One of the most common injuries you’ll get from weight lifting is elbow pain.
It’s something I’ve had to deal with over the years. It isn’t fun and it can keep you from getting stronger in your key lifts like the incline bench press.
Obviously, I ain’t no doctor. But, I’ve learned several things over the years that can help you prevent elbow pain.
However: if you’re currently dealing with an elbow injury, then it’s best that you take some time of from any exercises that aggravate the elbow.
You could still have your leg days, and perhaps there are some body weight exercises you can do that don’t hurt your elbow.
Either way, listen to your body. I’ve had issues with my left elbow due to an injury; my right arm has always been fine.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
1. Less Sets and Reps for Arm Workouts
One of the first things you should consider is cutting back on your arm workouts (or cutting them out completely).
You should focus exclusively on getting stronger in your key compound lifts: chest, shoulders, back and legs.
When I had elbow pain, I made sure to get through my main lifts while my elbows were fresh. By the end of my bench presses, I could feel my elbow beginning to flare up.
As a result, I completely cut out isolation exercises not just for my arms, but for all of my upper body. This is because your elbows are going to be moving with isolation work.
Yes, your elbows are being used in bench presses and shoulder presses. But, at least in the beginning of your workout, you’re using other muscles to compensate.
With isolation work, your elbows are being used for much of the movement. The more reps you do, the more the elbows are going to hurt.
Therefore, you should use this time while injured to focus on progressing in key lifts. Once your elbows are healed, you can go back to isolation arm exercises.
You’ll still keep your symmetry as long as you’re getting stronger in your compound exercises. You won’t need nearly as much arm work as you think.
So don’t be alarmed. Cutting out arm workouts will not suddenly shrink your arms. They’ll keep their size as long as you continue to progress in the key lifts.
I know for me that if I add arm work after a heavy lifting day, my elbow injury may flare up. It’s an injury I’ve had for several years and it pops up from time to time.
To prevent it from popping up, I limit my arm work.
The only time you’ll see me doing a lot of bicep or tricep sets is if I’ve had a few days off from the gym and am solely working on arms.
This doesn’t happen often anymore because I’m focused on setting personal records in my bench and shoulder press.
I’m perfectly happy sticking with lighter weights for my back workouts, and light weight is great for arm work anyway.
If your arms feel good after your heavy presses, then feel free to throw in some arm work. Keep the weight light and take it slow, one set at a time.
2. Lift Lighter Weights In General
There was a period of time where heavy lifting exercises flared up the pain in my left elbow. As a result, I couldn’t lift heavy and had to resort to light weight, high rep lifting.
You can still build muscle with light weights. However, it just requires more sets and reps which means you’re in the gym for 2 hours most of the time.
I like to keep my workouts at an hour max. This is why I like heavy lifting (plus it’s fun to be strong).
Because the heavy lifting flared up my elbow pain, I decided that I would take a few weeks off from the gym and come back as if I was new to weight lifting.
It sucked coming to this realization, but it ended up doing wonders for me. As long as you keep your diet for fat loss during your break, you shouldn’t lose much of your physique.
When I came into the gym after my break, I decided to hit the weights as if I was brand new to the gym. The last thing I wanted to do was flare up my elbow.
Therefore, I hit my incline presses and other compound lifts with really light weights that I would progressively improve for the next year.
To give you perspective, I brought my incline bench press all the way back down to 95 pounds. I lifted just 6-8 reps at this weight. The next time I did chest, I added 5 pounds.
I was progressing slowly at this rate. But, this is also how an absolute beginner should progress. Start light and slowly add weight week after week for the next year.
Within a year, I was back to incline pressing 180-195 pounds for 6 reps. And, I haven’t had any issues with the elbow either.
If I would have came back into the gym and immediately gone back to the heavy weight, I probably would have aggravated the injury once again.
Again, I’m not a doctor. I’m just saying what has worked for me.
3. Hit The Gym 3 Times Max Per Week
You wouldn’t know this if you read all those body building magazines. But, you only need to lift 3 times per week if you’re keeping the weight heavy and hitting 5-8 reps per set.
This is really important if you’re dealing with elbow pain. Obviously you’ll need to take some time off if you just got injured. But, if your issue is pain that gradually increases as you lift, then the 3 day per week workout routine is just what you need.
I like the 3 day workout routine when I’m focused on strength. It is also how I workout when I had pain in my left elbow.
Because I feel as if the pain could come back at any moment, I continue to keep my lifting session at just 3-4 times per week max. I’ll only add extra days for HIIT workouts and abs.
The way I like to set up my workout schedule is to have 2 upper body days per week, one lower body day.
You could always have 2 lower body days and 1 upper body if you want to hit your legs twice. It’s completely up to you. I would highly recommend this if your elbow pain is pretty bad. That way you’ll only hit your upper body once per week, giving you plenty of time to recover.
It’s been over a year since I’ve had elbow pain. I believe the slow build up of heavy weights has helped me keep it under control.
I also spent several months experimenting with the THENX body weight program. Body weight exercises a few time per week keeps your joints off the weights while giving you a kickass workout.
If you can’t even move your arm due to elbow pain, then you simply need a break from any sort of upper body lifting until the pain subsides.
4. Take An Extended Break
Your last resort is to accept that fact that a long, extended break may be what the doctor ordered.
Actually, speaking of doctors, if your elbow pain is so bad that you can’t get any workouts in, then you probably should see a doctor. You could have some serious damage.
The last thing you want to do is make the damage worse than it already is.
For most people with elbow pain, this won’t be the case. You’ll usually be able to get several sets into your workouts before the pain flares up. This is what most people experience.
The key is to get a great workout with as little sets as possible. Hence why I recommend 4-6 sets of heavy incline/shoulder presses for the upper body. Keep the sets heavy and you’ll keep your size.
But, if you can’t even get one set in due to your elbow pain, accept it. Get your diet in check, workout your legs when you want, but lay off the upper body lifts.
You need to let your elbow heal. Give it several weeks to recover.
When you come back to the gym, start light and see how your elbow feels.
If you still have pain with the light weights, then another 2 weeks off. Rinse and repeat with the light weights until you’re able to start lifting again.
5. Avoid Heavy Barbell Curls and Skullcrushers
I used to hit my arm with heavy weight back in the day. I would load up the barbell and curl 5-6 reps. The same system was applies for tricep skullcrushers.
While I still enjoy barbell curls to this day, I can’t remember the last time I did skullcrushers.
I’m not sure if they made my elbow pain worse, but I haven’t had issues with my elbows in months. Therefore, why change it up and add heavy arm exercises if my elbows aren’t giving me issues?
The best thing for me to do is to continue lifting that isn’t giving me pain. So, I’ll keep doing light weight arm work.
For the barbell curls, I keep the weight light and I shoot for 10-16 reps. High rep work for the bicep is perfectly fine. Your elbows shouldn’t hurt from the light weights.
As for the triceps, I stick to rope curls and body weight tricep skullcrushers. These are a great exercise that I never see anybody else doing.
Find yourself a smith machine and lower the bar to crotch level.
Put your hands on the bar and lower yourself down until your head is below the bar. When you push yourself back up, it’s the same as performing a skullcrusher.
You may experience pain from this workout if you have elbow issues. So, take it one rep at a time and see how it feels. I find that body weight exercises are easy on my elbows, and they are great for building strength when performed correctly.
6. Use Correct Form For Back Workouts
Perhaps your elbow pain is due to poor form with your back workouts. If this is the case, then you need to read my article about building strong, thick back muscles.
First off, you’ll learn how light weights are how I recommend you to build a great back. This rule applies for all of your lifts if you’re dealing with elbow pain.
One of the big lessons I teach is how most people have terrible form for their back exercises.
I always see people using weight that’s way too heavy. As a result, you use your elbows to pull the weight instead of your actual back muscles.
As you can probably guess, over time this beats up the tendons. Your back muscles aren’t getting nearly as much work as they could with half the weight.
Therefore, form is more important than ever when you’re working your back muscles. Lower the weight until you get to the point when you can feel your back muscles instead of your arms.
Your elbows shouldn’t move much at all when you’re pulling the weights.
Take the cable row for example. Most people bend their arms and pull with the elbows. This is obviously bad form and stresses the tendons.
Instead, you should keep your elbows in a stable position and pull back with your back muscles. You’ll need to lower the weight considerably in order to feel your back perform the lift.
Since most people have terrible form in their back exercises, they think they need more weight in order to “feel” their muscles doing the work.
But, the issue is that you’re using your elbows, arms, lower back and more to complete the rep.
As a result, you injure yourself.
Final Thoughts On Elbow Pain From Working Out
For me, my elbow pain came from an injury I had outside of the gym. I slammed my elbow into a sharp corner and it felt like a knife was slid into the joint. It was that painful.
As a result, my lifts suffered from this. But, because I am a stubborn son of a bitch, I kept lifting heavy.
The pain in my elbow only got worse. It wasn’t until I took a long break and came back to the gym with light weights.
I was benching 200 for 6 before my elbow pain. When I came back to the gym, I started at 95 pounds as if I was brand new to the gym.
I’ve gotten my incline bench back to 200 for 5 reps and I haven’t experienced the pain I once had.
As I said before, I ain’t no doctor. This is simply my experience and what I recommend for those of you who have some sort of elbow pain.
You should definitely consult an elbow ligament professional before you listen to anything I say. I don’t want you to further injure yourself.
Have you experienced pain in your elbows when you lift? What have you done to prevent elbow pain?