If you’re experiencing pain while bench pressing, it’s most likely elbow pain. It is one of the more common issues that powerlifters (along with regular gym-goers) tend to face.
Elbow pain during your bench press is most often the result of overuse of the forearm tendons and technique errors throughout the movement. These issues can be addressed in a rather straightforward way.
So, how do you fix elbow pain when benching? Here’s a 6-step process:
- Determine if your pain is from overloading your elbow tendons or from poor technique
- Load your elbow tendons appropriately if the pain is from overuse
- Fix your barbell placement consistency
- Ensure movement symmetry from side-to-side with each rep
- Change your grip width
Of course, there are specific actions you can take with each step, so read on to get them right and avoid putting further pressure on your elbow.
Below you’ll learn:
- Why you have elbow pain during your bench press
- The most common conditions causing elbow pain
- Bench press alternatives to reduce the pressure on your elbow
This article is part of our series on How To Avoid A Powerlifting Injury.
Understanding Why You Get Elbow Pain With Bench Press
In the following section, I’ll present two key areas/reasons why you could be experiencing elbow pain while bench pressing. As you read through this section, ask yourself which of these two categories you might fall into.
Also, keep in mind that it’s possible for the pain to be arising due to more than just a single category. In fact, I often see a combination of these categories creating pain in the lifters I treat in the clinic.
If your biceps hurt while benching (not your elbows), then be sure to check out my other article on How To Fix Bicep Pain While Bench Pressing.
Why Do You Get Elbow Pain While Bench Pressing?
We can classify the pain as either coming from high, repetitive training volume, which places excessive demands on structures around the elbows (causing them to get sore).
Or we can classify the pain as coming from poor technique. The inability to produce proper movement technique is often termed a motor control issue.
Spoiler alert: This is the most common reason for elbow pain in bench pressers and weightlifters. It is due to their intense, repetitive, and frequent demands on their forearm tendons (which cross the elbow joint).
There will be a lot of information in this article as to how and why this occurs, as well as how to address it since it tends to run rampant in powerlifters and other strength training athletes.
Poor technique is often a cause of elbow pain after bench press since it can place excessive, uneven demand or torque on the joint.
There’s nothing too catastrophic about having poor technique on the occasional rep, but the more frequently and consistently the poor technique is being performed, the bigger the problem can become.
The same is true when lifting heavier weights; poor technique with light weight isn’t nearly as concerning or injury-inducing as poor motor control with heavier weight.
If you also get elbow pain while squatting, make sure to read my article on How To Fix Elbow Pain During Squats.
Common Conditions Causing Elbow Pain And How To Fix Them
With all the pain classification out of the way, let’s now discuss the most common overuse causes of elbow pain when benching and how to address them.
Issue #1: Tendinopathies Of The Forearm Tendons
Results from: High volume/high loading & repetitive tissue demands of the forearm tendons
Remember when I said that this was the most common issue in lifters? There’s a perfect reason why:
In the context of this article, tendinopathy refers to a generalized breakdown of the tendons around the elbow. In a simple context, it’s the painful condition that follows after you get tendonitis, which is the initial stage of tendon irritation.
It can occur for multiple reasons, but again, within the context of this article is most often due to high volumes of repeated movements or demands placed on those tendons. You use those tendons to get the job done when you’re squeezing the bar or holding onto weight.
You may therefore be experiencing elbow pain when pressing, but the cause may well be, in fact, from other combined aspects of your training regimen; if your training involves a lot of repetitive arm movements, wrist movements, excessive amounts of all-out gripping, etc., then your poor elbows and the tendons crossing your elbows might simply be the victims when it comes to experiencing elbow pain during bench press.
In other words, the culprit may very well be other aspects of your training.
Tendinopathy isn’t something you just get overnight – it’s a condition that occurs over a length of time and with an accumulation of training hours. Combine this with repeated and intense squeezing of the bar. You might be staring down the barrel of a tendinopathic condition known as lateral epicondylitis (AKA tennis elbow) or medial epicondylitis (AKA golfer’s elbow).
How To Tell If Your Elbow Pain Is From Tendinopathy
Tendons behave in a very specific way regarding their pain patterns, which is helpful since it gives you more certainty as to whether or not this is the cause of your pain.
If you’re finding that the pain only really occurs during your workouts (and aches for an hour or so afterward), or it’s especially bothersome with lots of gripping/holding onto heavier barbells, weights, and/or with heavy volume or loads, this is your first clue. The same applies if you’re experiencing elbow pain in dumbbell press.
Unhealthy tendons oftentimes don’t produce a lot of pain until their loaded past the demands of what they can tolerate, hence why this type of elbow pain from lifting often doesn’t occur until you start benching (or potentially doing other exercises) with moderate resistance.
Pain location is also a really good clue for elbow tendinopathy.
If the pain is located over the outside region of your elbow and seems to only come on when squeezing the bar or pressing high loads or volumes, there’s a good chance that this is the source of your pain.
Pain in this location essentially means that your forearm extensor muscles (which cross the elbow joint) are irritated and need some attention. This common condition is lateral epicondylitis, also referred to as tennis elbow.
Suppose you have inner elbow pain with bench press exercises of the same nature. In that case, you might be dealing with a tendinopathic condition known as medial epicondylalgia, more simply known as golfer’s elbow. The forearm flexor tendons are the issue here. These are the tendons that help to flex your wrist and squeeze your hand into a fist.
A quick way to test if your elbow tendons are the source of pain is to place them in a stretched position when the pain is present, which is typically during your workout. Take a look at the following pictures and replicate the arm position when your pain is present:
Suppose you put your arm into the position shown above and the pain that you’re familiar with is recreated or worsens on the inside portion of your elbow (red area). In that case, you may likely be dealing with a case of medial epicondylitis, often referred to as golfer’s elbow.
Suppose you put your arm into the position shown above, and the pain that you’re familiar with is recreated or worsens on the outside portion of your elbow (red area). In that case, you may likely be dealing with a case of lateral epicondylitis, often referred to as tennis elbow.
What is Lifter’s Elbow?
Lifter’s elbow, also known as golfer’s elbow, is a type of injury that occurs when the tendons that support your wrist flexors are overworked, leading to inflammation. Medically, lifter’s elbow is called medial epicondyle tendinopathy and leads to elbow pain.
It can occur due to repetitive movement of the wrist and forearm, such as when golfer repeatedly swings their golf club or tennis players swing their racquets during an intense game (hence the name golfer’s elbow or tennis elbow). This condition can also occur due to poor movement patterns and results in pain in the inner part of the elbow (the medial epicondyle).
The elbow pain can be enhanced through training, particularly during upper body exercises. Exercises such as the bench press (including barbell and dumbbell bench press) strain the triceps, the wrist and forearm muscles.
How To Fix Tendinopathies Of The Forearm
Unfortunately, there’s no real quick fix here if it’s truly tendinopathy that you’re dealing with. You’ll have to be smart with your training and maybe make some specific changes for the time being (such as decreasing your overall training load and volume), but it beats the alternative of just trying to push through and only having it get worse.
Fixing tendinopathies is done by loading the affected tendons appropriately; not enough load and they don’t get better, but too much and you make it worse.
The key is to perform exercises for those unhealthy tendons using a load that only stirs up the pain throughout the movement to a rating of 1 or 2 out of a scale of 10 (with 10 being the most excruciating pain imaginable).
Perform the exercise for about three sets of ten reps with the elimination of that pain occurring while under load.
If you’re in the right loading stimulus for the tendons, the discomfort should actually be gone by the end of your third set. Repeat this a few times per week. Keep upping the load as the weeks go on so that you stay in this pattern. Be patient. I sometimes refer to this as being in “tendon purgatory” when treating lifters for tendinopathy in the clinic.
If you want to expedite the recovery, you can look to outside treatment adjuncts from qualified healthcare practitioners. Extracorporeal shockwave therapy (EST) is the gold standard for treating tendinopathies when followed up with appropriate loading right after being performed.
When it comes to your workouts, you may want to try a counterforce brace, which is a strap you wear around your upper forearm. This can greatly help take tension off the irritated portions of tendons. You can also spring for some neoprene elbow sleeves. Neoprene sleeves won’t do anything from a structural standpoint, but their added compression and warmth can have pain-relieving effects for lifters with tendinopathy in their elbows.
Other modifications to your workout can include avoiding repetitive forearm motions and using lifting straps to decrease required grip effort for pulling-based exercises.
One exercise that might allow you to train around your elbow pain is the Reverse Grip Bench Press. Check out my complete guide to learn more.
Issue #2: Bursitis Of The Elbow
Results from: Excessive or repetitive pressure placed on the back of the elbow against a hard surface, such as when doing floor press.
Closely related to the category of tendinopathy is another condition known as bursitis. Our bodies are in fact filled with well over a hundred little water balloon-like structures known as bursas. These little guys act as friction reducers for tendons, allowing tendons to glide effortlessly and move over other tissues without sustaining friction-induced irritation.
The problem is that these little water balloon-like discs can actually become irritated and inflamed themselves. When this occurs, pain usually shows up. In the case of elbow bursitis, a particular bursa pad, known as the olecranon bursa, becomes inflamed and causes pain in the elbow when benching or other elbow movements.
Olecranon bursitis is, in fact, the most common area in the body for bursitis to occur. It tends to look a bit more serious than it actually is, despite the pain it can cause. If you’ve ever seen the tip of someone’s elbow appear as if it had a soggy golf ball underneath the skin, you were likely looking at a case of olecranon bursitis.
Thankfully, it’s rather self-limiting and typically doesn’t require specific medical intervention, so long as the bursa itself doesn’t become infected.
The most widely reported description of pain in this condition is a burning or stinging-like sensation around the back of the elbow (right where the bursa is). It typically worsens with elbow movements and tends to result from sustained and receptive pressure placed on the elbow or high volumes of elbow movement against resistance.
How To Fix Olecranon Bursitis
Since olecranon bursitis most often occurs due to repetitive pressure on the back of the elbow, your first step should be to cut out any exercises that place pressure over that region, such as floor presses.
Because bursitis is an inflammatory process involving the bursa, it tends to respond rather well to NSAID medications (note: see medical disclaimer at the beginning of this article). An over-the-counter or prescription anti-inflammatory medication is likely a good starting point if you’re trying to get rid of this condition as quickly as possible.
In addition to NSAIDs, gentle compression of the elbow may help reduce the excessive amounts of fluid within the area, so consider wearing an elbow sleeve during your workouts and throughout the rest of the day, so long as it doesn’t further irritate the bursa (which would cause more pain).
Unfortunately, no magical exercises work to “fix” the issue; it simply takes a bit of time for things to calm down and fully resolve. Your best bet is to reduce training volume and/or load for benching until it resolves.
Try to keep performing bench presses, variations of this exercise, or bench press alternatives at loads that don’t seem to stir up the pain. So long as you stay below this threshold, benching should still be fine. If you really have to lighten up on your bench pressing for the next bit, consider this a good time to work on perfecting your technique.
You can also spring for other anti-inflammatory measures, such as ice. However, in today’s scientific community, the verdict is still out as to whether or not this influences bursitis to any favorable extent.
Issue #3: Fixing Poor Bench Press Technique
Those who have never bench pressed before or haven’t pursued it seriously often fail to understand the world of technique and subsequent motor control that goes into the bench press.
Not only does flawless technique add serious weight to your one rep max, but it also drastically decreases the likelihood of pain flaring up in your elbows.
Never underestimate the importance of developing impeccable technique; even the best bench pressers and powerlifters in the world continually work to tighten up and perfect their technique, no matter how many years they’ve been at it.
You should do the same since consistent movement errors, even rather small ones, such as bar path, chest placement, and grip width, can all wreak havoc on the health of your elbows. Grip width is one of the most significant reasons your elbow hurts when benching.
If you’re still not convinced, talk to any decorated powerlifter, and they’ll lecture you about it likely even more than I myself would (which is really saying something).
How To Fix Poor Bench Press Technique
There are a few strategies to implement here. The main one is to simply video yourself going through your bench workout.
Video yourself while benching at different loads and see if your technique changes based on your current load or how tired you’re getting. Make sure to film a few reps from the side and some from a straight-forward angle, as each view can offer valuable insight.
Once you’ve got some video footage and you know what you’re looking for, take some time to look it over and see what you can find. Don’t sweat it if you don’t know what to look for; I’ll give you some ideas in the section below.
Look For Bar Placement Consistency On Each Rep
If you’re inconsistent with your bar placement (some reps landing too low on your chest and/or other reps landing too high), then there’s likely unnecessary amounts of torque going into your elbow joints as a result. Remember, the heavier you go with your weights, the greater the torque running through your elbows will be.
In other words: the heavier you go on your bench, the more pristine your form/technique needs to be on each and every rep, assuming you want to save your elbows from unnecessary pain.
Look For Asymmetrical Movement From One Arm To The Other
Bench pressing is a pretty symmetrical movement from one side of the body to the other. Yet, plenty of bench pressers unknowingly don’t hold their arms in symmetrical positions when benching.
Reasons for this are typically from a lack of awareness (a motor control issue) and joint mobility issues within the shoulder.
It may also be due to muscular strength imbalances throughout the shoulder and arm as well. The result of all of this can be asymmetrical demands (forces) placed on an elbow joint.
When watching the video of your technique, look at the symmetry of your arms throughout the entire movement. Look to see if one arm is turned inwards more than the other and if one elbow flares out more than the other. These are commonly found technique issues in those experiencing elbow pain from bench presses.
Lifters oftentimes refer to this as “elbow flare,” and if your flare is different from one arm to the other, it’s a good indication that one of your elbows is enduring different and/or more biomechanical stress than the other.
Want to learn whether your elbows should be in or out during the bench press? Check out our article on this topic.
When you examine your form from the side, look to see if there’s a difference in forearm direction (as in this picture above). This signifies that each one of your elbows is undergoing different torque demands as you bench, which could be leading to your elbow pain.
A side examination should reveal rather symmetrical forearm direction, indicating symmetrical torque and load running through your elbows as you bench.
You’ll need to determine why the asymmetry is occurring, which I can’t do for you, but consider examining your shoulder and wrist mobility as the starting point. If one is moving differently from the next, you’ll need to address that.
Otherwise, take time to practice your technique with just the barbell until you groove a new movement pattern into your muscle memory.
From a straightforward view, notice the difference in shoulder position from one side to the other, which greatly influences elbow stress. In this photo, the difference in elbow flare from one side to the other (highlighted with red angles and orange coloring) is what can result in abnormal stress on an elbow joint when benching.
You can read more about this in my article on Uneven Bench Pressing.
Look For Grip Width On The Barbell
Grip width is often overlooked in novice bench pressers and considerably influences how elbow structures adapt and tolerate loads. Grips that are wider tend to place more structural stress and strain on the inside portion of the elbow, especially at the bottom position of the bench press.
Conversely, too narrow grips can place extra strain on the insertion of the triceps tendon (which attaches right on the back of the elbow) at the bottom of the movement. The more stress you place on the triceps tendon insertional point, the greater the likelihood of incurring tendon-related pressing elbow pain.
While you (or your coach) will need to determine which grip width is most ideal for you, it’s worth trying different widths to see how they impact your elbow pain when pressing down, as well as after practicing the bench press with a full range of motion.
You may also want to avoid or incorporate certain grip widths based on what makes your elbow feel better and/or worse. Suppose your current program calls for certain bench variations (narrow-grip bench, wide-grip bench, etc.). In that case, you may need to either avoid those variations, modify them, or even perform them more frequently based on how your elbow tolerates each one.
Consider getting elbow wraps or wrist wraps to improve your grip and reduce bench press elbow pain. Elbow wraps offer support around the joints, reducing strain through the elbows and lessening pain so you can focus on lifting with good form. However, note that elbow wraps do not cure the root cause of the elbow pain; they simply provide temporary relief during your lifts.
Check out my article on my top bench press accessories.
What Happens if You Continue to Bench Press with Elbow Pain?
Depending on the severity of the inner or posterior elbow pain, you might be able to continue doing the barbell bench press with a full range of motion by modifying the exercise slightly to reduce your pain.
Wearing elbow sleeves or wraps to stabilize and support the tendons and muscles in the area could temporarily reduce mild elbow pain while you’re benching. A great warm-up before your barbell or dumbbell bench press working sets will also help to minimize pain and further injury risk.
However, continuing to bench press with moderate to severe elbow pain could worsen the issue. In this case, elbow sleeves might not be enough on their own to alleviate your pain.
For chronic and severe elbow pain, you need to address the root cause of the issue. In the meantime, you may be able to practice bench press alternatives, but avoid heavy pushing exercises that could aggravate the triceps, elbow, and wrist tendon and worsen inner and posterior elbow pain.
Bench Press Alternatives to Avoid Elbow Pain
If you’re experiencing elbow issues or pain in the forearm muscles during the barbell bench press, even if you’re using elbow sleeves, you might need to try some alternative exercises.
Plenty of great exercises target the chest and triceps with a full range of motion in a similar way to the bench press without causing excessive posterior elbow pain.
For some people, switching to the dumbbell bench press instead of the barbell bench press can resolve the pain. However, this is not the case for everybody.
In this case, the following exercises may be suitable to replace the traditional barbell bench press:
- Dumbbell chest flyes (including flat, incline, and decline)
- Cable chest flyes (including standing, seated, incline, and decline)
- Machine cable flyes
- Push-ups (including flat, kneeling, diamond, incline, and decline)
- Dumbbell pullovers
Each of these exercises reduces strain on the tendons that support the wrists and elbows, reducing the risk of lifter’s elbow or tricep tendonitis (which is responsible for causing posterior elbow pain). Make sure to switch out the barbell bench press for some of the above exercises so your tendons can recover. And, of course, always remember to warm up your pecs and triceps before starting your working sets.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can Bench Press Damage Elbows?
The bench press doesn’t necessarily damage the elbows on its own when performed with the correct technique. However, the forearm rotation that is required during the barbell bench press can exacerbate existing elbow issues, such as lifter’s elbow or triceps tendonitis.
Is Close-Grip Bench Press Bad for Elbows?
The close-grip bench press isn’t bad for your elbows if performed with great technique. However, because a close-grip places more emphasis on the triceps than a traditional flat barbell bench press does, it’s more likely to exacerbate existing tendon-related problems, like triceps tendonitis, causing worsening posterior elbow pain.
Should I Bench With Elbow Pain?
This depends on the severity of your elbow pain. If it’s mild, you might be able to continue benching with a great warm-up, good form, and elbow sleeves. For severe or chronic elbow pain, you should address the root cause of the issue before continuing with the barbell or dumbbell bench press.
How Long Does it Take to Recover From Elbow Pain Bench Press?
You can recover from elbow pain in the bench press relatively quickly (within minutes) if it’s only mild pain. You can relax and stretch the muscles around the wrists, forearms, and elbows. Post-workout treatments include foam rolling massage therapy.
There can be numerous reasons why you can experience elbow pain in bench press exercises. The most common reasons an elbow hurts during bench press tend to be from excessive demands placed on the forearm tendons and technique errors, which greatly influence how the elbow moves and tolerates loads.
Don’t be afraid to take some time to explore why you’re experiencing pain. If you’re stumped, get a qualified strength coach and/or healthcare practitioner to take a look at things – it will likely be money well spent. Above all else, don’t try to simply ignore the pain and push through it. Your elbows and the longevity of your lifting career, will both thank you.
About The Author
Jim is a physical therapist, strength & conditioning specialist and former competitive powerlifter. He loves treating lifters and other active individuals in the clinic and working with them in the gym in order to help them move better, feel better and maximize their training potential.
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