If you’re like most lifters with chronic elbow problems, you’ve probably tried all kinds of voodoo to treat it – releasing, scraping, cupping, needling, tempering, taping, and stretching (lots of stretching).
Here’s the thing: all of those fall into the category of soft-tissue techniques. If you’re still living with stiff and cranky elbows that take forever to warm up, it’s time to try a direct joint-based approach.
Joint mobilizations are used to address range-of-motion restrictions and pain. Here are my favorite elbow self-mobilization techniques:
1. Humeroulnar Distraction Self-Mobilization
The elbow is a complex of three joints. The humeroulnar joint is the “hinge” where flexion and extension occur. It lies between the arm bone (humerus) and the forearm bone on your pinky-finger side (ulna). Distraction refers to the separation of joint surfaces. Think of this as a “stretch” for the joint.
- Set up with your forearm resting palm-up on an incline bench. Only the bottom half of your forearm should be supported by the bench. Your elbow should be bent approximately 70 degrees.
- Loop a rigid strap around your forearm, just below the elbow joint-line. A luggage strap works well. If you don’t have a rigid strap, a very thick (3-plus inch) resistance band should do the trick.
- Provide stabilization by putting your other hand on the forearm that’s on the bench and leaning into it.
- Apply the mobilization by placing one foot in the bottom of the strap. Slowly lean into the strap, allowing part of your bodyweight to pull the ulna toward the floor in a controlled fashion. Keep the arm you’re mobilizing as relaxed as possible.
- The mobilization should be firm and non-painful. Provide a 10-30 second sustained mobilization, then let off and move your elbow through flexion and extension several times. Repeat the mobilization 3-4 times or as needed.
2. Humeroradial Distraction Self-Mobilization
This is the joint between the arm bone and the more mobile thumb-side bone of the forearm (radius). Once again, this technique attempts to stretch the joint surfaces apart.
- With a medium-thickness resistance band (0.75 to 2 inches) create a smaller loop by taking one side of the band through the other side, as shown in the video.
- Place the hand and wrist of the side to be mobilized in the small loop. Tighten it so that it “grabs” around the thumb side of your hand. You shouldn’t need to grip the band.
- Loop the other end of the band around a knee-height object that’s not going to move, such as the safety of a squat rack or a low weight-peg on a power rack or other heavy machine.
- Step back to tension the band. Bring your other arm across your body to stabilize by supporting just above the elbow joint. This should allow you to fully relax the arm you’re mobilizing.
- The pull of the mobilization should be firm and non-painful. Provide a 10-30 second sustained mobilization, then let off. Loosen the loop around your wrist/hand and move your elbow through flexion and extension and rotate your forearm several times. Repeat the mobilization 3-4 times.
3. Proximal Radioulnar Self-Mobilization
The third joint of the elbow complex lies between the radius and ulna. It allows your forearm to rotate. This mobilization is indicated to address restriction or discomfort with supination, the forearm motion of turning the palm forward or up.
- Locate the head of the radius. To find this landmark, start by identifying the lateral epicondyle of the humerus, which is the prominent boney bump on the outside of your elbow. Now slide your fingers about one-half inch down your forearm, toward your hand. You should now be behind the brachioradialis and other wrist extensor muscles.
- Place a tennis ball or lacrosse ball on a bench. Stack your forearm on top of the ball, with the spot you just located (“head of the radius”) atop the ball. Your forearm should be in relaxed supination (palm turned slightly up)
- Provide the mobilization force with your other hand, just below the elbow, in a downward direction. Lean your weight into the mobilization in a graded and controlled fashion.
- The mobilization should be firm and non-painful. Provide a 10-30 second sustained mobilization, then let off and rotate your forearm through supination and pronation several times. Repeat the mobilization 3-4 times.
Joint mobilizations may not be appropriate for those with ligament injury or fracture to the elbow complex, or those who have suffered elbow joint dislocations. Individuals with known osteoporosis or other bone diseases should also avoid these joint mobilizations.
The information provided here is for educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized medical or rehabilitation advice. No client-provider relationship is implied.