Elbow Pain from Overhead Press (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. This exercise fixed my pain. The primary cause of elbow pain from overhead presses is restricted triceps and forearm muscles that strain the elbow tendons during OHP. 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 overhead presses while performing a seated press

Understanding Elbow Pain from Overhead Presses


Why do I have pain in my elbow during overhead presses and how do I fix it?

Elbow pain during the overhead press 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 exercising
  3. Excessive resistance
  4. Poor 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 during the overhead press. 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 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 overhead presses?

"Push-exercises" such as overhead press can trigger or aggravate elbow pain because the exercise involves the triceps tendon and elbow tendons. The repetitive use of the elbow during overhead press can strain and inflame the triceps tendon and elbow 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 overhead press or shoulder press.

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

  • Burning pain at the tip of the elbow and around the elbow joint after overhead press (OHP)
  • A sensation of heat, swelling, or redness around the elbow after OHP
  • Sore elbows after an OHP workout
  • Elbow pain when bending and straightening arm after OHP
  • Sharp or severe elbow pain during or after OHP
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 photo: 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 muscles groups become shortened, they cause outer and posterior elbow pain during OHP.

The "X" indicated on each photo is where trigger points in the forearm extensors 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

Why am I experiencing pain inside, outside, or back of my elbow while doing overhead press?

Suppose you experience inner, outer, or posterior elbow pain while doing overhead press. In that case, the cause is usually a combination of the following factors: 1) restricted triceps and forearm muscles, and 2) an inflamed triceps tendon and elbow tendon.

During overhead press, the forearm flexors, forearm extensors, and triceps muscles extend and contract, which can pull and put tension on the inner and outer elbow tendon as well as the triceps tendon.

The forearm flexor muscles can overstretch and irritate the tendon on the inside part of the elbow, causing inner elbow pain (known as golfer's elbow). The forearm extensor muscles can overstretch and strain the tendon on the outside part of the elbow, causing outer elbow pain (known as tennis elbow). Finally, the triceps muscle can overstretch and inflame the tendon at the back of the elbow, causing posterior elbow pain (triceps tendonitis).

Inner, outer, 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, outer, or posterior elbow pain while doing overhead press is a sign of acute elbow pain.

Check out this video of me performing clean and presses (2016).

Why do I suddenly have (feel) elbow pain during overhead press without apparent cause?

The muscle conditions that lead to elbow pain are gradual and cumulative. Through repetitive use and over time, the forearm and triceps muscles become restricted (i.e. shortened and inelastic). This process of muscle restriction can take months or years to develop.

When the triceps and forearm muscles become chronically restricted (lasting over three months), a routine activity at home or work (carrying a bag of groceries, holding or gripping something tightly), or at the gym (e.g. a routine overhead press workout) can suddenly trigger elbow pain.

Unfortunately, most people do not realize their forearm or triceps 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.

YouTube video

What causes pain in the elbow during overhead press?

When you perform an exercise involving the arm, such as a shoulder press or overhead press, the triceps and forearm muscles contract. Over time, as you exercise, the forearm flexor, forearm extensor, and triceps muscles become tighter and shorter.

Shortened triceps and forearm muscles can pull and put tension on the elbow and triceps tendon, decreasing the tendons' elasticity. As a result, the tendons become overloaded and inflamed, causing elbow pain during overhead press and other shoulder press exercises.

The pain usually occurs on the inside part of the elbow (golfer's elbow) or at the back of the elbow (triceps tendonitis), but it can also be felt on the outside part of the elbow (tennis elbow). The elbow tendons that cause elbow pain during overhead press 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, 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 photo: Illustration of the forearm extensor muscle group and tendon. Right photo: Illustration of the forearm flexor muscles and tendon. When these muscles groups become shortened, they cause outer and inner elbow pain during overhead press.

The "X" indicated on each photo is where trigger points in the forearm muscles tend to occur. Trigger points cause pain and tenderness and can develop due to muscle overuse, stress, or injury. Image source: Google

Impact of Overhead Press on Elbows


Is the overhead press bad for the elbows?

When performed with good technique, the overhead press (and other variations of shoulder press, such as cable, dumbbell, and machine presses) is not bad for the elbows. However, performing the overhead press without proper warm-up, using excessive resistance, or suddenly increasing training volume can overload the elbow and triceps tendons, leading to elbow tendonitis and pain.

Can overhead press cause elbow pain?

Overhead press does not cause elbow pain when performed with proper technique. However, it can trigger or aggravate elbow tendonitis, elbow pain, and forearm pain.

Push-exercises like the overhead press engage the forearm muscles, triceps muscle, elbow tendons, and triceps tendon. During the overhead press, the forearm and triceps muscles can become overloaded. This can lead to overstretched, strained, and inflamed elbow tendons, resulting in acute sharp pain or worsening chronic dull pain.

Can the overhead press cause elbow damage?

Overhead press does not cause elbow damage when performed with proper technique. However, for individuals experiencing elbow tendonitis, the overhead press can trigger acute elbow pain or worsen chronic elbow pain, leading to elbow tendinosis.

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

Thus, performing overhead press with elbow tendonitis or triceps tendonitis (i.e., inflammatory tendon pain) can result in elbow tendinosis (i.e., degeneration of the elbow tendon) and potentially cause damage to the elbows.

Can you hurt your elbow doing overhead press?

Performing the overhead press with proper technique is safe and will not cause injury to the elbow. However, inadequate warm-up and stretching of the triceps, forearm muscles, elbow tendons, and triceps tendon, using excessive weights, bad lifting form, a sudden increase in training volume, and doing overhead presses while experiencing ongoing elbow or triceps tendonitis can cause elbow pain and injury.

Managing and Preventing Elbow Pain


Can I still do an overhead press with elbow pain?

It depends on the severity of the pain. If the pain is mild, most people can use sports tape, kinesiology tape, elbow sleeves, elbow braces, elbow straps, or other temporary solutions to reduce elbow pain during overhead press. However, if the pain is chronic, severe, or causes sharp pain during overhead press, it's best to treat the underlying cause before resuming training.

Which shoulder press variation is better to avoid elbow pain?

All three exercises can trigger or aggravate elbow pain, but a dumbbell seated shoulder press is better for avoiding elbow pain. Here's why:

A dumbbell seated shoulder press isolates each arm, so less weight is needed. Barbell overhead press and machine shoulder press are more effective for building larger deltoids, which require more weight.

People typically lift heavier weights during barbell and machine exercises than during dumbbell exercises. Therefore, if you experience elbow pain during overhead press, dumbbell shoulder press is less likely to trigger or aggravate elbow pain. You can also try alternative shoulder exercises instead of the overhead press (see below).

What are alternative shoulder exercises to the overhead press when experiencing elbow pain?

Unlike the shoulder and overhead press which put excessive tension on the triceps and inner elbow tendon, the following exercises minimize tension on the triceps and elbow tendon, and as a result, cause less pain on the elbow joint. Here are 12 alternatives to overhead press that you can try:

  1. Dumbbell Lateral Raises

  2. Dumbbell Front Raises

  3. Dumbbell Shrugs

  4. Farmer's Walk

  5. Cable Rope Face Pull

  6. Barbell Front Raises

  7. Plate Front Raise

  8. Cable Upright Row

  9. Machine Deltoid Raise

  10. Dumbbell Reverse Fly

  11. Cable Lateral Raise

  12. Cable Front Raise

Instructions and video demonstrations of these exercises are available at the JEFIT exercise library.

How do I perform overhead presses without elbow pain?

As explained above, when performed with proper technique, the overhead press is a safe exercise that will not cause injury or elbow pain. However, if the elbow is injured with forearm pain, golfer's elbow, or triceps tendonitis, performing an overhead press will cause some degree of elbow pain.

With that understanding, here are five tips on how to perform OHP without elbow pain:

  1. Stretch the forearm and triceps muscles before working out.
  2. Perform the overhead press with cables or dumbbells instead of barbells or machines.
  3. Perform two warm-up sets with lighter weights before increasing the resistance.
  4. Use lifting straps to help reduce forearm muscle tension from gripping the weights.
  5. Use elbow sleeves or wraps to compress the elbow and triceps tendon.

    How long does it take to heal elbow pain caused by the overhead press?

    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 from the overhead press 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.

    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 injury (e.g., restricted triceps and forearm muscles that overload the elbow tendons and cause elbow pain during overhead press).

    What options do I have to stop my elbows from hurting during overhead press?

    To stop elbow pain during the overhead press, you have two approaches: short-term remedies and addressing the root cause of the pain.

    Short-term pain relief remedies 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 affecting your OHP 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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