Weightlifter's Elbow (A Helpful Guide for Lifters)

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

Written by: Nurudeen Tijani

Updated: May 10, 2024

I've been lifting weights for ten years, and I've dealt with and overcome many elbow injuries. Athletes and gym-goers often experience elbow pain from lifting. Common elbow injuries include tennis elbow, golfer's elbow, triceps tendonitis, bicep tendonitis, and elbow bursitis. "Weightlifter's elbow" is a term that refers to this group of injuries specifically observed in weightlifters.

Nurudeen performs bench press (weightlifter's elbow)

Contents:  Definition  |  Causes  |  Symptoms  |  Treatment

What is weightlifter's elbow?

Weightlifters or Lifter's elbow, is an overuse injury causing pain at the elbow joint due to inflammation of the elbow tendons. It results from repetitive movements, leading to strain and discomfort. Overuse injuries can develop gradually over time (chronic) or occur suddenly (acute) from overloading the tendon.

For weight lifters, this condition worsens with exercises such as bench presses, push-ups, tricep dips or extensions, skull crushers, and overhead presses. Additional factors contributing to lifter's elbow include the following:

  • Insufficient warm-up
  • Inadequate stretching
  • Poor weight-lifting form
  • Excessive resistance (heavy weights)
  • Muscle restriction
  • Overtraining
  • Inadequate recovery from weight training
  • Lack of myofascial release

For a deep dive into the root causes of elbow pain or exercises that cause elbow problems for weightlifters and gym-goers, follow the links below:

  1. Bench Press
  2. Bicep Curl
  3. Chest Fly
  4. Lat Pulldown
  5. Overhead Press
  6. Pull-Ups

  7. Push-Ups

  8. Row Exercises
  9. Skull Crushers
  10. Tricep Dips
  11. Tricep Extension
  12. Tricep Kickback
  13. Tricep Pushdown
  14. Yoga
Nurudeen bench presses while wearing elbow sleeves (elbow pain from lifting weights)

I'm performing a bench press while wearing elbow sleeves to manage elbow discomfort (2017).

Nurudeen performs skull crushers (Lifter's elbow)

I'm performing tricep extension (without elbow pain) during a shoulder and arms workout (2019).

What causes Lifter's elbow?

Weightlifter's elbow is often referred to as triceps tendonitis because popular exercises such as bench press, overhead press, and triceps extension strain and inflame the triceps tendon and cause pain. However, triceps tendonitis is not the only cause of Lifter's Elbow.

Here are six causes of Lifter's elbow:

  1. Tennis elbow, also known as lateral epicondylitis, is a form of tendonitis causing pain at the outer part of the elbow joint due to inflammation of the common extensor tendon. It results from repetitive movements during "push" exercises such as bench presses, push-ups, tricep dips, overhead presses, and tricep pushdowns.
  2. Golfer's elbow, or medial epicondylitis, is another type of tendonitis causing pain at the inside part of the elbow joint due to inflammation of the medial elbow tendon. It results from repetitive movements during "pull" exercises such as overhead tricep extensions, chin-ups, chest flies, bicep curls, lat pulldowns, and cable rows.
  3. Triceps tendonitis is inflammation of the triceps tendon, resulting in pain at the back of the elbow. This condition is common among athletes because of the repetitive strain on the triceps muscle and tendon during "push" movements.
  4. Brachialis tendonitis is inflammation or irritation of the brachialis tendon, which connects the upper arm bone (humerus) to the forearm bone (ulna). The brachialis is primarily responsible for flexing the elbow joint. An injured or restricted brachialis from weightlifting can cause pain, weakness, instability, and swelling on the inside part of the elbow.

  5. Elbow bursitis (or olecranon bursitis) is the inflammation of the bursa, a small fluid-filled sac that cushions the joint. This condition often results in swelling, tenderness, and pain at the back of the elbow. Bodybuilders and weight lifters who frequently engage in intense workouts, heavy lifting, and repetitive elbow movements are more prone to developing this condition.
  6. Distal biceps tendonitis is inflammation of the tendon that attaches the biceps muscle to the radius (forearm bone) just below the elbow. This condition causes pain in the lower biceps near the elbow, primarily during elbow flexion and forearm rotation. Lifters experience discomfort during exercises that involve heavy pulling or lifting motions, such as curls and rows.

Don't accept elbow pain as a routine part of your workouts. Here's how to avoid these elbow conditions.

An illustration of the forearm extensor muscles and the common extensor tendon

An illustration of the forearm extensor muscles and the common extensor tendon. The "X" indicated in the image is where trigger points in the 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.

An illustration of the forearm flexor muscles and the medial elbow tendon

An illustration of the forearm flexor muscles and the medial elbow tendon.

An illustration of tendonitis in the triceps brachii tendon

An illustration shows the shoulder joint (scapula, clavicle, and humerus) along with the triceps muscles and tendon.

Comparison of brachialis tendonitis, bicep tendonitis, and antecubital pain

The photo illustrates differences in distal and proximal bicep tendonitis, brachialis tendonitis, and pain at the antecubital fossa.

Symptoms

As a bodybuilder, I experienced elbow pain for eight years. Here are eight signs and symptoms of a lifter's elbow:

  1. A burning sensation or pain inside, outside, or at the back part of the elbow during or after exercising.
  2. Tenderness, swelling, and soreness after working out.
  3. Sharp, shooting, sudden, severe, or dull pain in the elbow area.
  4. Difficulty bending and straightening the arm due to tightness and stiffness in the elbow.
  5. Weak grip strength when lifting dumbbells or barbells.
  6. Discomfort when gripping objects, such as weights or exercise equipment.
  7. Increased pain when applying pressure to the affected area.
  8. Pain that worsens with repetitive movements.
Nurudeen performs skull crushers

I'm performing skull crushers (without elbow pain) during a shoulder and arms workout in 2021.

Treatment

To fix and prevent elbow injuries, prioritize proper form, gradually increase weights, allow adequate rest periods, and, most importantly, maintain pliable biceps, triceps, and forearms through self-myofascial release "SMR" exercises.

SMR exercise addresses the root cause of elbow pain and 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.

Conventional elbow treatment options provide temporary symptom relief but do not treat the root causes. As a result, the pain returns when most lifters resume weightlifting.

Here are some conventional treatments and their pros and cons:

  1. Joint Supplements & Health Vitamins: Provide short-term relief but do not fix the root causes of the pain and injury.
  2. Painkillers (NSAIDs): Temporarily reduce inflammation and pain but only address symptoms and may cause long-term health issues.
  3. Joint Injection (Cortisone Shot): Offers temporary relief but may lead to long-term side effects and does not address the root cause.
  4. Topical Anti-Inflammatory Remedies: Effective for acute pain but not chronic conditions; provides little relief for long-term injuries.
  5. Strength Therapy & Physical Therapy: Important for tendinosis recovery but may be ineffective without addressing underlying issues like inflammation and muscle restriction.
  6. Compression Sleeves, Straps, and Braces: Provide temporary relief but don't treat the root cause and can lead to prolonged symptoms.
  7. Sports & Kinesiology Tape Therapy: Temporarily relieves pain but can mask underlying issues, potentially prolonging tendonitis.
  8. Pain Relief Patches: Offer short-term relief but don't address root causes; may have long-term side effects.
  9. Stretching Therapy: Important for healing and prevention of injury but may be ineffective without addressing underlying issues like inflammation and muscle restriction.

If you're looking for a fast and effective way to treat pain and maintain optimal elbow health, learn how my TitaniumPhysique Program can help you quickly eliminate pain at its source. Click here to access the program now.

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