Why do I have elbow pain from row exercises?

 Nurudeen Tijani (T.J.) Founder of TitaniumPhysique | Pain Relief Fitness Coach

Written by: Nurudeen Tijani

Updated: March 20, 2024

The primary cause of elbow pain from row exercises is restricted (shortened, tight, and tense) triceps and forearm muscles. To prevent elbow discomfort, maintain pliable triceps and forearms through self-myofascial release exercises. This article will answer common questions about elbow pain from rows.

Elbow pain from row exercises | Nurudeen performs barbell bent-over row during a chest and back workout in a gym, 2021
YouTube video

Elbow Pain from Row Exercises (FAQ)


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

Elbow pain during row exercises can occur for several reasons, including:

  1. Restricted triceps and forearm muscles
  2. Inadequate stretching and warm-up of these muscle groups before exercise
  3. Using excessive resistance (such as heavy barbell rows or upright rows)
  4. Incorrect form or lifting technique
  5. A sudden increase in training volume

These factors, individually or in combination, can cause your elbow to hurt during row exercises. For most athletes, the primary cause 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, click the following link to access my TitaniumPhysique Program.

2.  Why does my elbow hurt after doing row exercises?

"Pull exercises" such as T-bar row, dumbbell, barbell, cable, or machine row can trigger or worsen 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 circumstance 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.
  • 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 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 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, 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 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 triceps, inner, and outer elbow tendons, leading to pain in those areas.

  1. 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).
  2. 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).
  3. 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 pain.

YouTube video

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 back muscles, including the latissimus dorsi (lats), rhomboids, and lower traps. Compared to other rowing exercises, such as cable or dumbbell rows, bent-over row offers unique benefits.

With 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. In addition to targeting the back muscles, it engages your biceps and forearms as secondary muscles.

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Nurudeen Tijani, founder of TitaniumPhysique

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, everyday activities like carrying groceries, gripping objects tightly, 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.

5.  What causes elbow pain during row exercises?

During row exercises, the triceps and forearm muscles actively 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. This circumstance leads to overloading and inflammation of the tendons, resulting in elbow pain during cable and other row exercises. The tendons that cause pain during rows include the inner elbow tendon, outer elbow tendon, and 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, explore our comprehensive guides on elbow injuries or preventing elbow injuries in weightlifting.

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 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.

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 using proper technique, row exercises such as the 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 engage the forearm muscles, triceps muscles, elbow tendon, and triceps tendon. During row exercises, the forearm and triceps muscles may become overloaded, leading to overstretching, straining, and inflammation of the elbow tendons. As a result, you may experience acute sharp pain or worsening chronic dull pain.

YouTube video

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 and specifically targets the latissimus dorsi muscles, also known as the lats. 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 back muscles, including the rhomboids and rear deltoids.

The cable one-arm row allows for an increased 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, barbell, machine, and other cable lats exercises into your workout routine provides a comprehensive approach to target and develop your lats.

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Nurudeen Tijani, founder of TitaniumPhysique

8.  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 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 essential to warm up and stretch the triceps/forearm muscles and elbow/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 use short-term pain relief solutions such as sports tape, kinesiology tape, elbow sleeves, elbow braces, or elbow straps to reduce pain during the exercise. Suppose it's chronic, severe, or causes sharp pain when exercising. In that case, it's best to treat the underlying cause of the pain before resuming strength training.

YouTube video

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. Sitting on a bench and using a cable machine can help you maintain proper form throughout the movement, allowing for better isolation of the targeted muscles and reduced involvement of other muscle groups.

You can use various attachments to perform the seated cable row, 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 supports the lower back, reducing the risk of injury and allowing you to focus on maximizing your pulling power.

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Nurudeen Tijani, founder of TitaniumPhysique

11.  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).

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

Whether performed with an overhand or underhand grip, row exercises can put excessive tension on the elbow 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

YouTube video

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. 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 elbow pain caused by rows to heal?

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.

It will involve performing self-myofascial release (SMR) on the triceps and forearm muscles at least 2-3 times daily. My TitaniumPhysique Program can help you accomplish this.

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 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, 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, 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 lift heavy, such as heavy bent-over rows, start with two warm-up sets 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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Nurudeen Tijani, founder of TitaniumPhysique

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

To stop your elbow 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 causes. To prevent elbow issues from interfering with your workouts, fix the root causes. These include chronic inflammation, magnesium deficiency, and muscle restriction. My TitaniumPhysique Program can help you accomplish this.

16.  How can I avoid or prevent elbow pain from rows?

Firstly, it's essential to understand that part of avoiding chronic elbow pain is preventing acute elbow pain. If you 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 or 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. For the barbell bent-over row, watch this video. For seated cable row, view this video.

  5. Be mindful of doing excessive 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.

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

TitaniumPhysique
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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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