Triceps Tendonitis and Pain at the Back of the Elbow

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

Written by: Nurudeen Tijani
Last updated: June 14, 2024

I've been lifting for ten years, and I've dealt with and overcome many elbow injuries. Here's how I fixed my pain. For weightlifters, the primary cause of triceps tendonitis (pain at the back of the elbow) is restricted tricep muscles that strain the tendon during push movements. To prevent 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.

Take the first step to eliminate muscle and tendon pain. Get Started Now.

Illustration of the triceps brachii and tendonitis in the triceps tendon

Listen to the article: 15 minutes

Understanding Triceps Tendonitis


Why does the back part of my elbow hurt from lifting weights? How do I fix it?

Pain at the back of the elbow can occur for several reasons:

  1. Restricted triceps (shortened, tight, and tense muscles)
  2. Inadequate stretching and warm-up of this muscle and tendon before exercising
  3. Excessive resistance
  4. Poor lifting form or technique
  5. Overtraining
  6. Inadequate recovery
  7. Lack of myofascial release

These factors, individually or in combination, can cause discomfort at the back of the elbow. Yet, for most gym goers and weight lifters, the primary cause is restricted triceps that strains the tendon due to lack of myofascial release.

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. Follow the step-by-step guidance of the TitaniumPhysique Program to see fast results. Get Started Now.


What is triceps tendonitis?

It is an overuse injury causing pain at the back of the elbow joint due to inflammation of the tricep brachii tendon.

Triceps tendon discomfort results from strain during repetitive movements and exercise in weight training. It can develop gradually over time (chronic) or occur suddenly (acute) from overloading the tendon.

Here are the signs and symptoms of this condition:

  • 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

This photo illustrates the shoulder joint (scapula, clavicle, and humerus) and the triceps muscle and tendon.

Can you get this condition from weight training?

Yes, you can develop triceps tendonitis from lifting. For example, "push" or "press" exercises like the tricep pushdown, pulldown, kickback, dips, and extension can trigger acute pain or worsen a chronic condition.

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

For a deep dive into the root causes of elbow tendonitis, 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 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 pain during these activities. This point is the biggest takeaway from this article.

Whenever someone tells me they have elbow discomfort, I show them how to perform the forearm pliability test (see the video below).

During the test, most people will feel a dull but intense pain in the area, usually within a few seconds. Every time I have performed this test on friends at the gym, they are surprised by the tense and restricted states of these muscles.

Note: In the video, I tested the forearm extensor muscles, which causes pain at the outside part of the elbow. However, the same muscle conditions are likely present in the triceps.

YouTube video

In this video, I demonstrate how to perform the forearm pliability test to discover the hidden/root cause of most elbow tendonitis injuries.

Can muscle tension from lifting contribute to pain at the back of the elbow?

Yes, tight muscles in the triceps can contribute to triceps tendonitis. Muscular tightness is one of the root causes of elbow tendonitis.

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 or tennis elbow.


What's the difference between triceps tendonitis and posterior elbow impingement?

Both conditions are different issues affecting the elbow. They impact different structures, but both cause pain at the back of the elbow.

  • Triceps tendonitis is an overuse injury causing pain at the back of the elbow joint due to inflammation of the tricep brachii tendon. This condition occurs when the triceps muscle (which attaches to the back of the elbow), becomes irritated or inflamed.
  • Posterior elbow impingement, on the other hand, involves the compression of the soft tissues (like the cartilage) at the back of the elbow joint. This condition often occurs due to repetitive extension or hyperextension movements, causing the bony structures at the back of the elbow to pinch the soft tissues.

The primary symptoms include sharp pain, swelling, and a catching or locking sensation at the back of the elbow, particularly when the elbow is fully extended. The terms "catching" or "locking sensation" refer to a feeling of the elbow joint temporarily getting stuck or not moving smoothly when you try to extend or bend it.

So there is a chance that pain at the back of the elbow could be a posterior elbow impingement

Rough illustration of the elbow joint and cartilage on the humerus, radius, and ulna

This photo illustrates the elbow joint and cartilage. Image source: quizlet.com

Impact of Triceps Tendonitis on Elbows


Is triceps tendonitis typical among weight-training athletes?

Yes, this condition is typical among individuals who lift weights.

Popular exercises commonly performed by athletes, like bench press and tricep extension, can contribute to the development of this condition.

According to the National Health Service, tennis elbow is the most prevalent cause of persistent elbow discomfort, accounting for two-thirds of cases. So although triceps tendonitis is not as common as tennis elbow, it affects athletes who perform a lot of "push" or "press" activities.

Back in the days when I experienced persistent elbow issues, I remember having more occurrences of pain at the back and outside part of my elbow.

YouTube video

In this video (2023), I perform tricep pulldowns with a cable machine.

YouTube video

In this video (2017) I perform tricep dips.

Will this injury go away by itself?

The acute symptoms of triceps tendonitis can go away 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 tendonitis 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.

Generally, when the injury first occurs, the 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, this condition 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 - Left untreated, it 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.

Managing Pain at the Back of the Elbow


Can I still lift weights or work out?

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, if it's chronic, severe, or causes sharp pain, it's best to fix the underlying causes of the triceps tendonitis before resuming exercise.


Which exercises should I avoid?

Avoid "pressing" or "push" exercises. These movements fully extend or contract (shorten) the triceps muscle and strain the tendon.

Here's a list of exercises to avoid if you have a triceps tendon injury:

  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. Skull Crushers

Additionally, the following are triceps specific exercises to avoid. For a deep dive into the exercises below, follow the link for a comprehensive FAQ resource.

  1. Tricep Kickback
  2. Tricep Dips
  3. Tricep Pushdown/Pulldown
  4. Overhead Tricep Extensions


What upper body exercises can I perform?

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 a lighter load on the triceps muscle and 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 compression sleeves help?

Yes, compression sleeves, such as elbow wraps, straps, and support braces, can alleviate discomfort from exercise.

However, it's essential to consider the pros and cons of using compression sleeves to manage triceps 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.

YouTube video

In this video (2017), I perform bench presses while wearing elbow sleeves to manage pain.

YouTube video

In this video (2021), I perform variations of bench presses.

Healing and Prevention


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

By combining post-workout treatments such as cold 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 tendonitis within 7-10 days.

This process involves 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, and see results as fast as possible. Get Started 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 pain in my elbow?

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. Get Started Now.

Resources

• 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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