If you have been lifting weights for years of have been lifting really hard you might end up with a nagging pain on the inside of your elbow that people in the fitness industry refer to as “lifter’s elbow”‘
I am unfortunate enough to have had a long battle with lifter’s elbow, but through a lot of trial and error I figured out the best way to get rid of it without taking a long break from lifting weights. You will need to make some changes to the way you train though and a lot of you won’t like some of the changes. They will be worth it to get your elbows feeling better again though. First, let’s talk about what the heck lifter’s elbow is.
What is lifter’s elbow?
Lifers elbow is the same thing as golfer’s elbow. It’s basically a form of tendinitis you get on the inside of your elbow from overuse. It can be somewhat common if you train really hard or are getting older and your tendons don’t have as much give as they used to.
The bad part is that it is not easy to get rid of, especially if you don’t stop training. This is not the type of injury you can just work through and have it eventually go away on its own. If you keep lifting and don’t make any changes it won’t go away and will likely get worse.
I figured there were a lot of guys like me who have been dealing with this for a long time so I thought I should write this article to help you all out.
How I got my lifter’s elbow
I have been lifting since about the age of about 14 and I am 40 now. I never had any major lifting injuries of any kind my whole life until this point. I was about 34 or 35 years old and was getting myself in top shape after being in just moderate lifter guy shape for a while.
I was killing it in the gym, I was back in great shape and was lifting hard and heavy. Until one day it happened, I felt a little pop in my elbow while curling. I didn’t think a whole lot about it, I figured it would heal in a few days and everything would be back to normal. Man, was I wrong about that. I kept lifting though figuring I could train through it. Before long both elbows were hurting and I started to realize that this was not going to go away on its own and I was going to need to make some changes.
What changes I made
After a couple months of hoping it would go away on its own I decided it was time to make some changes to help it along. I will cover this in detail.
The first thing I did was buy myself some wrist straps to help with grip and give my elbows a break when lifting heavy weights and doing pull ups. I also cut back on the curling bit and used less weight. Then I lower the curling down to just a few sets of concentration curls and that was it for biceps. The concentration curls still irritated my elbows but not too bad. I also completely eliminated power cleans, my elbows would be screaming after those, it just wasn’t worth it anymore to even bother with those even though I really liked doing them.
Unfortunately, these changes weren’t near enough. More changes were needed. The wrist straps were definitely a good help though.
I looked online for help
I googled the crap out of lifters and golfer’s elbow trying to find a cure and tried everything on there that seemed reasonable. I tried that Flex-Bar, the myofascial release, stretches, massages, using a neutral grip when lifting and probably things more that I can’t even remember. None of it did a damn thing. My elbows were in pain and it sucked.
The reason none of that worked was because I was irritating my elbow just about every time I lifted, none of those things were going to fix it until I stopped irritating my elbows on almost a daily basis. I needed to make further changes to the way I lifted
More changes were needed
If you are a stubborn lifter like me, you really don’t want to take months off from lifting to try and heal your elbows. I decided instead of taking extended time off I would quit training biceps and triceps entirely (just gripping the bar on triceps extensions hurt). That would eliminate the problem and my elbows would be healed in a couple of months. I was wrong again. It did help but it wasn’t a cure at all. My elbows were still painful.
Soon after that I left my job, you might be wondering why this is important. My job was at a family manufacturing business where I would need to both drag and lift heavy materials throughout the day. Not all day but enough that it was also irritating my elbows throughout the day.
Next I also changed my grip to a neutral grip on all back exercises. This helped but again the benefits were only minor. Getting rid of this lifter’s elbow was nothing but baby steps and it was a long road, longer than it probably even sounds.
I continued down this road for a while until one day I decided just to stop all back exercises aside from the deadlift. It was tough for me to give up on the back exercises, but I figured I could still get a good enough back workout with deadlifts that I could let the rest go in hope of finally having my elbows pain free. I did the trap bar deadlifts too so my hands were in a neutral position and I used the wrist straps. I could do these pain free which was nice.
IT WORKED! Within a few months my elbows were pain free. After years of trial and error and pain my elbows were feeling better and I did not have to stop lifting, I did have to make some major modifications though.
The bad news
The bad news is I still can’t really go back to lifting the way I used to or my elbows will flare right back up again. Hopefully this won’t be the case for you, but it is for me. My elbows were like that for too long and I am just over 40 years of age so my tendons are a bit less stretchy and don’t repair as easy.
The good news is I can do curls now but I have to stick with only hammer curls, but it’s better than nothing. I can do triceps exercises again too. For back I am still doing mainly the trap bar deadlifts and have also started doing chin-ups with limited range of motion. Rows and pull ups will likely not happen again.
What to do for lifter’s elbow according to me
If you want to continue to lift with your lifter’s elbow you can do it but you are going to have to make changes or it won’t go away. Some of the changes suck especially if you are a dedicated lifter. I wish there was an easier way, I tried all of them, they didn’t work. Go out there and try all that other stuff first if you want. When that doesn’t work try this:
Buy wrist straps
You can get them for around $10 at Dicks sporting goods or online. Use them when lifting dumbbells over 50lbs, even if you are doing shrugs or Bulgarian split squats use the straps for heavier dumbbells. Just holding heavy dumbbells will irritate your elbow. Straps are a biggie, you will need them and they will help.
Use a neutral grip
This is one tip I found on the internet that worked. It won’t solve the problem by itself but it definitely does help. A neutral grip is when you grip so your palms face each other rather than palms up or down. Keep your hands in the neutral position throughout the movement. This will put a lot less stress on the elbows especially when doing biceps and triceps exercises. This also is somewhat helpful with back exercises, but there was still pain when doing them for me even with the neutral grip. This means you will be using a lot more dumbbells and a lot less barbells. I was still able to do barbell bench press without elbow pain, but other than that dumbbells in a neutral grip is the way to go.
I would advise you stop curling altogether until you get it under control, but I know there are guys out there who won’t. If for some reason you just have to curl or life as you know it will end then use hammer curls, they use the neutral grip we just talked about. Don’t do the cross body hammer curls either, just do them straight forward. If that still hurts, then stop curling.
Stop doing all rows and pull-ups and other pulling exercises
I know these exercise are pretty much all you do for your back workouts, but they are killers when you have lifter’s elbow. Even doing them with the neutral grip is still painful.
Do deadlifts with a trap/hex bar so you have a neutral grip and use wrist straps. You should be pain free with these and you will also build a thick back and mountainous traps.
Maybe stop doing triceps for a while
If your lifter’s elbow is bad enough it will hurt doing things like lying triceps extensions just from the way you have to grip the bar. Use dumbbells instead and maintain the neutral grip. Tricep pressdowns with a rope are good too, just make sure you stay with a neutral grip throughout the movement and don’t pronate the wrist at the bottom. If there is still pain with the neutral grip take some time off of triceps exercise. I took time off, but my lifter’s elbow was really bad.
Stop working manual labor
This one can be tough, I know you can’t up and quit your job. Maybe get moved to another position with the same company that doesn’t involve manual labor or get a promotion. If you can’t it’s going to be really tough to get rid of the lifter’s elbow. I was only doing a small amount of manual labor at my job and irritated my elbows like crazy. If you can find a way to do less or no manual labor, then do it.
If you do CrossFit…
I don’t train CrossFit, but I could see this being a big problem if you did and I bet lifter’s elbow is pretty common among CrossFitters. The problem is a lot of moves CrossFitters do like cleans, chin-ups, rope climbs, kettlebell swings and many others will irritate the crap out of a lifter’s elbow. You will likely have to do your own modified CrossFit workouts or stop CrossFit altogether for a few months and see if you can return after that. Regular Crossfit workouts are hell on lifter’s elbow.
Don’t worry, you don’t need to take weeks off at a time. Take an extra day off from lifting here and there, nothing major. They add up and your elbow will thank you though trust me.
Let’s wrap this thing up
Put all that together and you will be well on your way to pain free elbows. I know there are some big sacrifices in there and they aren’t easy. It took me a long time and a good bit of pain to make them. My body still looks the same, I never had to stop lifting and I am pretty much pain free these days. It is a long road and won’t be easy but if you do what I outlined here your elbows will thank you.