Elbow Pain from Pull-Ups (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 working out 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 pull-ups is restricted triceps and forearm muscles that strain the elbow tendons during the movement. To prevent pain, 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 pull-ups while performing pull/chins

Listen to the article: 13 minutes

Understanding Elbow Pain from Pull-Ups

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

Elbow discomfort from pull-ups 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 in combination, can cause discomfort during pull-ups. 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 resistance, 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 pull-ups or chin-ups?

"Pull exercises" can trigger or worsen elbow pain because they impact the triceps and elbow tendons.

The repetitive use of the elbow during these exercises can strain and inflame the triceps and 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 pull exercises. 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.

YouTube video

In this video (2021), I demonstrate various pull-up and chin-up techniques, including Behind-the-neck, Wide-grip, and Close-grip variations.

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

  • Inner Elbow Pain: During chin-ups, the forearm flexors can strain and inflame the tendon on the inner part of the elbow (medial elbow tendon), leading to discomfort known as golfer's elbow or medial epicondylitis. Brachialis tendon injury can also cause discomfort at the inner part of the elbow crease.
  • Outer Elbow Pain: During wide-grip pull-ups, the forearm extensor muscles can overload and inflame the tendon outside the elbow (common extensor tendon), causing outer elbow pain. This condition is medically referred to as tennis elbow or lateral epicondylitis. Distal bicep tendon injury can also cause discomfort at the outer part of the elbow crease.
  • Pain at the Back of the Elbow: Finally, during both pull and chin-ups, the triceps muscle can become overloaded and strain the triceps tendon, resulting in 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 pull-ups 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 triceps and forearm muscles are chronically restricted, everyday activities at the gym, such as picking up weights, gripping exercise bars or dumbbells, and pull-up workouts, can unexpectedly trigger pain in the elbow 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 uncover the hidden/root cause of most elbow tendonitis injuries.

Do tight lats contribute to elbow pain?

Tight lats can indirectly contribute to elbow instability but do not directly cause pain.

The latissimus dorsi muscle (also known as 'the lats') attaches to specific bones in the body, including the vertebrae (7th to 12th thoracic vertebrae and thoracolumbar fascia), iliac crest, costal ribs (9th to 12th ribs), scapula, and the humerus.

Therefore, when the lats are tight, they can cause pain in the neck, upper back, lower back, and shoulder. If the shoulder becomes injured, it can destabilize the elbow during exercises such as pull-ups and chin-ups.

Impact of Pull-Ups on Elbows

Can muscle tension in the forearm contribute to elbow discomfort?

Yes, muscle tension in the forearm contributes to pain in the elbow during pull-ups. Muscle tension is one of the root causes of elbow pain.

The triceps and forearm muscles activate and contract during this exercise. As you continue to exercise, the forearm flexor, forearm extensor, and triceps muscles can become tense, 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 strained 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 pull activities.

Nurudeen performs wide-grip pull-ups

In this photo (2022), I perform wide-grip pull-ups during a back workout.

Are pull-ups/chin-ups bad for the elbows?

When performed using good technique, these exercises—including close-grip chin-ups, wide-grip pull-ups, v-bar, behind-the-neck, machine-assisted, and weighted variations—are 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 pull-ups cause damage to the elbows?

When performed using proper technique, pull-ups 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.

What happens if elbow pain from pull-ups 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 perform pull exercises 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 Problems: Untreated restricted forearm muscles can become dysfunctional and cause pain in the wrist.

Managing Pain and Alternative Exercises

Can I still do pull-ups/chin-ups 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 the pull exercise.

Nurudeen performs close-grip chin-ups

In this photo (2022), I perform close-grip chin-ups.

Nurudeen performs v-bar pull-ups

In this photo (2022), I perform V-bar pull-ups during a back workout.

Can elbow compression sleeves help?

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

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 pull activities.

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 pull-ups/chin-ups when experiencing elbow discomfort?

Pull-ups can exert excessive tension on the outer elbow tendon, while chin-ups can strain the inner elbow tendon. As such, consider alternative exercises that minimize tension in these areas.

Below are five alternatives you can try:

  1. Resistance Band Lat Pulldown
  2. Machine-assisted Pull-up (Hammer Grip)
  3. Leverage Machine Iso Row
  4. Dumbbell Pullover (Straight Arm)
  5. Cable Incline Pulldown

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

You can reference the JEFIT exercise database for instructions and video demonstrations of each exercise.

How do I perform pull-ups without elbow pain?

  1. 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.
  2. Use Proper Grip: Opt for a neutral or hammer grip (palms facing each other) instead of an overhand or underhand grip, as it reduces strain on the elbows.
  3. Strengthen Supporting Muscles: Incorporate exercises that strengthen the forearm, bicep, and shoulder muscles to better support the elbow during pull exercises. This can include wrist curls, bicep curls, and shoulder presses.
  4. Control Your Movement: Focus on controlled, smooth movements rather than jerking or swinging your body. This minimizes stress on the elbow joints and tendons.
  5. Modify Grip Width: Adjust your grip width to find a position that feels most comfortable for your elbows. A slightly wider or narrower grip may help alleviate discomfort.
  6. 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.

Check out the video below to see how I perform these exercises.

YouTube video

In this video (2022), I perform wide-grip pull-ups, close-grip chin-ups, and a post-exercise stretch for the forearm and lats.

Healing and Prevention

How long does it take to heal elbow pain caused by pull-ups?

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 exercise) 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 pull-ups or chin-ups, 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 pull workouts. Address muscle restriction by improving the pliability of the forearm, triceps, and biceps muscles.

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

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