If a bigger bench press is your goal there is a chance that at some point you will experience some type of elbow pain. This is usually brought on by the intensity, volume, or frequency at which you are bench pressing and most likely the combination of the three. What results is inflammation of the tendon near the olecranon. If left untreated the situation could become worse and result in tendinosis. When this problem comes about you have three options: You can take time off and let it recover, you can work through the pain, or you can find ways to work around the pain. Even though the smartest thing to do is take some time off, most people aren’t going to do this. Taking time off will reduce the stimulus to the area which will allow inflammation to subside and the area to heal.
Most people, including myself, are stubborn so if you refuse to take time off your next best option is working around the pain. This is what I did and I’m still making gains in my bench press while also reducing my elbow pain. The following are some of the ways I did that and I encourage you to implement them as well if you don't want to take the time off necessary to recover.
1. Take Out Elbow Dominant Accessory Work
Usually, what you’ll find, is that most elbow pain does not flare up during pressing exercises. Rather, the pain occurs during accessory movements that make the elbow the main point of action. Accessory movements such as triceps pushdowns, skull crushers, supine triceps extensions, and seated overhead triceps extensions should be avoided. These types of isolation exercises cause the elbows to take the brunt of the work and cause pain in already irritated elbows. Try substituting partial range of motion pressing movements, close grip pressing movements, or a combination of the two for your accessory movements. Things like a 4 board close grip bench press is a great one. As well as partial pushups to sandbags or to a 4-5 board works great as well. You’ll find that these movements will cause less elbow pain because the work is no longer completely centered on the elbow but spread out to the chest and shoulders.
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2. Hammer Your SMR and Mobility Work
When engaging in a high volume/high intensity press focused program, it is likely some serious adhesions will build up in your triceps. And if you’re not staying up on your shoulder and t-spine mobility, the problem in your elbows may get even worse. I learned these two lessons the hard way. Since making them a priority my elbows have gotten better, I still have a long way to go. Spend 5 minutes on your days off and after hard sessions rolling your triceps and anywhere around the problem area. I’ve found using the cardboard cylinder from the plastic wrap that athletic trainers use to wrap ice bags with to be an awesome tool to use for SMR. It’s small which allows for a little more concentrated roll and much more handy and easier to manipulate than an actual foam roller.
As I stated before it’s important to hammer your shoulder and t-spine mobility as well. Just like knee problems arise from poor hip mobility the same goes for elbow problems and lack of shoulder mobility. Poor shoulder mobility basically impedes the ability of the triceps to aid in shoulder extension and when coupled with excessive elbow dominant exercises the end result is inflammation and pain. Take time to work in some static stretching drills for your pecs, lats and rotator cuff. I found that working this in after your SMR sessions yields the best results. Be sure to also incorporate some t-spine extensions either on the wall or on a foam roller throughout your sessions as well in order to get that upper back a little more mobile. Try to accumulate around 5 minutes of total work for your shoulders and t-spine.
3. Use a Thorough Warm-up/Prehab work
In order to help work around your elbow pain, it’s imperative that the area have a good amount of blood flow before you slam it with heavy doubles or high volume accessory work. The same goes for your warm up and prehab work as it does for your accessory work; lay off the movements that isolate your elbow. Use full range pushups, band pullaparts, facepulls, rotator cuff circuits, etc. to warm up before pressing. These will not only get your elbows ready but also your upper back, shoulders and chest as well. One exercise I just recently started using that is a variation of an exercise I learned from Mark Bell is what I nicknamed the Elbow TKE. I’ve been using this almost every day for the past couple of weeks to warm up my elbows for not only pressing movements but for squatting, deadlifting, and just general blood flow work as well. This is an awesome exercise to isolate your triceps without putting direct pressure on the elbow.
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Keep on pressing my friends.