Why do I have pain in my elbow during row exercises?

Written by: Nurudeen Tijani

The article below answers common questions about elbow pain during or after row exercises. 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 rows | Nurudeen performing barbell bent-over row during a chest and back workout in a gym, 2021

Row Exercises and Elbow Pain (FAQs)


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

Elbow pain during row exercises can occur for several reasons, including restricted triceps and forearm muscles, inadequate warm-up of these muscle groups before exercise, using excessive resistance (such as heavy barbell rows or upright rows), incorrect form or lifting technique, and sudden increases in training volume.

These factors, individually or in combination, can cause your elbow to hurt during row exercises. However, for most athletes, the primary cause 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 row exercises?

"Pull-exercises" such as T-bar row, dumbbell row, barbell row, cable row, or machine row can trigger or aggravate elbow pain because the exercise involves the triceps and elbow tendons. The repetitive use of the elbow during these exercises can strain and inflame the triceps and elbow tendons, leading to acute elbow pain after the workout. This 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 after rows.
  • A sensation of heat, swelling, or redness in the elbow area after row exercises.
  • Soreness in the elbow after exercising.
  • Elbow pain when bending and straightening the arm after doing rows.
  • Sharp or severe elbow pain during or after row exercises.
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 row exercises. 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 during row exercises?

Suppose you experience pain on the inside, outside, or back of your elbow while doing row exercises. In that case, the cause is usually a combination of the following factors: 1) restricted triceps and forearm muscles, and 2) an inflamed triceps and elbow tendon. During row exercises, 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 dumbbell row, machine row, and seated cable row (using the V-Bar handle), the forearm flexor muscles can overstretch and inflame the tendon on the inside part of the elbow, causing inner elbow pain (golfer's elbow). During the upright row, T-bar row, and barbell bent-over row (using an overhand grip), the forearm extensor muscles can overstretch and inflame the tendon on the outside part of the elbow, causing outer elbow pain (tennis elbow). Finally, during row exercises, the triceps muscle can overstretch and inflame the triceps tendon at the back of the elbow, causing posterior elbow pain (triceps tendinitis).

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 rows is a sign of acute elbow pain.

Check out this 2021 video of Nurudeen performing the barbell bent-over row exercise. The barbell bent-over row is an effective exercise that primarily targets the muscles of your back, including the latissimus dorsi (lats), rhomboids, and lower traps. Compared to other rowing exercises, such as cable rows or dumbbell rows, the barbell bent-over row offers unique benefits. By using a barbell, you can lift heavier weights, which helps stimulate muscle growth and strength development in your back. The bent-over position engages your core muscles, enhancing stability and overall body control. The barbell bent-over row also promotes better posture and spinal alignment as you focus on pulling the weight towards your body. This exercise not only targets your back muscles but also engages your biceps and forearms as secondary muscles.

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

The conditions that lead to elbow pain during row exercises are gradual and cumulative. 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 for more than three months, everyday activities like carrying groceries or gripping objects tightly, as well as row exercise workouts at the gym, 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.

5.  What causes elbow pain during row exercises?

During row exercises, such as seated cable row or upright row, the triceps and forearm muscles actively contract. As you continue to exercise over time, the forearm flexor, forearm extensor, and triceps muscles can become tighter and shorter. The shortened triceps and forearm muscles put increased tension on the elbow and triceps tendon, reducing their elasticity. This leads to overloading and inflammation of the tendons, resulting in elbow pain during cable rows and other row exercises. The tendons commonly associated with elbow pain during rows include the inner elbow tendon (medial elbow tendon), outer elbow tendon (extensor elbow tendon), and posterior elbow tendon (triceps brachii 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, explore our comprehensive guide on elbow injuries.

Important: Apart from musculoskeletal injuries (muscle and tendon-related pain), other medical conditions can contribute to elbow pain during rows. 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 there are 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 rows. 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 row exercises bad for the elbows?

When performed with proper technique, row exercises such as upright row, seated cable row, machine row, barbell bent-over row, pendlay row, T-bar row, and dumbbell 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.

7.  Can row exercises cause elbow pain?

When performed with proper technique, row exercises do not cause elbow pain. However, they can trigger or exacerbate conditions such as elbow tendonitis, forearm pain, or wrist pain. Pull exercises like rows involve the engagement of forearm muscles, triceps muscles, elbow tendons, and the triceps tendon. During row exercises, 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.

Check out this 2021 video of Nurudeen performing the cable one-arm row exercise. The cable one-arm row is a variation of the cable row exercise that specifically targets the latissimus dorsi muscles, also known as the lats. Compared to the cable seated row, the cable one-arm row offers unique advantages. By using a single arm, this exercise helps address any muscle imbalances between your left and right sides. It also challenges your core stability and engages the muscles of your upper back, including the rhomboids and rear deltoids. The cable one-arm row allows for a greater range of motion and a more natural pulling motion, making it more effective for muscle activation and strength development in the targeted areas. Additionally, the adjustable resistance of the cable machine allows for progressive overload, promoting continuous muscle growth and progress. Incorporating exercises like the cable one-arm row, as well as dumbbell, barbell, machine, and other cable lat exercises, into your workout routine provides a comprehensive approach to effectively target and develop your lats.

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8.  Can row exercises cause damage to the elbows?

When performed with proper technique, row exercises 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 machine, cable, dumbbell or barbell row 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 I hurt my elbow by doing machine, dumbbell, barbell, or cable rows?

Performing machine, dumbbell, barbell, or cable rows 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 rows while experiencing ongoing elbow or triceps tendonitis can lead to elbow pain and injury.

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

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

Check out this 2017 video of Nurudeen performing the seated cable row exercise (while wearing an elbow sleeve to manage elbow pain). The seated cable row is a highly effective exercise that targets multiple muscles in your upper back, including the latissimus dorsi (lats), rhomboids, and rear deltoids. One of the key advantages of the seated cable row is the stability it provides. By sitting on a bench or seat and using a cable machine, you can maintain proper form throughout the movement. This allows for better isolation of the targeted muscles and reduces the involvement of other muscle groups. The seated cable row can be performed using various attachments, including a rope attachment, straight bar, EZ curl bar, or D-Handle cable attachment. This versatility allows you to switch up your grip and target your back muscles from different angles, providing a well-rounded and effective workout. Additionally, the seated position provides support for your lower back, reducing the risk of injury and allowing you to focus on maximizing your pulling power.

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11.  Which variation of row exercises is better for avoiding elbow pain?

While all variations of the row exercise have the potential to trigger or worsen elbow pain, the machine row is generally considered to be 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).

12.  What are some alternatives to row exercises when experiencing elbow pain?

Since row exercises, particularly when performed with an overhead or underhand grip, can put excessive tension on the elbow tendons, it's helpful to explore alternative exercises that can minimize tension in these areas and alleviate elbow pain. Here are eight alternatives to rows that you can try. Additionally, for the exercises listed below, performing partial reps, where you don't fully contract or extend the arm 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

Check out this 2021 video of Nurudeen performing the heavy upright row, a challenging variation of the upright row exercise. By incorporating heavier weights, this variation maximizes muscle growth and strength gains. It primarily targets the shoulders, traps, and upper back, effectively developing strength and muscle mass in these areas. Compared to the standard upright row, the heavy upright row provides a more intense stimulus for muscle growth. With heavier weights, Nurudeen engages the deltoids, traps, and rhomboids more effectively, resulting in improved shoulder stability, enhanced posture, and increased upper body strength. Upright rows can trigger or worsen tennis elbow, as they activate and contract the forearm extensor muscles throughout the exercise.

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

It's possible to relieve elbow pain from rows, 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 rows 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 fix the root cause of the pain - restricted triceps and forearm muscles that overload the elbow tendons and lead to elbow pain during rows (cable, barbell, dumbbell, and machine).

14.  How can I perform row exercises without experiencing elbow pain?

As mentioned earlier, row exercises are safe when performed correctly. However, if you experience elbow pain due to conditions such as golfer's elbow, tennis elbow, or triceps tendonitis, it's important to take precautions to minimize discomfort while performing rows.

Here are some tips to help you minimize elbow pain during row exercises:

  1. Prioritize stretching: Before starting your workout, make sure to stretch your forearm and triceps muscles to promote flexibility and reduce muscle tension.
  2. Choose alternative equipment: Consider using a resistance band or a machine row instead of dumbbells, barbells, or cable machines.
  3. Warm up with lighter weights: If you plan to perform heavy rows, such as heavy bent-over rows, start with two warm-up sets using lighter weights before gradually increasing the weight. This gradual progression allows your muscles and tendons to adapt to the increased load.
  4. Utilize lifting straps: To reduce forearm muscle tension caused by gripping dumbbells, barbells, machines, or cable handles, you can use lifting straps. These straps provide extra support and can alleviate strain on your forearms and elbows.
  5. Consider elbow sleeves or wraps: Wearing elbow sleeves or wraps can provide compression and support to the elbow and triceps tendon, helping to alleviate discomfort and promote better joint health.

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15.  What options do I have to stop my elbows from hurting during rows?

To stop your elbow from hurting during row exercises, 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 rows 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.

16.  How can I avoid and prevent elbow pain during row 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 any rowing exercise, 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 forearms and triceps before doing rows. 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 rows, 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 the barbell bent-over row, check out this video. For seated cable row, view this video.
  5. Be mindful about doing an excessive amount of rowing 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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