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Forearm (and elbow) pain when weightlifting is, unfortunately, pretty common. I’ve experienced it a few times in my lifting career to date and each time it takes me by surprise how debilitating it can be as they are the supporting muscles in a TON of movements so LOADS of things end up being sore!
Chin ups specifically trigger forearm pain in lots of people – fortunately there are a few easy ways to troubleshoot the basic issues which I’ve used up over the years to self diagnose some of the simpler injuries I’ve faced which have – fortunately – been relatively straightforward.
While I am a garage gym warrior I am NOT a doctor so the below is a post based on my own opinion, experience and simple research rather than a medical background so this is not professional or tailored advice – if you are in pain you should consult your GP.
At a glance…
- Tennis / golfers elbow is another common injury for those new to chin and pull ups
- Chin ups work your forearms quite hard – if you are not used to it this sudden increase in training can trigger forearm pain
- When I have experienced pain I have had success resting until it clears up then SLOWLY building up the volume and weight
- Pain can be complicated! If you have persistent issues you should seek help from a doctor in person who will be able to help with your specific needs
Do chin ups work forearms?
Yes – a chin up will work your forearm muscles.
Within your forearm there are muscles that control your fingers as well as forearm extension – both of these groups get worked pretty hard in a chin up as we need to grip the bar and then pull our body up through our elbow joint. As we are pulling our own bodyweight this can be a pretty heavy load for a small group of muscles particularly if we’re new to the movement.
Why do chin ups hurt my forearms?
There can be a variety of causes of forearm pain in a chin or pull up:
Over-stressing the forearm
The most common is simply over working the area by doing too much too soon – for example if you switch to train chin ups and jump straight in to multiple high rep sets the other key movers might be ready for the work from other training such as heavy barbell rows or bicep curls but it’s far less likely that you’ve trained your forearms with such intensity. When we jump in to heavy vertical pulls then our forearms scream out as they’re not used to that level of work!
As it’s typically thought of as a bodyweight movement we rarely work up gradually in weight for chin ups like we would in a bicep curl or similar by adding a little bit more weight to the barbell. It tends to be bodyweight or nothing!
This is when your hand instead of being straight with your forearm is instead at an angle downwards (if you hold your arm out straight in front of you then tilt your fist down towards the ground from the wrist. Flexion is not always that obvious and can be caused accidentally if the bar you are chinning on is too thick. This will open your fist a little more than is natural and you try and compensate by creating this flexion angle. Similar to the over-stressing point above this puts a ton of pressure on a very small group of flexor muscles in your forearm so can lead to them being overworked.
A few ways to troubleshoot this would be to try a thinner chin bar or stretching out your wrists before you exercise (pull your fingers back towards you with the opposite hand stretching out the wrist). I like to remind myself to keep the wrist and forearm in a straight line and as perpendicular to the ground as I can keep them.
Whether you hold on with your thumbs around or thumbs over the bar will subtly influence the muscles used. My preference is to go ‘thumbs around the bar’ for chin ups but ‘thumbs over’ for pull-ups. This is just me and you will need to find a form that works for yous safely, but I find thumbs around the bar when doing pull ups draw more tension in to my arms and elbows.
Foam rolling or massage
Some people swear by this – others hate it. Foam rolling or massage to the forearm muscles may ease the symptoms.
Try experiment with differing grip widths and styles – a chin up might be easier on your forearm than a pull up for some for example, but I would say in general that neutral grips (hands facing each other) seem almost universally more ‘body friendly’! For chin ups I find a narrower grip on the bar itself alleviates strain on my arms while a slightly wider one for pull-ups feels more natural for my body.
Another thing I do is slowly load the weight up and down when doing a chin or pull up – by his I mean I grip the bar then slowly let my arms take the weight by going on to tip toes, lifting a leg, setting up etc. before starting an intense set. When finished I put my feet down and gradually take the weight from my arms. This just takes a few seconds at the start and end of each set but seemed to extinguish sudden shots of forearm paint I was experiencing when starting and ending my sets.
Why do chin ups hurt your elbows?
Overworking the elbow or performing a movement that is not compatible with the way your personal body shape is set up can trigger what is known as golfers elbow (or tennis elbow to some!). Unfortunately for us it is not limited to purely golf and tennis and it can unfortunately also be a chin-up elbow!
Similar to forearm pain above your elbows can become a weak point in performing vertical pulls for many of the same reasons – rapid overreaching before they are accustomed to the load, grip styles and widths and wrist flexion can all impact your elbow health as well so please read through the above tips & tricks to troubleshoot your specific issue.
I had a period of ‘’golfers elbow’ pain when I transitioned from high to low bar back squats. I found the solution in that particular situation for me was a very healthy dose of rest until the discomfort backed off completely followed a slow and steady build up of loading the squat again.
Remember that if discomfort or pain continues in your elbow then please consult a doctor to analyse for tendon or ligament damage who will be qualified to advise on your specific situation.
One of the key take aways for me with these injuries is REST. I always scale down the intensity of what I’m doing to immediately deload the area and then rehab it as required based on the situation and circumstances. Hopefully the above helps you with any chin up induced forearm pain – but please remember – I am not a doctor, this is not medical advice and is based on my own experience only! Consult your local doctor if unsure who can tailor their advice to suit your situation.