Elbow Pain from Bicep Curl (A Helpful Guide)

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

Written by: Nurudeen Tijani

Last updated: May 29, 2024

I've been lifting for ten years, and I've dealt with and overcome many elbow injuries. This exercise fixed my elbows. The primary cause of elbow pain from bicep curls is restricted biceps and forearm flexor muscles that strain the elbow tendons during the movement. To prevent discomfort, maintain pliable biceps 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 bicep curls while performing preacher curls

Listen to the article: 18 minutes

Understanding Elbow Pain from Bicep Curls

Why do I have elbow pain from bicep curls? How do I fix it?

Elbow pain from curls 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
    4. Incorrect form or lifting technique
    5. Overtraining
    6. Inadequate recovery
    7. Lack of myofascial release

    These factors, individually or in combination, can cause your elbow to hurt from bicep curls. Yet, for most people, the primary cause is restricted biceps, 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 elbow 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 doing bicep curls?

    "Pull exercises" like bicep curls can trigger or worsen elbow pain because the exercise impacts the tendons of the biceps, forearms, and triceps.

    The repetitive use of the elbow joint during curls can strain and inflame the bicep, forearm, and triceps tendons, leading to acute elbow pain after the curling movement. This situation is what causes your elbow to hurt after doing bicep curls.

    Acute elbow pain is an inflammatory pain experienced during or immediately after a workout. In this case, symptoms of acute elbow pain include:

    • Burning pain around the tip or inside part of the elbow joint.
    • A sensation of heat, swelling, or redness in the elbow area.
    • Soreness in the elbow after doing bicep curls.
    • Elbow pain when bending and straightening the arm.
    • Sharp or severe elbow discomfort during or after performing curls.
    A comparison photo of the forearm flexors and triceps muscle/tendon

    A side-by-side comparison photo of the triceps and forearm flexor muscles. Left image: 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 muscle groups become shortened, they cause pain on the inside and back part of the elbow during bicep curls. The "X" indicated on each photo is where trigger points in the forearm flexors 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.

    Why am I experiencing pain inside, outside, or at the back part of my elbow while doing bicep curls?

    1. Inner elbow pain - during bicep curls, especially variations like preacher curls which isolate the biceps, the forearm flexors can become overloaded and strain 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 tendonitis can also cause discomfort at the inner part of the elbow crease.
    2. Outer elbow pain - during hammer curls, 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. Lower bicep tendonitis can also cause discomfort at the outer part of the elbow crease.
    3. Pain at the back of the elbow - finally, during most variations of bicep curls (dumbbell, cables, and barbell), 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 from curls without an apparent cause?

    The muscle conditions that lead to elbow pain during bicep curls develop gradually and cumulatively. Over time, the repetitive use of the biceps, triceps, and forearms can lead to muscle restriction, causing 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, picking up weights, gripping exercise bars or dumbbells, and bicep curl workouts can unexpectedly trigger elbow pain without an apparent cause.

    Unfortunately, most people are often 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 discomfort, 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 Bicep Curls on Elbows

    Can tension in the forearm or biceps contribute to elbow pain during curls?

    Yes, muscle tension in the biceps, triceps, and forearms contributes to pain in the elbow during bicep curls. Muscle tension is one of the root causes of elbow pain.

    The biceps, triceps, and forearm muscles activate and contract when you perform curls. 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 elbow 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 muscle group and tendon. Right photo: Illustration of the wrist flexor muscles and tendon. When these muscle groups become shortened, they cause outer and inner elbow pain during bicep curls.

    Are bicep curls bad for the elbows?

    Bicep curls are not harmful to the elbows when performed using proper form and technique. This list of exercises includes barbell curl, dumbbell curl, cable bicep curl, resistance band curl, machine bicep curl, preacher curl, hammer curl, EZ bar curl, reverse curl, or Smith machine curl.

    However, it's important to note that inadequate stretching or warm-up, excessive resistance, or sudden increases in bicep curl sets can overload the elbow and triceps tendons, leading to elbow tendonitis and pain.

    To learn the proper bicep curl technique, check out this article.

    Nurudeen perform standing barbell bicep curl

    Standing barbell curls are one of my favorite exercises. I've been performing them for over a decade. In this photo (2019), I perform curls during a shoulder and arms workout.

    Is "biceps curl elbow pain" the same as biceps tendonitis?

    "Biceps curl elbow pain" often refers to a golfer's elbow, which differs from biceps tendonitis. Golfer's elbow or medial epicondylitis is inflammation of the medial elbow tendon. If you experience inner elbow pain during a bicep curl, it's likely a golfer's elbow.

    Biceps tendonitis is inflammation of the biceps tendon. The proximal (upper) bicep tendon attaches the long head of the biceps (outer biceps muscle) to the upper arm bone and shoulder blade bone. The distal (lower) bicep tendon attaches the long head of the biceps to the forearm bone (radius).

    Distal bicep tendonitis or lower bicep pain can cause discomfort, stiffness, weakness, or swelling at the front crease of the elbow, especially during curling movements.

    3d illustration of biceps tendonitis in the right upper limb

    The photo illustrates biceps tendonitis at the distal and proximal biceps tendon.

    Can bicep curls cause damage to the elbows?

    When performed using proper technique, bicep curls do not cause damage to the elbows. However, individuals with elbow tendonitis may experience worsening chronic pain or relapse of acute elbow 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 bicep curls with pre-existing elbow or triceps tendonitis (i.e., inflammatory tendon pain) can increase the risk of developing elbow tendinosis and potentially cause damage to the elbows.

    Illustration of elbow tendinopathy | elbow tendon tear

    This photo illustrates elbow tendinopathy in the medial (inner) and lateral (outer) elbow tendon.

    What happens if elbow pain from curls is left untreated?

    1. Worsening of the Pain: The initial discomfort can progress into more severe and persistent pain, making everyday activities challenging and affecting your ability to lift effectively.
    2. Chronic Inflammation: The inflammation in the elbow tendons may become chronic, leading to a condition known as tendinosis, which involves degeneration of the tendon collagen and can cause long-term pain and weakness.
    3. Arthritis of the Elbow: untreated elbow pain can contribute to autoimmune conditions like elbow arthritis.
    4. Reduced Range of Motion: Neglecting the pain may lead to stiffness and reduced range of motion in the affected elbow, hindering your ability to perform exercises and daily tasks.
    5. Tendon Rupture: In severe cases, continued stress on the already injured tendons could lead to a partial or complete tear, requiring more extensive medical treatment and a longer recovery.
    6. Compromised Training Progress: Persisting pain may force you to avoid some exercises or reduce the intensity of your bicep workouts.
    7. Shoulder Problems: When restricted muscles in the biceps and triceps are left untreated, they become dysfunctional and can cause pain at the front of the shoulder (proximal bicep tendonitis).
    8. Forearm and Wrist Issues: When restricted muscles in the forearm extensors and flexors are left untreated, they become dysfunctional and can cause forearm and wrist pain.

    Managing Elbow Pain and Modifications

    Can I still do bicep curls if I have elbow pain?

    Whether or not you can do curls with elbow pain depends on the severity of the 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 pain during the movement. Suppose it's chronic, severe, or causes sharp pain. In that case, it's best to treat the underlying cause of the pain before resuming exercise.

    Which bicep curl variation is better for avoiding elbow pain?

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

    Here's the reason why these curling variations are better.

    1. Resistance Band Bicep Curl: It allows you to modify arm and elbow position, reducing pressure on the elbow. It provides constant tension in the muscle throughout the entire range of motion, thereby strengthening the tendons and fixing imbalances in the biceps. Lighter resistance bands reduce the risk of injury compared to using heavy dumbbells, barbells, or a cable machine.
    2. Cable Machine Bicep Curl: 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. You can change the cable hands and perform a variety of curling movements to prevent or work around your pain.
    3. Bicep Machine and Smith Machine: The Bicep Machine and Smith Machine provide guided and controlled motion during curls, reducing strain on the elbow joint. The fixed movement pattern promotes proper form and minimizes unnecessary stress on the elbows.
    4. Dumbbell and Barbell Curl: Dumbbells are preferable to barbell curls because they isolate the arm and promote a natural range of motion, requiring lighter weights. They also allow you to perform hammer curls and minimize pain on the inside part of the elbow. On the other hand, barbell curls enable heavier weights, increasing resistance and potentially overloading the biceps and forearm tendons.
    5. Preacher Curl: This variation of curls is likely the worst because it isolates the biceps, puts pressure on the triceps tendon, and can easily overload the forearms. All these conditions increase the potential for discomfort at the inside, outside, or back of the elbow.
    Nurudeen performs one-arm machine preacher curls

    In this photo (2022), I perform one-arm machine preacher curls. Click here to watch the video.

    Nurudeen performs cable bicep curls

    In this photo (2022), I perform cable machine curls. Click here to watch the video.

    Nurudeen performs hammer curls at gym

    In this photo (2022), I perform hammer curls with dumbbells. Click here to watch the video.

    Can elbow compression sleeves alleviate pain from bicep curls?

    Yes. Elbow compressions, such as elbow sleeves, armbands, wraps, straps, and braces, can alleviate pain from bicep curls. However, it's essential to 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 pain, and can help prevent further damage during heavy curls.

    Cons: Relying on elbow support braces or armbands for pain relief can mask the underlying problem, allowing athletes to continue performing bicep curls without addressing the root cause of their pain. This masking will further perpetuate the injury and potentially lead to long-term degenerative conditions in the elbow

    How do I perform bicep curls without pain?

    Here are some tips to help you perform bicep curls without pain:

    1. Stretch the Muscles: Stretch the biceps, forearm, and triceps muscles before exercising.
    2. Modify Equipment for Injuries: If you have an elbow injury, perform curls with resistance bands or a cable machine instead of dumbbells or barbells.
    3. Warm-Up Sets: Perform two warm-up sets with lighter weights before increasing the resistance.
    4. Use Lifting Straps: Use lifting straps to help reduce forearm muscle tension from gripping the weights or cable attachment.
    5. Use Elbow Compression: An elbow sleeve or armband can help compress the elbow and triceps tendon, reducing pain.
    6. Maintain Proper Posture: Stand up straight with your feet shoulder-width apart and your knees slightly bent. Engage your core to keep your back straight throughout the exercise.
    7. Controlled Movement: Lift and lower the weights in a controlled manner. Avoid using momentum to swing the weights up; instead, focus on a slow and steady motion to engage the biceps.
    8. Grip Position: Hold the weights with a firm but not overly tight grip. Over-gripping can increase tension in your forearms and elbows, leading to pain.
    9. Full Range of Motion: Ensure you perform the curls through the full range of motion. Fully extend your arms at the bottom of the movement and curl until your biceps contract, but avoid locking out your elbows at the bottom to reduce stress on the joint.
    10. Wrist Alignment: Keep your wrists straight and avoid bending them during the curl. Bent wrists can strain on the forearm muscles and the elbow joint.
    11. Elbow Positioning: Keep your elbows close to your body throughout the entire movement. This adjustment helps to isolate the biceps and reduces strain on the elbow joint.
    12. Vary Your Grip: Alternate between different grips like supinated (palms up), pronated (palms down), and neutral (palms facing each other) to target different parts of the biceps and reduce repetitive strain on the elbow joint.
    13. Gradual Progression: Gradually increase your resistance/weights to allow your muscles and tendons to adapt. Avoid sudden increases in weight, as this can lead to overuse injuries.
    14. Rest and Recovery: Ensure you give your muscles and joints adequate time to rest and recover between workouts. Overtraining can lead to chronic pain and injury.
    YouTube video

    In this video (2017), I perform barbell and seated dumbbell curls (2017).

    Healing and Prevention

    How long does it take to heal elbow pain caused by bicep curls?

    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 heal elbow pain caused by bicep curls within 7-10 days.

    This process involves performing self-myofascial release (SMR) on the biceps, 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 that while resting the elbow (i.e., taking a break from working out) may provide temporary relief, it will not fix the root cause of the pain - restricted muscles that overload the elbow tendons and lead to elbow discomfort during bicep curls.

    What options do I have to stop elbow pain?

    To stop your elbows from hurting during curls, you have two options: short-term pain relief products that provide 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 bicep curl 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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