6 Tips to Train Around Those Cranky Elbows
Another Monday comes, which means an all-you-can-eat buffet of bench pressing.
But, if your elbow puts a damper on your training, Mondays may really bring the pain.
Related - 10 Tips to Ease Lower Back Pain
So how do you get your mojo back?
Approach This Joint by Joint
Our elbows are like the knees of our upper bodies. While it's normally blamed for being problematic, it's often an accomplice to the pain, not the main contributor.
So let's quickly look at some biomechanics of our upper body:
- Our feet need mobility and stability
- Our ankles need mobility
- Our knee needs stability
- Our hips need mobility and stability
- Our lumbar spine needs stability
- Our thoracic spine needs mobility
- Our scapula needs mobility and stability
- Our shoulders need mobility and stability
- Our elbows need mobility
- Our wrist needs mobility
You can see that some joints need stability, mobility, or a combination of both. Our elbows often are forced to bear the brunt of the load from our wrists and shoulders.
So, if your shoulder lacks mobility, you will compensate through the elbow so you can finish the movement. Now you have elbow pain and start investigating when your shoulder remains the real issue.
If elbow pain is holding you back from making the gains you want, try these six tips.
How to Workout With Bad Elbows
1.) Try a Neutral Grip for Pressing and Pulling Exercises
Eliminating a fully supinated or pronated movement limits our rotational stress on our elbow.
Using dumbbells can help you utilize a more comfortable neutral grip.
Here are a few exercise suggestions to incorporate into your programming:
- Squats - Safety bar squat, high bar squat, front squat with straps.
- Deadlifts - Trap bar deadlifts, dumbbell Romanian deadlift
- Horizontal Press - Neutral grip dumbbell press, Swiss bar bench press, push up variations, dumbbell floor press
- Vertical Press - Trap bar overhead press, neutral grip dumbbell press
- Horizontal Pull - Neutral grip dumbbell row, V-bar cable row
- Vertical Pull - Neutral grip chin up, V-bar pull down
2.) Try Straps or Modifying Your Grip
Some elbow issues may stem from a weak grip, but they can also be a result of overcompensation.
For example, when performing chin-ups, many will flex the wrist to assist in pulling their chin over the bar.
If you do this, you are loading your forearm with the entire weight of your body during the eccentric portion of that movement. This can lead to inflammation or a degeneration of collagen due to chronic overuse.
If you overuse your forearms during a pulling movement, you should consider utilizing a thumbless grip. Using a thumbless grip on pulls have been one of the best decisions I've made.
Using straps during your pulls ensure that the movement places the weight at the shoulders and elbows instead of the wrist. If you are struggling with grip strength, try some farmer's walks.
A word I learned recently was irradiation. It's the fancy word increasing stability within the joints of your upper body by squeezing something really hard.
Dr. Roger Enoka breaks it down in the Neuromechanics of Human Movement as, “the spread of muscle activation that augments postural stability and enables the transfer of power across joints by two-joint muscles.” For example, the triceps accomplish this in the shoulder and the elbow as they are a biarticular muscle group.
If you ever are trying to squeak out another rep on bench, squeezing the bar as hard as you can could give you enough stability to finish.
4.) Watch Your Cues
Using lifting cues to maintain better form is great, but it can be overused.
Many elbow issues come from one of two issues — rotation or flexion/extension of the wrist.
Knowing this, if you have elbow issues, you'll want to limit both whenever you can. Limit your rotational stress at your elbow and focus more on irradiation — squeeze instead of twist and see how it feels.
5.) Ditch the Low Bar Squats
Before the Starting Strength people chime in having a mild panic attack after seeing this... hear me out.
Many lifters who attempt low bar squats complain about elbow issues if they don't have the external rotation needed in the shoulder. So now your elbow is put into a high amount of torque and will present pain in the medial epicondyle.
A simple change in your bar position and torso angle can make a huge difference in your elbows. Put your ego aside and switch things up.
Another great thing about high bar squats is that you can widen and loosen your grip so you can eliminate some stress from your elbow.
6.) Don't Forget Soft Tissue Work
Programming modifications, along with fixing your form and exercise selections need to be your first approach to fixing your elbow pain.
Soft tissue solutions should be your last-ditch effort.
Elbow pain is often caused by wrist and shoulder issues, so we need to address our musculoskeletal structures both above and below the offending joint.
Wrapping It Up
Movement is medicine. Work on identifying and fixing the root of the issue instead of relying on big pharma to try to magically fix your elbow.
Utilize these tips, find what works for you, and run with it. Always consult with your doctor.