Why do I have pain in my elbow during chest flys?

Written by: Nurudeen Tijani

The article below answers common questions about elbow pain during or after chest flysHowever, if you want an immediate solution, you can get instant access to TitaniumPhysique. Our program will guide you to a pain-free lifting experience. Ready to get started?

Elbow pain during chest flys | Nurudeen performing dumbbell incline chest flys at a gym on May 11, 2023

Chest Fly with Elbow Pain (FAQ)


1.  Why do I have pain in my elbow during chest flys and how do I fix it?

Elbow pain during the pec deck machine or chest fly exercise can occur for several reasons, including restricted triceps and forearm muscles, inadequate warm-up of the forearm muscles before exercising, excessive resistance (e.g., heavy chest fly), poor form or lifting technique during flys, and a sudden increase in training volume. These factors, individually or combined, can cause your elbow to hurt during chest flys. However, the primary cause for most athletes is restricted (shortened, tight, and tense) triceps and forearm muscles.

To cure or prevent elbow pain, prioritize proper form, gradually increase weights, and, most importantly, maintain pliable triceps and forearm muscles through self-myofascial release (SMR) exercises. These exercises can instantly relieve the restrictions in the muscles and minimize the risk of injury, overuse, and inflammation.

2.  Why does my elbow hurt after doing chest flys?

"Pull-exercises" such as the chest fly can trigger or aggravate elbow pain because the exercise involves the elbow tendons. The repetitive strain of the elbow tendons during flys can inflame the tendons. When the elbow tendons become inflamed, it causes acute elbow pain after the workout - this is what causes your elbow to hurt after doing chest flys.

Acute elbow pain is an inflammatory pain experienced during or immediately after working out. In this case, acute elbow pain includes:

  • Burning pain felt around the tip and joint of the elbow after flys.
  • A sensation of heat, swelling, or redness around the elbow after flys.
  • Soreness in the elbow after a chest fly workout.
  • Elbow pain when bending and straightening the arm after flys.
  • Sharp or severe elbow pain during or after flys.

3. Why am I experiencing pain on the inside part of my elbow while doing chest fly?

If you experience pain on the inside part (or back) of your elbow while doing chest fly, the cause is usually a combination of the following factors: 1) restricted triceps and forearm muscles, and 2) an inflamed triceps tendon and/or elbow tendon. During chest flys, the forearm flexors and triceps muscles contract, which can pull and put tension on the inner elbow tendon as well as the triceps tendon, leading to pain in those areas.

The forearm flexor muscles can overstretch and inflame the tendon on the inside of the elbow, causing inner elbow pain (also known as golfer's elbow). The triceps muscle can overstretch and inflame the triceps brachii tendon at the back of the elbow, causing posterior elbow pain (also known as triceps tendinitis).

Inner and posterior elbow pain can be chronic (develop over time) or acute (occur suddenly from overloading the elbow). Acute pain is an inflammatory pain experienced during or immediately after exercise. In this case, experiencing inner or posterior elbow pain while doing flys is a sign of acute elbow pain.

Check out this 2023 video of Nurudeen performing machine flys during a chest and back workout in the gym. Machine flys are a variation of the chest fly exercise. This highly effective exercise targets the chest (pectoral) muscles, helping to strengthen and tone them while building a bigger chest. Chest flys are a versatile exercise that can be modified to suit different fitness levels and goals. Whether using a machine, dumbbell, resistance band, or cable machine, you can vary the weights, the angle of your arm, and the speed of your reps to make the exercise more challenging or easier. Machine fly is a "pull-exercise" and can cause inner elbow pain during or after the exercise.

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4.  Why do I suddenly have (feel) elbow pain during chest flys without apparent cause?

The conditions that lead to elbow pain during chest flys are gradual and cumulative. Over time, the forearm muscles and triceps muscle can become restricted, meaning they become shortened and inelastic through repetitive use. This process of muscle restriction can take months or even years to develop.

When the triceps and forearm muscles become chronically restricted, a routine activity, whether at home or work (such as carrying a bag of groceries or holding or gripping something tightly), or at the gym (such as a routine dumbbell chest fly workout), can suddenly trigger elbow pain without an apparent cause. Unfortunately, most people are unaware that their forearm or triceps muscles are restricted until a routine activity unexpectedly triggers elbow pain.

5.  What causes pain in the elbow during chest flys?

When you perform an exercise involving the arm, such as a chest fly, the triceps and forearm muscles contract. Over time, as you exercise, the forearm flexor and triceps muscles become tighter and shorter. Shortened triceps and forearm muscles can pull and put tension on the elbow and triceps tendon, which reduces the tendons' elasticity. As a result, the tendons become overloaded and inflamed, causing elbow pain during flys and other elbow-involved exercises.

The pain usually occurs on the inside part of the elbow (golfer's elbow), but can also occur at the back of the elbow (triceps tendonitis). The elbow tendons that cause elbow pain during chest fly include the medial elbow tendon (inner elbow tendon) and triceps brachii tendon (posterior elbow tendon).

For a detailed article on the root causes of elbow pain, including the types of elbow tendonitis (tennis elbow, golfer's elbow, triceps tendonitis), elbow bursitis, chronic vs. acute elbow pain, and the fastest way to cure elbow pain, read our comprehensive guide on elbow pain.

Important: Apart from musculoskeletal injuries (muscle and tendon-related pain), other medical conditions can contribute to elbow pain during chest fly. These include nerve entrapment and compression, bone fractures and dislocations, and arthritis, which causes joint inflammation, pain, and stiffness. If your condition is medically related, it's important to consult your healthcare provider to ensure there are no structural issues with your elbow.

A side-by-side comparison photo of the triceps and forearm flexor muscles. Illustration of the shoulder joint, scapula, arm bone, and triceps brachii muscle and tendon. Illustration of the forearm flexor muscles and tendon

A side-by-side comparison photo of the triceps and forearm flexor muscles. Left photo: Illustration of the shoulder joint, scapula, arm bone, and triceps brachii muscle and tendon. Right photo: Illustration of the forearm flexor muscles and tendon. When these muscles groups become shortened, they cause posterior and inner elbow pain during chest fly. The "X" indicated on each photo is where trigger points in the forearm flexors and triceps muscle tend to occur. Trigger points, also known as muscle knots, are small, hyperirritable spots within a muscle. They cause pain and tenderness and can develop due to muscle overuse, stress, or injury. Image source: Google

6.  Are chest flys bad for the elbows?

When performed with good technique, chest flys (dumbbell fly, cable fly, machine fly, and resistance band fly) are not bad for the elbows. However, performing flys without proper warm-up, using too much resistance, or suddenly increasing training volume can overload the elbow and triceps tendons, leading to elbow tendonitis and pain.

7.  Can chest flys cause elbow pain?

When performed with proper technique, chest fly do not cause elbow pain. However, they can trigger or aggravate elbow tendonitis, elbow pain, forearm pain, and wrist pain. Pull-exercises like the chest fly engage the forearm muscles and elbow tendons. During flys, the forearm muscles can become overloaded. This can lead to overstretched, strained, and inflamed elbow tendons, resulting in acute sharp pain or worsening chronic dull pain.

Check out this 2023 video of Nurudeen performing incline dumbbell fly during a chest and back workout in the gym. Dumbbell fly is a variation of the chest fly exercise. Unlike the cable fly, which focuses on building definition in the inner chest, the dumbbell fly is highly effective at building muscle mass and chest strength. By using dumbbells instead of a machine (pec deck), you can engage your stabilizer muscles and work on balancing the weights, which can help improve your overall strength and coordination. However, because dumbbell fly is a "pull-exercise," it can cause inner elbow pain during or after the exercise.

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8.  Can chest flys cause elbow damage?

When performed with proper technique, chest flys do not cause elbow damage. However, individuals who already have elbow tendonitis may experience an exacerbation of chronic pain or the development of acute elbow pain, potentially leading to elbow tendinosis.

Tendinosis is a condition characterized by the degeneration of tendon collagen due to repetitive stress and chronic injury, which can result in the loss of strength in the tendon and may even lead to tendon tear or rupture. Therefore, performing flys with pre-existing elbow tendonitis or triceps tendonitis (i.e., inflammatory tendon pain) can increase the risk of developing elbow tendinosis and potentially cause damage to the elbows.

9.  Can you hurt your elbow from machine, cable, or dumbbell flys?

Performing machine, cable or dumbbell fly with proper technique is safe and will not cause injury to the elbow. However, there are several factors that can increase the risk of elbow pain and injury, including insufficient warm-up and stretching of the triceps, forearm muscles, elbow tendons, and triceps tendon, using too much resistance, using bad form or technique, sudden increases in training volume, and performing flys while experiencing ongoing elbow or triceps tendonitis.

10.  Can I still do chest fly with elbow pain?

Whether or not you can still do chest flys with elbow pain depends on the severity of the pain. If it's mild, you can try using short-term pain relief remedies such as sports tape, kinesiology tape, elbow sleeves, elbow braces, or elbow straps to reduce pain during the exercise. However, if the pain is chronic, severe, or causes sharp pain during chest fly, it's best to treat the underlying cause of the pain before resuming physical training.

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11.  Which variation of chest fly is better to avoid elbow pain: dumbbell, cable, or machine fly?

All variations of the chest fly have the potential to trigger or aggravate elbow pain, but cable fly (or resistance band fly) is better for avoiding such pain. Here's why:

Firstly, performing chest flys with a resistance band or cable machine allows you to modify the position of your arm and the angle of your elbow to minimize the extension of the forearm, thereby reducing pressure on the inside part of your elbow.

Secondly, the cable machine enables you to increase the weights (in smaller increments) and vary the speed of your reps to make the exercise more challenging or easier. Lastly, the resistance band is less likely to cause injury, as it does not provide the same level of resistance as heavy dumbbells or machine equipment.

In contrast, dumbbell and machine fly are likely to place the forearm muscles and inner elbow tendon in full extension, thereby increasing the chance of overloading, straining, and inflaming the inner elbow tendon. Therefore, if you experience elbow pain during chest fly, the resistance band or cable machine is less likely to trigger or aggravate the pain. Alternatively, you can try other exercises instead of the chest fly (see below).

12. What are some alternative exercises to chest fly when experiencing elbow pain?

Since the chest fly, can put excessive tension on the forearm flexors and inner elbow tendon, there are alternative exercises that can minimize tension in these areas and alleviate elbow pain. Here are seven alternatives to chest fly that you can try. Note, you can also try performing partial reps on the negative part of the fly movement, which can further reduce tension on the elbow tendon/joint. Performing partial reps on the negative part of the fly movement means not fully extending the arm back and straightening the elbow out during the exercise.

  1. Resistance Band Chest Fly
  2. Resistance Band Pull-Aparts 
  3. Push Ups
  4. Dumbbell Pullover (Straight Arm)
  5. Dumbbell Bench Press (Palms in)
  6. Machine Inner Chest Press (Palms in)
  7. Dynamic Chest Stretch

13.  How long does it take to heal elbow pain caused by chest flys?

It's possible to relieve elbow pain from chest flys, by releasing the forearm flexor muscles and triceps muscle and tendon. This can be accomplished by using a myofascial release massage ball. Once the restricted muscles in the forearm and triceps are released, it can alleviate tension on the elbow tendons, allowing them to heal.

Using a combination of post-workout treatments such as RICE therapy (to relieve burning pain), magnesium supplementation (to reduce inflammation), and self-myofascial release (to relieve sharp, shooting, and dull pain), it's possible to treat and heal elbow pain caused by chest flys within 7-10 days. This will require performing self-myofascial release (SMR) on the triceps and forearm muscles at least 2-3 times a day.

However, keep in mind that simply resting the elbow (i.e., taking a break from physical training) might temporarily provide relief, but it will not fix the root cause of the pain (e.g., restricted forearm muscles that overload the inner elbow tendon and cause elbow pain during flys).

14.  How do I perform chest fly without elbow pain?

As mentioned earlier, chest fly is a safe exercise when performed correctly. However, if you experience elbow pain due to conditions such as golfer's elbow or triceps tendonitis, performing this exercise can worsen the pain.

To minimize elbow pain during flys, consider the following tips:

  1. Stretch your forearm and triceps muscles before starting your workout.
  2. Use a resistance band or cable rope machine to perform flys instead of a dumbbell. When performing machine flys, use a machine that allows a bend in the arm/elbow (see video).
  3. If performing heavy chest flys, perform two warm-up sets with lighter weights before increasing the weight.
  4. Use lifting straps to reduce forearm muscle tension from gripping the dumbbell or machine handles.
  5. Consider wearing elbow sleeves or wraps to compress the elbow and triceps tendon.

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15.  What options do I have to stop my elbows from hurting during chest flys?

To stop your elbow from hurting during flys, you can either use short-term pain remedies that provide temporary relief or address the root cause of the pain to prevent it from recurring.

Short-term pain relief remedies for elbow pain caused by chest flys include joint supplements and vitamins, anti-inflammatory painkillers (NSAIDs), physical therapy, stretching, ice and rest therapy, elbow braces, elbow straps, kinesiology tape, and topical anti-inflammatory solutions (oils and creams).

To permanently cure elbow pain and prevent it from interfering with your workouts, you need to address the root causes of the pain. These include chronic inflammation, magnesium deficiency, and muscle restriction. The TitaniumPhysique Program can help you accomplish this.

16.  How can I avoid and prevent elbow pain during chest flys?

Firstly, it's important to note that part of avoiding chronic elbow pain is preventing acute elbow pain. If you start to feel elbow pain during chest flys, use less resistance. If the pain persists, stop the exercise and train another body part that doesn't involve your arm and elbow. Pushing through the pain will intensify the degree of post-workout acute inflammation, worsen the pain symptoms, and prolong the recovery of the elbow.

To avoid and prevent elbow pain, follow these steps:

  1. Stretch your forearms and triceps before doing flys. Click here for examples of forearm stretches.
  2. Warm your elbow tendons by doing resistance band pull-apart or other suitable exercises.
  3. If you're doing heavy flys, incrementally add weights to avoid sudden overload of the forearm muscles, triceps tendon, and inner elbow tendon.
  4. Learn and always use proper chest fly form and technique. Check out this video to learn the proper dumbbell fly technique.
  5. Be mindful about doing an excessive amount of chest fly sets and incrementally increase your training volume.
  6. Supplement with magnesium to counteract inflammation and decalcify the elbow tendons and joints. Magnesium also relaxes muscles to reduce pain.
  7. Incorporate self-myofascial release for elbow pain into your recovery routine. Perform SMR on the forearm extensors, forearm flexors, and triceps muscle/tendon at least twice a week to keep the forearms and triceps pliable.

Important - keep in mind that restricted triceps and forearm muscles that cause elbow pain develop over many years. It is necessary to use the correct treatment techniques to get lasting results. If you want an easy-to-follow video guide, you can click here to access the TitaniumPhysique Program.

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Written by: Nurudeen Tijani

Nurudeen (aka TJ) is passionate about helping people build the body they desire through weight training. He is a physique and fitness trainer, nutritionist, yoga instructor, vegan natural bodybuilder, National Physique Committee (NPC) competitor, and founder at TitaniumPhysique. Nurudeen is a member of the International Association Study of Pain (IASP) and the American Chronic Pain Association (ACPA).

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