Elbow Pain When Lifting Weights: Tennis Elbow vs Golfer’s Elbow

Don’t let the laymen’s terms fool you – you don’t have to be a tennis player or a golfer to suffer from tennis elbow or golfer’s elbow. In fact, many athletes, workout enthusiasts and weight lifting newcomers experience elbow pain from these conditions due to incorrect form while lifting weights. 

Before we get into possible reasons why your elbow hurts during or after your strength training, it’s important to understand the basic anatomy of the elbow. 

Elbow Anatomy Overview

Elbow Anatomy

The elbow is made up of three bones – the radius and ulna (forearm bones) and the humerus (upper arm bone) – as well as muscles, ligaments and tendons that hold the joint together. There are two bony bumps at the bottom of the humerus called epicondyles that connect the muscles and tendons in the forearm to the elbow. The bump on the outside of the elbow is called the lateral epicondyle and the bump on the inside of the elbow is the medial epicondyle.

The elbow allows for four basic functions: flexion, extension, supination and pronation. Tennis elbow and golfer’s elbow typically involve stress during flexion and extension of the elbow and wrist, which occur in various strength training exercises.

What causes elbow pain when lifting weights?

While chest, triceps and shoulder exercises can all put pressure on the elbow, the most common cause of elbow pain during and after lifting is improper bicep curls. If you’re experiencing inner elbow pain or outside elbow pain, it could be related to one or more common mistakes in your bicep curl form. If your pain doesn’t subside after fixing your form, it’s important to know when to see a doctor for your elbow injury.

Four Common Reasons for Elbow Pain from Bicep Curls

1. You’re gripping the bar or dumbbell too tight. 

Gripping the bar or dumbbell too tight activates the flexor tendon that allows your wrist to bend or curl forward. Even if your wrist maintains a neutral position throughout the curl, activating the flexor tendon in this way can lead to inner elbow pain and golfer’s elbow

2. You’re not keeping your wrist in a strong, neutral position throughout the curl.

Similar to gipping the bar or dumbbell too tight, allowing your wrists to roll forward will activate the flexor tendon and can lead to inner elbow pain. 

On the flip side, if you extend/bend your wrists backward during a curl, the weight will activate the extension tendons in your wrists that are attached to the outer side of your elbow, which can cause outside elbow pain and tennis elbow

3. You’re using too much weight.

While this may seem obvious, it’s a bit more nuanced than you may think. Too much weight for your bicep curl may have nothing to do with your bicep strength – and everything to do with your grip and forearm strength. 

As mentioned above, gripping too tightly or extending or flexing your wrist during a bicep curl can lead to inner and outside elbow pain. If your lack of grip strength causes you to over-grip the bar or dumbbells, or if your inadequate forearm strength causes a flexion or extension of the wrist, the weight is probably too heavy for you to curl while maintaining proper form. Poor form can lead to elbow pain and injury.

4. You’re not varying your bicep curl workout. 

According to the International Sports Sciences Association (the leading sports science teaching institution for personal trainers, strength training specialists, yoga instructors and group exercise instructors), there are 12 different variations of bicep curls

Why is this important? Because repetition leads to overuse injuries. If you always do the same one or two types of bicep curls, your arms and elbows are repetitively stressed by the same forces. This can lead to tennis elbow and/or golfer’s elbow. To avoid repetitive stress injuries, it’s important to vary your strength training exercises.

What is Tennis Elbow?

Tennis elbow, also known as lateral epicondylitis, often involves the muscle called the Extensor Carpi Radialis Brevis (ECRB). This muscle in the forearm is responsible for the extension of the wrists and fingers. The extensors (forearm tendons) attach this muscle and other muscles to bone. 

When the ECRB is weakened from overuse, microscopic tears in the extensor can form where it attaches to the lateral epicondyle (the outer bump on the elbow). This causes pain and inflammation, AKA tennis elbow. 

What is Golfer’s Elbow?

Golfer’s elbow, also known as medial epicondylitis, is similar to tennis elbow but occurs on the opposite side of the elbow. A repetitive stress injury caused by overuse, golfer’s elbow occurs from damage to the muscles and tendons that connect to the medial epicondyle (the inner bump on the elbow), which can cause severe inner elbow pain.

Tennis Elbow and Golfer’s Elbow Treatments

Unlike a Tommy John injury or traumatic injuries that require elbow replacement surgery, tennis elbow and golfer’s elbow typically only require non-surgical treatments and physical therapy. Ice, rest, anti-inflammatory medications and changes to repetitive stress movements are usually enough to treat tennis elbow and golfer’s elbow.

If, however, your elbow pain does not subside in 6 to 12 months with rest and therapy, you should consult your orthopedic elbow specialist for steroidal or surgical options. While tennis elbow surgery and golfer’s elbow surgery are not common, severe injuries may require arthroscopic elbow surgery.

If you are experiencing elbow pain and have questions for our orthopedic specialist, please contact us. We’re happy to assist you in any way we can or schedule a consultation with our hand, elbow and wrist specialist

36 Comments


Excellent explanation. I totally got it. Thank you!

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It was a amazing and knowledgeable article which tells a person a lot about the elbow pain.Thanks a lot sir 😍😍😍😍

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Im having pain in golfers elbow muscles..and it is difficult to do workout..mainly biceps..what treatment shud i take..

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    If you are having elbow pain, I would recommend seeing an orthopedic specialist to help you determine the best course of treatment.

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    Pain in my left inner elbow when I lift bending my arm.
    I believe it was caused by lifting a heavy wait.

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      Hi Malcolm,
      Try a two week period of ice and rest. This means no lifting over 5lbs with the affected arm and icing your elbow daily for 15 minutes on and 15 minutes off. If your are still experiencing elbow pain afterward, or if the issue worsens, you will need to schedule with a Sports Medicine Specialists or Orthopedic Elbow Specialist. Best of luck with your elbow!

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Hello – If you have tennis ball elbow pain, how long do you have to stay away from weight lifting again…?

I had it after i went back to gym (after a long break)… it started like 3 days back… today it became like sore muscle pain, much better…

does it mean i can go to gym tomorrow and start back gradually?

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    Hi Ahmad,
    I would let your symptoms be your guide when getting back to exercises in the gym. Try and avoid exercises that require repetitive wrist extension (bending wrist up with palm facing down) and pronation (rotating your forearm so your palm faces down) to avoid further aggravation.

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Hello I was working biceps and now the day after I can’t extend my elbows all the way. I’m not quite sure what to do.

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    Hi Quinton,
    I would suggest rest and ice for a week. Ice 15 minutes on and 15 minutes off. After that you could start to slowly work in bicep exercises again, gently increasing intensity while carefully listening to your body for guidance on what you should and shouldn’t do. If the issue persists or pain increases, you should see a Sports Medicine specialist. We have two excellent Sports Medicine doctors at our office that would be happy to help with your bicep and elbow pain.

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        Hi Divya,
        You can contact our office by calling (435)615-8822. We have a location in Park City, Cottonwood Heights and Tooele. The phone number I gave you will ring all three offices until a receptionist can take your call. Looking forward to talking more soon!

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I have medial elbow pain while lifting weights, can we continue exercise….

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    Hi Prashant,
    It is possible that you have injured yourself, so continuing to lift weights is not advisable. The best course of action would be to give your elbow 2 weeks of ice and rest, that means no weight lifting and icing the elbow for 15 minutes every day. You may be able to get away with doing very light weights or resistance type workouts, but if you start to feel pain you should discontinue any type of weight or resistance training during your rest period. If your pain does not go away or worsens after your 2 weeks of rest, you should see a doctor to determine if you have an injury. A sports medicine doctor or orthopedic specialist would be able to help diagnose and treat your issue effectively so you can get back to your normal exercise routine as quickly as possible. Hope this helps! Best of luck with your elbow.

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      Are there any real physical therapy treatments THAT WORK for tennis elbow? My orthopedic doctor says the same thing… “there’s really nothing that can be done for tennis elbow”. I had my first cortisone shot for my tennis elbow & it was amazing, zero pain after day 2 & felt great for exactly one month. Now the pain is back. Doctor says you can get 3 cortisone shots & that’s it…then you may want to consider PRP injections which I’m going to look into….
      ANYBODY HAVE ANY LUCK WITH PRP INJECTIONS FOR TENNIS ELBOW??

      Also just reading about Shockwave Therapy….any feedback on that?

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        Hello Greg,
        Sorry to hear you’re having difficulty getting the care you want for your elbow. For tennis elbow, good treatment options include ice, anti-inflammatories if able, a counterforce strap, Physical Therapy, and cortisone injections. Since you have already had a few cortisone injections, you could consider a PRP injection. There is good data showing PRP injections are beneficial for tennis elbow specifically. It is a good option to consider if symptoms have been refractory to previous treatments, and if you are trying to avoid surgery. There is less data on how beneficial shockwave therapy is for tennis elbow, but it may be something to bring up to a Physical Therapist as a possible treatment modality. Wishing you the best of luck with your tennis elbow recovery!

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This was very informative. I’ve been wondering why I’ve had the medial elbow pain for the better part of a year now. I tend to carry to much weight at one time at work or I carry “all the groceries”in one trip from the car (lazy man’s load). I will definitely stop doing that & instead make more trips while carrying items in hopes that the injury resolves-It’s not too bad yet-only occasional pain.

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    Hi Leigh,
    Glad our article helped. Yes, try taking more trips with less weight. Also, try icing your elbow for 15 minutes daily for 2 weeks. If the pain worsens you will need to get in to a sports medicine or orthopedic doctor to get proper diagnosis and treatment. Best of luck with your elbow!

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I am generously following the discussion here. I felt the pain in November and went slow on weights for a faster recovery for a month and I thought I was alright after a month. Then in January I begun serious lifting with rehabilitation in mind but I think it worsened as I progressively increased the load . Now I am in my third month. I have stoped any form of upper body exercises that requires lifting of anything for the time being. The pain is not much but one feels inconvenience. I am only worried that it could be worse.

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    Hi JB,
    Sounds like you may want to try Physical Therapy. Talk to your doctor about the problem, making sure they do a proper exam and imaging to rule out any more serious or surgical conditions first. If surgery is not required, your doctor should be able to provide you with a Physical Therapy script or provide other non-surgical treatment options such as injections. Best of luck with your elbow!

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Hi, I have recently developed inner elbow pain in both elbows but it’s significantly worse in one.
I don’t lift weights in the gym sense but I have a nine month old baby who weighs approximately 20lbs and the pain only really presents itself when lifting him in and out of places such as the cot. Might this be the cause of the pain & if so, what is the best way to deal with it, as I obviously cannot cease doing this?

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    Hi Tara,
    The repetitive motion of lifting your baby from his cot or off the ground is a very common cause of elbow pain for parents. You could try the RICE method (rest, ice, compression, elevation) for 2 weeks and see if you experience any relief. However, with you not being able to get much rest in for your elbow, this method may be ineffective for you. The best and most effective option would be to see an orthopedic or sports medicine doctor that could prescribe anti-inflammatories, injections or Physical Therapy. If you are interested in this option, we have Dr. Daniel Gibbs or Dr. Mark Peterson that would happy to help and could see you as quickly as next week. To get scheduled call our office at (435)615-8822. Best of luck with your elbow!

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Great article, my question is how do i increase my weight without this occurring?

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    Hi Bernice,
    The safest way to progress with your weight lifting without injuring your elbow would be to see a Physical Therapist. They can evaluate your elbow for any weakness it may have and suggest physical therapy and isometric exercises best suited to your needs. They will be able to make sure the muscles around the elbow and the joint itself are stable and strong enough to lift heavier weights and can guide you in your progression to heavier and heavier lifting.
    Always listen to your body. If you experience any sharp pains while lifting, immediately stop the exercise and either go down in weight until you can lift without pain or wait to exercise your arms on another day. If the pain lasts several days after your workout you will need to see a Physical Therapist or Sports Medicine doctor to evaluate for any injuries.

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I really appreciate all of this helpful information! I have been lifting for decades and for many years, have been experiencing episodic left elbow pain. The pain exists in between (and just a bit lower) the lateral and medial epicondoyles. Bicep curls are definitely a factor. However, many exercises seem to exacerbate the pain. I don’t necessarily feel the pain while lifting. I’ll usually notice it sometime after a workout and most felt with arm flexion. It sidelines me for days/weeks thereafter. My happiness is directly linked to my lifting/exercise. I’m sick/tired of the roller coaster of it all, but I’m not willing to throw in the towel. Maybe I’m wrong, but my chronic injury doesn’t seem to be consistent with Tennis/Golfers Elbow(with the pain being in between the epidondoyles)?

I forgot to mention that tricep exercises seem to be the most offensive to my chronic elbow condition. As such, I have not done (direct) tricep exercises in years.

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    Hi David,
    Glad you found the article helpful! It is difficult to diagnose your elbow pain without an examination and radiographs, but if you have pain with biceps curls or when rotating your palm up (supinating), it could be your distal biceps tendon. You also mentioned having pain with triceps exercises, which could of course be triceps tendonitis. However, if you have tried rest, activity modifications, anti-inflammatories, icing, etc., and it is still not improving, then I would recommend you see your orthopedist for a proper diagnosis and targeted treatment.

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Hi thanks for this article.i have a question.10 months ago someone put my left hand inside the refrigerator and pressed it’s door on my hand that made my elbow joint completely open and under pressure but i didn’t feel pain in that time but after i had pain in my elbow for couple of months and then got well but now i have started work out for near two months and i have a pain in my elbow again. What is wrong with my elbow ?please help me.

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    Hi Pedram,
    If you gave your elbow two months of rest before starting exercise and pain is still persisting, I would suggest seeing either an orthopedics specialist or sports medicine specialist. They will be able to do a proper exam to diagnose the issue and administer the most effective treatment. I would recommend either completely stopping exercise or at least stopping the exercises that worsen your symptoms until you see a doctor to avoid further injuring your elbow. Wishing you a speedy and successful recovery!

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Thank you for the concise and helpful article!

I have been lifting weights (along with other sports) for 27 years. For the first time in my life (44yrs old) I am experiencing a mild tennis elbow. Had a week rest from the weights but as soon I hit back the gym, the pain persisted. As you wrote, dumbell biceps curls (20kg per dumbell, 10-17 reps per set) and even bench press (with body weight – 75kg – only) seem to aggravate the elbow.

Now taking a 2-week break from atleast biceps dumbells and skullcrushers (triceps).

Would there be ”safe upper body exercises” or exercises that cause less strain on the forearm and elbow? For instance pull-ups?

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    I’m sorry you’re experiencing this pain when trying to exercise. I would definitely recommend scaling back from any exercises that are aggravating the elbow. Turn towards strengthening exercising to support the elbow instead. Consider seeking out a Physical Therapist for targeted exercises (or even YouTube a few) to make sure you are strengthening the muscles around elbow to limit long-term damage.

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I have what I believe to be golfer’s elbow – the pain is on/near the inner bump on the right elbow. The pain started when I was digging in my rose garden by hand with a small cultivator. I have been icing the elbow daily and the pain is better (but not completely gone). Would it be safe to play golf?

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    Tom, it is always best practice to let an injury heal completely before putting additional strain on the muscles, tendons and joints. Not allowing your body tie to heal can lead to worse injuries down the road. With that said, I would recommending seeking an official diagnosis, treatment plan, and time frame for returning to Golf. If may be sooner than you think!

    Reply

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