How to avoid sore elbows, elbow pain, and elbow tendonitis from using kettlebells

One of the most common complaints I hear or receive in my emails is about sore elbows from kettlebell training.

Here are 6 strategies you can start using immediately to help alleviate and prevent sore elbows from your kettlebell work.

[1]  Check your technique.

Probably the simplest reason people get elbow soreness and tendonitis from using kettlebells is that they're technique is "off."

More often than not, they keep a slight bend in their elbows on the backswing of their kettlebell ballistics - the Swing, Clean, and Snatch.

As a result, they overload the elbow joint and musculature.

Make sure you're following this axiom:

"The hips drive, and the arms guide."

Your arms are just hooks and they guide the kettlebell to the endpoint: Just in front of your chest, the rack, or locked out overhead. 

So, go back and make sure your form is dialed in.

If you're not sure what "excellent form" looks like, use this course.

While you're working on that, alleviate your symptoms with any or all of the following strategies.

[2]  Relieve the tension in your upper extremity flexors

When the muscles in your fingers, hands wrists, upper arms, chest and shoulders, get tight, they pull your body forward into flexion. This can and entrap the median, ulnar, and radial nerves in the soft tissue as they cross the elbow joint.

One of the simplest ways to relieve the tension in those upper body extremities is to sit on the floor with your legs crossed, and with your arms behind you palms flat, fingers pointed away from the body.

As you're sitting on the floor, squeeze your shoulder blades together, and push the floor down and away, while spreading your fingers apart. Do the best you can to breathe diaphragmatically. Work up to 30 diaphragmatic breaths.

[3]  Train your finger and wrist extensors

Most of us train our already tight flexors even more by using kettlebells. But we fail to balance the those flexors with the opposing muscle groups - the extensors. So that's what we're going to do.

Go to Whole Foods or your favorite organic grocery fruit store and buy a large head of broccoli. Take the sturdy rubber band off the broccoli. (Either throw the broccoli away or cook it I don't care.). Place the rubber band around your fingertips and thumb and thumb, and repeatedly stretch the rubber band by opening your hand.

The muscles on the back of your fingers in the back of your hand, and on your forearms, will start to work and or burn. These are your extensor muscles. Woke up to multiple sets of 30. This will strengthen the tendons and muscles in your forearms and balance out your tight upper appendage flexors.

Make sure you train your extensors every time you perform an exercise that involves grip, which is pretty much every kettlebell exercise.

[4]  Retrain the way you breathe

diaphragmatic breathing

Most people live in a state of chronic stress. As a result, they are chronic chest and mouth breathers. This means they breathe, using their chest and their accessory respiratory muscles, which are found in the neck, instead of using their diaphragms. They also breathe in and out through their mouths, which continues to alter their breathing mechanics. 

These practices make respiration, or breathing, inefficient, and increases the stress response, which creates unnecessary and unwanted tension in the body, including the anterior chain (muscles on the front of the body), the hand, wrist, elbow and shoulder flexors. This in turn creates, or sets up the conditions for elbow tendinitis.

The key is to retrain yourself to breathe diaphragmatically.

In order to do so, lying on your back on the floor in a comfortable position. Easiest position to fill your diaphragm work is the locked squat position. 

Bring your knees to your chest cross your ankles and grab your left shin with your right hand, and your right shin with your left hand. This compresses your viscera, and makes it easier to breathe into your diaphragm.

Place your tongue on the roof of your mouth behind your front teeth, with your jaw closed, back teeth, touching. Inhale into your feet through your nose. Using this cue will help you fill your stomach, so that your stomach expands like a balloon. Exhale through your nose and your stomach should flatten like a balloon that is losing air. Repeat for up to 100 breaths.

[5]  Relieve the tension in your accessory respiratory muscles

Your accessory respiratory muscles include your scalenes and sternocleidomastoid, found in your neck, and your intercostals, the muscles found between your ribs. 

Lying on your back on the floor in a comfortable position. Place your arms, approximately 45° from the side of your body with your palms up. Reach away from your head, neck and shoulders with your fingertips so that your shoulders shrug downwards toward your hips.

Like this, but palms up.

Hold this position and breathe into your diaphragm. Your tongue should be on the roof of your mouth behind your front teeth, and your back teeth should be together, but not clenched. Breathe in and out through your nose.

Work up to 100 diaphragmatic breaths. You may also turn your head to one side and breathe diaphragmatically. And then turn your head to the other side and breathe diaphragmatically.

[6]  Restore proper head position

Your body is designed to follow your head.

When the head falls forward, the shoulders, slump, and round forward. This shortens the muscles of the anterior chain, the muscles on the front of the body. This includes the chest, the biceps, the forearms in the hand muscles. The shortening of these muscles creates, a lengthening of the muscles on the posterior or backside of the body. These muscles become weak, and in certain cases neurologically inhibited due to being under constant stretch. 

Restoring proper head position, so the head rests on top of the body, where the ears are over the shoulders, reduces the tension on the anterior chain. It also  relieves the compression on the brachial plexus, which is found in the upper anterior quadrant, and relieves the pressure on the nerves that cross the elbow joints. This reduces the entrapment of the nerves, and reduces the risk of tendinitis.

Restoring proper head position, so the head rests on top of the body, where the ears are over the shoulders, reduces the tension on the anterior chain. It also  relieves the compression on the brachial plexus, which is found in the upper anterior quadrant, and relieves the pressure on the nerves that cross the elbow joints. This reduces the entrapment of the nerves, and reduces the risk of tendinitis.

The Brachial Plexus

It also allows the muscles on the backside of the body - the posterior chain - to work correctly again.

One of the simplest way to do this is with neck, nods and neck rotations. For neck nods, simply look up and look down (slowly), leading from your eyes first.

For neck rotations simply look over your left shoulder and then over your right shoulder. Work up to 30 reps of each. Again, lead with your eyes.

Addressing these five areas is a great way to get started relieving or preventing elbow tendinitis. However, if you prefer a more systematic approach, then check out my P3 Protocol found here. 

I hope you found this helpful.

Stay Strong,

Geoff