Elbow Pain from Row Exercises (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 pain. The primary cause of elbow pain from rows 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.

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Nurudeen has elbow pain from rows while performing barbell bent-over row

Listen to the article: 11 minutes

YouTube video

Understanding Elbow Pain from Row Exercises


Why do I have elbow pain from row exercises? How do I fix it?

Elbow pain from rows 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 (e.g. heavy cable or upright rows)
  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 during rows. 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 row exercises?

"Pull exercises" such as the T-bar, dumbbell, upright, cable, or machine row can trigger or worsen elbow pain because the exercise impacts the triceps and elbow tendons.

The repetitive use of the elbow during these exercises strains and inflames the triceps and elbow tendons, leading to acute elbow pain after the workout. This situation is what causes your elbow to hurt after doing rows.

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 and joint of the elbow.
  • A sensation of heat, swelling, or redness in the elbow area.
  • Soreness in the elbow.
  • Elbow pain when bending and straightening the arm.
  • Sharp or severe elbow pain during or after rows.
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 muscles 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 on the outside and back part of the elbow during rows. The "X" indicated on each photo is 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.

Why am I experiencing pain inside, outside, or back of my elbow during row exercises?

  1. Inner elbow pain - during dumbbell row, machine row, and seated cable row (using the V-Bar handle), 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 tendon injury can also cause discomfort at the inner part of the elbow crease.
  2. Outer elbow pain - during the upright row, T-bar row, and barbell bent-over row (using an overhand grip), the forearm extensor muscles can overload and inflame the tendon outside the elbow (common extensor tendon), causing outer elbow pain. Medically, this condition is called tennis elbow or lateral epicondylitis. Lower bicep injury can also cause discomfort at the outer part of the elbow crease.
  3. Pain at the Back of the Elbow - finally, during row exercises, 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 tendinitis.
YouTube video

Check out this 2021 video of me performing the barbell bent-over row exercise.

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

The muscle conditions that lead to elbow pain during row exercises develop gradually and cumulatively. Over time, the repetitive use of the triceps and forearm muscles 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 triceps and forearm muscles are chronically restricted, everyday activities at the gym, picking up weights, gripping exercise bars or dumbbells, and row exercise 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 elbow 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 Rows on Elbows


Can muscle tension in the forearm contribute to elbow pain during rows?

Yes, muscle tension in the forearm contributes to pain in the elbow during row exercises. Muscle tension is one of the root causes of elbow pain.

During rows, the triceps and forearm muscles activate and contract. As you continue to exercise, 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 tendons become strained and inflamed, causing elbow discomfort during cable, machine, barbell, or dumbbell row.

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 explore these 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 forearm flexor muscles and tendon. When these muscle groups become shortened, they cause outer and inner elbow pain during rows.

Are rows harmful to the elbows?

When performed using proper technique, row exercises such as upright row, seated cable row, machine row, barbell bent-over row, and T-bar row, dumbbell one-arm row are not harmful to the elbows.

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

Can row exercises cause damage to the elbows?

When performed using proper technique, row exercises 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 rows 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.

YouTube video

Check out this 2021 video of me performing the cable one-arm row exercise.

Managing Elbow Pain and Alternative Exercises


Can I still do row exercises if I have elbow pain?

Whether or not you can do rows 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 exercise. 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.

YouTube video

Check out this 2017 video of me performing the seated cable row exercise (while wearing an elbow sleeve to manage elbow pain).

Which variation of rows is better for avoiding elbow pain?

While all variations of row exercises have the potential to trigger or worsen elbow pain, the machine row is better for avoiding such pain compared to the dumbbell, barbell, or cable row. Machine rows provide a 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 it a more suitable option for individuals prone to or experiencing elbow pain. Alternatively, you can explore other exercises as alternatives to rows (see below).

What are alternative exercises to rows when experiencing elbow pain?

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

Below are eight alternatives to rows that you can try.

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

  1. Resistance Band Lat Pulldown
  2. Resistance Band Rows
  3. Machine-Assisted Pull-up (Hammer Grip)
  4. Leverage Machine Iso Row
  5. Dumbbell Pullover (Straight Arm)
  6. Full Cobra (Supermans)
  7. Back Hyperextensions
  8. Bar/Dead Hang Stretch

You can check out instructions and video demos on the Jefit website.

YouTube video

Check out this 2021 video of me performing the heavy upright row, a challenging variation of the upright row exercise.

Healing and Prevention


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

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 rows within 7-10 days.

It will involve 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 while resting the elbow (i.e., taking a break from physical activity) may provide temporary relief, it will not fix the root cause of the pain - restricted triceps and forearm muscles that overload the elbow tendons and lead to elbow discomfort during row exercises.

What options do I have to stop elbow pain?

To stop your elbows from hurting during row exercises, 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 row 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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