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5 min read

Elbow pain when lifting is one of the most frustrating things you can encounter while at the gym.

But how serious is it? What causes it, and how can it be treated or prevented? In this article we will look at exactly that.

Elbow Pain When Lifting

Unlike knee and ankle injuries, elbow injuries are rarely acute. While it is possible to fracture or dislocate your elbow, the most common causes of elbow pain are chronic injuries such as tendonitis.

In this article, we will take a look at both acute and chronic injuries that cause elbow pain when lifting. But we will also look at how your lifting technique in the gym could also be responsible.

Common Causes of Elbow Pain

When it comes to elbow pain, the cause is often due to overtraining, or poor recovery. Acute injuries can occur but are fairly rare. Adjusting your lifting technique is often the best way to prevent elbow pain.

Acute Injuries

Most elbow injuries are chronic, but there are a couple of acute injuries that can occur when lifting.

Elbow Fracture

It is rare to fracture your elbow while lifting but certainly not impossible. A badly performed bench press could lead to an elbow fracture. But for the most part, elbow fractures are caused by accidental collisions or falls.

Elbow Dislocation

Hyperextension of the elbow during Olympic weightlifting movements such as the snatch has been shown to cause elbow dislocation.

This is more likely to affect you if you are trying to hit a new PB and affects people who are hypermobile more than regular people.

Chronic Injuries

The most common chronic injury for the elbow is Tennis Elbow, but there are also sprains, arthritis, and bursitis.

Elbow Sprains

An elbow sprain is a tear in the ligaments that surround the elbow. There are three ligaments, the RCL (Radial Collateral Ligament), the MCL (Medial Collateral Ligament) and the UCL (Ulnar Collateral Ligament).

  • UCL injuries are usually caused by repetitive movements such as throwing
  • MCL injuries are also caused by repetitive throwing movements
  • RCL injuries are often caused by falling (an acute injury)

Most sprains can be treated with RICE (Rest, Ice, Compress, Elevate), but the more severe ligament tears may require surgery.

Tennis Elbow

This is the most common cause of elbow pain.

Tennis elbow is also known as tendonitis of the elbow, or an elbow strain. It is usually the tearing of the fibres in your tendon.

But sometimes it can occur without the fibres being torn, just aggravated, and inflamed.

While tennis elbow is mostly linked with tennis (surprisingly), it is also known as golfer’s elbow, and is associated with carpentry.

What do all of these have in common?

They involve you gripping an item repeatedly. As you know, weightlifting also requires a lot of different grips. Which is why tennis elbow is so common in lifters.

Tennis elbow is caused by repetitive movements, a lack of rest, and muscle imbalances or weaknesses in the muscles surrounding the elbow.

You can treat Tennis elbow with RICE, or you can adjust your lifting techniques (see below section).

Elbow Bursitis

Bursas are fluid-filled sacks that separate the elbow and the skin. Bursas can become inflamed and increase in size as the sacks fill with more fluid. It can lead to pain and stiffness in the elbow.

As with many overuse injuries, bursitis can be treated with RICE, but more severe cases may require a doctor or physiotherapist.

Arthritis

It is possible that your pain could be caused by arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis are the most likely of the different forms of arthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis requires medication or possibly surgery to treat. There is no cure for osteoarthritis, but exercise is known to improve it, so keep lifting but focus on rest and recovery between sessions.

Lifting Technique and Elbow Pain

While many causes of elbow pain can be treated with RICE and the avoidance of exercise. There are some things that you can do while in the gym to help reduce elbow pain.

Tip #1 Widen grip

Widening your grip during the bench press can put less stress on your triceps and place more emphasis on your chest and shoulders. Reducing the risk of elbow pain.

Tip #2 Lower Weight

Often, pain can be a sign that you are attempting to lift too much weight. Whether that pain manifests itself in the elbow or shoulder or elsewhere. Try lowering the weight and seeing whether your elbow still hurts.

Tip #3 Reduce speed

Similar to tip #2, lifting too fast can cause pain in the elbow. Slowing your lifts can give you more control and can prevent bad form. You can also use the slower speed to analyse at what point your elbows start to hurt. Which brings us to the next tip.

Tip #4 Reduce ROM

We’ll use the bench press again, because it is the exercise which is most likely to cause elbow pain (close-grip bench press in particular).

Let’s say that whenever you bench you feel pain in your elbow. Set the bar up as normal, lower the weight slightly and perform the rep at a slow pace.

Identify at what point the exercise causes your elbows to hurt. Is it when locking out at the top of the movement? Is it at the point where the bar is at your chest?

If it is the former, then shorten your ROM so that you don’t fully extend your arms during the bench. See if this helps.

If you feel the pain when pushing the bar from off your chest, then shorten the ROM so that you don’t lower the bar all the way down to your chest.

Obviously, you want to be able to perform full ROM bench presses. But while your elbow is hurting, it is a good idea to shorten the ROM temporarily. That way you can still workout without exacerbating the problem.

This won’t always work, sometimes you’ll feel pain throughout the movement. But it is a handy tip for certain scenarios.

Final Thoughts - Elbow Pain When Lifting

As with many injuries, elbow pain can usually be prevented with good form, excellent recovery and rest strategies, and the occasional change in exercise.

Swap bench press for chest press, change your grip, try an underhand grip instead of an overhand.

Once you do start to feel pain, ease off, try the tips mentioned above, of stop altogether. Don’t be afraid to get help from your doctor or physiotherapist if the pain persists.


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