Elbow Pain During the Bench Press

Elbow pain during the bench press can be a frustrating injury to overcome and stall your bench press gains. In this article, we’ll discuss the most common cause of elbow pain and the best plan of action to eliminate triceps tendinopathy with bench press.

What Is Triceps Tendinopathy?

Triceps tendinopathy is a painful condition where the tendon connecting the tricep muscle to the olecranon (elbow) is inflamed and degenerated (broken down). This results in the tendon becoming sensitive to loading, potentially preventing you from pressing movements like the bench press.

What Causes Elbow Pain During the Bench Press?

Triceps tendinopathy occurs when we ask a tendon to do too much volume repeatedly and/or load too quickly. This results in the tendon being challenged more than it can recover from and breaking down.

The first step in rehabbing your bench press elbow pain will be to examine your recent training changes for any examples of overreaching:

  • Have you recently increased the frequency of your bench pressing?
  • Have you made jumps up too rapidly in bench press loading?
  • Are there any new exercises you’ve added that may have placed too much load on the triceps tendon?

If you note any of these training volume errors, we need to re-adjust your training to a more manageable level and then build back up more slowly.

Modifying Your Training

Adjusting your training volume will help in the long term. But your elbow hurts now, and you don’t want to stop training. So, we also should look into exercise modifications that will allow you to continue training.

Possible bench press modifications include:

  • Temporarily adopting a wider grip for more emphasis on the pecs and less on the triceps
  • Reducing the range of motion of the bench press to avoid positions that aggravate the tendon. Board or pin presses are great if you have more pain at the bottom. Lockout pain may mean stopping the bench press short of full extension.
  • Consider emphasizing the dumbbell bench press more.

While these are great exercises, skull crushers, and JM Press should often be removed. They both place a maximum load on the triceps tendon in the stretched position. I often find that band tricep extensions are better tolerated with triceps tendinopathy.

Follow the Silbernagel Pain Monitoring model to know when exercises are good or bad:

  • Red Light = pain >5/10
  • Yellow light = pain 3-4/10 (make sure tendon doesn’t stay irritated >24 hours)
  • Greenlight = pain 2/10 or less

Build the Tendon Back-Up

One of the most significant components to rehabbing elbow pain during the bench press is to build the triceps tendon back up. I’m generally looking to find 1-2 exercises that create mild discomfort on the tendon to stimulate the body’s response to improve tissue strength.

This can be several different exercises, from pushdowns to skull crushers and JM press. The exercise and load selected are always based on your response and tolerance to that load.

For more irritated tendons, start with band pushdowns. As the tendon becomes stronger, progress to the other exercises.

Highly Irritated Example:

  • Three times a week, perform 3×15 band pushdowns with enough tension that we create 3-4/10 pain
  • Superset with tricep kickbacks x15-20 reps to create a big blood pump to the elbow

Moderately Irritated Example:

  • Three times a week, perform 3×12 DB Skullcrushers with enough load that we create 3-4/10 pain
  • After that, perform x50 band tricep pushdowns

Low Irritability Example:

  • Three times per week, perform 3×12 JM Press with a 3-second lower
  • After that, perform x100 band tricep pushdowns with fast speed (to build tendon elasticity)


Elbow Pain During the Bench Press Recap

We have a few goals when rehabbing triceps tendinopathy:

  • Adjust training to not further aggravate symptoms while still improving symptoms
  • Consider the balance between training and recovery (sleep & nutrition)
  • Build tendon strength back up

Happy lifting!