine that focuses on treating injuries and transforming lives through prevention, rehabilitation, and diet. She is a licensed, practicing Physician at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, FL. Read bio.


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