A Helpful Guide to Triceps Tendonitis (Back of Elbow Pain)

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

Written by: Nurudeen Tijani

Updated: April 26, 2024

I've been lifting for ten years, and I've dealt with and overcome many elbow injuries. For gym goers and weight lifters, the primary cause of triceps tendonitis (triceps tendon pain) is restricted tricep muscles that strain the triceps tendon during push exercises. To prevent elbow discomfort, maintain pliable triceps through self-myofascial release exercises. These exercises can instantly relieve the restrictions in the muscles and minimize the risk of injury, overuse, and inflammation.

Illustration of the triceps brachii and tendonitis in the triceps tendon
YouTube video

Understanding Triceps Tendonitis from Weight Lifting


Why does the back part of my elbow hurt from lifting weights?

Triceps tendon pain from weight lifting can occur for several reasons:

  1. Restricted tricep muscles (shortened, tight, and tense muscles)
  2. Inadequate stretching and warm-up of the triceps muscle and tendon before exercising
  3. Excessive resistance (i.e., heavy weight lifting)
  4. Poor lifting form or technique
  5. Overtraining (e.g., a sudden increase in upper body training volume or performing excessive sets of arm/elbow exercises in a workout session)
  6. Inadequate recovery
  7. Lack of myofascial release

These factors, individually or in combination, can cause your triceps tendon and elbow to hurt. Yet, for most gym goers and weight lifters, the primary cause is restricted (shortened, tight, and tense) triceps muscle that strains the triceps tendon during push activities.

To prevent this condition, prioritize proper form, gradually increase weights, allow adequate rest periods, and, most importantly, maintain pliable triceps 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.

Get instant access to my in-depth and highly-rated course for a step-by-step guide to performing SMR exercises effectively. Start eliminating your elbow pain today! Click here to access the TitaniumPhysique Program now.

What is triceps tendonitis?

Triceps tendonitis, a form of elbow tendonitis, is an overuse injury causing pain at the back of the elbow joint due to inflammation of the tricep brachii tendon. 

Triceps tendonitis results from repetitive movements during weight training, leading to strain and discomfort. It can develop gradually over time (chronic) or occur suddenly (acute) while lifting weights.

Signs and symptoms of triceps tendonitis from weight training include the following:

  • A burning sensation or pain at the back part of the elbow
  • Tenderness, swelling, and soreness in the elbow
  • Sharp, shooting, sudden, severe, or dull pain at the back part of the elbow
  • Difficulty bending and straightening the arm
  • Increased pain when applying pressure to the affected area
  • Stiffness and limited range of motion in the elbow joint
  • Pain that worsens with repetitive movements or gripping activities
Illustration of the shoulder joint, scapula, arm bone, triceps brachii muscle and tendon

A 3D illustration shows the shoulder joint (scapula, clavicle, and humerus) along with the triceps muscle and tendon. Irritation of the triceps tendon due to weight training can lead to inflammation and pain at the back of the elbow.

Can you get triceps tendonitis from weight training?

Yes, lifting can lead to the development of triceps tendonitis. For example, "push" exercises like the overhead press, bench press, skull crushers, or tricep pushdowns can trigger acute triceps tendonitis or worsen chronic pain.

However, it is essential to understand that weight training is not the root cause of this condition. The root causes of tricep tendonitis pain from lifting include chronic inflammation, magnesium deficiency, and muscle restriction.

For a deep dive into the root causes of elbow pain, elbow tendonitis injuries, elbow bursitis, chronic versus acute pain, and the fastest way to fix these conditions, check out these helpful resources:

Why do I suddenly feel pain in the back part of my elbow without an apparent cause?

The muscle conditions that lead to pain at the back of the elbow develop gradually and cumulatively. Over time, the repetitive use of the triceps muscle 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 tricep muscles are chronically restricted, everyday activities at the gym, working out, picking up weights, and gripping exercise bars or dumbbells can unexpectedly trigger elbow pain without an apparent cause.

Unfortunately, most people are often unaware of the restricted state of their triceps until they experience this sudden onset of elbow pain during fitness activities.

YouTube video

I perform bench presses (while wearing elbow sleeves to manage pain) during a workout (2017).

YouTube video

I perform variations of bench presses (without elbow pain) during a chest workout (2021).

Can muscle tension from lifting weights contribute to triceps tendonitis?

Yes. Muscle tension in the triceps from weight lifting can contribute to discomfort at the back of the elbow. Muscle tension is one of the root causes of elbow pain.

The triceps muscle can become restricted when you lift weights over an extended period. This restriction occurs as the muscles shorten, tighten, and tense up due to muscular contraction, overuse, and a lack of myofascial release.

The shortened muscles exert increased tension on the triceps brachii tendon (the tendon at the back part of the elbow), reducing its elasticity. As a result, the tendon becomes strained and inflamed, causing elbow discomfort.

Further muscle tension in the triceps can contribute to related elbow issues like golfer's elbow (inner elbow pain) or tennis elbow (outer elbow pain).

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Nurudeen Tijani, founder of TitaniumPhysique

Impact of Triceps Tendonitis on Elbows


Is triceps tendonitis typical among weight-training athletes?

Yes, triceps tendonitis is common among individuals who lift weights. Various exercises commonly performed by weight-training athletes, including bench presses, shoulder presses, push-ups, clean and press, tricep pushdown, tricep dips, overhead tricep extensions, skull crushers, dumbbell kickbacks, and machine chest presses, can contribute to the development of triceps tendonitis.

Nurudeen performs seated barbell shoulder press

I'm performing the seated barbell shoulder presses during a shoulder workout at the gym (2019).

YouTube video

Check out this 2023 video of me performing the tricep pulldowns with a cable machine at the gym.

Will triceps tendonitis go away by itself?

The acute symptoms of triceps tendonitis can go away unaided with rest.

However, the underlying factors contributing to this condition, such as restricted and tense triceps muscle, do not resolve unassisted. In fact, for many athletes and weight lifters, it often worsens over time.

Here's why: the root causes of triceps tendon pain include chronic inflammation, magnesium deficiency, and muscle restriction.

Firstly, once a muscle becomes restricted and dysfunctional, it tends to remain in that state or worsen unless specifically addressed.

Secondly, muscle dysfunction is often associated with magnesium deficiency. "The Magnesium Miracle," a scientific reference on the health effects of magnesium, highlights that around 40% of magnesium in the body is in the muscles. A significant portion of the population is magnesium deficient.

Heavy exercise, physical activity, and various factors like caffeine, stimulants, diuretics, stress, and dehydration can deplete magnesium levels in athletes. These factors are one reason why restricted muscles persist and worsen.

Thirdly, chronically restricted muscles eventually become dysfunctional and stop working correctly. This condition leads to repeated injury and stress on the triceps tendon, resulting in chronic tendonitis.

When the injury occurs, the triceps tendon experiences micro-tear damage, known as tendonitis. As physical activity continues, the tendon condition deteriorates and degenerates, known as tendinosis.

What happens if triceps tendonitis is left untreated?

  1. Elbow tendinosis - if left untreated, triceps tendonitis can progress to tendon degeneration. The tendon can deteriorate and weaken over time, increasing the risk of tendon tears or ruptures. Medically, this condition is known as elbow tendinosis.
  2. Elbow arthritis - untreated triceps tendonitis can contribute to autoimmune conditions like elbow arthritis.
  3. Shoulder pain - When restricted muscles in the triceps are left untreated, they become dysfunctional and can cause pain in the shoulder.

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Nurudeen Tijani, founder of TitaniumPhysique

Managing Pain at the Back of the Elbow


Can I still lift with an injured triceps tendon?

It depends on the severity of the injury and pain. If the pain is mild, you can use conventional pain relief medicine or short-term remedies such as sports or kinesiology tape, elbow sleeves, braces, or straps to reduce discomfort during exercise. However, suppose the tricep injury is chronic, severe, or causes sharp or shooting sensations during fitness training. In that case, fix the underlying factors of the condition before resuming exercise.

Which exercises should I avoid if I have a triceps tendon injury?

Avoid "pressing" or "push" exercises that strain the triceps tendon. Here's a list of 12 exercises to avoid and alternative exercises you can perform (see below).

12 Exercises to Avoid:

  1. Bench Press
  2. Close-Grip Bench Press
  3. Shoulder and Overhead Press
  4. Clean and Press
  5. Push Press
  6. Military Press
  7. Push-Ups
  8. Tricep Kickback
  9. Tricep Dips
  10. Tricep Pressdown/Pulldown
  11. Overhead Tricep Extensions
  12. Skull Crushers
YouTube video

Check out this 2017 video of me performing tricep dips during a workout session at the gym.

What upper body exercises can I perform with triceps tendonitis?

If you're training while recovering from a triceps tendon injury, there are a few things to remember.

  1. Replace "push" and "press" workouts with "pull" and "fly" exercises.
  2. Opt for resistance band or cable machine variations of exercises instead of using barbells, dumbbells, and stationary machines.
  3. Consider performing partial reps, where you don't fully bend or extend the arm during the exercise. This modification can help reduce tension in the triceps and alleviate pain.
  4. Use less resistance and focus on performing more repetitions.

Here's a list of 20+ upper body exercises you can try.

These exercises put less strain on the triceps tendon while effectively engaging the upper body muscles.

Back Exercises:

  • Lat Pulldown (using Resistance Band)
  • Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown (use Double Handle Bar with Palms Facing In)
  • Rows (using Resistance Band)
  • Machine Assisted Pull-Up (using Hammer Grip)
  • Full Cobra (Supermans)
  • Back Hyperextensions
  • Back Fly (using Resistance Band)
  • Dumbbell Reverse Fly

Shoulder and Arm Exercises:

  • Machine Deltoid Raise
  • Cable Upright Row
  • Dumbbell Shrugs (lower weight, higher reps)
  • Lateral Raises (with a Resistance Band)
  • Front Raises (with a Resistance Band)
  • Machine Tricep Extension
  • Bicep Curl

Chest Exercises:

  • Cable Chest Fly
  • Cable Chest Crossover
  • Chest Fly (using Resistance Band)
  • Wall Push-Up or Kneeling Push-Ups (with Wide-Arm)
  • Dumbbell Pullover (with Straight Arm)
  • Machine Inner Chest Press (grip the bar so your palms face in)
  • Machine Fly (using Pec Deck Machine)

You can access the JEFIT exercise database for instructions and demonstration videos on performing these exercises.

YouTube video

Check out this 2023 video of me performing an incline dumbbell fly during a chest and back workout.

YouTube video

Check out this 2023 video of me performing chest flys on a pec deck machine.

Can elbow compression sleeves alleviate triceps tendon pain?

Yes, compression sleeves, such as elbow wraps, straps, and support braces, can alleviate tricep tendon pain felt during exercise.

However, it's essential to consider the pros and cons of using elbow sleeves to manage tricep tendonitis.

Pros: Elbow compression sleeves provide compression, which improves blood flow, enhances joint position awareness (proprioception), and offers support to the muscles and tendons surrounding the elbow joint. The compression promotes better circulation, stabilizes the joint, reduces swelling, alleviates pain, and can help prevent further damage during intense workouts.

Cons: Relying only on sleeves for pain relief can mask the underlying problem, allowing athletes to continue lifting without addressing the root cause of their pain. This masking will further perpetuate the injury and potentially lead to long-term degenerative conditions in the elbow.

Healing and Prevention


How long does it take to heal a triceps tendon injury?

By combining post-workout treatments such as ICE therapy (to relieve burning pain), magnesium supplementation (to reduce inflammation), and self-myofascial release (to alleviate sharp or dull pain), it is possible to treat and heal triceps tendon pain within 7-10 days.

It will involve performing self-myofascial release (SMR) on the triceps muscle at least 2-3 times daily. Get step-by-step guidance with my TitaniumPhysique Program to ensure you do these exercises correctly and effectively. Click here to access the program now.

Remember - resting the elbow (i.e., taking a break from fitness training) may provide temporary relief, but it will not fix the underlying cause of the pain - restricted triceps muscles that strain the tendon, leading to discomfort.

What options do I have to stop my triceps tendon from hurting?

To stop your tricep tendon from hurting, you have two options: using short-term pain relief therapies 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 triceps tendonitis from interfering with your workouts. Address muscle restriction by improving pliability in the triceps muscle.

Learn how my TitaniumPhysique Program can help you quickly eliminate pain at its source. Click here to access the program now.

References

• Elbow pain
https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/elbow-pain/basics/causes/sym-20050874

• Muscle Stiffness
https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/25147-muscle-stiffness

• Pain-relief medicines
https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/pain-relief-medicines

• The Magnesium Miracle (Second Edition)
https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Magnesium_Miracle_Second_Edition.html?id=2lBcDAAAQBAJ&source=kp_book_description

• Elbow sprain - aftercare
https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/selfcare-instructions/elbow-sprain-aftercare

• Arthritis of the Elbow
https://www.cedars-sinai.org/health-library/diseases-and-conditions/a/arthritis-of-the-elbow.html

• Patient education: Elbow tendinopathy (tennis and golf elbow) (Beyond the Basics)
https://www.uptodate.com/contents/elbow-tendinopathy-tennis-and-golf-elbow-beyond-the-basics

• Elbow Compression Sleeve
https://dunbarmedical.com/product-category/compression-wear/compression-sleeve/elbow-compression-sleeve/

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