How to Avoid Elbow Pain


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.

Please leave your comments below.

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16 Responses to How to Avoid Elbow Pain

  1. Edward December 22, 2009 at 11:06 am #

    Hey Jason, Great post. What do you mean by a zig-zagged bar?

  2. Tracy Langford December 22, 2009 at 11:31 am #

    I saw something on one of Zach Even-Esh ‘s vids where they put a multi -grip Swiss bar on top of his squat rack and lashed it down. Allowed him to vary his hand position on pullups/chinups.

  3. Jason Pegg December 22, 2009 at 1:03 pm #

    J-

    Wrapping your pinky UNDER the bar when squatting does quite a bit to relieve shoulder and elbow stress as well. I know its a bit outside the scope of your article, but might help someone who reads it.

    Jason

  4. BJ December 22, 2009 at 3:14 pm #

    “IV drip of Vitamin C and megadoses of Ashwaganda” that almost sounds like something Poliquin would recommend…….hey wait a minute, Isin’t he Canadian?

  5. vince richardson December 25, 2009 at 8:46 pm #

    How right you are about the zig zag pullup – I find they are much easier to do – can pump out 10-15 easily on one I tried, but cannot do 5 on a regular straight pull up bar – I found one with a parallel grip and those are o.k. too

  6. M.P. December 28, 2009 at 12:57 am #

    Jason, thanks so much for this post. I jacked up both of my elbows pretty good in a bike accident a few months back, and the pain is still pretty intense on a lot of the movements associated with upper-body training. In particular, when I have to get towards full elbow extension on something like a dumbbell chest press, I can feel some of the wrist flexor muscles acting up. Ortho says I may never get 100% extension back on either elbow, but he did say I could get my strength back, so that’s what I’m after (without compromising my overall daily functioning).

  7. Ken May 28, 2010 at 10:57 pm #

    I have found that alternating grip chins / pullups also is less traumatic on the elbows and wrists. Also if you use rotating handles in a semi pronated position, I believe its is best to have a fixed or non-revolving grip — just easier on the elbows.

  8. Buck February 11, 2012 at 9:55 am #

    Jason, I really appreciate your article on elbow pain. I recently acquired a love for doing pull ups and bought a very nice bar to motivate me. I was fine for a while, but gradually my elbows started to hurt, and eventually got to the point where they hurt all the time. Bummer! After reading your article, I purchased two single cable grips and two strong Velcro straps with swivels from Home Depot. I wrapped them around my pull up bar and, presto chango, I have the equivalent of rotatable rings. They have made such a difference that I have been able to work through the discomfort, and my elbows actually seem to be getting better. The important thing is, I didn’t have to quit doing pull ups, thanks to you. I tip my hat to you, sir!

  9. JONESY July 11, 2012 at 9:17 am #

    Great article Jason, also what about hitting your forearms to strengthen them because of the over dominance of the stronger tricep muscles?

  10. Jim July 11, 2012 at 10:33 am #

    Thanks for the info. I found when I stopped doing straight bar chins and switched to neutral grip or rows that my elbow pain went away.
    Nice tip from Jason Pegg also^^

  11. Ramon July 11, 2012 at 5:34 pm #

    Hi Jason, thank you very much for your advice.
    Now I have a question for you.
    I have every morning the same routine and in the afternoon and evenings I change.
    My routine is as follows, first thing in the morning no stop;
    50 pushups, 50 dips, 50 situps, 50 prisoner squads. Since I do everything body weight there are no dumbels or weights involved. My problem is that over time I get some pain in my elbow. In the afternoon I do pull ups and parralel chin ups, hand stand shoulder press, and lots of sprinting. ( I play and coach rugby) on top of that is wrestling, tackling and ball skills. Rugby training is 3 x a week and matches on Saturday. Could you please advice how I can reduce my elbow pain. Thanks.

  12. the get in shape girl February 11, 2013 at 2:48 pm #

    I can attest to this. Straight bar curls were in my training program for a while as I was prepping for a show. I’m a big fan of using the e-z bar, dumbbells and pulleys if I ever want to isolate the biceps anymore.

  13. Jeff February 11, 2013 at 5:19 pm #

    Just wanted your thoughts on dips. I do parallel bar dips not bench dips as this puts less stress on the shoulder. I find it a great body weight exercise and easy enough to add weight to.

  14. Megan February 12, 2013 at 6:03 pm #

    not your thing probably, but any tips for tennis elbow? it’s a pal—I told her she’s using too much arm, not enough shoulder. thoughts (if you can bear it…xx).

  15. Kirby April 21, 2013 at 4:12 pm #

    EZ bar – 10-20 reps, 2-3 sets Jason? or more sets? Example: 35 lb plates

  16. Jonathan September 13, 2013 at 3:06 pm #

    excellent info – stuff I never really though of