Bench Press Elbow Pain: Reasons Explained

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
July 21, 2022

Elbow pain during or after the performance of the bench press is a rather common complaint. One that, unfortunately, will not always have a clear reason why it is occurring, and as such may persist unless the exerciser makes significant effort in remedying this particular symptom.

For the most part, elbow pain during the bench press may be narrowed down to several mistakes made involving the form and technique the exerciser is utilizing, or in the manner of which they have programmed the bench press within their training program.

Fortunately, however, once the exerciser has managed to identify the cause of their elbow pain caused by the bench press, fixing the issue is often quite simple and will often yield immediate results if done correctly.

What Causes Elbow Pain During the Bench Press?

Elbow pain experienced during or after a bench press set is most commonly caused by poor form adherence or simple overuse injuries relating to the manner in which the exerciser is taxing the various connective and muscular tissues of the elbow and its surrounding structures.

The first reason is more likely to be an issue if the exerciser is of novice training experience or is otherwise unfamiliar with the proper form cues and mechanics involved in making the bench press a safe and effective exercise, though it is entirely possible for more experienced lifters to make mistakes in their training that lead to various injuries of the forearm and elbow.

The latter, however, is more an error in training programming and rehabilitation work, and will not usually require much to fix other than simple restructuring of the exerciser’s workout program.

This, of course, is not applicable if the pain in the elbow that the exerciser is experiencing has progressed into a chronic injury or condition, such as tendonitis or connective tissue bursitis - two conditions that require the attention of a medical professional.

What Conditions can Elbow Pain from Bench Pressing Mean?

As simple pain radiating from the elbow is a relatively common symptom caused by a number of different injury types or conditions, it is important for the exerciser to understand what differentiates these numerous conditions in order to gauge the severity and method of rehabilitation required.

Less serious causes of elbow pain such as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), impingement caused by poor technique or very minor tendinopathy will often require only minor rehabilitative work or a short time off.

In comparison, such matters like elbow bursitis, tendinosis or pinched nerves will all require serious medical attention and long term rehabilitative work in order to prevent further degradation of the elbow - and are generally noted to include high levels of elbow pain alongside symptoms that do not appear when experiencing less serious elbow injuries associated with the bench press.

Does Elbow Pain Mean Bench Pressing Should be Stopped?

Whether or not the exerciser must cease their future performance of the bench press due to this elbow pain will depend on its severity and what the particular cause of the pain actually is; with minor pain caused by a slight error in form or simple soreness of the connective tissue allowing the exerciser to still perform the bench press with the same intensity.

On the other hand, elbow pain that is severe, is accompanied by more worrying symptoms such as numbness or reduced range of motion - or elbow pain that is caused by factors that cannot be immediately remedied will all require that the exerciser either stop bench pressing for a period of time or otherwise reduce the intensity of their bench press sets.

How is Elbow Pain Best Avoided During the Bench Press?

As elbow pain can be debilitating or otherwise disruptive to the training and development of an exerciser, the best possible way to deal with such issues is to prevent them from occurring in the first place - with a variety of methods being available that can not only reduce the risk of elbow pain developing, but also a number of other injuries relating to the bench press and improper performance of said exercise.

Preparatory and Rehabilitative Work

One of the surest ways to prevent injuries such as elbow bursitis or tendon issues is to maintain a proper mobility routine, warm-up routine and to always ensure adequate rest time is being taken between workout sessions.

These tactics will not only reduce the risk of injuries relating to the elbow and its surrounding tissue structures, but also improve the exerciser’s bench press performance by aiding in effective range of motion of the triceps, improving muscle fiber recruitment and increasing blood flow to the relevant areas.

Common methods of achieving correct preparatory and rehabilitative work is a daily stretching routine, performing several warm-up sets of the bench press prior to a full working weight set, and spacing out workout sessions involving the bench press with at least 24 hours of rest between sessions.

Proper Technique

Apart from proper preparatory and rehabilitative work, the performance of the bench press itself may also be a factor that contributes significantly to the presence of elbow pain in an exerciser.

barbell bench press

Errors made in proper bench press mechanics and form such as a failure to properly retract the shoulder blades, an improper barbell touch point or grip width that is too narrow while under significant load can all place high amounts of pressure and force on the elbow joint, resulting in pain and injury over time.

In order to retain proper bench press technique, the exerciser should review and practice their form as well as investigate their bench press for the errors mentioned later in this article.

Avoiding Excessive Volume and Resistance

A major cause of overuse injuries and strained tissue in resistance exercise is the overuse of too much volume with excessive resistance. In other words, this means that the exerciser is performing too many repetitions of an exercise (or exercises) with far too much weight at the same time.

It must be noted that while this may also count towards overtraining, it in and of itself is not overtraining and may result in other conditions and injuries aside from the general group of symptoms known as overtraining.

The exact limit to which the exerciser may utilize high levels of volume and resistance will depend on their preparatory work, diet, training experience and unique biological factors - all of which change what “excessive volume and resistance” mean on an individual basis.

Bench Press Technique Errors Causing Elbow Pain

As the most frequent cause of elbow pain from the bench press is the usage of improper form, certain major errors in bench press technique must be avoided in order to prevent or remedy any elbow pain the exerciser may experience, as it is these particular errors that are most likely to cause said pain.

These primarily revolve around the angle of resistance relative to the torso, as well as the flexion of the elbow joint as it is placed under high levels of resistance due to shear force and the weight of the barbell itself.

Inconsistent Barbell Touch Point

The touchpoint of the bench press is the location wherein the exerciser lowers the barbell to their chest, making contact and pausing for a moment before continuing with the ascending portion of the repetition.

bench press barbell touch point

An inconsistent barbell touch point will often mean that the exerciser possesses several muscular imbalances (especially in regards to their stabilizer muscle groups), as well as a possible failure in proper form adherence that requires practice in order to instill the correct bar path into their muscle memory.

If the exerciser always lowers the barbell to a different point along their chest, excessive pressure and force is placed on the elbow in certain angles, thereby causing a variety of different injuries such as tendonitis or other torn connective tissue related conditions as the angle of resistance damages the elbow joint.

Excessively Narrow Grip Width

While both an excessively narrow and broad hand distance along the barbell may lead to impingement and stresses placed on the elbow, it is a grip width that is too close together that places the greatest stress on the elbows, especially without proper scapular retraction.

bench press narrow grip

Depending on whether the pain radiates from the inner or back portion of the elbow, the exerciser may need to modify their grip width so as to allow for a more advantageous position in accordance with their unique bodily proportions.

As each individual has different proportions, triceps brachii insertion points and training experience, it is up to them to try different grip stances and widths until they find what is most comfortable for them.

Flaring of Elbows / Scapular Extension

One of the main points of advice given to novice lifters attempting the bench press is in the proper retraction and “pinning” of the shoulderblades beneath the exerciser’s back, thereby forcing the elbows to tuck more closely towards the torso and reducing force placed vertically along the joint.

bench press shoulders

Though the bench press mechanics of elbow tucking and scapular retraction are often considered to be two separate form cues, they are in fact directly interconnected as a retracted scapula or shoulder blade will limit the range of motion that the elbow may flare out to, reducing strain placed on the joint and instead redirecting it to the pectoral muscles and deltoids.

Stretches and Exercises to Remedy Elbow Pain of the Bench Press

In cases wherein the exerciser’s elbow pain is either minor enough to not warrant additional medical attention or if a licensed medical professional has advised the exerciser to conduct physical rehabilitation of the elbow, certain stretches and exercises may be used so as to retain the joint’s range of motion as well as to reinforce any weakened or injured tissues therein.

For the most part, these exercises are meant to be combined with a reduction in bench press intensity in order to allow the muscles and connective tissues to order - unless they are being performed as a preventative measure, wherein no change in intensity is needed unless it is a factor in the exerciser’s risk of injury.

Bench Press Variations with Altered Range of Motion and Contraction

Best utilized in less severe cases of elbow pain wherein the main issue is either a certain portion of the exercises’ range of motion or an error in bench press technique, replacing the bench press with a similar variation that better meets the training needs or corrects the mistakes of the exerciser will greatly aid in reducing or preventing elbow pain.

board chest press

For issues relating to a certain range of motion of the bench press, utilizing such exercises like board presses, floor presses or pin presses that reduce or limit portions of the exercise’s range of motion and the bar path of the movement will allow the exerciser to still accrue training stimulus while allowing their elbows to recover as the range of motion is avoided or otherwise practiced without a full repetition being performed.

Isometric Stretches for Elbows

For minor tendinopathy, soreness or other connective tissue and joint related elbow pain; the exercise may utilize certain mobility techniques in order to retain a full range of motion of the elbow, improve blood flow, and otherwise aid in the rehabilitation and recovery of any injuries in that particular area of the arm.

Static stretches of the triceps brachii and the tissues surrounding the elbow such as the overhead triceps stretch, cross body lateral elbow stretch, wrist rotation and elbow flexion pull and the elbow-out rotator stretch will all aid in achieving the aforementioned benefits by isometrically stretching the various tissues therein.

Low Impact Triceps Brachii Isolation Movements

Finally, there is the factor of retaining triceps brachii mobility and strength as the exerciser recovers by inducing a small amount of stress in the muscle group.

As free weight resistance exercises may place excess stress on the elbow and thus slow down recovery, the usage of resistance bands, exercise machines or simple bodyweight movements are the most advisable - with movements that avoid aggregating the elbow joint such as resistance band tricep extensions and cable tricep pushdowns all allowing the exerciser to preserve their triceps function as they continue physical rehabilitation.

References

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2. Verstuyft L, Caekebeke P, van Riet R. Postoperative rehabilitation in elbow surgery. J Clin Orthop Trauma. 2021 Jun 18;20:101479. doi: 10.1016/j.jcot.2021.101479. Erratum in: J Clin Orthop Trauma. 2021 Jul 30;20:101538. PMID: 34262846; PMCID: PMC8254033.

3. Ozden F, Yesilyaprak SS. INFLUENCE OF FOAM ROLLING ON ELBOW PROPRIOCEPTION, STRENGTH, AND FUNCTIONAL MOTOR PERFORMANCE. J Athl Train. 2021 Feb 24;56(10):1112–23. doi: 10.4085/445-20. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 33626144; PMCID: PMC8530418.

4. Bengtsson V, Berglund L, Aasa UNarrative review of injuries in powerlifting with special reference to their association to the squat, bench press and deadliftBMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine 2018;4:e000382. doi: 10.1136/bmjsem-2018-000382

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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