You don’t have to be Roger Federer to get tennis elbow (aka elbow pain). A lot of weightlifters are experiencing this injury too. Seeing people wear elbow supports (wraps, straps and braces) in the gym is as likely as seeing them drink chalky protein shakes (although some are quite tasty).
So why the epidemic of elbow wraps? How are people wrecking their elbow joints? Here are nine culprits that disguise themselves as helpful exercises, yet can do your elbow wrong. For each one I’ll provide info as to why it causes problems for your elbows.
Heavy Bench Press
To perform heavy bench press or not to perform heavy bench press. That is the question
It’s the latter if you are experiencing tennis elbow. Heavy bench press puts tremendous strain on the elbows (as well as the rotator cuff, forearms and wrists).
Due to improper form, some guys don’t even have to bench a ton of weight to hurt their elbows. Nonetheless, if you do a quick YouTube search on heavy bench press, a set of elbow wraps will likely pop up on the screen. That’s not by mistake; heavy bench press hurts the elbow big time.
Why it causes problems: The triceps muscles are a major contributor when performing the bench press. When the load gets extremely heavy, the triceps are heavily strained. This causes the soft tissue of the tendon that connects the triceps muscle to the back of the elbow bone to degenerate and get inflamed. Inevitably, this constant pressure causes chronic elbow tendinitis or swelling.
Here’s a bench press demonstration
Behind The Neck Barbell Shoulder Press
This exercise is just simply bad to do not only for your elbows, but your shoulders as well. It places your shoulders in a terrible position to lift the weight, placing tremendous strain on your rotator cuff. Why bodybuilders and other fitness pros continue to do this lift despite the evidence that it is a “rotator cuff crippler” is baffling. Just be sure you don’t continue to do this exercise if you truly love your elbow and shoulder joints.
Why it causes problems: While most guy’s issue will be their shoulder joints when performing the behind-the-neck barbell shoulder press, this exercise also gets gnarly for your elbows, especially when lifting heavy. Performing this lift with a ton of weight puts stress on your triceps (like the bench press), hence straining the elbow joints.
Want to make your tennis elbow worse? Perform this exercise with a close-grip inside the bar, in which puts more strain on the triceps and elbow joints.
Along with behind-the-neck press, upright rows is another exercise that should be thrown into a bottomless pit. This exercise is what keeps physical therapists in business. Why? Because upright rows do a “great job” of causing tennis elbow.
Why it causes problems: If you already have elbow tendonitis, you probably hate it when having to open a door or shake someone’s hand. This occurs because your grip muscles (forearm, wrists) are also affected by your tennis elbow. Upright rows perpetuate this injury rep after rep, especially if done incorrectly. Regardless of whether you’re using a barbell, dumbbells or the cable machine to perform this movement, you engage your forearms while putting excessive tension on your elbow tendons.
Triceps Extensions (Skull Crushers)
Any exercise that is dubbed “skull crushers” should make you think before doing them. While triceps extensions is a good exercise for some individuals, it causes elbow agony for most. Heck, it should be dubbed “elbow crushers.”
Why it causes problems: The mechanics of the movement places a great deal of stress on the elbows. The stress is worsened when the person is doing triceps extensions with heavy weight. In fact, if you’re doing skull crushers (using a barbell or EZ curl bar) with a weight you can do less than 10 reps with, then kiss your elbow ligaments goodbye. If you still want to do this exercise, it is best you perform it with light dumbbells.
Heavy Bicep Curls
Every guy and his granddaddy want biceps worthy of a tanktop. If guys aren’t doing bench press, then they are probably doing bicep curls. While there is nothing technically wrong with the movement, attempting to curl too much weight puts undue strain on the elbows. Along with heavy bench press, heavy bicep curl is the reason why most guys (and some gals) develop tennis elbow.
Why it causes problems: Those who develop tennis elbow via heavy bicep curls are usually long-term weightlifters. These are the fellas who probably live by the bodybuilding mantra, “No pain, no gain.” Well they are definitely gaining pain…elbow pain!
For one, most guys are trying to curl too much weight. If you have to swing the dumbbell (or barbell) to curl it, it is too heavy. Doing this places your elbow in awkward positions. Over time, this causes strain on your elbow flexor and extensor tendons, in which could result in small tears within the tendon.
It is best you lighten the load and curl a weight you can perform 10 proper, “non-swinging” reps with.
Until Crossfit became popular a few years ago, a kipping pull up was considered a bad pull up in the fitness world. Now, bad pull…I mean kipping pull ups are accepted as a good form of exercise??? C’mon now! Seeing someone do this exercise looks like a fish out of water. Of course, this exercise also wreaks havoc on your elbows.
Why it causes problems: Besides Crossfit fanatics, the reason most people do kipping pull ups is because they aren’t strong enough to do regular pull ups. These people are just unable to properly pull up their body weight. By doing kipping pull ups, your elbow joints continually absorb the forcefulness of your body weight. Of course, this leads you on a journey towards tennis elbow.
If you currently do kipping pull ups, STOP IT. Your elbows will thank you.
Here’s a Kipping Pull up demonstration. See how it can be harmful to the elbows with all the jerking motions?
Heavy Barbell Deadlifts
There is just something manly about lifting a ton of weight off the ground. Even some women enjoy performing heavy deadlifts. Unfortunately, your elbow ligaments and tendons don’t feel the same way.
Why it causes problems: The immense pressure your forearms absorb from deadlifting heavy weight transfers to your elbow joints. This problem is exacerbated when you use an alternate hand grip; the elbow of the under grip side takes on more of the weight.
Also, another issue is guys not fully extending their arms while performing the movement. Doing it with a slight elbow bend not only over stresses the elbow, but the biceps as well. In addition to developing tennis elbow, some guys have torn their biceps due to improper dead lifting.
Row, row, row your elbow gently down the ER!
The rowing machine seems like a harmless exercise, but it can cause tennis elbow. One of the most common complaints is elbow pain when using a rowing machine or simply rowing on the pond, lake or ocean. So if you thought about paddling a long distance anytime soon, you may want to rethink your plans.
Why it causes problems: The rowing machine is actually not a bad movement when done properly. The problem is most gym goers don’t perform it properly. In addition, even when done correctly, most people row for too long. This exercise presents constant tension to your entire body, including your elbow joints.
Rowing for long periods of time makes you susceptible to injury, including inflammation of the elbow joints. Heck, even most professional rowers catch the injury bug. A study concluded that approximately 73% of rowers will experience some sort of overuse injury during their lifetime.
In reality, the farmer’s walk is beneficial for those who have been lifting weights for several years. Most people who have lifted consistently for at least 2-3 years have a good amount of forearm strength. However, if you’ve just started weightlifting or your forearm strength is lagging, this exercise can cause elbow issues.
Why it causes problems: The name of the game is to carry an extremely heavy load for a certain distance or length of time. Most beginners’ (and even some intermediate and advanced lifters’) forearms and hands aren’t ready for that. Performing farmer’s walk with enormous weight without adequate grip strength is setting up the elbow joints for failure.
The basis of this exercise is to improve grip strength. If you are a beginner or someone with weak grip strength, start by doing farmer’s walk with a slightly challenging weight (a weight you could walk around with for 3-5 minutes). Eventually, you should be able to carry more weight minus elbow problems.
Here’s a demonstration of the farmer’s walk:
Those nine exercises can potentially give your elbows woes. Please listen to your body to see which exercise your elbows agrees with and which ones it is yelling STOP IT!