Pull-ups are one of the best exercises you can do for your upper body. Doing pull-ups will widen your lats, build your biceps, strengthen your lower traps, and develop your grip. Pull-ups also let you know if you are getting a little too chunky, as excess body fat always makes them feel harder!
Unfortunately, even good exercises go bad, and pull-ups can sometimes cause forearm pain.
While this could be nothing more than a mild annoyance, pain often worsens and can become debilitating. As the forearms are involved in almost every upper and many lower body exercises, pain in your lower arms could even stop you from training.
In this article, we explain why pull-ups can cause forearm pain, how to treat it, and how to stop it from returning.
Why Pull-Ups Cause Forearm Pain
So, why do your forearms hurt when you do pull-ups? While we can’t diagnose the precise cause of your forearm pain, there are several reasons that pull-ups can cause lower arm discomfort.
Compared to the other muscles involved in pull-ups, the forearms are the smallest and weakest link in the kinetic chain. As such, it’s not surprising that pull-ups sometimes cause forearm pain.
Think about it; those slender muscles must produce enough force to support your entire body weight. This is no mean feat. Overloading the forearms could cause a lot of localized discomfort.
Forearm muscle weakness
In addition, unless you actually train your forearms, they’re probably not as well-developed as the other muscles in your arms. Apart from dedicated bodybuilders and powerlifters, exercisers tend not to do additional training for their forearms.
Stronger muscles tend to be more resilient and enduring. If pull-ups hurt your forearms, they could be telling you that they need some extra work to make them stronger.
The forearms are a hard-working group of muscles, and they’re involved in almost all upper-body and some lower-body exercises. As such, doing pull-ups could be “the straw that broke the camel’s back” that causes pain in this overused body part.
Overuse is often accompanied by inflammation and swelling. But, because you keep on training, this never gets a chance to subside. Instead, your forearm pain worsens, affecting your ability to perform all your upper-body exercises.
Depending on what tissues have become inflamed, your pain may have a specific name, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, radial tunnel syndrome, or tennis elbow. However, such conditions require a medical diagnosis to confirm.
Forearm muscle stains
Muscle strains are tears that disrupt the integrity of your muscle fibers. Muscle strains usually occur when you stretch a muscle too fast or too far or lift more weight than you are used to. For example, if you are new to pull-ups, have weak forearms, or have started doing weighted pull-ups, you may have strained your forearm muscles.
Muscle strains are graded according to their severity and depth. Grade one strains are mild and involve minimal amounts of muscle fiber damage. In contrast, grade three muscle strains are much more severe and involve complete muscle or tendon ruptures which usually require surgery to repair.
Tendons attach muscles to bones. They’re made of tough, inelastic connective tissue, and they transmit the forces produced by your muscles into the joints you want to move.
While tendons are very robust, they also have a poor blood supply, which means they take a long time to heal when damaged. Tendons are also prone to overuse and inflammation, which is called tendonitis.
If you have recently started doing more pull-ups than usual or just doing more grip or forearms training, your forearm tendons may be inflamed and painful, which you feel when doing pull-ups.
Forearm splints are an injury where overuse leads to inflammation of the connective tissue in the forearm region. This could be the fascia surrounding the forearm muscles, the periosteum that covers the bones, the muscles, or the tendons and ligaments.
Forearm splints are usually caused by overuse and increasing training volume and intensity too quickly. Shock loading and high-impact movements, e.g., plyometric pull-ups, can also cause forearm splints, as can doing heavy negatives.
General forearm pain is often referred to as forearm splints. The lower body equivalent of forearm splints is shin splints, which is a common lower leg injury in runners.
Forearm compartment syndrome
Muscles are enclosed in a layer of connective tissue called fascia. Fascia is tough, relatively inflexible, and surrounds, separates, and connects all the muscles and organs in your body.
If your forearms get too big for the fascia surrounding them, pain can be the result. This is called compartment syndrome. This condition makes your forearms feel tight and restricted, and the muscles may burn and throb. The pain tends to be worse when you’re training but lessens soon afterward. This is because getting pumped makes the muscles expand within their fascial sheath.
Compartment syndrome is more common in the calves but can also affect the forearms.
Delayed onset muscle soreness
Doing more exercise than usual often causes delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS for short. This is thought to be caused by localized inflammation and the accumulation of metabolic waste products, such as lactate. DOMS typically comes on 12-24 hours after training and can last several days.
The good news is that DOMS tends to decrease as you get used to your new workout, which is called the repeated but effect.
Tight forearm muscles
Muscle tightness is a common source of pain. Tight muscles usually have a reduced blood flow which leads to an accumulation of irritating waste products. They may also have localized tenderness, called trigger points.
While most exercisers know to stretch their hamstrings, quadriceps, and even their pecs, fewer spend time stretching their forearms. As such, there is a high probability that your forearms are tight and are causing your forearm pull-up pain.
There is more to a safe, effective set of pull-ups than simply grabbing the bar and heaving your chin up to meet it. Your grip needs to be firm but not so tight your hands go into spasm, and you need to avoid jerking the bar. Shock-loading your forearms increases the risk of pain and injury.
The bar itself is also important. If it’s too thin or too thick, it’ll put undue stress on your fingers, hands, and forearms. A very narrow grip is also harder on your wrists and forearms.
So, make sure you grip the bar correctly – not too tight or too wide – and do your reps smoothly and without swinging or jerking. These techniques will make pull-ups harder, but they’ll also be safer.
How to Treat Pull-Up Forearm Pain
Most pull-up forearm pain originates in your soft tissues, i.e., muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Soft tissue injuries are generally treated the same way – with PRICE.
No, PRICE is not a miracle drug or special taping method. Instead, it is an acronym for the steps you need to take to promote healing.
Please note: This information is not meant to replace advice from a trained medical professional.
P – Protection: Protect your forearms from further injury. Invariably, this means dropping pull-ups from your workouts until the pain subsides. After all, if pull-ups hurt your forearms, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to keep doing them, as you’ll probably make the problem worse.
Find exercises that don’t cause pain and do them instead. For example, lighter lat pulldowns may allow you to continue training without aggravating the affected area.
R – Rest: Depending on the severity of your injury, you may need to take a break from training. Or, at least, you may need to stop doing exercises that directly challenge your forearms, such as most back and biceps exercises.
You may be able to continue doing upper body pressing exercises, provided you don’t grip the bar/dumbbells/handles too tightly.
Avoid testing your injury to see if it still hurts. This can lead to reinjury and a longer recovery period. Rest a little longer than you think you need to allow the tissues to fully heal.
I – Ice: Ice reduces inflammation and also provides natural pain relief. Apply ice to the affected area for 15-20 minutes, 3-5 times per day. Reduce the duration and frequency of your icing sessions as the injury heals.
Avoid painful ice burns by never applying ice directly to your skin. Instead, use an ice pack or washcloth as a barrier between the ice and your forearm.
C – Compression: Like ice, compression helps reduce inflammation and swelling. Wrap the affected area with an elastic bandage or use a forearm sleeve to apply medium, even pressure to the affected area. However, make sure you unwrap your forearm from time to time to ensure there is good blood flow into the affected area. If your fingers are cold or numb, you have probably cut off the blood supply.
E – Elevation: Raising your forearm above head height will help reduce swelling and inflammation. There is no need to keep your arm raised all the time, but you may get some pain relief if you elevate your arm when seated for long periods, e.g., at night when relaxing in front of your TV.
Other strategies that may enhance recovery and reduce forearm pain include:
NSAIDs and OTC painkillers
If your forearm pain is severe, you may want to dull it by using over-the-counter (OTC) anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen or aspirin. You can also use painkillers like paracetamol.
In addition, there are pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory gels that you can apply directly to your injured forearm. This is useful for people who find taking pills upset their stomachs.
However, do not use medicines to mask the pain so you can continue training. That will just make things worse.
Massage can help speed up the healing of chronic injuries. It’s also valuable for the latter stages of injury repair, i.e., 5-7 days after it happened. Massage improves blood flow and speeds up the removal of waste products from the injured area. It also provides natural pain relief and can help restore range of motion.
The forearms are very easy to self-massage, so you don’t need to hire a therapist to do it for you.
Apply even pressure with your non-injured hand and work up the forearm toward your heart. Use oil to lubricate your skin and make the massage go more smoothly. Start with light pressure and increase gradually as the area warms up.
You can also use a massage gun to help speed up your recovery. Still, good massage guns can be expensive and offer little additional benefit compared to a hands-on massage. That said, they allow you to get a good massage without using oil or even rolling up your sleeves, so some people may find them more convenient.
Gentle stretching can help ease the tension in your forearms, increase blood flow, and promotes proper soft tissue remodeling. There are several ways to stretch your forearms, but the most convenient is probably the prayer stretch:
- Place the palms of your hands together in front of your chest.
- Gently press your hands downward to extend your wrists and stretch your forearms.
- Hold for 30-60 seconds, increasing the depth of the stretch as you feel your muscles relax.
- Take care not to force this movement, and ease off if you feel burning or shaking in your muscles.
Be a patient patient!
No one likes being injured, and it can be tempting to try and rush the recovery process so you can get back in the gym sooner. However, returning to training before you are ready could result in reinjury and an even longer layoff.
So, be patient and let nature run its course. It’s better to rest a little longer than return to training too soon, hurt yourself again, and then have to restart the recovery process.
For most people, being patient is the hardest thing to cope with when injury strikes.
Use this time to work on other aspects of your fitness, such as training your legs and core or doing more cardio and stretching. There is no need to be completely inactive.
How To Avoid Forearm Pain In The First Place
As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In other words, it usually takes less effort to avoid injuries than it does to treat and heal them. Use the following tips to reduce your risk of developing forearm pain in the first place.
Warm up properly
While we can’t guarantee that warming up will prevent all injuries, it should reduce your risk. Warmer muscles stretch and contract more efficiently, so they’re less likely to be damaged when you start working hard.
Most people focus on their warm-ups on big joints and muscle groups, such as the hips and shoulders, hamstrings, and pecs. However, if you are doing a very forearm or grip-centric exercise like pull-ups, you should warm up your lower arms, too.
So, in addition to your usual warm-up, make sure you include some wrist rotations, forearm flexions and extensions, and some light stretches to ensure this area of your body is as ready as possible for what you’re about to do.
Take care when using overly thin and thick pull-up bars
Very thin or thick pull-up bars put a lot of stress on your forearm muscles, increasing your risk of injury. Skinny bars force you to close your hand tighter than usual, putting your fingers in a mechanically disadvantageous position. Thicker grips force you to keep your hands more open, which makes it harder to maintain your grip.
Avoid forearm pain by introducing thick bar pull-ups gradually into your program and avoiding thin bars whenever possible. You can make a thin bar less stressful to grip by wrapping it in tape, wearing gloves, or using clip-on handles.
Don’t grip the bar too tightly
Pull-ups are a very grip-centric exercise. However, a lot of people make the mistake of gripping the bar too tightly. This “death grip” could be the reason for your forearm pain. Avoid this by only holding the bar hard enough to support your weight. There is no need to try and crush the bar. Use no more and no less hand pressure than you need.
Use lifting straps
Lifting straps provide more friction between your hands and the bar, so you don’t have to grip it as tightly. This takes the stress away from your forearms. While many people avoid using straps so they can develop a firmer grip, if you experience forearm pain during pull-ups, reducing lower arm engagement may help cure the problem.
Use gym chalk
Sweaty hands mean you’ll need to grip the bar tighter during pull-ups. This increases the stress on your forearms. Like lifting straps, lifting chalk increases the friction between your hands and the bar, so you won’t need to hold on so tightly.
Keep a bag of powdered chalk or a bottle of liquid chalk in your gym bag so you can use it before every set of pull-ups. Chalk is a real forearm and grip saver!
Stretch your forearms between workouts
A lot of strength training exercises involve your forearms. Your forearms are also often flexed during everyday activities, such as driving and using a computer keyboard. As such, tight forearms are common. Despite this, relatively few people spend much, if any, time stretching their lower arm muscles.
Avoid tight forearms and the pain they can cause by stretching them between workouts. This kneeling forearm stretch is one of the best ways to do it:
- Kneel down and place your hands on the floor, fingers facing your knees. Your arms should be straight and your palms flat.
- Gently lean back and press the heels of your hands into the floor.
- Hold for 30-60 seconds, and then relax.
- You can also stretch the muscles that extend your wrists by turning your hands over and pressing the backs of your hands into the floor.
Train your finger extensors
Muscles are generally arranged in opposing pairs. For example, the biceps oppose the triceps, and the quadriceps oppose the hamstrings. These paired muscles affect the same joint, with one flexing and the other extending it.
If one muscle in the pair gets much stronger than the other, an imbalance will occur. Muscular imbalances can cause pain and dysfunction.
As such, you need to work on your finger extension strength as well as your grip. While your finger extensors will never be as strong as the finger flexors, they still need to be trained so they are not weak.
One easy way to do this is to include rubber band finger extensions in your grip workouts. Just a few sets a couple of times per week will be sufficient for most people.
- With your fingers straight and together, take a large rubber band and loop it around your fingertips and thumb. A standard stationary-type band should suffice.
- Open your hand and spread your fingers and thumb apart as far as possible.
- Slowly close your hand and repeat.
Try some different grips
There is more than one way to position your hands during pull-ups. You may find that some feel more comfortable and are less stressful for your forearms than others. For example, if overhand medium-width pull-ups with a full grip around the bar bother your forearms, you could try a thumbless narrow grip instead.
You may also find that underhand and neutral grip pull-ups are more comfortable than the overhand version.
Experiment to see which feels best. You could change hand positions workout-by-workout to spread the stress to different forearm muscles and avoid overloading the same ones repeatedly.
Strengthen your forearms
Weak forearms are more prone to injury than stronger forearms. If you know your grip and lower arms are weak, it’s time to start training them. There are lots of exercises you can do to strengthen your forearms and grip, including wrist and reverse wrist curls, hammer curls, and dead hangs. Add a forearm exercise or two to your upper arm workouts or train your grip on separate days as preferred.
However, take care not to train your grip and forearms too hard or too often, as doing so could result in more forearm pain.
Forearm Pull-Up Pain – FAQs
Do you have a question about treating or preventing forearm pain? No problem, because we’ve got the answers!
1. How do I know what type of forearm pain I have?
There are several different conditions that cause forearm pain, including compartment syndrome, tendonitis, and muscle strains. However, they can sometimes present similar symptoms, so you may not be able to determine which one you’ve got.
For this reason, it’s always best to seek qualified medical advice and get an accurate diagnosis.
This is important because the treatment for one condition could actually make another problem worse.
So, use the PRICE protocol, but if the pain is severe or persists, get it checked out by a sports injury doctor.
2. Can I train around forearm pain?
Forearm pain doesn’t always mean you can’t train. So, while you should avoid exercises like pull-ups, pulldowns, deadlifts, rows, and curls, you still do leg presses, leg extensions, leg curls, and may even be okay doing squats, bench presses, overhead presses, etc.
In simple terms, exercises that involve a tight grip are out while you let your injuries heal. However, activities involving minimal forearm engagement should be fine, provided they don’t cause pain.
3. How long does it take for forearm pain to subside?
Sadly, this question is unanswerable as it depends on the cause of your pain and the nature of your injury. Other factors affecting the healing process include how much you rest the painful area and what other treatments you use.
The one thing you must avoid doing is trying to rush the healing process; it will take as long as it takes. Returning to training before you’ve healed could result in reinjury and more time off.
4. If pull-ups hurt my forearms, can I do lat pulldowns instead?
Overhand lat pulldowns and pull-ups work many of the same muscles. The main difference between these exercises is the amount of weight used.
You can scale pulldowns to match your current level of strength, but doing pull-ups means lifting your entire body weight with just your arms. Pull-ups are much more strenuous than pulldowns.
As such, you can do pulldowns instead of pull-ups if you wish, providing they don’t also hurt your forearms.
5. Are hand grippers a good way to strengthen my forearms and grip?
Hand grippers are a convenient, time-efficient, and cost-effective way to train your forearms and grip. You can use them at home while relaxing in front of the TV, at work between meetings or phone calls, or even while on your morning commute.
There are lots of different strengths and styles of hand grippers to choose from, so shop around to find one you like. Also, don’t use your hand gripper too often, i.e., every day; otherwise, you could end up with an overuse injury, negating the benefits of forearm and grip training.
Read More on Forearm Pain:
Like all types of pain, forearm pain tells you something is wrong and you should stop what you are doing. Ignoring pain could make the problem worse.
The good news is that most types of forearm pain are due to soft tissue injuries, which usually heal fully in a relatively short time. Resting and controlling the inflammation will have you back in the gym in no time.
However, if the pain is severe or persists despite resting and icing the area, you should get your forearm pain checked by a medical professional. While serious forearm injuries are rare, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.