Elbow Pain from Bench Press (A Helpful Guide)

Nurudeen Tijani (T.J.) Founder of TitaniumPhysique | Pain Relief Fitness Coach

Written by: Nurudeen Tijani
Last updated: June 1, 2024

I've been lifting for ten years, and I've dealt with and overcome many elbow injuries. This exercise fixed my injuries. The primary cause of elbow pain from bench press is restricted triceps and forearm muscles that strain the elbow tendons during the movement. To prevent discomfort, maintain pliable triceps and forearms through self-myofascial release exercises. These exercises can instantly relieve the restrictions in the muscles and minimize the risk of injury, overuse, and inflammation.

Take the first step to eliminate muscle and tendon pain. Get Started Now.

Nurudeen has elbow pain from bench presses while exercising

Listen to the article: 14 minutes

Understanding Elbow Pain from Bench Press

Why do I have pain in my elbow? How do I fix it?

Elbow discomfort from bench press can occur for several reasons, including:

    1. Restricted biceps, triceps, and forearms (shortened, tight, and tense muscles)
    2. Inadequate stretching or warm-up of these muscles before working out
    3. Using excessive resistance (e.g. power training)
    4. Incorrect form or lifting technique
    5. Overtraining
    6. Inadequate recovery
    7. Lack of myofascial release

    These factors, individually or in combination, can cause discomfort during bench presses. Yet, for most people, the primary cause is restricted triceps and forearms that strain the elbow tendons due to lack of myofascial release.

    To prevent this condition, prioritize proper form, gradually increase weights, and, most importantly, maintain pliable biceps, triceps, and forearms through self-myofascial release (SMR) exercises.

    SMR involves using tools like foam rollers or massage balls to release tight and tense muscles. Restricted muscles exert tension and strain tendons. When you release these muscles, they become more pliable and elastic, reducing the pulling tension on the tendons and joints.

    SMR is the fastest way to treat and alleviate muscle and tendon pain. Follow the step-by-step guidance of the TitaniumPhysique Program to see fast results. Get Started Now.

    Why does my elbow hurt after benching?

    "Push exercises" such as the bench press can trigger or worsen elbow pain because the exercise impacts the forearms, triceps, and elbow tendons.

    The repetitive use of the elbow during the bench press can strain and inflame the forearm and triceps tendons, leading to acute pain after the workout. This strain is what causes your elbow to hurt.

    Acute pain is an inflammatory injury experienced during or immediately after a workout. Symptoms include:

    • Burning pain around the tip and joint of the elbow.
    • A sensation of heat, swelling, soreness, or redness in the elbow area.
    • Discomfort when bending and straightening the arm.
    • Sharp, shooting, or severe pain during or after the movement.
    A comparison photo of the forearm extensors and triceps muscle/tendon

    A side-by-side comparison photo of the forearm extensors and triceps muscle. Left image: Illustration of the forearm extensor muscle group and tendon. Right photo: Illustration of the shoulder joint, scapula, arm bone, and triceps brachii muscle and tendon. When these muscle groups become shortened, they cause pain during push activities. The "X" indicated on each photo marks where trigger points in the forearm extensors and triceps muscle tend to occur. Trigger points, 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.

    Nurudeen performs barbell incline bench press

    In this photo (2022), I perform barbell incline bench presses.

    Why am I experiencing pain inside, outside, or at the back of my elbow?

    • Inner Elbow Pain: During variations that place the hand and elbow close to the body, such as the close-grip bench press, the forearm flexors can strain and inflame the tendon on the inside part of the elbow (medial elbow tendon), causing inner elbow pain. This condition is known as golfer's elbow or medial epicondylitis. Brachialis injury can also cause discomfort at the inner part of the elbow crease.
    • Outer Elbow Pain: During variations that place the hand and elbow away from the body, such as the wide-grip bench press, the forearm extensor muscles can overload and inflame the tendon outside the elbow (common extensor tendon), causing outer elbow pain. Medically, this is called tennis elbow or lateral epicondylitis. Distal bicep tendonitis can also cause discomfort at the outer part of the elbow crease.
    • Pain at the Back of the Elbow: Finally, during this movement, the triceps muscle can become overloaded and strain the triceps tendon, causing pain at the back of the elbow. This condition is known as triceps tendonitis.

    Why do I suddenly experience elbow pain without an apparent cause?

    The muscle conditions that lead to discomfort during bench presses develop gradually and cumulatively. Over time, the repetitive use of the triceps and forearm muscles can cause them to become shortened and inelastic.

    This process of muscle restriction can take months or even years to develop.

    When the biceps, triceps, and forearm muscles are chronically restricted, everyday activities at the gym, such as picking up weights, gripping exercise bars or dumbbells, and bench press workouts, can unexpectedly trigger elbow pain without an apparent cause.

    Unfortunately, most people are unaware of the restricted state of their forearm or triceps muscles until they experience this sudden onset of pain during these activities. This point is the biggest takeaway from this article.

    Whenever someone tells me they have elbow issues, I show them how to perform the forearm pliability test (see the video below).

    During the test, most people will feel a dull but intense pain in the area, usually within a few seconds. Every time I have performed this test on friends at the gym, they are surprised by the tense and restricted states of these muscles.

    YouTube video

    In this video, I demonstrate how to perform the forearm pliability test to discover the hidden/root cause of most elbow tendonitis injuries.

    Impact of Bench Press on Elbows

    Can muscle tension in the forearm contribute to elbow discomfort?

    Yes, muscle tension in the forearm and triceps contributes to pain in the elbow during the bench press. Muscle tension is one of the root causes of elbow pain.

    The biceps, triceps, and forearm muscles activate and contract during this exercise. As you continue to lift, the forearm flexor, forearm extensor, and triceps muscles can become tighter and shorter.

    The shortened triceps and forearm muscles exert increased tension on the elbow and triceps tendon, reducing their elasticity. As a result, the elbow tendons get overloaded and inflamed, causing discomfort.

    For a deep dive into the root causes of elbow tendonitis, elbow bursitis, chronic versus acute pain, and the fastest way to fix these conditions, check out these helpful resources:

    A comparison photo of the forearm extensors and flexor muscles

    A side-by-side comparison photo of the forearm extensors and flexor muscles. Left image: Illustration of the forearm extensor muscles and tendon. Right image: Illustration of the forearm flexor muscles and tendon. When these muscle groups become shortened, they cause elbow discomfort during push activities.

    YouTube video

    In this video (2016), I perform dumbbell incline bench presses while wearing elbow sleeves to manage pain.

    Are bench presses bad for the elbows?

    When performed using good technique, the bench press—including close-grip, wide-grip, barbell, dumbbell, cable machine, and Smith machine variations—is not harmful to the elbows. However, inadequate warm-up, excessive resistance, or sudden increases in training volume can overload the elbow and triceps tendons, leading to tendonitis and pain.

    Can bench presses cause damage to the elbows?

    When performed using proper technique, bench presses do not cause damage to the elbows. However, individuals with elbow tendonitis may experience worsening chronic pain or a relapse of acute pain, leading to elbow tendinosis.

    Tendinosis is a condition characterized by the degeneration of tendon collagen due to repetitive stress and chronic injury. It can result in a loss of strength in the tendon and may even lead to tendon tear or rupture.

    Therefore, performing this exercise with pre-existing elbow or triceps tendonitis (i.e., inflammatory tendon pain) can increase the risk of developing tendinosis and potentially cause damage to the elbows.

    Illustration of elbow tendinopathy | elbow tendon tear

    Illustration of elbow tendinopathy in the medial (inner) and lateral (outer) elbow tendon.

    What happens if elbow pain from bench pressing is left untreated?

    1. Worsening of the Pain: Initial discomfort can progress into more severe and persistent pain, making everyday activities challenging and affecting your ability to bench effectively.
    2. Chronic Inflammation: Inflammation in the elbow tendons may become chronic, leading to tendinosis, which involves the degeneration of tendon collagen and can cause long-term pain and weakness.
    3. Reduced Range of Motion: Ignoring the pain may lead to stiffness and reduced range of motion in the affected elbow, hindering your ability to perform exercises and daily tasks.
    4. Tendon Rupture: In severe cases, continued stress on the injured tendons could lead to a partial or complete tear, requiring more extensive medical treatment and a longer recovery.
    5. Compromised Training Progress: Persisting pain may force you to avoid some exercises or reduce the intensity of your workouts.
    6. Wrist and Shoulder Problems: Untreated restricted muscles in the biceps and triceps can become dysfunctional and cause pain in the shoulder. Similarly, dysfunctional forearm muscles can cause wrist issues.

    Managing Pain and Bench Press Modification

    Can I still bench press if I have pain in my elbow?

    It depends on the severity of the elbow injury. If it's mild, you can use short-term pain relief solutions such as sports or kinesiology tape, elbow sleeves, braces, or straps to reduce discomfort during the exercise. If the pain is chronic, severe, or causes sharp discomfort, it's best to treat the underlying cause before resuming bench pressing.

    Which bench press variation is better for avoiding elbow problems?

    All variations can trigger or worsen elbow injuries; however, resistance bands or cable machine variations are better when avoiding elbow pain.

    Here is a list of bench variations ranked from best to worst in terms of preventing elbow issues:

    1. Resistance band bench press
    2. Cable machine bench press
    3. Chest press machine
    4. Dumbbell bench press
    5. Smith machine bench press
    6. Barbell bench press

    Here's the reason why resistance band or cable machine variations are better:

    • Resistance Band: Provides constant tension in the muscle throughout the entire range of motion, reducing the risk of injury compared to using heavy dumbbells or a cable machine. It allows you to modify arm and elbow position, reducing pressure on the elbow.
    • Cable Machine: Enables arm isolation and less weight on one arm if needed, which helps prevent and avoid elbow pain. You can adjust the exercise by increasing weights in smaller increments and varying the speed of reps.
    • Dumbbell and Barbell: Dumbbells are preferable to barbell bench presses because they isolate the arm and promote a natural range of motion, requiring lighter weights. On the other hand, barbells enable heavier weights, increasing resistance and potentially overloading the triceps and forearm muscles, leading to pain.
    • Stationary and Smith Machine: The Smith Machine and Chest Press Machine provide guided and controlled motion, reducing strain on the elbow joint. The fixed movement pattern promotes proper form and minimizes unnecessary stress on the elbows, making them suitable options for individuals experiencing pain.
    Photo of a man performing chest press with a resistance band

    This photo shows a man performing chest presses with a resistance band.

    Can elbow compression sleeves help?

    Yes, elbow compression sleeves, such as wraps, straps, and support braces, can help alleviate the pain felt on the inside, outside, or back of the elbow during bench presses.

    However, consider the pros and cons of using elbow sleeves to manage pain.

    Pros: Elbow compression sleeves provide compression, which improves blood flow, enhances joint position awareness (proprioception), and offers support to the muscles and tendons surrounding the elbow joint. The compression promotes better circulation, stabilizes the joint, reduces swelling, alleviates acute pain, and can help prevent further damage during intense push movements.

    Cons: Relying solely on sleeves for pain relief can mask the underlying problem, allowing athletes to continue training without addressing the root cause of their pain. This masking can further perpetuate the injury and potentially lead to long-term degenerative conditions in the elbow.

    What are alternative exercises to bench press when experiencing elbow discomfort?

    Bench presses with an overhand or reverse underhand grip can exert excessive tension on the elbow and triceps tendons. As such, you can perform alternative exercises that minimize tension in these areas and alleviate pain.

    Here is a list of alternatives you can try.

    1. Pec Deck Machine
    2. Dumbbell Pullovers
    3. Cable Crossover
    4. Cable Chest Fly
    5. Machine Chest Fly
    6. Dumbbell Fly
    7. Wall or Kneeling Push-Ups

    Additionally, for the exercises listed above, performing partial reps, where you don't fully bend or extend the elbow during the movement, can further reduce tension on the elbow tendons and joints.

    You can access the JEFIT exercise library to learn how to perform these exercises.

    How do I perform bench presses without elbow pain?

    • Warm-Up Thoroughly: Perform dynamic stretches and mobility exercises for the shoulders, elbows, and wrists before starting your workout. This helps to increase blood flow and prepare the muscles and joints for movement.
    • Use Proper Hand Placement: Position your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and ensure they are aligned with your shoulders. This reduces strain on the elbows and allows for a more natural range of motion.
    • Strengthen Supporting Muscles: Incorporate exercises that strengthen the forearm, tricep, and shoulder muscles to better support the elbow during bench presses. This can include wrist curls, tricep extensions, and shoulder presses.
    • Control Your Movement: Focus on controlled, smooth movements rather than rapid or jerky motions. This minimizes stress on the elbow joints and tendons. Lower the barbell slowly and press up with a steady pace.
    • Use Proper Technique: Keep your elbows slightly tucked in and avoid flaring them out excessively. This helps to distribute the weight more evenly across the chest, shoulders, and triceps, reducing stress on the elbows.
    • Try Different Variations: Experiment with different bench variations, such as incline or decline presses, to find a version that feels comfortable for your elbows. You can also try using dumbbells instead of a barbell for a more natural range of motion.
    • Avoid Overtraining: Ensure you are not overloading your muscles and joints with too many reps or excessive weight. Allow adequate rest and recovery time between workout sessions to prevent strain and overuse injuries.
    • Support Your Elbows: Consider using elbow compression sleeves or wraps to provide additional support and reduce strain on the elbows during heavy lifts.
    • Focus on Grip Strength: A strong grip can help stabilize your elbows during the movement. Incorporate grip-strengthening exercises, such as farmer’s walks or grip squeezes, into your routine.
    • Watch the Video Below: Check out the second video below to see how I perform the bench press with proper technique and tips for avoiding elbow pain.
    YouTube video

    In this video (2016), I perform bench presses (while wearing elbow sleeves to manage pain). I trained with compression sleeves for many years, causing my pain to worsen.

    YouTube video

    In this video (2022), I perform variations of bench presses including flat and incline.

    Healing and Prevention

    How long does it take to heal elbow pain caused by bench pressing?

    By combining post-workout treatments such as cold therapy (to relieve burning pain), magnesium supplementation (to reduce inflammation), and self-myofascial release (to alleviate sharp or dull pain), it is possible to treat and heal elbow discomfort within 7-10 days.

    This process involves performing self-myofascial release (SMR) on the triceps and forearm muscles at least 2-3 times daily.

    Get step-by-step guidance with my TitaniumPhysique Program to ensure you do these exercises correctly and effectively, and see results as fast as possible. Get Started Now.

    Remember, resting the elbow (i.e., taking a break from lifting) may provide temporary relief, but it will not fix the root cause of the pain—restricted triceps and forearm muscles that overload the elbow tendons and lead to discomfort.

    What options do I have to stop the pain in my elbow?

    To stop your elbows from hurting during bench presses, you have two options: using short-term pain relief remedies for temporary relief or addressing the root cause of the pain to prevent its recurrence.

    Option #1: Short-term relief remedies. These include:

    • Using joint supplements and vitamins
    • Taking anti-inflammatory painkillers (NSAIDs)
    • Undergoing physical therapy
    • Incorporating stretching exercises
    • Applying ice and resting the affected area
    • Wearing elbow braces or straps
    • Using kinesiology tape
    • Applying topical anti-inflammatory solutions such as oils and creams

    Option #2: Fix the root cause to prevent elbow problems from interfering with your bench workouts. Address muscle restriction by improving forearm, triceps, and biceps muscle pliability.

    Learn how my TitaniumPhysique Program can help you quickly eliminate pain at its source. Get Started Now.

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