👨🎓 Our Credentials: When you search for health advice online, it’s important to consider the source. The primary author of this article is Jarlo, Ilano, MPT, OCS, with contributions and review by our team of highly qualified trainers.
It’s pretty easy to go your whole life without ever thinking about your elbows.
Until one day you can barely bend your arm anymore. Then suddenly your training (or whatever activities you’re into) gets excruciating.
It turns out elbow pain is more common than you might think, especially if you’re a pretty active person. Because when you think about it, pretty much every upper body movement you do has to be translated through these two little hinges in your arms.
And the more power and repetition you’re using, the more at risk your elbows are for overuse injuries.
In this article, I’ll give you the tools to fix your elbows, starting with the basic hows and whys of what’s causing your pain. Then, I’ll give you a series of simple exercises that’ll help you fix those issues.
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What’s Going On With Your Elbows?
The elbow is made up of two forearm bones–the radius and ulna–that form a hinge joint to the upper arm (humerus).
Its primary role is flexion and extension of the arm, so it’s similar to the knee joint. Unlike the knee though, it is primarily used in open chain movements for grasping and manipulation of objects versus being fixed on the ground or other objects, as the knee is.
We are more used to the open chain actions, while bodyweight exercise work often places our upper body in the closed chain. This may be one of the contributing factors to why people have problems when beginning bodyweight training.
The Elbow’s Role in Bodyweight Training
When starting bodyweight training, there are all sorts of new strains and forces on the hands, wrists, and elbows. These movements tend to be quite different from what people are used to in their normal, daily activities.
The elbow is vulnerable to sprains and strains when there are abnormal or excessive traction forces occurring, either from falls or other violent stress, such as quick pulls or impacts to the forearm that pull on the elbow joint.
It’s important to ease in to actions where there are stresses outside the “normal” plane of flexion and extension (bending and straightening). That’s not to say we should avoid these motions, but simply that they should be practiced and built up to deliberately. When people force these actions too quickly, they’re much more prone to injury.
What’s Causing Your Elbow Pain?
Like most other pathology classification, the conditions at the elbows are usually diagnosed by the affected tissue, whether it is tendonitis, muscle strain, ligament sprain, bursitis, or even stress fractures.
But unless you had a particular trauma such as a fall or other impact injury, these diagnoses are more descriptive than very helpful. For instance, the most prevalent overuse/repetitive strain pathologies are the lateral and medial epicondylitides, “Tennis” and “Golfer’s” elbow. Unfortunately, these terms don’t tell us:
why exactly you might have these problems when another person doesn’t, even with doing the same volume and intensity of activityor why you were fine with these same activities a year ago but now they are creating difficulties.
If you’re dealing with a true inflammatory issue, then a rest period of 2-3 weeks should be enough to resolve the condition. Yet, most of us have to deal with pain and dysfunction lasting much longer than that, even after rest and what we think of as a gradual return to training.
It can lead us to think some activities are inherently bad or dangerous. Whether that is gymnastic ring training, particular barbell exercises, or any other specific physical activities.
While that may truly be the case for some people and their peculiar body structure, more often it’s simply a case of needing some additional preparatory training and a slower progression of the main activities to keep the elbows healthy and able to adapt to your exercise sessions appropriately.
A Note on Elbow Hyperextension
Hyperextension in the elbows is quite common, particularly amongst female trainees.
This is not “bad” and it does not mean something is “wrong” with your elbows. What it does mean is that you have to be a bit more aware of how your elbows are behaving and feeling in different exercises.
It’s common for people with elbow hyperextension to experience some discomfort when performing hand balancing exercises, particularly in the handstand.
One way to combat this is to contract the biceps slightly while in the handstand.
For people without hyperextension, a biceps contraction would bend the elbow, which is not what we want. But with hyperextension, a slight biceps contraction can correct the hyperextension in the handstand position, which can relieve some of that pressure.
Learn more about hypermobility in general here.
A Simple Routine to Fix Your Elbows
Whether you’re currently experiencing pain in your elbows, or you want to protect them from future discomfort, the following exercises will help you strengthen your elbows and prepare them for unusual movements.
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If you want to get the most out of this routine, check out this chart with tips for each exercise and programming recommendations.
|1. Open Chain Rotations||• In this video I’m using a leverage handle with weight but you can use dumbells, dowels with weight or resistance bands to the same effect.
• Choose a resistance that you can perform at least 10-15 repetitions with, and perform these both with the elbow bent and with the elbow straight.
• Do 2-3 sets of 15 repetitions of this exercise.
|2. Band Elbow Flexion||• This is a combination exercise that strengthens your ability to keep your wrist strong in a neutral position (doesn’t break into flexion under weight), while controlling elbow extension under resistance.
• In the video, I am using a resistance band for increased tension at the top of the movement, but a dumbbell or other weight is just fine.
• Do 3-4 sets of 10 repetitions of this exercise.
|3. Grip on Rope or Towel||• Keep your feet on the ground or other support, and shift enough weight to allow you to perform holds of 15-30 seconds at a time. Do these with the elbow straight and bent.
• Do 3-4 sets of 15-30 seconds in each position for this exercise.
|4. Pull-Ups on Rings||• Here I demonstrate a neutral grip pull (palms facing each other) which can be less stressful on the forearms and elbows. Keep your wrist and elbows in a straight line, with your elbows tucked in to your sides.
• If you don’t have the scapular strength and mobility to do this with your full body weight, you should do assisted pulls either with part of your body weight supported or use bands for assistance.
|5. Elbow Extension with Weight||• There are some people with tightness into elbow extension (straightening the elbow) which makes proper form in activities such as handstands more difficult to do. Be careful with this exercise as it’s easy to overdo.
• The weight should be moderate and allow a relatively comfortable hold of at least 30 seconds. 3 sets of 30 seconds is more than enough and should be followed by active exercise.
The Elbow Bone’s Connected to the Shoulder Bone…
No body part or joint acts in isolation, and the elbow is certainly no exception.
The prior exercises are good local strengthening activities for the elbows, but there is an important interrelationship between the elbows, the wrists, the shoulders, and the neck.
Popular mobilizing techniques with bands and wraps are just temporary fixes if underlying causes are not addressed. This usually includes poor muscular capacity (grip, wrist extension, shoulder girdle) or impaired nerve conduction from the brachial plexus or cervical nerve root.
Relationship to the Shoulder
Lack of shoulder girdle strength and mobility can transfer undue stress to the elbows.
If you are unable to put your shoulder into proper position for a particular movement or exercise, that force will transfer to other parts of the body. Since the elbow is the next joint in the chain, it is often what takes the brunt of that force.
Click here to learn what could be wrong with your shoulders, and what to do to fix those issues.
Relationship to the Wrists
Similarly to the shoulders, if the wrists aren’t strong or mobile enough to handle pressure from hand balancing exercises or pressing movements, the elbows, as the next link in the chain, will often take more strain than they really should.
Especially when you’re just getting started with bodyweight training, this is something to be careful of.
Click here to make your wrists strong and mobile.
Relationship to the Neck
And because the nerves that supply the arm are made up of nerve roots that stem from the neck, if there is decreased nerve conduction from the plexus or cervical nerve root, you may experience pain, discomfort and decreased strength in any part of the arm (including the elbow).
Improving your neck function can go a long way to resolving issues throughout the arms (whether in the elbows, shoulders, or wrists).
Click here to learn how to improve your neck function.
If you’ve struggled with elbow issues in the past, working on improving your strength and mobility in these other joints might be a big part of the answer.
Don’t Stop With Your Elbows!
If you’ve experienced pain and restriction in your elbows, you can probably imagine how great it will feel to move them freely and with total confidence again.
But the truth is that most people have aches and tight spots in more than just one part of their body.
Maybe your back gets a little sore at the end of a long workday. Maybe you feel a sharp pain in your knees sometimes when you’re climbing stairs.
Whatever your trouble spots are, these sorts of things keep you from doing all the things you want with your body.
That’s why we created our GMB Mobility program. It zeroes in on the most common problem areas and gives you strategies to fix your aches and pains, loosen tight spots and restrictions, and move more freely throughout your body.
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GMB Mobility is a guided program that improves your total body mobility. You’ll resolve restrictions so you can finally move and perform your best.
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Author Info: Jarlo Ilano, MPT, OCS
Jarlo Ilano is a Physical Therapist (MPT) since 1998 and board certified Orthopedic Clinical Specialist (OCS) with the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties. He’s undergone extensive postgraduate training in neck and back rehabilitation with an emphasis in manual therapy. He has been teaching martial arts for over 20 years, with a primary focus on Filipino Martial Arts.