I wish I had a guide about how to avoid elbow pain when I first started training, because I certainly have had my share of it. Although this is not my main area of expertise, and guys like Bill Hartman and Keith Scott know a lot more about this than I do, I’ve trained a lot of people for a lot of years and have seen almost every injury you can imagine.
I’ve also experienced quite a few of them myself. So today I’m gonna share some tips and tricks with you about how to avoid elbow pain. And since no discussion about the ‘bows would be complete without addressing the wrists and shoulders we’ll cover that a bit as well.
Minimize the Use of Straight Bar Curls
First on the list of exercises that cause elbow pain is the straight bar curl. When you go heavy enough, long enough, this exercise will probably bother your wrists and lead to some tendon issues in the elbow. You can avoid that by not keeping the barbell curl in your routine for more than three or four weeks straight, rotating it in and out every other week or just avoiding it all together.
Another way to make this movement less stressful is to take the most comfortable grip on the bar possible, which is usually a bit wider than shoulder width. Don’t worry about what some bodybuilder said about the optimal grip width for biceps development. You can’t train if you’re injured. Stick with what’s comfortable.
The fully extended position is usually the most stressful so you may want to cut the range and not extend the elbows fully if you experience pain on this exercise. You may even want to cheat out of the bottom position just a bit with some body English. Yup, I said don’t do full range and told you to cheat. Call the form police.
Use the EZ Bar or Dumbbells Instead
A better option would be to curl with the EZ bar or dumbbells. Even better would be to do alternate dumbbell curls where you lean and sway a bit in a natural, non rigid motion. This will usually lessen the stress on the wrists and the biceps tendon and help you work around any possible elbow issues.
However you do them you should adhere to what I have always said and that is that curls should not be done heavy. Beginners and weak guys can do fives but everyone else should stick with eight reps or higher. If you’re strong, make it 10-20. You’ll thank me later.
Minimize the Use of Straight Bar Chins
The next exercise on the elbow and wrist fuckers list is straight bar chin ups. This is very similar to the barbell curl. The fully extended, fully supinated position causes unnecessary stress and is not a natural movement. Ideally, all chin up bars should be zig zagged, like you welded an EZ bar on top of a power rack. I tried to get those custom made years ago but couldn’t find anyone to do it for me. Now I see them a bit more frequently. This grip is much less stressful on the wrists and shoulders than straight bar chins.
An even better safer option is the parallel grip chin up.
Pull ups with a straight bar may or may not bother the elbows but they can definitely be hard on the shoulders. Again, a zig zagged bar would be a much better option when going pronated but some people with shoulder or wrist problems may want to avoid the pullup altogether and stick with parallel grip chins.
The best of all options would be to do chins on rings. The rings rotate and allow you to start pronated or semi supinated, or semi pronated, or however the hell you want. As you pull yourself up you can supinate to whatever level is comfortable.
Unless you weigh under 185 or have tremendous grip strength, towel chins might be something you want to avoid altogether. That’s not to say that it’s a bad exercise, but if you aren’t prepared for it you could be in for some unwelcome elbow shredding from this bad boy.
Triceps Exercises to Avoid
Finally, let’s cover direct triceps work. Extensions, if done heavy enough, long enough, will probably ruin your elbows; especially if you bring them to your nose or forehead.
The best option is an extension pullover combo. Get yourself set up like you are doing lat pullovers but allow your elbows to bend in the bottom position and then forcefully extend the arms as you lift the weight up. Stop short of going all the way up so that your arms aren’t quite perpendicular with the ground but rather angled back just a bit.
Pushdowns are safer but shouldn’t be overdone. Doing them after dips or close grip benches is one way to alleviate elbow stress since you’ll be forced to use less weight.
One way to make pushdowns less stressful is to do them with bands. That’s because there is less tension in the top position and more at the bottom. An even better option is to loop a mini band around the weight stack and do a combo of weight and band tension.
A large volume of direct triceps work could lead to serious issues down the road. Four to eight total sets of direct triceps work a week should be enough to stimulate hypertrophy while keeping you pain free.
There are plenty of other ways to avoid elbow pain but following my advice above is a good start. You can’t “throw dem ‘bows” when you’re injured, so train smart.
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