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Simple Strategies to Combat Elbow Pain

Ever had sore elbows?

It’s a very common occurrence, especially in the, erm, more “Mature” lifter.

As in most of the people that I talk to with sore elbows are well over 30 with a lot of miles on the clock. It is almost always on the medial side, or if your arms hang by the body, the side of the elbow closest to the body. And it kicks off with a lot of pulling movements, especially Pull Ups.

Why does it happen?

There can be a great many reasons, the elbow is a small and very busy joint.

anatomy-of-the-elbow courtesy of LIBCAT.ORG

There are many muscles, tendons, ligaments, arteries, veins and nerves all passing through a tight space that is responsible for a great many of our day to day actions. How many? Try not using just one elbow for the next hour, lock your arm straight or keep it at 90° and see how much it affects you.

Pretty sucky eh?

Anyhow, back to the gym and why pulling hurts.

Let’s explore the common reasons:

Imbalance of the forearm flexors and extensors.

The muscles that close out hand are way stronger than those that open out hand, this is by design. I was chatting to Son no 1 about this recently and he said “Oh, you mean like a crocodiles mouth?” Yes, that is exactly what it’s like!

You can’t mention crocodiles without mentioning Steve Irwin!

However, consider how much training we do that involves closing the hand and how much we do that involves opening it again, you can see how the constant gripping can tip the scale too far in favour of the flexors. And pain may occur.

This is a simple fix, work the extensors. Practice opening your hand, you may use an elastic band or you can buy a speciality piece of kit online. These are just two items available from a very quick search on Amazon (they are affiliate links), there are many other options available if you do a wider search:

Finger Extensor straps:

The Powerball, this is non specific but will fry all the forearm muscles:

Poor Lat Function

The lats, the widest muscle of the body, those glorious wings, can really let us down sometimes.

If the lats become overly tight, which is more common than you may realise, they may not provide the pull you think they should. As part of their job is to internally rotate the arm, this action can be picked up by smaller muscles that are involved in the same job. One of whom is the Pronator Teres who lives on the inside of our elbow.

The poor pronator teres isn’t supposed to work alone, so when overloaded he can cry for help, aka, pain.

Try a bit of SMR on the pronator, either roll it out with a ball, maybe on the spinning collar of a racked barbel, maybe give it stretch by spreading the fingers, cocking the wrist and screwing the arm forwards (as if you want to place the palm of your hand on a the wall in front with your fingers pointing to the floor).

Actively screw the arm forwards, spread the fingers and lock the elbow, move in and out of the stretch

Then immediately do some straight arm pull downs, controlled reps with a light weight (try a band hung from a pull up bar) until you feel the lats kick in. You may need a few rounds of these, go by feel.

While performing any exercise that does involve a pull, ensure you feel the lats. Bodybuilders talk of the “mind muscle connection”, where they actively try to feel the muscle contract. While most in the strength and conditioning world, myself included focus more on ovements than muscles, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water and forget that muscles ar still a big deal. And who knows muscles best?

Body Builders.

Look to feel them as you pull, if doing one arm work, place your other hand (if you can reach) on them, this tactile feedback helps with that “mind-muscle connection”

A big issue for many is straight arm work, especially deadlifts, if we can’t involve the lats and keep them engaged through the lift, we are definitely going to have issue with our bent arm work like rows and pull ups.

On these straight arm lifts it is vital that we create tension in the lats prior to lifting. Part of this is striving to keep the bar as close to the body as possible, the other part is to try to snap the bar, bending it around yourself. Of course you don’t want the bar dragging up your shins, although from time to time this will happen and is the reason many deadlifters wear long socks, but the mental image is essential.

The last tip is one I received from GMB trainer Nathan Featherstone of Freeman Fitness. Nathan recommends very high rep curls, tricep extensions and various pulls with a light band. How many reps is very high? We’re talking triple figures, so it’s definitely a finisher or a workout all by itself. Nathan also pointed out that this is a strategy employed by Westside Barbell, not just the gymnastics community.

A post shared by Westside Barbell (@westsidebarbellofficial) on Jul 13, 2018 at 8:00am PDT

So, to summarise:

– If you have elbow pain, first things first, get it looked at!

– Then try massaging the pain site, and then working the forearm extensors and/or the lats. Keep it light, controlled and go by feel, if you don’t feel the target muscles “activating” you are wasting your time.

– Focus on the “mind-muscle connection” look to feel the lats in all  – pulling movements, be they straight or bent arm.

– Maybe finish your upper body sessions with very high rep band work, particularly curls, tricep extensions, straight arm pull downs, face pulls, pull aparts etc.

Hope that helps

Drop me a comment below and let me know your own thoughts on the subject. Have you had elbow pain and what helped you fix it?

Regards Dave Hedges

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