You might think a weak chest, wimpy arms or a paunchy core would keep you from effectively doing push-ups, but you'd never suspect your elbows would be the body part to give you grief.
Elbow pain during push-ups is often a result of poor form or overuse, both of which can result in tendonitis, an inflammation of the connective tissue at the joint. Fixing your form can help you in the long run, but if tendonitis has set in, you may have to rest several weeks before going to back to pain-free push-ups.
The push-up requires you brace much of your body weight on your wrists, elbows and shoulders. This can put undue stress on these joints, particularly the elbows. When the elbows are subject to such stress at a suboptimal angle, they suffer.
The best placement for your elbows is directly over the wrists, angled at a 45-degree angle with the torso. When the elbows move out to the sides of or behind the wrists, it puts undue pressure on the joint and can cause pain. That pain may not show up the first, second or even tenth time that you do push-ups this way — but if you repetitively do push-ups with improper form, it's likely your elbows will one day rebel. It's not a sudden injury; it's just that their tolerance has worn down over time.
Flared out elbows can also be a disastrous position for the joint. They may immediately cry out as you force them to bear more weight at an awkward angle than they're designed to bear. Over time, this positioning can lead to damage to your rotator cuff in your shoulder, too.
Doing the same movement, day after day, without much change can lead to tendonitis. In the case of push-ups, your elbow may have just been the first joint to say "enough" to your daily push-up habit.
Even if you're not doing the 100 push-ups-a-day challenge, know that doing them too often for your fitness level can cause your elbows to cry out in pain. Your best recourse is to give push-ups a rest. Yes, they're an awesome exercise for your chest, shoulders and triceps, but they aren't the only one. Hit the bench press or do dumbbell flyes, which put almost no pressure on your elbows. The pec deck and cable crossovers flyes are other effective alternatives that are also easier on the elbows.
Your best treatment for elbow pain that appears during push-ups is to lay off the push-ups and rest them. Ice the elbow if it's aggravated with other activities. NSAIDs, sports rubs and wraps may also help treat the pain. If the pain continues for several weeks or becomes unbearable, seek help from a doctor.
Correct your form to prevent the problem from recurring in the future and vary your workouts to hit the joints and muscles from a variety of angles.