Breaking Down Elbow Pain While Lifting

Written by the Boostcamp staff
Mar 11,2024|12 min| 106

What causes it and how can you fix it?

We’ve all been there, it’s chest day, you’re on the bench press about to hit a new one rep max and boom, that dreaded elbow pain is back. For some people this elbow pain may come and go when they are lifting, and for others it can change their entire workout routine. Push movements can be thrown off, your grip strength can be demolished leaving you unable to do pulling workouts, even barbell squatting can cause you pain as the position of the bar puts pressure on your elbows. Often referred to as “tennis elbow” or “golfer’s elbow”, what is the cause of your elbow pain while lifting? And how can you ease it a little bit? 

Let’s break down what exactly causes elbow pain while lifting, and how to alleviate it!

The Elbow's Anatomy

The first thing to discuss is what exactly the elbow is and how it is made up. The elbow is a complex joint and it is formed by three bones: 

  • The humerus is the upper arm bone

  • The Radius which is part of the forearm bone

  • The ulna which is also part of the forearm bone. 

The three bones of the elbow joint are connected by muscles, ligaments, and tendons, which collectively facilitate elbow movements, such as bending, rotating, etc. There are two specific bony bumps that are called epicondyles and are located at the humerus’s bottom. They connect the forearm’s muscles and tendons to the elbow. The lateral epicondyle can be found on the outside of the elbow, while the medial epicondyle is on the inside.

The elbow allows for, and is responsible for four primary functions:

  • Flexion

  • Extension

  • Supination

  • Pronation

Repeated stress during these actions, such as a heavy pressing movement week after week, can lead to the development of conditions like Tennis Elbow and Golfer’s Elbow.

What Causes Elbow Pain While Lifting?

Pushing exercises such as those that work chest, triceps, and shoulders can certainly all exert pressure on the elbows, there are many other causes of elbow pain while lifting. Let’s take a look at the many different reasons that you could be experiencing some unwanted pain while you are lifting!

Tight Grip on the Bar or Dumbbell

It may shock you, but gripping the barbell or dumbbell too tightly can be a main cause of elbow pain while lifting. The reason is when you are lifting weights, a too-tight grip on the bar or dumbbell can activate the flexor tendon that allows your wrist to bend or curl forward. This can lead to inner elbow pain as well as golfer’s elbow. It does not matter if you keep a neutral wrist during the lift or not, you still are at risk if your grip is too tight. 

Improper Wrist Position

Piggybacking off of gripping the bar or dumbbell too tightly, wrist position is also a big factor in your elbow pain while lifting. If you are allowing your wrists to roll forward while you are lifting, it will activate the flexor tendon, which can possibly lead to inner elbow pain. On the flip side, if you extend or bend your wrists backward during an exercise, the weight will activate the extension tendons in your wrists attached to the outer side of your elbow, potentially causing outer elbow pain and leading to tennis elbow.

Overloading with Too Much Weight

Overloading your elbows with too much weight on an exercise can definitely be a problem and cause elbow pain while you are lifting. Whether that be the bench press, overhead press, or a bicep curl variation, too much weight can lead to improper form or even over gripping. Poor form can lead to elbow pain and injury.

Breaking Down Tennis Elbow

As mentioned above, elbow pain while lifting is often associated with tennis elbow, also known as lateral epicondylitis, is often associated with the forearm muscle responsible for the extension of the wrists and fingers, and it is called the Extensor Carpi Radialis Brevis (ECRB). When this muscle starts to weaken from overuse, microscopic tears can form in the extensor where it attaches to the outer bump on the elbow (lateral epicondyle), causing pain and inflammation, which is also known as “tennis elbow”.

So What is Golfer's Elbow?

On the flip side, golfer’s elbow is completely different from tennis elbow. Golfer’s elbow is also known as medial epicondylitis, and it occurs on the opposite side of the elbow that tennis elbow does. This condition is caused by overuse, leading to damage to the muscles and tendons that connect to the inner bump on the elbow (medial epicondyle), which can result in some pretty severe elbow pain, especially while lifting. 

Ways to Treat Elbow Pain While Lifting

Elbow pain while lifting, whether it be golfer’s elbow or tennis elbow, will typically require non-surgical treatments and possibly some physical therapy. This is where a proper recovery protocol is crucial, as you are healing more than just your muscle mass. In this case, utilizing something such as ice, or anti-inflammatory medications, and changes to repetitive stress movements are usually enough to treat these conditions. Unfortunately, you may not want to be lifting with crazy volume or intensity when you are trying to heal your elbow pain while lifting.

However if your elbow pain while lifting does not go away after 6-12 months of rehab, it is certainly advisable to consult your orthopedic elbow specialist for steroidal or even surgical options. 

Avoiding Elbow Injuries Altogether

When it comes to elbow pain while lifting, it certainly can be rehabbed, but your best bet is to avoid it altogether, while you can use things like elbow sleeves to really compress the elbows and keep them warm and loose while you are lifting, there are other ways to avoid the elbow pain altogether. That being said, what is the best way to avoid elbow pain while lifting? Follow a program. A well rounded training program will help you to gauge how many reps, how much weight, and what exercises to do. These programs are designed to help you avoid injury and stay on track with progression.

Boostcamp

In order to avoid elbow pain while lifting, finding a good workout program to help guide you is key. Keep in mind that good programs will help with your fitness journey, you would want to find a program that caters to your needs and guides you in the right direction, making sure that you are making the most gains. If you are looking to stay on track and continue with linear progression, then finding a good workout program is the key. Where do you look for a good workout program? Check out the Boostcamp App for some great programs.

Boostcamp is home to over 50 FREE workout programs that consist of strength, hypertrophy, or functional fitness, or both, from the push pull legs program all the way to upper lower, there are so many programs to choose from that can help fit your needs. However, with Boostcamp, you don’t have to just follow a pre-written program (although each program is written by a professional), you also can create your own program as well, and track your progress to make sure you are on the right track. That being said, when you are looking to incorporate some serious training to further your progress but avoid elbow pain, then check out Boostcamp.

Wrap Up

Overall, elbow pain while lifting is something that many lifters will unfortunately experience in their fitness journey. That being said, it is best to do whatever you can to avoid it! Stick to a program, and don’t overdo it. 


Do you experience elbow pain while lifting? Let us know! Also, be sure to follow Boostcamp on Instagram and subscribe on YouTube!