Why do I have pain in my elbow during lat pulldowns?

Written by: Nurudeen Tijani

The article below answers common questions about elbow pain during or after lat pulldowns. However, if you want an immediate solution, you can get instant access to TitaniumPhysique. Our program will guide you to a pain-free lifting experience. Ready to get started?

Elbow pain during Lat pulldown | Nurudeen performing lat pulldowns at a gym on May 11, 2023

Lat Pulldown and Elbow Pain (FAQs)


1.  Why do I have pain in my elbow during lat pulldown and how do I fix it?

Elbow pain during cable or machine lat pulldown exercises can occur for several reasons, such as restricted triceps and forearm muscles, inadequate warm-up of these muscle groups before exercise, excessive resistance (e.g., heavy lat pulls), improper form or lifting technique during pulldowns, and sudden increases in training volume.

These factors, individually or in combination, can cause your elbow to hurt during lat pulldown exercises. However, the primary cause for most athletes is restricted (shortened, tight, and tense) triceps and forearm muscles.

To cure or prevent this condition, it is crucial to prioritize proper form, gradually increase weights, and, most importantly, maintain pliable triceps and forearm muscles through self-myofascial release (SMR) exercises. These exercises can instantly relieve the restrictions in the muscles and minimize the risk of injury, overuse, and inflammation.

2.  Why does my elbow hurt after doing lat pulldown exercises?

"Pull-exercises" such as lat pulldown can trigger or aggravate elbow pain because the exercise involves the elbow tendons. The repetitive use of the elbow during pulldowns can strain and inflame the triceps 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 pulldowns.

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 lat pulls.
  • A sensation of heat, swelling, or redness around the elbow after pulldown exercises.
  • Soreness in the elbow after a lat pull workout.
  • Elbow pain when bending and straightening the arm after pulldowns.
  • Sharp or severe elbow pain during or after lat pulls.
A side-by-side comparison photo of forearm extensors and triceps muscle. Illustration of the shoulder joint, scapula, arm bone, and triceps brachii muscle and tendon. Illustration of the forearm extensor muscle group and 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 lat pulldown. 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

3.  Why am I experiencing pain on the inside, outside, or back of my elbow during lat pulldown?

If you experience pain on the inside, outside, or back of your elbow while doing lat pulldown, 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 lat pulls, the forearm flexors, forearm extensors, and triceps muscles extend and contract, which can pull and put tension on the inner and outer elbow tendons as well as the triceps tendon, leading to pain in those areas.

During close-grip reverse lat pulldown, the forearm flexor muscles can overstretch and inflame the tendon on the inside part of the elbow, causing inner elbow pain (also known as golfer's elbow). During wide-grip lat pulldown, the forearm extensor muscles can overstretch and inflame the tendon on the outside part of the elbow, causing outer elbow pain (also known as tennis elbow). Finally, during pulldown exercises, the triceps muscle can overstretch and inflame the triceps tendon at the back of the elbow, causing posterior elbow pain (also known as 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 pulldowns is a sign of acute elbow pain.

Check out this 2023 video of Nurudeen performing the wide-grip cable lat pulldown during a chest and back workout in the gym. The wide-grip cable lat pulldown specifically targets the latissimus dorsi muscles, commonly known as the lats, which contribute to a wide and powerful back. By incorporating this exercise into your routine, you'll not only strengthen your lats but also engage other muscles in your upper body, including your shoulders, biceps, and forearms. Lat pulldowns are a versatile exercise that can be modified to suit different fitness levels and goals. You can vary the position of your arms (wide or narrow), the type of grip (overhand or underhand), the position of the bar (front or behind the neck), the type of attachment (wide bar, narrow bar, V bar, rope, D-cable handle), the angle of your arms, and the speed of your reps to make the exercise more challenging or easier. This exercise can be performed while standing, sitting, or kneeling.

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4.  Why do I suddenly experience elbow pain during lat pulldown without an apparent cause?

The conditions that lead to elbow pain during lat pulldown are gradual and cumulative. Over time, the repetitive use of the forearm and triceps muscles can lead to muscle restriction, causing them to become shortened and less flexible. This process of muscle restriction can take months or even years to develop.

When the triceps and forearm muscles are chronically restricted for more than three months, everyday activities like carrying groceries or gripping objects tightly, as well as lat pulldown workouts at the gym, can unexpectedly trigger elbow pain 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 elbow pain during these activities.

5.  What causes pain in the elbow during lat pulldown exercises?

The triceps and forearm muscles contract during exercises like cable lat pulldown that involve arm movementsRepeated exercise causes the forearm flexor, extensor, and triceps muscles to become tighter and shorter.

The shortened triceps and forearm muscles exert tension on the elbow and triceps tendon, reducing their elasticity. This leads to overloading and inflammation of the tendons, resulting in elbow pain during pulldowns and other exercises involving the elbow. The tendons that commonly cause elbow pain during pulldowns include the medial elbow tendon (inner elbow tendon), extensor elbow tendon (outer elbow tendon), and triceps brachii tendon (posterior elbow tendon).

For a detailed article on the root causes of elbow pain, including the types of elbow tendonitis (tennis elbow, golfer's elbow, triceps tendonitis), elbow bursitis, chronic vs. acute elbow pain, and the fastest way to cure elbow pain, read our helpful guide on elbow injuries.

Important: Apart from musculoskeletal injuries (muscle and tendon-related pain), other medical conditions can contribute to elbow pain during pulldowns. These include nerve entrapment and compression, bone fractures and dislocations, and arthritis, which causes joint inflammation, pain, and stiffness. If your condition is medically related, it's important to consult your healthcare provider to ensure no structural issues with your elbow.

A side-by-side comparison photo of 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

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 pulldowns. 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

6.  Are lat pulldowns bad for the elbows?

When performed with proper technique, lat pulldown exercises such as wide-grip pulldown, close-grip reverse pulldown, v-bar pulldown, single-arm kneeling pulldown, rope pulldown, machine pulldown, and behind-the-neck pulldown 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.

7.  Can lat pulldowns cause elbow pain?

When performed with proper technique, lat pulldowns do not cause elbow pain. However, they can trigger or exacerbate conditions such as elbow tendonitis, forearm pain, or wrist pain. Pull exercises like lat pulldowns involve the engagement of forearm muscles, triceps muscles, elbow tendons, and the triceps tendon. During lat pulldowns, the forearm and triceps muscles may become overloaded, which can lead to overstretching, straining, and inflammation of the elbow tendons. As a result, acute sharp pain or worsening chronic dull pain may be experienced.

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8.  Can lat pulldowns cause damage to the elbows?

When performed with proper technique, lat pulldowns do not cause damage to the elbows. However, individuals who already have elbow tendonitis may experience an exacerbation of chronic pain or the development of acute elbow pain, which can potentially lead 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 pulldowns 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.

9.  Can tight lats cause elbow pain?

Tight lats can indirectly contribute to elbow instability, but they do not directly cause elbow pain. The latissimus dorsi muscle (also known as 'the lats muscle' or '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 directly cause upper/mid back pain, lower back pain, and shoulder pain. If the shoulder becomes injured, it can destabilize the elbow during lifting activities such as lat pulldown.

10.  Can you hurt your elbow doing machine or cable lat pulldown?

Performing machine or cable lat pulldown with proper technique is safe and unlikely to cause injury to the elbow. However, it's important to ensure an adequate warm-up and stretching routine for the triceps, forearm muscles, elbow tendons, and triceps tendon. Using excessive resistance, poor form or technique, sudden increases in training volume, or performing pulldowns while experiencing ongoing elbow or triceps tendonitis can lead to elbow pain and injury.

11.  Can I still do lat pulldown if I have elbow pain?

Whether or not you can still do lat pulldown with elbow pain depends on the severity of the pain. If it's mild, you can try using short-term relief solutions 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 pulldowns, it's best to treat the underlying cause of the pain before resuming physical training.

Check out this 2023 video of Nurudeen performing the machine lat pulldown exercise. This variation of the lat pulldown, like the cable pulldown, specifically targets the latissimus dorsi muscles. However, the machine lat pulldown offers distinct benefits. It provides enhanced stability and control, making it easier to learn and maintain proper form. The guided motion of the machine allows for isolated muscle engagement, primarily focusing on the lats. Additionally, adjustable resistance facilitates progressive overload, and the reduced strain on stabilizer muscles makes it a convenient option. Incorporating both machine and cable lat pulldowns can provide a comprehensive approach to target the lats effectively.

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12.  Which variation of lat pulldown is better for avoiding elbow pain: machine or cable?

Both variations of pulldowns have the potential to trigger or aggravate elbow pain, but when it comes to avoiding elbow pain, the machine lat pulldown is generally considered to be better than the cable lat pulldown. Machine lat pulldowns provide a guided and controlled motion, which helps reduce the 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 the lat pulldown (see below).

13.  What are some alternative exercises to lat pulldown when experiencing elbow pain?

Since lat pulldown, especially when performed with a reverse underhand grip, can exert excessive tension on the elbow tendons, there are alternative exercises that can help minimize tension in these areas and alleviate elbow pain. Here are six alternatives to lat pulldowns that you can try. Additionally, performing partial reps, where you don't fully contract or extend the arm during the exercise, can further reduce tension on the elbow tendon and joint.

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

14.  How long does it take to heal elbow pain caused by lat pulldown? (sharp, severe, burning, or dull pain)

It's possible to relieve elbow pain from lat pulldown, by releasing the forearm flexor muscles, forearm extensor muscles, and triceps muscle and tendon. This can be achieved by using a myofascial release massage ball, which helps alleviate tension on the elbow tendons and promotes healing.

By utilizing a combination of post-workout treatments such as RICE therapy (to relieve burning pain), magnesium supplementation (to reduce inflammation), and self-myofascial release (to alleviate sharp, shooting, and dull pain), it is possible to treat and heal elbow pain caused by lat pulldown within 7-10 days. This will involve performing self-myofascial release (SMR) on the triceps and forearm muscles at least 2-3 times a day.

However, it is important to keep in mind that while resting the elbow (i.e., taking a break from physical training) may provide temporary relief, it will not address the root cause of the pain, such as restricted triceps and forearm muscles that overload the elbow tendons and lead to elbow pain during lat pulldown.

15.  How do I perform lat pulldown exercises without experiencing elbow pain?

As mentioned earlier, lat pulldown is a safe exercise when performed correctly. However, if you experience elbow pain due to conditions such as golfer's elbow, tennis elbow, or triceps tendonitis, performing this exercise can worsen the pain.

Here are some tips to minimize elbow pain during lat pulldowns:

  1. Stretch your forearm and triceps muscles before starting your workout.
  2. Use a resistance band or lat pulldown machine instead of the cable lat machine.
  3. If performing heavy lat pulls, perform two warm-up sets with lighter weights before increasing the weight.
  4. Use lifting straps to reduce forearm muscle tension from gripping the bar/machine handle.
  5. Consider wearing elbow sleeves or wraps to provide compression and support to the elbow and triceps tendon.

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    16.  What options do I have to stop my elbows from hurting during lat pulldown?

    To stop your elbow from hurting during pulldowns, 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 lat pulldown 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 permanently cure elbow pain and prevent it from interfering with your workouts, you need to address the root causes of the pain. These include chronic inflammation, magnesium deficiency, and muscle restriction. The TitaniumPhysique Program can help you accomplish this.

    17.  How can I avoid and prevent elbow pain during lat pulldown exercises?

    Firstly, it's important to note that part of avoiding chronic elbow pain is preventing acute elbow pain. If you start to feel elbow pain during lat pulldown, use less resistance. If the pain persists, stop the exercise and train another body part that doesn't involve your arm and elbow. Pushing through the pain will intensify the degree of post-workout acute inflammation, worsen the pain symptoms, and prolong the recovery of the elbow.

    To avoid and prevent elbow pain, follow these steps:

    1. Stretch your triceps and forearms before doing pulldowns. Click here for examples of forearm stretches.
    2. Warm your elbow tendons with the resistance band pull-apart or other suitable exercises.
    3. If you're doing heavy pulldowns, incrementally add weights to avoid sudden overload of the forearm muscles, triceps tendon, and inner elbow tendon.
    4. Learn and always use proper form and technique. To learn the correct lifting technique for cable pulldown, check out this video or view this video for machine pulldown.
    5. Be mindful about doing an excessive amount of pulldown sets and incrementally increase your training volume.
    6. Supplement with magnesium to counteract inflammation and decalcify the elbow tendons and joints. Magnesium also relaxes muscles to reduce pain.
    7. Incorporate self-myofascial release for elbow pain into your recovery routine. Perform SMR on the forearm extensors, forearm flexors, and triceps muscle/tendon at least twice a week to keep the forearms and triceps pliable.

    Important - keep in mind that restricted triceps and forearm muscles that cause elbow pain develop over many years. It is necessary to use the correct treatment techniques to get lasting results. If you want an easy-to-follow video guide, you can click here to access the TitaniumPhysique Program.

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    Written by: Nurudeen Tijani

    Nurudeen (aka TJ) is passionate about helping people build the body they desire through weight training. He is a physique and fitness trainer, nutritionist, yoga instructor, vegan natural bodybuilder, National Physique Committee (NPC) competitor, and founder at TitaniumPhysique. Nurudeen is a member of the International Association Study of Pain (IASP) and the American Chronic Pain Association (ACPA).

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