Whether you love them or hate them, biceps curls are the best isolation exercise for targeting the biceps, the muscles that flex your arms at the elbow and rotate your forearms. Strong biceps give you greater upper body strength and the ability to throw and swing harder. Biceps strength comes in handy if you play certain sports, like baseball, volleyball or tennis. Plus, well-defined biceps are aesthetically pleasing.
Hopefully, when you curl, you feel no discomfort, but one common complaint people have when doing biceps curls is elbow pain. In fact, some people experience enough pain that they hesitate to do curls at all. Pain, when you curl, makes it harder to build strong biceps, but why does it happen?
What Causes Elbow Pain When You Curl?
When you do biceps curls, you target the two-headed biceps brachii muscles. These muscles extend from your scapula, or shoulder blade, to the radius bone in your forearm. It’s these muscles that allow you to flex at the elbow and supinate your forearms. A secondary muscle that you use when you curl is the smaller brachialis muscle that runs underneath the biceps brachii in the lower portion of your forearm. It’s this muscle that, together with the biceps brachii, make flexing your forearms so seamless.
What causes elbow pain when you curl? Unless you’ve had an acute injury, the most likely cause is either medial or lateral epicondylitis. These conditions arise from inflammation and irritation of the epicondyles, bony prominences on the elbow. If you feel the pain more along the outer aspect of your elbow, it’s likely lateral epicondylitis, also known as tennis elbow. Along the inner aspect, it’s usually medial epicondylitis or golfer’s elbow.
Despite the names, you may not have developed the epicondylitis from playing golf or tennis, but from other forms of repetitive trauma, such as the excessive lifting of weights or other items or by gripping something too tightly for long periods of time. Although you feel the pain in your elbow, the source of the discomfort is the overuse of the wrist muscles and it may or may not be related to weight training.
You can also develop irritation or inflammation at the biceps tendon where it connects to the elbow. Some triggers include heavy lifting, including weights, especially with your arms straightened. Sometimes lifting something too heavy forces the arms to straighten under the weight of the object and this puts excess force on the biceps tendons.
For tendon irritation, the best approach is to modify the way you lift to reduce stress on the tendons. That usually means either doing fewer biceps curls or stopping them completely until the discomfort improves. It also helps to lighten up on the weights. Let pain be your guide. If an exercise hurts, don’t do it or modify the exercise so that it doesn’t cause discomfort. If you notice pain in your elbows after a workout, apply ice for 15 minutes afterward and several times per day.
Other Causes of Elbow Pain During Curls
If biceps curls are uncomfortable for your elbows, look at how you’re gripping the barbell. If you squeeze too tightly, it places stress on the tendons that flex your wrists. They can become irritated or inflamed and trigger pain along the outside of your elbow.
How strong are your hands and forearms? If your forearms are weak, you may have problems holding your wrists in a neutral position. If your wrists deviate to one side of the other, it increases the load on the elbows, leading to tendon irritation and pain. A solution is to strengthen your forearms and hands. One way to do this is to do palm-up wrist curls and palm-down wrist curls. Here’s how to do one:
- Sit in a chair and rest your forearms on your legs. Your hands should extend just beyond your knees and your palms pointing toward the ceiling.
- While holding a light dumbbell in each hand, flex your hands as high as you can toward the ceiling.
- Bring your hands back down until they touch your legs.
- Keep repeating until you’ve completed 8-10 reps
- Switch the position of your hands so that your palms are facing down.
- Repeat the exercise.
Could It Be Arthritis?
If you have chronic elbow pain when you curl, it could be arthritis of the elbows. The symptoms of elbow arthritis, at first, may come and go. You might feel pain or stiffness when you flex your elbows and when you do curls. It’s also common to hear a crackling or cracking sound with joint flexion as the surface of the joint erodes and becomes rough in texture. As arthritis progresses, the elbow joints may lock up or swell. Osteoarthritis is the most common type of joint disease that affects the elbow, but rheumatoid arthritis can cause arthritic elbows too.
Other Ways to Take the Stress Off Your Elbows When You Curl
Since repetitive stress on the elbows causes most cases of elbow pain, vary the approach you take to curling. Change the grip that you use. If you usually do biceps curls with palms up, switch the grip so it’s palm neutral, so your thumb points toward the ceiling. To change grips, you’ll need to switch to dumbbells. Barbells won’t allow you to use a neutral grip. Switching your grip each time you do curls changes the path through which your muscles and tendons work and that reduces repetitive stress.
Also, lighten up on the weight. Don’t lift heavier than you can comfortably manage without elbow pain. Aim for lighter weights and higher reps for less stress on the tendons.
The Bottom Line
Now, you know some of the reasons you may have elbow pain when you do biceps curls. The most likely cause is tendonitis, meaning your tendons are irritated or inflamed. Therefore, you may need to change your approach to biceps curls and give your muscles and tendons more rest between workouts. However, if it’s persistent, you may have arthritis of the elbows. Work on strengthening your forearms too! That can help you reduce the stress on your elbow joints.
- Ortho Info. “Osteoarthritis of the Elbow”
- American Society for Surgery of the Hands. “Distal Biceps Tendon Problems”
- Arthritis Foundation. “When Elbow Pain May Mean Arthritis”