Why do I have pain in my elbow during overhead presses?

Written by: Nurudeen Tijani

The article below answers common questions about elbow pain during or after overhead press. 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 overhead press | Nurudeen performing seated barbell overhead press at gym during shoulder and arms workout
YouTube video

Overhead Press and Elbow Pain (FAQs)


1.  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 restricted triceps and forearm muscles, inadequate warm-up of the triceps and forearm muscles before exercising, excessive resistance (e.g., heavy overhead press), poor form or lifting technique during the overhead press, and a sudden increase in training volume (i.e., performing an excessive amount of overhead press during a workout).

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

To prevent this condition, 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.

If you want an easy-to-follow video guide to treat and prevent elbow issues, click the following link to access my TitaniumPhysique Program.

2.  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 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 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

3.  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 (also 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 (also 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 Nurudeen performing clean and press exercise in the gym (2016). The clean and press is a compound movement, which is a full-body exercise that targets multiple muscle groups, including your legs, core, shoulders, and arms, all in one fluid motion. It is a combination of a deadlift, power clean, and overhead press. However, the overhead press motion during the clean and press, which is a "push-movement," can strain and inflame the elbow and triceps tendon, leading to inner, outer, or posterior elbow pain.

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Nurudeen Tijani, founder of TitaniumPhysique

4.  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 muscles and triceps muscle 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.

5.  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 detailed article on the root causes of elbow pain, the types of elbow tendonitis injuries, elbow bursitis, chronic versus acute pain, and the fastest way to fix these conditions, check out our helpful guide on elbow problems or this summarized article on weightlifter's elbow pain relief.

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 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

6.  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.

7.  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.

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8.  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, 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.

9.  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.

    10.  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.

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    11.  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).

    12.  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

    Click here to read the instructions for each exercises.

    13.  How long does it take to heal elbow pain caused by the overhead press? (sharp, severe, burning, or dull pain)

    Using a combination of post-workout treatments such as RICE therapy (to relieve burning pain), magnesium supplementation (to reduce inflammation), and self-myofascial release (to relieve sharp, shooting, and dull pain), it's possible to treat and heal elbow pain from the overhead press within 7-10 days.

    To accomplish this, it will require performing self-myofascial release (SMR) on the triceps and forearm muscles at least 2-3 times a day.

    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).

    14.  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 (inner elbow pain), or triceps tendonitis (pain at the back or elbow), then 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.

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      Nurudeen Tijani, founder of TitaniumPhysique

      15.  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 it from affecting workouts, it's essential to address the root causes, which include chronic inflammation, magnesium deficiency, and muscle restriction.

      My TitaniumPhysique Program can help you achieve this goal.

      16.  How can I avoid and prevent elbow pain during overhead press?

      Important: part of avoiding chronic elbow pain is preventing acute elbow pain. If you begin to feel elbow pain during the overhead press, reduce the weights. If the pain persists, stop the exercise and train another body part that does not involve your arm and elbow.

      Pushing through a workout with elbow 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 the forearms and triceps before doing OHP.
      2. Start your workout by warming the elbow tendons (e.g., resistance band pull-apart).
      3. If performing heavy-OHP or shoulder press, incrementally add weights to avoid sudden overload of the forearm muscles, triceps tendon, and elbow tendons.
      4. Learn and always use proper OHP lifting techniques. To learn the proper overhead press technique, check out this video.
      5. Incrementally increase training volume (i.e. be mindful about doing an excessive amount of OHP sets).
      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.

      If you want an easy-to-follow video guide, click the link to access my TitaniumPhysique Program.

      TitaniumPhysique
      More Gains. Less Joint Pain. Guaranteed!

      A complete self-treatment program for joint aches, muscle pain, and tendonitis injuries. Created by athletes, for athletes.

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      *Program Rated 4.7 Stars on Google

      This program can help treat and fix:

      Elbow tendonitis
      Elbow pain and injuries
      Golfer's elbow (inner pain)
      Tennis elbow (outer pain)
      Triceps tendonitis (back of elbow)
      Prevent elbow injuries

      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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      12 Alternatives to OHP with Instructions

      1. Dumbbell lateral raises: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold a pair of dumbbells at your sides. Raise your arms out to the sides until they are parallel to the ground, then slowly lower them back down.
      2. Dumbbell front raises: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold a pair of dumbbells at your thighs. Raise the weights up to shoulder level, then lower them back down.
      3. Dumbbell shrugs: Hold a pair of dumbbells at your sides and shrug your shoulders up towards your ears, then lower them back down.
      4. Farmer's walk: Hold a pair of heavy dumbbells or kettlebells at your sides and walk forward for a set distance or time.
      5. Cable rope face pull: Stand facing a cable machine with the handle set at eye level. Grab the handle with both hands and pull it towards your face, squeezing your shoulder blades together.
      6. Barbell front raises: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold a barbell with an overhand grip. Raise the barbell up to shoulder level, then lower it back down.
      7. Plate front raise: Hold a weight plate with both hands and raise it up to shoulder level, keeping your arms straight. Lower the weight back down to your thighs.
      8. Cable upright row: stand facing a cable machine with the handle set at your waist, grab the handle with an overhand grip and pull it up towards your chin, keeping your elbows high and wide, then lower the handle back down to the starting position.
      9. Machine deltoid raise: sit at a machine with pads at your sides that you can grasp with your elbows, grasp the pads with your elbows and raise them up until your arms are parallel to the ground, then lower the pads back down to the starting position.
      10. Dumbbell reverse fly: stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold a pair of dumbbells at arm's length in front of you, hinge forward at the hips until your chest is parallel to the ground, raise the dumbbells out to the sides until your arms are parallel to the ground, then lower the dumbbells back down to the starting position.
      11. Cable lateral raise: stand facing a cable machine with the handle set at your side, grab the handle with your hand and raise your arm out to the side until it is parallel to the ground, then lower your arm back down to the starting position.
      12. Cable front raise: stand facing a cable machine with the handle set at your thigh, grab the handle with your hand and raise your arm straight up in front of you until it is parallel to the ground, then lower your arm back down to the starting position.
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