Elbow Pain from Chest Fly (A Helpful Guide)

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

Written by: Nurudeen Tijani

Last updated: May 30, 2024

I've been lifting for ten years, and I've dealt with and overcome many elbow injuries. Here's how I fixed my elbows. The primary cause of elbow pain from chest fly 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 chest flys while exercising
YouTube video

Understanding Elbow Pain from Chest Flys

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:

    1. Restricted 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 combined, can cause your elbow to hurt during chest flys. 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 elbow pain, prioritize proper form, gradually increase weights, and, most importantly, maintain pliable 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 tendon and joint.

    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 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.

    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 (known as golfer's elbow).

    The triceps muscle can overstretch and inflame the triceps brachii tendon, causing pain at the back of the elbow (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 me performing machine flys during a chest and back workout.

    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. 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.

    Note: In the video, I tested the forearm extensor muscles, which causes tennis elbow. However, the same muscle conditions are likely present in the forearm/wrist flexor muscles.

    YouTube video

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

    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 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

    Impact of Chest Flys on Elbows

    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.

    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 me performing an incline dumbbell fly during a chest and back workout in the gym.

    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.

    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.

    Managing and Preventing Elbow Pain

    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 strength training.

    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).

    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

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

    Using a combination of post-workout treatments such as cold therapy (to relieve burning pain), magnesium supplementation (to reduce inflammation), and self-myofascial release (to relieve sharp or dull pain), it's possible to 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 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.

    However, keep in mind that simply resting the elbow (i.e., taking a break from physical activity) 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).

    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.

    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 prevent pain from interfering with your flys workouts, fix the root cause. Address muscle restriction by achieving improved muscle pliability in the forearm, triceps, and biceps.

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

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