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Tricep Exercises and Elbow Pain (Your Guide to Pain Free Pressing)

One of the worth things imaginable for any regular gym goer is when the dreaded day comes, that dreaded day is of course joint pain when performing exercises. 

The most common form of this are knee, elbow and shoulder pain and the primary reason for this is because they are used in heavy compound movements as well as smaller isolation exercises, these joints therefore take a pounding from dedicated weightlifters. 

There really is no worse feeling when it comes to training (besides a serious injury) than a realization that you can’t do your favorite exercise anymore because of joint pain, and elbow pain is one of the biggest culprits!

Tricep exercises and elbow pain? Tricep exercises are one of the biggest contributors to elbow pain because of the stress that gets placed on the joint when performing certain tricep exercises. Heavy pressing in the form of close grip bench presses and skull crushes are big no go areas though pushdowns can also cause pain.

Whilst tricep exercises are a key factor for elbow pain they are not necessarily the root cause but rather an aggravation of an underlying issue.  

What Causes Elbow Pain

When it comes to elbow pain during tricep exercises a common cause is often tendinitis. Tendons are bands of tissue that connect muscle to bone and when these become inflamed and irritated then this is what leads to tendinitis. (Source

The main causes of elbow tendinitis are often from repetitive movements (you will often see it referred to as golfers elbow) and heavy lifting, the two main components of weight training funnily enough. Where you feel pain will often signify a different cause or symptom. 

Pain on the inside of the elbow is known as golfers elbow whereas pain on the outside is often known as tennis elbow. I’m not a doctor and prescribing any symptoms or remedies but when you have elbow pain then this should be your first avenue to explore. 

(For any pain or injury, always seek medical advice, this article is solely to assist with pain free lifting and correct exercise form, it is not to be used as medical diagnosis or advice).

Tricep Exercises and Elbow Pain

Whilst triceps are not necessarily a cause of elbow pain there is no denying that the majority of exercises specifically for the triceps do cause elbow pain and the main reason for this is because of the stress placed on such a small joint. 

During pressing movements like the bench press and overhead press your tricep is always active as a secondary muscle group and your elbow joint is always the prime mover along with the shoulder joint. 

For many with certain body types and exercise mechanics you might find that you actually place more stress and tension on the tricep than what you initially intended. Closer grips will bring the tricep more into play and for some the tricep might actually be the most active muscle group in the press. 

These factors all play a part when you come across the usually inevitable scenario of tricep exercises and elbow pain. 

Why Do Your Elbows Hurt When Doing Triceps

The main reason why your elbows hurt during tricep exercises is because of the stress placed around the elbow joint which means that more stress is therefore place on the tendons and this will be problematic if as mentioned you have any form of tendinitis. 

Weak wrist muscles and tight forearm muscle will also play a part in this, usually when it comes to the human body pain in one area is likely caused by an issue somewhere else in the body which is known as the kinetic chain. 

Tight wrist flexors and extensors are often a key issue that many face when feeling pain with movements around the elbow joint, most prominently curling exercises for the bicep and pressing exercises for the tricep.  

Therefore it’s not always the case that the elbow pain is originating from the muscle group that you are trying to work but more often it’s the result of an issue elsewhere. One direct cause of elbow pain when training triceps however can be tight triceps.

Are Tight Triceps Causing Elbow Pain

The triceps muscle is made up of three heads (the lateral, medial and long heads) and together combine to make a horseshoe shaped muscle on the back of the upper arms. As mentioned elbow pain can come from a few route causes which are often tightness of a particular muscle group. 

The triceps, in particular the long head of the tricep located in the inner portion of the upper arm, is a muscle group that is often worked frequently as a secondary muscle during pressing movements and if muscle adhesion build up as a result of over stimulation then this will lead to tightness within the muscle. 

Tight muscles can always cause issues when it comes to weightlifting and therefore you need to take steps to prevent this in the form of flexibility and deep tissue myofascial work. Breaking down adhesion’s within the muscle group and ensuring they are flexible is a great starting point in an attempt to eliminate elbow pain from tricep exercises. 

Whilst a tight tricep might not be the root cause of elbow pain, doing a combination of soft and deep tissue work is essential for proper muscle functionality and will at least go some ways towards alleviating the pain.

How to Stop Your Elbow Hurting When Training Triceps

The first thing you need to do to stop your elbow from hurting when training triceps is ensure the elbow joint is fully warmed up and that there is sufficient blood flow to that area before doing any form of direct tricep work.

Pairing bicep training with tricep training is a great way to accommodate this, particularly if you train biceps first in order to get blood pumping into the upper arm area. A sure solution for a comfortable training session is to always ensure the joint is warm and mobile before loading it with weight. 

Next you want to ensure that all the surrounding muscles of the joint are free of any tightness and possible knots/adhesions. For this however I do not recommend stretching before training.

Stretching before training temporarily reduces the elasticity of the muscle group which will lead to a greater chance for muscle injury if you then proceed to stretch it further under a load. 

Therefore a few hours or the day before training tricep you will want to do some soft tissue work on the tricep, bicep and forearm muscles in order to reduce any tightness. The best place I can recommend checking this out is on Smashwerx YouTube channel.

This guy has multiple videos on preventing elbow pain with soft and deep tissue work and whilst his exercises are painful it’s painful in a good way as opposed to the sharp pain that you currently feel during training!

Finally you want to be selecting exercises that are the easiest on the joint and being very selective with the weight that you use. Hammering max weight skull crushers is almost a guaranteed way to beat up your elbows (which is why you want to consider skull crusher alternatives).

Pain Free Triceps Exercises

Tricep Exercises and Elbow Pain (Bodies By Byrne)

Exercise selection is a key factor when it comes to tricep exercises and elbow pain. If you are picking exercises that place the elbow joint under a great deal of stress then you are basically asking for trouble. 

My first recommendation is therefore to leave your ego at the gym door and get started on band work. Band work for the triceps is an absolute joint saver, not only do they allow for constant tension on the working muscle but also do so with minimal loading of the elbow joint.

The best thing about this is that to progress you can use light weight to perform overhead extension whilst keeping tension high, this means that a 10lb dumbbell can suddenly feel like a 40lb dumbbell and is therefore an excellent tool to utilize. 

Tricep pressdowns one a cable machine would be my next recommendation for pain free tricep exercises however you need to follow certain steps. First I’d recommend going with the rope attachment over a fixed bar, you can’t use as much weight with a rope however you get just as much (if not more) tricep activation.

Secondly and most importantly is you need to keep your elbow locked by your side and position yourself so that the angle of force comes directly over your elbow joint. 

When you see people with elbows flaring out during a tricep pressdown try to imagine the line of force, it will be over your shoulder and wrist in line with the cable meaning that your elbow joint will need to work harder to move the weight. 

The further a joint is from the line of force the more stress is placed on it as a result and unnecessary stress at that. When training remember to place the active joint under the line of force for the movement. When bench pressing your forearm should always be perfectly parallel so that force can travel directly down your wrist and elbow joint in a straight line.

As soon as a joint is not in the ideal line of force/tension for a movement you can be sure that pain is likely to follow. 

Finally you will want to place your overhead work last in your routine once your triceps are filled with blood and the elbow joint is fully warmed up. 

Too many people start their tricep training with heavy close grip presses or skull crushers because this is when they are fresh and can lift the most weight. A serious downside of this however is that overhead work places the most stress on the elbow joint during tricep training. 

Unfortunately the long head of the tricep is mostly active during overhead work as a result of the muscles functionality. Therefore skipping overhead work all together is not an ideal route if you want optimal muscle growth. 

By placing overhead work last however, you won’t be able to handle as much weight as when you are fresh (though should still be able to fatigue the muscle fibres) and you will be doing so with a much warmer and primed joint.

If you want to see how to include this in an arm specific routine then check out my article here:
Can you train arms everyday?

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