Experiencing forearm pain during pull ups is not uncommon, especially as more and more people get into calisthenics. But what exactly causes that annoying pull up forearm pain?
And, more importantly, what can you do to reduce or eliminate it?
Heck, is it even possible to get rid of the problem?
After experiencing similar problems myself, I pondered these questions rather intensely. This guide is the result of that thought and research. I hope that it helps you to get back to pain-free pull ups sooner rather than later.
What causes forearm pain during pull ups?
Few lifters (especially bodybuilders who never train their lower arms) possess the grip strength that's necessary to keep up with their backs. At one point, my grip strength was so bad that I actually thought that my back was weak, despite it being decently developed.
Actually, I just had a pathetically weak grip.
The point is, if you’re relying on your fingers to stop you from falling off the bar, then you’re going to run into forearm pain or elbow pain, or both. This is because many of the forearm muscles pass through the region near the elbow.
More simply, though, you’re putting a ton of stress on your relativity weak forearm flexors, especially if you're doing weighted pull ups, which can often lead to conditions like forearm shin splints. You might feel particular discomfort when you’re in the stretched position because this is where your forearms are being stretched under maximum load.
For some people, especially those with smaller frames, it’s my experience that the forearms don’t tolerate heavy weighted stretches all that well. But with a few modifications, you might be able to reduce or eliminate your pain.
How to treat pull up forearm pain
Rest your forearms
I know that taking a week off upper body training might seem like the worst thing in the world. But I can promise you, your gains won’t evaporate overnight. The point of this period of rest is to try and identify the cause of the problem?
Is it truly because of pull ups?
Or is it due to general overtraining/fatigue, which is then made worse by pull ups?
If the pain still persists after your time away from the pull up bar, then you’ll need to make some more modifications. You can even wear lower arm protection devices to limit the range of motion in your forearm during everyday activities, which will help it to recover quicker.
Switch to chin ups
Of course, there are certain pros to pull ups that you can’t really get from chin ups. For example, pull ups work the lower lats a bit better than chins because they provide more shoulder adduction compared to shoulder extension.
However, the difference isn’t night and day. It’s quite possible that your forearm cramp or pain will subside when you switch to an underhand grip.
This is because your big strong biceps are taking more of the load. And this is despite the fact that you'll likely be lifting heavier and/or doing more reps on the underhand version.
Now, if this doesn’t work, then it’s very likely that you’ve injured a muscle/tendon/ligament (perhaps all 3) in your forearm flexor.
As you might already know, many lifters experience forearm pain from bicep curls because their flexors are in a fixed position when they curl with a barbell. Well, you might also have noticed that chin ups are essentially like bodyweight bicep curls, except that you have your back to help you out.
So if your problem is originating from the flexors, then you may actually find that an underhand grip doesn’t alleviate the pain at all.
Use a neutral grip
The beauty of pull ups and chin ups is that you can do them in any gym. Yet, not all gyms have a neutral grip option on the pull up bars.
And that’s a shame. Because in my experience, a neutral grip, on pretty much every exercise, is the most joint-friendly option that we have.
My shoulders feel fantastic during neutral grip chin ups, and my forearms don’t feel pained either.
Engage your back more
When it comes to the forearms and pull ups, you want to think of your hands as hooks (strong hooks) and your back as the machinery that does that heavy lifting.
Try to initiate each rep with your back muscles and let them stretch and squeeze during every repetition. However, don’t neglect your arms completely. It’s not smart to try and isolate muscles in compound movements because this mental cue of isolation makes you weaker, which means that the prime movers will actually receive less tension.
Still, mentally thinking about stretching and squeezing your back can be very helpful indeed. Consider doing a few sets of light pulldowns as a warm up so that you can work on your mind-muscle connection.
Strengthen your grip
Strengthening your grip gives you more control over your forearms. Instead of having to rely on your fingers to stop your hands from slipping off the bar, a mighty grip will allow your lower arm muscles to do the lifting rather than your much smaller fingers.
For this, I like doing plate pinches and farmer's walks. But you can get comparable results by using a grip trainer, which is particularly helpful because you can use it at home.
Also, learn how to stretch your forearm if you want some acute pain relief for your tight forearm muscles. Long term, it's a good idea to do some forearm rehab exercises to hone in on the weak areas in your lower arms.
The verdict on pull up induced forearm pain
If you already do a proper warm up, if you already engage your back muscles, and if you’ve taken the week off, then the best piece of advice that I can give you to reduce your pull up forearm pain is to experiment with your grip.
For many people, switching to a neutral or underhand grip will take care of the issue. But it could also be a form issue. Perhaps, in an attempt to maximize the lat stretch, you’re coming down too far and putting your forearm flexors under a stretch that’s too intense for them to handle?
Ultimately, if your problem persists, then it’s worth talking to a doctor to see if you’ve got a specific injury. From there, you can try to work out how you got the injury, which means that you can put measures in place to prevent It from copping up again in the future.
- Seror, P. (1993). Forearm pain secondary to compression of the medial antebrachial cutaneous nerve at the elbow. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 74(5), 540–542. https://doi.org/10.1016/0003-9993(93)90121-p