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September 13, 2021 8 min read

Every exercise comes with its risks. If you push your body to the limit, you might find that you will run into issues with your body - some absolutely normal, like soreness, and some a bit more serious.

For bench pressing, we find that elbow pain is actually one of the most common injuries that people experience. 

Powerlifters, weightlifters, deadlift professionals, and regular gym-goers alike can face this issue, so it is important to know what is causing it, and what can be done about it if it does happen to you.

Thankfully for us, this kind of upper arm pain is often very easy to deal with. It often stems from overusing your forearm tendons (the ligaments inside of the elbow) as well as other problems that arise from having an improper technique.

This means that you can generally very easily solve them by simply learning about your body and about the proper bench pressing technique.

In short, this is what you need to do:

  • Understand the basics of elbow pain and the causes of elbow injury when bench pressing
  • Determine if your pain comes from overloading your elbow tendons or from poor technique
  • Load your elbow tendons appropriately if the pain is from overusing them
  • Fix your barbell placement consistency
  • Ensure movement symmetry from side to side with each rep
  • Change your grip width through the whole range of motion
  • Find a coach to help you perfect your technique

Understanding Your Pain And The Causes Of Elbow Injury While Benching

Everything is made better with knowledge. If you do not know where elbow issues can arise from, then you will have a much harder time trying to fix them. If you have been around bodybuilder circles for a while, you may already have heard the term 'chasing pain'.

sport injury pain concept of strong man with big muscles holding his painful elbow

This term refers to trying to treat and medicate the pain rather than understanding its root cause and fixing that instead. So for the rest of this article, we will give you a quick but thorough rundown of the most common causes of elbow pain when bench pressing with dumbbells or barbells. Please keep in mind that an effective warm-up will help you avoid these issues

Why You Get Elbow Pain While Bench Pressing

When you boil it down to basics, there are two reasons you might be experiencing elbow pain when you are bench pressing. It can come from overusing your muscles and tendons through high, repetitive training volume, or it can come from poor technique (also often called a motor control issue). This can cause you to have issues in other areas, such as your triceps (your triceps tendons and triceps extensions).

Overuse Issues

As you may already have guessed, overuse issues cause the biggest amount of elbow pain in weightlifters. This is because when you are seriously training, you are pushing yourself to the limits and forcing your body to workout more than it is able to. Thankfully, because it is so common, it is also very easy to treat. Keep reading and we will show you what you can do to treat it.

Motor Control Issues

This term, as we mentioned above, is simply used to describe someone’s ability to intentionally coordinate and get through the movement that you need to do.

When it comes to bench pressing, this refers to your ability to fully realize the movement without putting unnecessary strain on certain muscles, better known as your bench technique. If you are conducting the movement wrong, it may be causing you unnecessary issues, one of them being elbow pain.

Identifying The Most Common Conditions Causing Elbow Pain And How To Fix Them

There are a few reasons why you might be feeling elbow pain from bench pressing. As we have explained before, there are two main causes of elbow pain, and they can develop into semi-serious conditions if ignored. So here, we will go through the main ones:

Issue #1: Tendinopathies Of The Forearm Tendons

Tendinopathies of your forearm tendons can arise from overuse. Tendinopathy refers to the breakdown of the tendons around the elbow, and it often follows tendinitis. Tendinitis is often the first stage in tendon irritation. All of these issues can come from doing too many repeated movements that put too much pressure on your tendons, that get overused the more you not only move the bar up and down, but also squeeze the bar in your hand.

Because this issue arises from doing something too much for too long, it is not something that you can develop overnight. It is something that will happen over a long period of time, depending on how much you are overworking your body and your tendons. If this happens, it is important to take some time to rest and give your body and your tendons time to heal.

Issue #2: Bursitis Of The Elbow

Bursitis of the elbow is a condition that results from either excessive or repetitive (sometimes both) pressure that is placed on the back of your elbow joint when it is against a hard surface. This often develops from doing floor presses. Bursitis is a condition that is fairly closely related to tendinopathy. Bursas are little structures filled with liquid that allow tendons to be faced with less pressure, so they can move around more freely. When bursas become irritated or inflamed, that is when bursitis can occur.

Illustration of Olecranon bursitis

If you experience bursitis, you will likely feel pain during push-ups and pull-ups. The elbow’s specific bursa is called the olecranon bursa, and it is the most common bursa to become inflamed in your body. If this bursa does get inflamed, other than pain, you might also experience a burning or stinging-like sensation. This will be focused on the back of your elbow, since this is where the bursa is located.

Unfortunately, the more you move your elbow with bursitis, the more you will worsen the pain, and you may also develop issues such as golfer’s elbow or tennis elbow and even cause yourself to have shoulder pain or generalized upper body pain. You will have to readjust your workout if you encounter this problem.

Issue #3:  Fixing Poor Bench Press Technique 

Unless you are an absolute pro at bench pressing, you are likely to encounter issues with the proper bench pressing technique. Especially if you are going into it with a more relaxed mindset and you have not done your research, you might run into an issue down the line where you thought you were performing the movement correctly, but you have been harming your body unknowingly instead.

This means that you should always learn as much as you can about how to get the proper technique, and if you have the chance to, get a professional (such as a physical therapist licensed in physical therapy) to help you out.

It is also important to note that this has nothing to do with being a beginner - even if you are an advanced bench presser, you can still always benefit from perfecting your technique and being aware of the mistakes that can always be made.

Common issues such as bar path, chest placement and  grip width can all hurt you in the long term if you are not aware of them.

How To Fix Tendinopathies Of The Forearm

The thing with a condition such as tendinopathy is that in order to fully heal from it, you will have to take time aside to rest and possibly even change your routine temporarily, as well as your workouts. You will have to put a lot less pressure on the offending muscle group and tendon, because if you choose to continue the same way, you will likely only make it worse.

The first and most important thing to do is to significantly lower the amount of pressure that you put on your tendons. Then, if you choose to keep working out and doing bench presses, then you will need to either massively decrease or completely change the workout that you are doing, so that you make sure your pain level is significantly decreased.

Depending on the severity of the injury, your elbow pain should go away on its own and fairly easily if you are taking your time to heal and to lower the intensity of your sets. All you really need to do is be patient and make sure that you are not harming your other muscles or tendons by overworking those to make up for the rest that you are giving your elbow.

How To Fix Olecranon Bursitis

The way to fix this issue is quite similar to the way you fix the issue above. This means that if you have bursitis, you will have to immediately cut out all of the exercises that can be causing you to put too much pressure on your elbow, especially workouts such as floor presses. Since bursitis is an inflammatory issue, you should not be taking NSAID medications in order to take care of it. You can get an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory and you can take it until you start to improve.

You can also gently compress your elbow as often as you can to help take down the excessive amounts of fluid in your elbow. You can also even go as far as wearing an elbow sleeve while you are getting better and while you do your regular workouts so that you can see results faster.

Just make sure that this does not end up irritating the bursa further and make it worse.

How To Fix Poor Bench Press Technique

Thankfully, there are many things that you can actively do to fix a broken bench press technique, and the way to go about this is quite simple - just get a camera (or your phone) and film yourself doing a bench press.

Then, you can actually go back and watch yourself doing it and you can see if you can identify what you are doing incorrectly. You can even compare it to videos of professionals doing it. Just make sure you are getting a good angle so you can fully see what is going on with your bench pressing technique.

Look For Bar Placement Consistency On Each Rep

Bar placement is incredibly important. If you are inconsistent with it during your flexion, then you might be forcing your elbow to pick up the slack for it and causing it to be injured. By inconsistent here, we mean that your reps are either landing too low on your chest or they are landing too high. It is especially important to make sure your technique is good if you are planning on adding heavy weights to your workout.

Look For Asymmetrical Movement From One Arm To The Other

The other very important thing to look out for is whether or not your movements are actually symmetrical. This might seem fairly straightforward, but it is not uncommon, especially for beginners, to struggle with making symmetrical movements, which would put unnecessary strain on one side of your body and could potentially cause elbow pain.

This might be an issue that arises out of lack of awareness or because there are already underlying issues with your muscles or tendons. If you have decided to take our advice and start filming your workouts, then you should be able to tell if you are making the movements in an asymmetrical way and if you are compensating by putting more weight onto your elbow than you actually would.

There is a term in the weightlifting world called “elbow flare”. It refers to the fact that your technique is different from one arm to the other, and it is a very good indicator that you are not making good, symmetrical movements.

Final Thoughts

There are several reasons as to why your elbow might be experiencing some pain when you are bench pressing, and it is important to understand them if you are going to be a responsible bodybuilder.

You have to make sure that you are not overworking yourself, not solely because of elbow pain, but because of other kinds of injuries that you can come across as well.

If you find that you do have elbow pain during a bench press, take a deep breath and do not stress out. A pain-free exercise is possible, and sports medicine is there for you.

These kinds of injuries are common and it is often quite easy to fix elbow pain. The important thing is not to ignore them and keep pushing through, because that might bring you much more serious issues later in the future.