No pain, no gain is the old adage bandied about the gym like ripe sweat towels. Sure, some burning, aching muscles are to be expected, but recurring pain in a particular area of the body is not. If your elbow hurts after bench pressing, it's a sign that something is not right. Overuse injuries are the most common cause of elbow pain when lifting, and that may mean taking some time off or modifying the exercise.
Adding too much weight too soon can cause elbow pain after bench pressing.
Elbow Injury From Bench Press
There are many potential reasons for elbow pain after bench pressing, but if the pain occurs only after you stop bench pressing, the most likely cause is an incipient overuse injury.
Overuse injuries are caused by repetitive motions that repeatedly place stress on the tendons and muscles. Weightlifting is a prime example.
Going into the gym day after day and week after week, loading up the barbell and pressing away puts a lot of stress on your muscles and joints. Unless you take care to do it the right way, you'll end up with an overuse injury.
Stages of Overuse Injuries
Overuse injuries typically occur in stages, according to sports and exercise physiotherapist Zoe Russell. During the first stage, you might feel some discomfort that disappears after your warmup. In the second stage, the pain may begin to show up after your workout. In later stages, the pain worsens with activity, and you may end up feeling pain or discomfort most of the time.
If you've been feeling pain only after lifting, the good news is that your injury is not yet advanced. If you take the proper steps now, you may be able to nip it in the bud before it progresses to a more serious injury.
Elbow Pain Symptoms
In addition to pain, you may notice other symptoms. Russell points out that in the early stages of an injury, pain may be the only noticeable indicator, but it doesn't mean these other symptoms aren't present:
- Warmth to the touch
- Reduced elbow function
- Stiffness, especially in the morning
Causes of Elbow Overuse Injuries
According to fitness expert and author Michael Matthews, overuse injuries from weightlifting are predominately caused by doing too much, too soon. If you've recently started bench pressing and you've been loading on the weight, you may not have given the body and the supporting structures enough time to adapt and strengthen. This causes undue wear and tear on the elbow joints and surrounding tendons and muscles, resulting in inflammation and pain.
Improper form is also a leading cause of elbow pain when bench pressing, Matthews says. Keeping the elbows tucked in rather than flared out puts the joints at an awkward angle, placing more stress on the tendons around the elbow joint. Combine that with too much load too soon, and you've got the perfect recipe for elbow injury.
Other Causes of Elbow Pain
There are several other conditions that could potentially cause elbow pain when lifting, including:
- Joint dislocation
- Stress fracture
If you're not sure an overuse injury is what you're dealing with, or you have other symptoms not associated with an overuse injury, it's a good idea to make an appointment with your doctor.
Resolving Your Elbow Pain
Fixing your elbow injury means you'll have to change up your training program for a while. You can't keep doing the same thing and expect different results. And the longer you keep doing the same thing, the worse your injury will get.
If you're still in an early stage of an overuse injury, you can continue to work out, according to Russell. You just need to modify your plan and scale back your workouts.
Of course, if your elbow pain persists even after you've made small changes, you may need to make larger modifications, including taking time off.
Decrease Your Load
Since, as Matthews says, most elbow overuse injuries result from increasing your load too quickly, the first step is to dial it back. Take some weight off to decrease the amount of pressure on your elbow. Assess your elbow pain after each workout. If the pain continues, try to drop the weight some more.
Adjusting your workout frequency may also help. If you currently bench press three times a week, drop to twice a week. Space your workouts evenly, which will give your elbow more time to recover between sessions.
Fix Your Form
According to Matthews, the bench press is perfectly safe if you do it correctly. Some people tuck their elbows because they feel it protects their shoulders, but the reason for that is usually poor range of motion in the shoulders.
In proper bench press form, elbows should flare out so they're directly under the bar. Space your hands on the bar so your elbows form perfect right angles. This provides the proper structure and support that will relieve some of the stress bench pressing places on the elbows.
Improve Your Mobility
If you have trouble using proper form, you may need to work on shoulder mobility. Twice per week, do two sets of 10 reps each of the following exercises:
Wall extensions: Stand with your back against a wall. Open your arms and press them flat against the wall, palms facing out. Bend your elbows to 90 degrees and press the backs of the hands into the wall. Slowly raise your arms above your head; stop when you can't go any further without your arms leaving the wall.
Shoulder pass-throughs: Stand holding a long wooden dowel or strap with both hands spaced wider than hip distance. Pull your shoulders down and back as you lift your arms up and overhead, keeping your elbows as straight as possible. Bring your arms behind you as far as you can without causing pain; you may need to move your hands farther apart. Hold briefly, then return to the starting position.
Change Up Your Exercises
Just because bench presses hurt your elbow doesn't mean dumbbell chest presses will. Because your arms can move more freely through their natural range of motion with dumbbells, they may be easier on your elbow and fix your pain.
You can also do cable presses, or try a chest press machine. It doesn't mean you can't do bench presses again, but replacing the exercise temporarily may help you heal your injury without having to stop chest pressing altogether.
Do Physical Therapy
If the changes you make to your training program don't help, you may benefit from a few — or ongoing — sessions with a physical therapist. She'll be able to pinpoint the problem and give you ways to work around the pain as well as exercises to strengthen or stretch any muscles that may be underworked or overused. She'll also be able to guide you in properly increasing your load once you get back to your normal bench-press program.