Weightlifting and elbow pain
Elbow tendon pain is a common problem that plagues gym-goers around the world. It can affect the outside of the elbow (commonly referred to as tennis elbow), the inside of the elbow (golfers elbow), or the attachment of the triceps tendon.
Generally speaking, our tendons break down as result of chronic overload. Reducing that load over the long term is paramount to enable you to train pain free.
Why do I get elbow pain when lifting weights?
Elbow pain when weight training is generally triggered by lifting, gripping or pinching movements and can be disabling enough to make training difficult and sometimes impossible.
In my opinion, we get this pain because we grip the bar too hard. The bars we use in the gym are solid and can’t be compressed, so that force must go somewhere. You are not stronger than the bar!
How many times do you find your ability to perform those last couple of reps being limited by forearm fatigue rather than fatigue in the muscle group you are training? And if that is the case, how much are we limiting our overall progress because our forearms fatigue or our elbows are painful.
How do I know if I'm using incorrect technique?
Let's test this theory with an activity!
1. Hold your arms by your side and lift them out to the side with your hands relaxed. So easy, right!?
2. Now squeeze both hands into a fist as tight as you can and repeat the same movement.
You should find that second time around feels considerably harder because by squeezing your hands, you will activate other muscles further up your entire arm and into your shoulder and neck. This is the same as gripping the bar too hard when lifting.
So why do we grip the bar so hard?
The main reason people grip weights so hard is to ensure - either rightly or wrongly - that the bar or handles don’t slip in their hands.
Most bars have knurling on the grips to make it easy to grip and so it feels secure in our hands. Unfortunately we often see in gym that the bar has become smooth over time.
Now I don’t think for a second that our skin is strong enough to wear the grip down on a steel bar, rather I think that the dead skin cells that come off our hands slowly fill the grip and ultimately make it feel smooth.
I would love for those of you with gyms to try giving a bar a quick scrub with a steel brush and see what comes off it! For handles that are already smooth I would suggest that natural oils from our hands rub off on the bar and slowly make it slippery.
How do I correct my technique?
Only grip the bar as hard as you need to so that your hands don’t slip while you focus on the muscle you are trying to train.
1. Ask your gym to give the bars a regular clean with a stiff brush rather than a cloth.
2. Use chalk – most gyms frown on this due to the mess that a lot of people make when they use chalk and this also means that cleaning with a stiff brush needs to happen more frequently!
3. Use small pieces on non-slip matting (you can buy rolls of it at places like Bunnings) as this will make the bar feel stickier, meaning you don’t have to squeeze so hard.
I hear some of you say, “what about gripping when I do deadlifts?”
My response: if you are not overloading the tendons on most of your lifts they will cope just fine with those occasional maximal efforts.
If you want me to do another post on some alternate hand grips (with pics) that allow you to reduce how hard you squeeze the bar and consequently how much load you put on your elbow, let me know and I will get to work putting one together.
Always remember… you are not stronger than the bar!
PS. If you ever manage to leave your fingerprints imprinted on a steel bar, take a photo and send it to me!
Dean Newman - Director and Physiotherapist, Back In Motion Seville Grove
Dean has been working in private practice since 1998 and competing in bodybuilding since 2002, most recently winning the WFF Masters class at the 2015 NABBA/WFF South Pacific Championships. He took out second in the same class at the 2015 NABBA/WFF Southern Hemisphere titles.