If you have Tennis Elbow or Golfer’s Elbow you can certainly continue with your cardio exercise and lower-body work out (that’s probably obvious and uncontroversial!)…
The question is: Should you continue to lift weights or do upper body strength training? (With or without weights or equipment)… It depends…
If your injury was caused by weight lifting in the first place, you might need to cut back or stop your upper body strengthening routine for a while.
You may still benefit from doing Tennis Elbow specific rehab exercises, but there is still the question of: When is the right time to begin those rehab exercises?
- If your injury stems from some other activity, then it may not be necessary to stop.
- But you WILL probably still need to cut back: (Drop the weight, reduce the resistance and/or number of sets you do)…
- And you may need to drop certain exercises entirely for a time, because they can be too aggravating to your Tennis Elbow – See this post on “Which Exercises Should I Avoid?”
Of course continuing with your cardio and lower body workouts is not only acceptably – but highly desirable from a “stay fit and healthy” perspective, and also to maintain good circulation and healing in your injured upper body.
To stop everything would be to invite more stagnation and degeneration, and those are your absolute worst enemies when you have a tendon injury!
PODCAST: Working Out Wisely When You Have Tennis Elbow
Here’s a slightly better-sounding version of this working out podcast that you can download and keep by clicking the “download” link under the player below – And subscribe on your favorite platform:
What If Lifting Weights Injured You In The First Place?
One of the main concerns and deciding factors is whether you developed Tennis Elbow from “over exercising” – as in working out too often without enough recovery time, using bad form and/or too much weight or resistance, whether lifting, or doing some other form of strength conditioning – like P90x, Cross Fit or TRX.
If that’s how you were injured in the first place, it’s probably ideal (and common sensible) to take a break from that activity (or ANY activity that you are fairly sure caused your injury.)
But let’s consider three other very common scenarios:
- Your injury comes from some other highly physical, but NON-sport cause: Construction, landscaping, etc,
- You got your Tennis Elbow the “classic” way playing tennis or golf,
- Or you got your injury from doing something repetitive but a lot less physically intense, like using your computer.
1 – Injured Via Heavy Physical Work: If you spend your whole day doing something rigorously physical with your upper body, such as contracting work / construction, then more weight lifting in the gym may just be too much for your muscles and tendons until you make some progress with healing your injury.
Rest and recovery time is going to make the most sense for you, in that case. It’s not like you can just take time off from work to rest, right? So, something has to give.
Be sure to get enough sleep, too. That’s when the majority of tissue repair happens and you probably need it more than anyone.
2 – Tennis Golf / Short Duration Activity Injury: If your injury is from golf, tennis or some other shorter-duration, medium-intensity sport or activity, then it may be quite beneficial to continue your gym workouts – although reducing the frequency you play tennis or golf would be wise.
If your Tennis Elbow is on the severe side, you should definitely be prepared to stop playing for a while if necessary – and know that if you continue (whether it’s severe or not) it’s going to take longer to recover.
It would be wise in either case to stop playing tennis or golf for a while and focus on your weight training and other structured exercise (and core strength, shoulder flexibility etc.) where you can carefully control how much load and force you put on your muscles and tendons – unlike tennis and golf where unpredictable things happen.
3 – Low-Intensity / High Duration – Computer Use, Etc: Lastly, if your injury is from computer use or any other type of low intensity, but highly repetitive work, task or hobby, then you will probably benefit the most from continuing your weight training.
If you don’t already have an exercise program – This could be a good time to start a cardio/core/lower body program, at the very least, for the overall benefits…
And it might even make sense to start doing some upper body exercises (very slowly and carefully with light weight) – if you haven’t been doing any.
In your case, part of your problem likely stems from long periods of low intensity, repetitive and minimal range-of-motion actions, which has a weakening effect on your muscles and tendons, and you should benefit from careful, gradual low-weight exercise.
“Be Smart” If You’re Going To Continue Working Out
In short: Warm up! Do less – And remember, ALL gripping challenges your Tennis (and Golfer’s) Elbow muscles
1 – Warm Up THOROUGHLY: Start with at least a 10 to 15 minute cardio session to get your blood flowing and your muscles warmed up – (Better still, make this the top priority of your workout and start off with more like 30 – 45 minutes.)
Do your abdominal / core / hips and legs routine before your upper body strength training as well to further warm up your whole body
Consider doing some gentle, light forearm-specific exercises AND stretching before finally doing your weight / resistance training for your upper body.
I think Wrist Deviation (in both directions) is the best and safest exercise to start with (post + video) – And I would avoid ‘Wrist Extension Curls’ at least until you’re well on your way to recovery. They are the most direct challenge to the muscles involved.
2 – LESS Is MORE: Less is always more when you have an injury. It’s always so much better to start with much less weight than you normally would – even if it’s unsatisfying. (It’s a lot better than “blowing up” your Tennis Elbow and not be able to do anything for weeks, right?)
If you’re accustomed to doing 3 or more sets – Whoa, there! – Cut back to just 1 or 2, depending on how bad your elbow is. Just do one light set – Or a light set and a medium set and skip the heavy!
3 – STOP If It Hurts! Obvious, right? The most important rule of thumb while doing any upper-body exercise OR Tennis-Elbow-specific rehab exercise, is NOT to feel any significant pain WHILE you’re doing it.
(You don’t have any idea how it’s going to feel LATER – But at least you can stop right away if it screams at you while you’re exercising.)
4 – It’s All Gripping: Always keep in mind that ALL gripping challenges your Tennis (and Golfer’s) Elbow muscles – And almost all upper-body exercises involve gripping.
Even if you’re not doing a forearm / wrist specific exercise, the muscles on BOTH sides of the wrist and forearm are involved in your grip.
So, take time to rest between sets (or bang out a few more crunches or minutes in plank) and to gently and carefully stretch your wrist muscles in both directions.
5 – Barbells Vs. Dumbbells: There is also a view is some circles that it’s better to use a barbell rather than dumbbells for certain reasons. It’s something to think about…
But I’m not going to chime in on that here. Instead I saved that for another post about:
Listening To Your Pain – What The Heck Is It Saying?
There are two extremes when it comes to “listening to and respecting your pain” either ignoring it completely OR stopping everything until you’re 100% pain free.
I have to reject both of these in favor of some kind of sweet spot in the middle.
Yes, on the one hand, it’s important not to completely ignore the pain and just continue pushing and working through it…
But on the other hand, there is such a thing as “Babying the Injury” by being overprotective of it and not doing enough to challenge it as it heals!
The symptoms of Tennis Elbow vary widely, from a dull ache to intermittent jolts and “twinges” of moderate intensity – to severe, sharp, “knife-like” searing pain.
And the problem is we tend to assume the worse the pain, the worse the injury – This is often true but, in this case, not necessarily so.
Sometimes people with mild cases have a lot of pain and conversely, some Tennis Elbow sufferers with more severe, advanced Tendinosis are not in that much pain, all things considered.
It’s still important not to ignore the pain, but it’s also important not to overreact to it.
A twinge of sudden pain now and then is not necessarily a sign that you’ve re-injured or worsened the injury – Especially if the pain logically seems “out of proportion” to what you were doing when you felt it.
In other words, if you feel a jolt of pain taking the milk out of the fridge, you probably have nothing to worry about – Even if it acts a little b!#chy for the rest of the day!
But, if you’re trying to lift as much weight in the gym as you would normally lift, without taking into account your injury, (risky!) and it suddenly hurts like hell in the middle of your set, that’s much more likely to mean a re-injury/worsened injury.
Again, the most important rule of thumb while doing any kind of upper body strengthening exercise is not to feel any significant pain WHILE you’re doing it. (Maybe some tightness or very mild burning.)
The next day if it hurts more that could mean that the exercise was too much, although that is not a given. It could just be a little aggravated and it will get over it.
There is quite a lot of trial and error, and “Two steps forward – One step back” in the tendon healing process, innately that we need to make our peace with.
Should You Wear A Strap Or Brace While Lifting Weights?
Maybe. I would NOT recommend wearing any kind of rigid or even semi-rigid brace around the entire elbow, because it’s potentially too restrictive
Weight lifting straps that encircle the wrist and strap-type braces, like the CounterForce Brace, which encircles the upper forearm muscles, (but doesn’t cover the elbow) may make sense temporarily.
As long as you only use them while working out and never while at rest or performing low-intensity repetitive tasks, like typing.
I have two articles and videos on why Braces, bands and supports are not a good idea long-term.
Should You Ice Afterward?
As a general rule, my answer is “No”
Unless you feel like you did too much, your elbow was aggravated by the exercise and it’s hurting considerably more.
In that case, a little ice for a few minutes may calm it down and make it feel better.
(Notice that I don’t say anything about “Inflammation” because that is actually a non issue in most cases of chronic Tennis Elbow – See my post and video on icing here )
If it’s really flaring up on you it’s possible that you did worsen the injury and you may be having an “Acute Episode” and if you’ve further damaged your tendon(s) then it will make sense to use ice then and there.
Especially if there’s swelling. (A sure sign of acute injury and time for the RICE protocol – Rest, Ice, etc.) in which case you would probably continue a few times a day for 2-3 days.
However, with most flare ups the pain is not the result of a significant acute injury, and there isn’t any swelling, so ice is not necessarily helpful (except to lessen the pain.)
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Tennis Elbow sufferers: Learn More About The Home Program Here
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