I got golfer’s and tennis elbow on both arms at the same time. The worst thing was the negative impact to training, but the good news is I healed without having to take time off.
- I worked around pain, not through it.
- I took time to warm up the forearms before normal gym work.
- Instead of using lifting straps to relieve forearm stress, I cut down my use of them to strengthen my grip.
- I used a technique of deliberately stressing the tendons by jumping and grabbing a chin-up bar.
- I waited. Tendons take a long time to heal.
How it started
Daily chin-ups caused my golfer’s and tennis elbow. I was using a straight bar with an underhand grip, which is extremely stressful on the elbow end of the forearm tendons. I’d done chin-ups that way on and off for years, but never so regularly, and eventually I paid the price.
It started strangely—there was no sudden pain like with many injuries. I woke with what felt like normal delayed onset muscle soreness from working out. Days went by and it got worse, feeling more obviously pathological and like an injury.
It got to the point where almost everything I did in the gym hurt and constantly re-aggravated the injuries. Grip strength was noticeably reduced, too.
A self-diagnosis later
Some time after the pain got really bad, I had a look on the internet. It was quickly obvious I had lateral and medial epicondylitis, AKA tennis and golfer’s elbow. Both conditions on both arms. Fantastic!
Great to know what it was. Not so great that inactivity was the most widely-advised first step in treatment. Even worse, the conditions were reputed to take a long time to heal.
Things that didn’t work
I just wanted an effective way to get rid of the injuries as soon as possible. Unfortunately most of the methods I found were useless. Perhaps they’d be some use for sedentary people, but any benefit you might get from twisting a foam cylinder tends to get drowned out by deadlifting hundreds of pounds.
In that vein, here’s what seemed to have no effect:
- Twisting one of those special foam cylinders (designed for the purpose).
- Doing the eccentric portion (the part of the movement where you’re lowering the weight, AKA the negative) of dumbbell wrist curls and reverse wrist curls.
- Foam-rolling my forearms.
- Self-massaging the affected tendons at the sore points where they insert into the elbow.
If you’re happy to take time off from training, perhaps those things would help.
What finally worked
After a lot of experimentation and setbacks, I found three critical things that allow golfer’s and tennis elbow to heal while still training:
- Work around pain as opposed to through it. This is first and foremost. The injured tendons are involved in most of what we do in the gym, so chances are you’ll feel the injuries with almost every exercise. But you should distinguish between the stinging, intense pain that feels like you’re exacerbating the injury, and indirect pain. The latter is okay, the prior is a great way to either regress or never heal.
- Warm up the forearms before working out. My approach was to stretch, then hang from a straight bar and flex and relax my fingers up and down. You could probably do wrist curls, too—the only reason I didn’t was that I find them a mind-numbingly boring exercise.
- The passing of time. Tendons are slow to heal and continuing to train hard probably makes it take longer.
What maybe helped
Strengthening my grip possibly played a part in healing. At the time, a disproportionately weak grip was said to be a factor for getting the injuries in the first place.
I’d never given much thought to grip strength, and for most of my training years I’d used lifting straps for almost every exercise that involved hanging onto or pulling anything. As such, I stopped using them, and increased my forearm strength as a result.
I’m skeptical that weak grip has much to do with it though, and I think science has moved past that idea. Besides, even with straps your forearms still get a lot of training when you’re holding onto hundreds of kilos of weight, so mine were never exactly weak.
In my search for a non-existent miracle cure, I found a protocol by Bryan Chung. He’d have his patients hang their arm off the edge of a table while holding a bag containing a soup can. They’d bend their wrist up then relax so that it fell, thereby providing a sudden shock at the end range of the movement.
The interesting part to me was the sudden tension, and I came up with my own exaggerated version using body weight instead of a can. After warming up, I’d repeatedly jump and grab onto a chin-up bar. I did this a few times in between sets of other exercises. I couldn’t say for sure whether this helped much, but it felt good, and might have been useful.
Important: this was after some months when the pain of the injuries had settled into a dull ache instead of a harsh sting. Doing this during the highly-inflamed acute stage would be a bad idea.
Chin-ups and squats are two of the best exercises, but they also aggravated my elbows and delayed healing the most. However, I eventually found ways of doing them that minimized forearm stress and allowed my tendons to heal.
Squatting with a straight bar puts a huge strain on the forearm tendons. With these modifications I could reduce the pain to what felt like a safe level.
- Using the high-bar position instead of low-bar.
- Changing my grip width on the bar.
- Using a thumbless grip.
- Not wrapping my little fingers around the bar. This is slightly awkward at first, but can significantly reduce pain and tendon stress.
None of those strategies lasted. I had to cycle through each or try a combination when it began to hurt too much again over the weeks.
These days I’d switch completely to a safety squat bar if it happened again, but my gym at the time didn’t have one.
All common grip variations—palms away, neutral grip, V-grip, and palms towards me—resulted in pain and had to be avoided.
I found the secret was hand rotation. This means either using a chin-up station with rotating handles, gymnastic rings, or a suspension trainer. You start from a dead hang with palms facing forward, and as the movement is executed, rotate your hands so that palms are towards chest at the top of the motion.