Why Your Elbow Hurts When Lifting And How To Stop It

Wonder why your elbow hurts when lifting?

Watch the video to learn why your elbow hurts when lifting, plus what you can do to be able to lift more comfortably without elbow pain.

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What Does It Mean If Your Elbow Hurts When Lifting?

if your elbow hurts when lifting the most likely cause of it is some sort of tendonitis or tendinopathy.

Even more commonly, the cause of elbow pain when lifting is from a specific type of tendinopathy known as tennis elbow, lateral epicondylegia, or lateral epicondylitis. (Those are all basically different names for the same thing.)

There are other types of tendonitis or tendinopathy such as biceps tendonitis or golfer's elbow. Golfer's elbow is like tennis elbow on the inside of the elbow.

Tennis Elbow Pain When Lifting

The most common cause of elbow pain when you're lifting is tennis elbow or lateral epicondylalgia (literally means "pain on the bump on the outside of the elbow").

I'm going to explain first, what you can do to lift more comfortably without having pain on the outside of your elbow.

Then, I'll explain a couple tips to help if you have biceps tendonitis or golfer's elbow (a.k.a. medial epicondylalgia).

What Is Tennis Elbow?

Tennis elbow is a problem where the wrist extensor muscles and forearm supinator muscles get inflamed or irritated where they attach right at the bump on the outside of the elbow.

If your elbow hurts when lifting, it's most likely tennis elbow.

Lateral epicondylitis refers to an inflammation (-itis) of those tendons.  However, in practical purposes, tennis elbow is rarely inflammatory.

That's why I referred to "irritation" of the tendons above.

The structure of the tendon tissue becomes disorganized and weakened.  Furthermore, the nerve over the outside of the elbow. the radial nerve, becomes sensitized.

All of that amounts to increased pain sensitivity on the outside of the elbow.

Sometimes even lifting light things like a cup of coffee can be enough to provoke a pain response

You'd think that gripping things would cause golfer's elbow rather than tennis elbow since you use muscles that attach to the inside of your elbow to grip.

However, your wrist extensors, which attach to the outside of the elbow, have to work to stabilize your wrist when gripping.

This, in combination with the disorganized, deconditioned tendon and the sensitive nerves, is enough to cause elbow pain when lifting a cup of coffee.

So that's the reason why people get tennis elbow when they're lifting.

Next question...

How Do You Stop Your Elbow From Hurting When Lifting?

One of the easiest ways is to prevent tennis elbow pain when lifting is to lift things with a palm up grip.

When you lift palm up, gravity is helping to pull your wrist down in to extension so that you don't have to use your wrist extensors as much to hold things up.

If  you hold a dumbbell palm down, gravity is going to pull it down naturally toward the ground.

You'll have to use a whole lot of force out of your wrist extensors in order to fight gravity.

Conversely, holding a weight palm up doesn't require nearly as much effort out of your  wrist extensors.

Tennis Elbow Pain When Lifting Weights

When you're doing exercises such as biceps curls or if you get elbow pain when you're doing bench press, just lightening your grip can help as well/

If you're death gripping the weight, then you're going to put a lot more stress on your elbow than if you just lighten up on your grip a little bit.

By doing so you can do your exercises more comfortably.

Biceps Curls

When doing a biceps curl, you really don't need a whole lot of grip on the weight.

Make sure you're holding tightly enough that you don't drop the weight on your foot, but beyond that, further gripping is unnecessary.

As you get all the way down to the bottom of the motion with a biceps curl, you do need to grip a little bit more so that the weight doesn't fall out of your hands.  Therefore, limiting your range of motion to where you're not going all the way down may help if you get elbow pain when doing biceps curls.

Bench Presses

When you're doing bench presses, you really can almost do an open-palm bench press.

Again, you don't want to drop the weight on your face, so I would recommend closing your grip around that bar, but you don't need to squeeze it as tightly as possible.

So those are some tips to use if your elbow hurts when lifting weights.

Exercises To Stop Your Elbow From Hurting When Lifting

If the wrist extensors are the cause of tennis elbow pain when lifting, you may wonder what exercises you can do to strengthen the wrist extensors.

Since tennis elbow is typically an overuse injury, you don't want to overdo it with wrist strengthening exercises, especially at first.

With acute tennis elbow, even the weight of your hand may be enough to start with.

How Many Repetitions For Tennis Elbow Exercises?

Tendons are largely avascular, meaning they don't get a lot of blood circulation.

Therefore, tendons can become hypoxic, meaning low in oxygen.

Without getting too far into the biochemistry of it, when your muscles are low on oxygen, they fatigue faster and build up byproducts such as lactic acid.

In order to improve oxygen-carrying capacity of the tendons that attach to your lateral epicondyle, you want to do really high repetition exercise.

I'm talking on the order of 100 to 200 repetitions broken up into sets 10 or 20 reps per set.

An example would be doing 10 repetitions, and then waiting for 10 seconds. Then after 10 seconds doing another set of 10 repetitions and then waiting another 10 seconds, etc.

That's a good way to strengthen and build up the endurance in your your wrist extensor muscles.

Again you don't, need brute strength. 

What you actually need is muscle endurance - the ability for them to work for long periods of time.

Some examples where you may require endurance in your forearm muscles include typing or playing a piano or violin.

Repetitive activity is the #1 cause of tennis elbow

That's why building up the endurance in your wrist extensor muscles is so important.

Once you can do 100-200 repetitions of active wrist extensions with just the weight of your hand, then you can start to add weight gradually progressing 1-2 lbs at a time.

wrist extension exercise for tennis elbow pain when lifting

Other Causes Of Elbow Pain When Lifting

Golfer's Elbow

One other type of tendinopathy that you might get when you're lifting are golfer's elbow.

Golfer's elbow is basically the same as tennis elbow, just on the opposite side of the elbow.

Therefore, doing a lot of wrist flexion activities can potentially give golfer's elbow.

Treatment For Golfer's Elbow

Instead of lifting palm up like for tennis elbow, lifting palm down can be helpful for golfers elbow.

High repetition wrist flexion exercises for  100 to 200 total reps broken down into sets of 10 to 20 reps at a time  can be helpful for Golfer's elbow.

Biceps Tendinopathy

Your biceps tendon attaches to your forearm right past your elbow.

It's function is both to bend (flex) the elbow, as well as to supinate your forearm, which means it turns the hand palm up

When you're doing a biceps curl if you have your palm up that's the maximum activation of your bicep muscle

If you do a palm down "biceps curl" it really isn't really a bicep curl per se.

In that position, you have the least activation of your biceps muscle.

Therefore, if you do want to be able to strengthen your arms but also take some of the load off of your biceps tendon, you can try doing a palm down curl.

Doing a palm down arm curl uses a muscle that's underneath of your biceps called the brachialis.

muscles that bend your elbow when lifting

Additionally, if you turn your palms to face inward, you can activate another elbow flexor muscle called the brachioradialis.

The brachioradialis is a muscle in your forearm that helps assists in bending the elbow when your palms are facing inward.

Using these tips, you can continue to lift weights comfortably, even if your elbow hurts.

How To Get Your Elbow To Stop Hurting Faster

If you'd like to get your elbow to stop hurting faster, having physical therapy with a specialist can help.

Not only will you find out why your elbow is hurting, but your therapist can perform some hands-on treatments such as elbow and wrist joint mobilization, trigger point release, and dry needling which can help get your elbow to stop hurting faster.

Additionally, you'll learn what you can do at home to help in your recover, plus what things to do (and what to avoid) to keep the pain from coming back in the future.

If you'd like to meet with one of our specialist physical therapists to learn what's causing your elbow pain and how you can relieve it as quickly  as possible, tap the button below to request an appointment.

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