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Building the Body Quarterly:
Injury Prevention and Healing
Frank Zane (2011)
You need strong forearms to prevent elbow injuries. That, and proper hand position when working upper body with barbells and machines.
It's important to do upper body pushing and pulling exercises with hands in a user friendly position. This is best achieved with dumbbells. Since you can rotate the dumbbells there is little stress on the wrist and elbow. Barbells put the hands in elbow-unfriendly positions during pushing and pulling movements and when the thumbs are tightly wrapped around the barbell stress is aimed at the elbow. Here's how:
Outer elbow injury (tennis elbow) is caused by excessive pronation when a straight bar is pulled toward the body with an overhand grip as in wide grip chins, straight bar pulldowns, bentover barbell rowing, barbell upright row. Barbells are the culprit and, since the hand is locked to the bar and can't rotate, stress is put on the elbow. The wrist too. Use varying grip positions and do forearm work, as explained below.
Inner elbow injury (golfer's elbow) is caused by excessive supination when the arm is straight with the elbow locked. This happens when you are doing barbell curls and your straighten your arms out completely as the weight comes back to starting position. The hands aren't used to hanging at this angle. You can check it for yourself by letting your arms hang naturally by your sides. How are they hanging? In a neutral grip position. When dumbbells go back to starting position in the curl you are able to rotate the dumbbells into a neutral grip. Can't do this with a barbell, so the inner elbow takes a hit.
So if your elbows hurt, try doing all your curls with dumbbells. And do forearm work too. Here's where the barbell comes in. It's actually one of the few times I use a barbell anymore: barbell wrist curls for the inner elbow, and barbell reverse wrist curl for the outer elbow. I suggest doing both these exercises, 2 sets of 20 reps each at the beginning of your upper body workouts. This warms up the forearms, elbows, and grip. Before you begin rub some liniment like Sombra and/or DMSO in (if it's really sore), and put a loose elastic bandage over it.
Super-set wrist curl with reverse wrist curl and you will thoroughly warm up this area. Reduce the weight on reverse wrist curl as it is a stricter movement. Do this movement slowly and hold the contraction for half a second in the contracted finish position.
These are the two safest movements. Start light, keep the elbows warm and do your reps. When the elbows start feeling a little better you can add pronation/supination exercises. One example comes to mind and that is 'baton twirling'. Get a baton or light bar, hold it in the middle and twirl slowly: right hand counter clockwise strengthens inner elbow, opposite direction strengthens outer elbow.
Don't have a baton? Try dumbbell turnovers. Put a light fixed weight dumbbell on the floor, and with forearm resting on floor grasp the dumbbell. For right hand, turning left works the inner elbow; turning right works outer elbow.
Finishing up your arm workout with a gripper is a good idea too. This will strengthen your forearms and help your elbows feel better.
Reverse curl will strengthen this area too but don't start with these until the pain is almost completely gone and even then start very light.
Healing elbow pain depends on not doing exercises that hurt it Be careful of curling machines too. Any exercise that fixes your hands in a position that doesn't rotate may put excessive stress on this area.
Remember, if it hurts, don't do it.