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How to Avoid Elbow Pain When Training Pull-ups

Sep 27, 2021

Have you ever jumped into a new training program feeling super motivated, then wound up hurting after your first couple sessions? Unfamiliar activities, like brand new workouts, set off alarm bells in our brains and can translate into painful sensations.

It’s fairly common to experience elbow pain when starting a new pull-up program, and there are ways to manage this without completely halting activity. This post will walk you through why elbow pain happens, how to avoid it, and what to do about it so you can keep crushing your training.

What’s the point of pain?

Our brain is constantly trying to avoid danger and keep us alive. Pain is one signal our brain sends to our body to warn us of a risk. When we start a new training program, especially if we push ourselves super hard at the beginning, our brain can interpret that change as dangerous.

Instead of avoiding all painful activity, getting curious about the sensations can provide useful information. What does the pain feel like? Is it tightness or soreness? Does it increase or decrease with different movements? When does it occur? Pain can be scary, but it doesn’t always translate into actual danger. Sometimes it’s just our body’s reaction to something new.

If you’re experiencing pain that isn’t going away or getting better with rest, it may be time to check in with a sports-specific healthcare provider. They’ll be able to assess if there’s a risk of doing real harm and help ease your fears about continuing certain movements.

Why do my elbows hurt?

When starting a new movement or strength program, muscles typically adapt more quickly than tendons. The muscles have more blood flow and nutrition going through them than the tendons, which helps speed recovery. Climbers especially may already have super strong pulling muscles, so they can crank out a bunch of pull-ups and end up with aggravated tendons.

The tendon wraps around the muscle and attaches to the bone, and this attachment point is the spot that tends to get irritated or inflamed. For the pulling muscles, the tendon attachment point is at the elbow, which is why you might experience elbow pain during pull-ups. When starting a new activity or program, our tendons need some time to catch up to our muscle strength.

What can I do about it?

If your elbows are on fire during your pull-up work-outs, it’s possible you have problems with load management, recovery, or both. Did you get really excited about getting strong and do a bunch of work all at once? Are you trying to sneak in your pull-up workouts after a four hour climbing session with your friends? Are you warming up properly before training or did you jump right on your project or the campus board?

The tricky thing is that tendons will feel worse before they feel better. Halting all activity is not always the answer; that will often make the problem worse. Modifying the movement, taking some weight off, or reducing the number of sessions you’re doing could be good places to start. Tendons need progressive loading and ample recovery to get stronger. Take it step by step and trust the process.

If you’re having trouble easing the pain even with modifications to your training, there could be other lifestyle factors at play. Are you eating enough nutritious food to support your activity? Is work or family stress weighing on you? Are you getting plenty of quality sleep and resting between sessions? These external conditions can play a major role in our ability to recover from training.

What other movements can I use?

If you’re noticing weakness in certain parts of your pull-up, or doing a full pull-up causes pain, try modifying your workout with isometric holds. Pick a few different angles to start with; try holding for 8-10 seconds with your arms at a 120 degree angle, 90 degree angle, or the top position of your pull-up. Or, if you are noticeably weak in a certain position, maybe you’ll supplement your regular pulling work with isometric holds at that angle. This is also a great place to start if you are working on getting your first pull-up!

What role does technique play?

You may also worry about doing pull-ups the “right” way to avoid injury or pain. Our bodies are actually designed to move in a variety of ways, so there’s not necessarily a wrong way to do a pull-up. How you choose to move should depend on your goals and intention behind the movement.

For climbers especially, it’s helpful to develop strength in a wide variety of positions so we have a bigger toolbox to use on the wall. Incorporating different grip types and shoulder orientations into your training can translate into more options for movement.

If you’re feeling pain, remember to take a look at your load management and recovery. Are you going too hard in a certain position, repeatedly trying your project? Have you given your tendons enough time to catch up with your strength gains? Considering your training from a holistic perspective, including lifestyle and stress management, can be the key to unlocking your potential.

For a more in depth discussion of elbow pain with pull-up training check out our interview with Dr. Max Wong.

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