26 Sep Bench Press Without Shoulder Pain
The barbell bench press is arguably one of the most effective movements in developing strength and power in the upper body. It’s a great way to train the primary pushers of the upper body, including the pectoralis group, the deltoids, and the triceps. Despite the bench press being such a vital movement to help with horizontal pushing, it is one of those movements that every now and then will be limited secondary to shoulder pain, frequently in the front part of the shoulder. If bench pressing creates irritation in your shoulder, the answer is not to avoid bench pressing for 6 weeks and hope that you will magically be capable of bench-pressing pain-free again. The worst thing to do is nothing, which would lead to weakness and potentially creating more of an issue. This article will take you through 3 steps to allow you to bench press without shoulder pain.
3 Steps To Bench Press Without Shoulder Pain
Whether it’s biceps tendinopathy, subacromial impingement, rotator cuff pathologies, labral pathologies, sternoclavicular or acromioclavicular joints issues, it doesn’t matter. These steps don’t change much with different pathologies. Although this article is largely discussing how you can train around pain, it is important to note that these steps are also from a [P]Rehab lens in efforts to minimize the risk of future injury. Follow along in the video to learn the 3 steps! More importantly, consider our fully comprehensive shoulder program to get your shoulder right for bench pressing!
Shoulder [P]Rehab To Bench Press Pain-Free
Is shoulder pain limiting you from pressing motions, such as the bench press exercise? If so, we have the solution for you! The Shoulder [P]Rehab Program is a physical therapist developed, step-by-step program that teaches you how to optimize your shoulder health. This 4-phase program will expose you to various scapula and shoulder strengthening and stabilization exercises supported by science. This program will bulletproof your shoulders for anything life throws at you! Click here to learn more
Bench Press Without Shoulder Pain: Step 1- Improve your form
The way you choose to position yourself with the bench press can influence the amount of stress placed on various joints. Improving your form can help you with building strength, hold the bar correctly, lift heavier weight, and ultimately bench press without shoulder pain! We will separate your form into the setup and the movement.
- Have your points of contact: These include the head, shoulders, glutes, and feet.
- Feet position: Tuck your feet in. This will allow a slight arch of your lower and mid-back which will keep tension in the base of the movement. This will additionally allow better use of the leg drive when bench pressing.
- Eyes: Should be just underneath the barbell.
- Hand position: Place your hands directly in front of you when your arms are brought out to 90 degrees and your elbows are bent to 90 degrees. The width should be NO WIDER than 1.5 X your shoulder width. If unsure, it is likely safer to bias your hands more narrow than wide.
Performing The Movement
- ‘Bend the bar’ and pull your shoulder blades back: This will ensure scapula engagement. When ‘bending the bar’ think about twisting your arms externally, to where the thumbs would face your head and pinkies are coming in together.
- Pulling the shoulder blades back is a crucial piece here, the pec’s move the shoulder’s, and what do the shoulders sit on? The shoulder blades. This is will also feed into some more of the mid-back arching which initially was created by tucking your feet in.
- Where should the barbell end up?
- Males: just below nipple height
- Females: around the bra line
- Eccentric Control: On the way down control the movement, don’t drop the weight. Keep your shoulder blades squeezed for the entirety of the movement. When lifting the weight, think about push yourself away from the bar.
Bench Press Without Shoulder Pain: Step 2- Modify the movement
Another way to bench press without shoulder pain is to modify the movement. Modifying the movement can be achieved by changing moment arms or by decreasing the range of motion one goes through when performing the bench press.
Adjusting the moment arm to the shoulder
Let’s use physics to our advantage. The moment arm is what dictates how much stress is placed on each joint, if we bench press with our elbows flared out and our grip wide, we will INCREASE stress on the shoulders. If we press with a narrow grip, the natural path of benching will force the elbow to hug in towards the body which will bias stress to the elbows. The change in grip narrowing doesn’t have to be drastic, it can be very minimal with a subtle decrease of 1/2 inch in grip width at a time. It is important to have an adequate pronation range of motion of the forearm for the proper execution of the narrow grip variation. A narrow grip leads to decreased stress on the shoulders and increases stress on the elbows. Narrow grip bench pressing has also been shown to increase activation of the clavicular head of the pec and the triceps brachii compared to a wider grip. Another reason why a narrow grip will challenge the triceps more is for the reason you have more range of motion coming from your elbows and less range of motion is needed from the shoulders to perform the movement.
Bench Press Without Shoulder Pain: Under grip
Another variation I like to use is the under grip or reverse grip barbell bench press. Although you will be holding the bar in a different way, it can help with shoulder position, which is explained further below the video. An under grip position is achieved by rotating up your palms (supination) which will open up your shoulders (externally rotate) theoretically allowing for more space under the acromion process, which can help with shoulder impingement symptoms. This variation will also bias a tricep dominant press. Start light, at first this movement may feel awkward and you likely won’t be able to push as much weight as you would in a typical bench press. Make sure to keep your thumbs are wrapped around the barbell to provide stability with this grip.
Bench Press Without Shoulder Pain: Go through partial range of motion
Another option is bench pressing through less range of motion. This can be done by making your grip extremely wide, which will decrease the motion at the shoulder (We don’t recommend this strategy). A better alternative is to keep your comfortable hand width and place an object on your chest to minimize the depth of the bench press. Many recommend that the descending phase of the movement should end 4-6 cm above the chest. This is basically ONLY applicable to the recreational lifter, as competitive powerlifters must lower the bar and touch the chest. It is nice to have an object to reach when minimizing your range of motion, versus assuming you are going through the same range of motion each repetition. The larger the object, the less range of motion your shoulder will go through.
If you find it difficult to challenge yourself with this variation, try adding resistance bands to challenge yourself! By attaching anchored elastic resistance bands to the barbell, we can manipulate external load throughout the range of motion. With this option, the bands are slacked at the bottom of the lift, thereby reducing stress on a potentially painful shoulder and tensioned at the top of the lift where the shoulder can more efficiently handle the load. This is a great way to modify barbell exercises in the later stages of rehab programs! It is important to note that as your shoulders start feeling better you should slowly challenge your shoulders by widening your grip and slowly increasing the range of motion that you take your shoulder through!
Bench Press Without Shoulder Pain: Step 3- Warm-Up
ALWAYS prepare your body for the activity in which you are about to participate in. Bench pressing light as a warm-up just doesn’t cut it sometimes. Here are a couple of exercises that are GREAT in preparing your upper body for bench pressing. Follow instructions in the videos below for details on how to perform these movements.
Banded T’s 3×10 reps
- HOW: Get set-up holding the ends of a band out in front of you. Begin the exercise by squeezing your shoulder blades back and together while pulling the band apart. In the finished position, your arms should at least be in-line with your shoulder, palms facing forward, and thumbs facing up. Return to starting position and repeat.
- FEEL: You should feel your shoulder blades and the back of your shoulder muscles working.
- COMPENSATION: Do not excessively shrug, do not forget to squeeze your shoulder blades back
Shoulder Tap’s 3×10 reps
Being able to resist rotation and stabilize your upper body with one arm shows your shoulder and shoulder blade have the adequate stability it takes to bench press well. Our shoulder program features a ton of unilateral-focused exercises to complement bilateral movements like the bench press in efforts to minimize signficant asymmetries and ensure both shoulders have what it takes to perform!
Prone Y 3×10 reps
Lay on your stomach on a bench or table with an arm hanging down at your side. Keep your elbow straight and use your shoulder blade muscles to bring your arm up and out at a 130-degree angle from your shoulder with your thumb facing up (think of making half of a Y with your arm). Once your arm is at shoulder height, return to the starting position and repeat.
Prone I – Off Table 3×10 reps
Lay on your stomach on a bench or table with an arm hanging down at your side. Keep your elbow straight and use your shoulder blade muscles to bring your arm up and back staying at your side with your palm facing in. Once your arm is at your side, return to the starting position and repeat.
There you have it! 3 easy steps to get you back to bench pressing without shoulder pain. For those of you curious about performing push-ups pain-free, the first step doesn’t directly apply, focus on steps 2 and 3 and these should help you perform push-ups without shoulder pain.
- Glass & Armstrong (1997). Electromyographical activity of the pectoralis muscle during incline and decline bench presses, The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 11(3), 163-167.
- Barnett et al. (1995). Effects of variations of the bench press exercise on the EMG activity of five shoulder muscles, The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 9(4), 222-227.
- G. J. Lehman. The Influence Of Grip Width And Forearm Pronation/Supination On Upper-Body Myoelectric Activity During The Flat Bench Press. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2005; 19(3): 587-591.