How to Strengthen Elbows: For Injury Prevention and Bigger, Stronger Arms

By on April 28, 2021

Turns out a lot of you guys are pretty injured! After I posted my video on building stronger knees, I was inundated with requests for similar videos tackling ankles, shoulders, hips, and just about everything else. We’ll get there, but I decided to start with how to strengthen elbows; seeing as this is an area that is currently bugging me.

See also: How to Strengthen Knees for Rehab, Prehab, and Explosive Jumps

Strengthening the elbows is important, as they are one of the most commonly-injured joints among lifters and athletes. Unfortunately, a lot of our training and lifestyle actually contributes to weakness in the area.

strengthen elbows

And as an added bonus, when you strengthen the elbows you also increase the size of your arms if you’re doing it right, and improve a number of lifts. You may even unlock awesome calisthenics skills. Increasing the strength of the elbow tendons and muscles surrounding this joint will stabilize your arm for any type of movement, allowing you to tap into far greater upper-body strength without risk of injury.

Causes of Elbow Pain

Before we start to strengthen our elbows, let’s look at what can go wrong with them and why they’re often weak to begin with.

What is Tennis Elbow?

Tennis elbow, or lateral epicondylitis, is pain felt on the outside of the elbows and is the result of repetitive movements such as curling or playing tennis, or hyperextension during movements like punching. You’ll notice you also experience this pain when performing gripping, extension, and twisting (supination) movements with the hand and wrist. This can effect several extensor muscles, most prominently the carpi radialis brevis and the rest of the common extensor tendons.

What is tennis elbow

Once you’ve experienced this, you’ll understand the importance of a protocol to strengthen elbows!

What is Golfer’s Elbow?

Golfer’s elbow, conversely, is pain felt on the inside of the elbow at the medial epicondyle – a bony protrusion on the inside of the humerus. You’ll feel this during flexing and pronation. Any tendon that inserts at the medial epicondyle can be the cause here, including the pronator teres, flexor carpi radialis, etc. Golfer’s elbow is commonly caused by golf, hence the name, but can also be caused by a number of throwing movements and by climbing. It is also sometimes called “climbers’ elbow,” for this reason and is actually also common among manual laborers who do a lot of screwing.

Biceps and Triceps

You might experience pain in the bicep muscles themselves, or in the distal biceps tendon that connects the bicep to the radius. It’s also possible, though much less common, to experience injuries affecting the triceps and triceps tendons. 

stronger elbows biceps curls

Learning to strengthen elbows ALSO means building strong biceps, therefore!

Strengthen the Wrist to Strengthen Elbows

Just as strengthening the ankle can prevent knee complaints, strengthening the wrist and shoulders can help to strengthen the elbows. The wrist is probably the prime candidate for many people.

This is because several tendons span both the elbow and the wrist joint. For example, the extensor carpi radialis brevis originates at the humerus (lateral epicondyle) and inserts at the posterior base of the third metacarpal (the base of the middle finger, on the back). So, pain in the elbows is often actually the result of a weak wrist or forearm – and we can strengthen elbows by working on these areas.

Several tendons span both the elbow and the wrist joint.

(This may partly explain my own bad luck, seeing as I broke my wrist into pieces when I was 13 pretending to be Jackie Chan.)

The Problem With Common Exercises

Nearly every exercise you perform with free weights is also a grip exercise. Specifically, you’ll be using the flexors in order to close your hand around the bar. But this also creates activation in the extensors – very often antagonist muscles work as stabilizers for the prime movers. In this case, the extensors come online to prevent the wrist from fully flexing.

Curling Barbell

This creates an imbalance. The extensors become overly fatigued without being directly strengthened in the way that the flexors so often are. It’s no wonder they can become fatigued and then injured! Either that, or your poor overworked flexors simply give up.

Making matters worse, is our lifestyles (as usual!). If you use a mouse or keyboard, then you’re constantly flexing your wrists and fingers and doing very little extension. If you do this all day, then go and lift weights, you’ve just increased your chances of injury. A lack of mobility in the wrist can also be an issue, as tightness makes injury more likely when falling onto the hands.

Training the Wrist Extensors to Strengthen Elbows

A simple fix and the first method to strengthen elbows, is to train your wrist extensors. You can do this with both pronated and supinated wrist curls. Pronated wrist curls are best for tennis elbow, while supinated are useful for golfer’s elbow… but you should always do both!

wrist strengthener

You can also buy devices that provide their own resistance to use. Check out my all-new Toolkit page on this site if you want the link to the one I use. You’ll find links to all the different things I use in my videos there and all the services and gadgets I recommend.

See also: The Weak link – Increase Power and Control With Forearm and Grip Strength Training

An Out-There Option

Or if you want to get all old-school Kung Fu movie: wrist push ups. This will improve mobility in the wrists, specifically in terms of wrist flexion, which is ideal for preventing imbalances if you do a lot of wrist extension (as you might if you practice handstands and do lots of push ups). It also involves an isometric contraction for the extensors as they fight to prevent the wrists collapsing in further. Of course, all this will indirectly strengthen elbows.

It’s precisely the stuff that looks like it’s inviting injury that is going to create truly bulletproof joints.

Again, it’s precisely the stuff that looks like it’s inviting injury that is going to create truly bulletproof joints. BUT this is also something that needs to be built up to extremely slowly. Stick with the wrist curls, unless you’re Jackie Chan. Yeah… Jackie Chan has been a bit of a bad influence on me. (In fact, when I was 15, my Mum banned me from watching his films after I performed a handstand on a bridge over a motorway. Which is fair.)

Seriously though, be very slow and steady on this one, and work up to it with progressions by starting on your knees. And really, only intense martial artists and gymnasts need apply here.

Curls With Different Grips to Strengthen Elbows

A very simple way to fortify the elbows is to experiment with different grips during curls and pull ups. Performing a barbell curl with a pronated grip, for example, will automatically strengthen the extensor muscles. This is because gravity is now trying to force the hand into flexion, meaning you need to maintain an isometric contraction in the extensors to prevent this happening.

Pronated Barbell Curl to Strengthen Wrists

One of my favourite exercises to strengthen elbows AND build bigger arms is the biceps curl with supination. Start with the palms facing inward and then twist them upward as you curl.

The biceps are responsible not only for elbow flexion, but also shoulder flexion, and supination of the forearm. Supination means turning the palm upward, which means you’re training two different functions of the biceps at once.

Hammer Curls

Hammer curls are great, too. These are curls using a “neutral grip” with the palms facing inward. They focus more on the long head of the biceps, located on the lateral (exterior) side of the biceps. It also hits the brachialis, brachioradialis, and the pronator teres. The good news is that this can add significantly to your bicep size if you’ve been using only supinated curls and will help to create bulging forearms, too. Finally, hammer curls can be excellent to strengthen the elbows ready for rope climbing – another exercise that is tough on the elbows.

Strengthening the Biceps Tendon

More straightforward is the old biceps/biceps tendon tear. This can be caused by overdoing it on the biceps curls, chin ups, or deadlifts. Which also means it can happen when just lifting anything heavy. Not enough lifters take the time to strengthen elbows!

Pseudo Planche Pushup

Planche has the potential to cause elbow damage but it can also be fantastic for strengthening the elbows and biceps, specifically. Like anything, cautious progressive overload is the order of the day. Get this right and you can actually use planche training to strengthen that tendon by applying just the right amount of resistance and causing it to strengthen.

This is one reason to build up to moves like the planche gradually, using exercises like the pseudo planche push up. This is a push up performed with the hands further back – around waist level – and the upper body positioned forward to create a slight lean. Push up from there as you normally would, but make sure to fully straighten and lock out the elbows at the top of the movement to work your “straight arm strength.” This is where all that pressure is going to be placed on the biceps tendons. You should also push through the ground with arms straight, thereby protracting the scapulae.

If you want to unlock full planche, this is a must. But anyone can benefit from the kind of injury-proof biceps this builds, especially anyone doing lots of deadlifts. Strengthen elbows and learn cool moves? Sounds good to me!

Strengthening the Elbow Tendons

You can also strengthen your biceps with high volume bicep curls. This will help to get lots of blood flowing to the area and may encourage capilarization – meaning you actually create new blood vessels feeding the biceps and tendons. This is important, as the tendons receive less blood flow compared with muscle, making them slower to grow/recover and more prone to injuries (study).

See also: Tendon Training for Injury Prevention and Explosive Power

Eccentrics are also fantastic for strengthening tendons. This means slowing down and focussing on the lengthening (lowering) portion of the movement. Get help lifting a barbell into position and then very slowly let it lower again. In one study, it was found that using eccentric heel dips could treat chronic Achilles tendinopathy moreso than simple rest and NSAIDs.

Shoulder Stabilization

At the other end of the arm, we should also be strengthening the shoulders. This will aid with stabilization to prevent unnecessary torque in the elbows. Imagine an overhand throw without any shoulder stability and you can see how this can almost cause whiplash in the rest of the arm. Issues can also arise due to a lack of mobility. This is why strengthening the shoulders is also a great way to strengthen elbows.

shoulder stability

I’ll talk more about shoulder mobility in my shoulder video. But strengthening the scapulae with scapulae push ups and scapulae pull pus can help here, or you can get the same benefits with scapular protraction and retraction during other exercises – like the aforementioned pseudo planche push ups. You can also train the rotator cuffs with a variety of exercises like the prone external rotation, or lawnmower row.

Use forward, lateral, and rear dumbbell raises, for example. One of my favourites for shoulder stability AND mobility is the Gamma cast, which can equally be swapped out for kettlebell halos, or Bulgarian bag spins. Start light.

Rear dumbbell raises

Oh, and I also love the weight plate steering wheel. Hold a weight plate infront of you like a forward raise with both hands, then twist it left and right.

Strengthening Triceps

Finally, don’t forget that the elbow joint moves in two directions! Strengthening the triceps is actually an important way to prevent injury, seeing as this is what we use to slow down concentric bicep contractions during, say, a curl. Likewise, strengthening the biceps helps to slow down movement during a punch, preventing hyperextension.

This is another pearl of wisdom from Knees Over Toes Guy, Ben Patrick. He explains how training the antagonist muscle can often effectively prevent injury, for this very reason.

Strengthen elbows for martial artists

And the triceps should make up ¾ of the upper arm musculature, anyway. So, you probably need more triceps training! Try the “Dumbbell Runner” which is one of my favourites: hammer curl slowly on one side (using light weights) while performing a tricep kick back on the other side. You’ll be in a staggered stance, and you can raise the shoulders slightly during each rep too. It looks a bit like Baywatch slow-mo running!

Finally: Some General Advice

I don’t want to get too general here, as this post is all about how to strengthen elbows. But of course, proper nutrition is crucial, as is generally using varied, regular movement.

Doing hundreds of curls with a single grip and movement pattern without ever switching grip is of course going to lead to imbalances and overuse injuries. This is obvious when we think about it.

Doing hundreds of curls with a single grip and movement pattern without ever switching grip is of course going to lead to imbalances and overuse injuries.

Variation will create balance and the best way to strengthen elbows without even thinking about it. And another way to do this is by climbing trees or even climbing around a pull up bar. This is again why I believe varying and mixing up your training is always preferable. The body likes variable movement. It was never designed to stick in one rigid range of motion, using man-made tools. Children typically have fewer tendon injuries, partly because they are constantly moving and playing in a varied manner.

How Your DNA Affects Your Tendon and Muscle Injuries

DNA analysis

And consider that we’re all different. As I have mentioned before, I recently had my DNA analysed by Self Decode. I learned, among other things, that I have a tendency toward tendon and muscle injuries. This is partly due to a variation in a gene called SOD2, which helps to alleviate oxidative damage and inflammation by producing an enzyme called superoxide dismutase. My homozygous AA genotype is correlated with lower SD production and higher muscle inflammation markers. The wellness report I received from SelfDecode suggested I could combat this with H2 supplementation, seeing as some studies suggest this can raise SOD levels (study, study). I’m trying that right now and will let you know how I get on.

See also: DNA Analysis Can Help You Optimize Training and Nutrition: My Experience With SelfDecode

The point is not to say that you should take hydrogen (although, maybe!). Rather, the point is that we are all different and different things work for different people. And you may, in fact, be more or less prone to tendon and bicep injuries. Don’t beat yourself up if it happens to you. It’s part of the training journey.

SelfDecode

And finally, don’t give up on those persistent pains and injuries. The answer is out there somewhere, you just may not have found it just yet. And hopefully, some of these tips will work for you!

Strengthen Elbows: A Cheat-Sheet

Do this to strengthen your elbows:

  • Strengthen the wrists with wrist curls in both directions
  • Work on wrist mobility – stretch between long typing sessions
  • Practice different grips on curls: supinated, pronated, neutral
    • Also combine them with supinating bicep curls
  • Fuel the tendons with high volume, continuous time under tension and eccentrics
  • Add shoulder stability
  • Train the triceps
  • Use varied, healthy, regular movement
  • Useful exercises:
    • Wrist curls (both ways)
    • Hammer curls
    • Supinating curls
    • Dumbbell runners
    • Tricep kickbacks/push downs/extensions
    • Gamma casts/halos/Bulgarian bag spins
    • Weight plate steering wheels
    • Pseudo planche push ups
    • Scapula push ups/scapula rows
how to strengthen elbows

Any of these moves and strategies should help you to strengthen elbows and avoid injury. Of course, don’t jump into anything that’s tough on the arms! Use light resistance and always check with an expert in person before attempting a self-diagnosis.

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

One Comment

  1. Tim Thomas says:

    I was blowed away when I saw how you trained. It’s in parallel w how I train. You show your strength w knowledge. Very impressive. I have some exercises I would like to send you to try if that’s ok w you. I’m in USA/ INDIANA/ small town. Have a great day and hope to connect to you. Tim.

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