20 Jan 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 often times are 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, then one day magically you will be capable of bench-pressing pain-free. The worst thing to do is doing nothing, which would lead to even more weakness thus 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, Stenoclavicular 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 prehab lens in potentially minimizing the risk of future injury. Here are the 3 steps!
Step 1- Improve your form
The way you choose to position yourself on the bench press can influence the degrees of stress placed on various joints greatly. We will separate your form into the set up and the movement.
- Have your points of contact: head, shoulders, glutes, and feet.
- 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.
- Just 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 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
- 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.
Step 2- 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 a bench press.
Adjusting the moment arm to the shoulder
This subtle change has helped so many of my patients and clients to bench pressing again pain-free.
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.
Narrow Grip=decreases stress on the shoulder and increases stress on the elbows. Narrow grip bench pressing has been shown to increase activation of the clavicular head of the pec and the triceps brachii compared to a wider grip.
If it still doesn’t make sense take a look at this image above. Although the weight is exactly the same, the longer the moment arm the more effort is required to keep the external load from hitting the floor.
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.
Another variation I like to use is the under grip or reverse grip barbell bench press.
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. This will decrease the impingement sensation of the soft tissue under the acromion of the shoulder blade. 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.
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 here!
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 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!
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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. Here are two exercises that are GREAT in preparing your upper body for bench pressing. Follow instructions in the video above for details on how to perform these.
Banded T’s 3×10 rep’s
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 rep’s
Start in the tall plank position. Drive your hands into the ground and also imaging driving your elbows into the ground. This is your stable base position. Keeping the core and shoulders engaged and strong, slowly lift one arm and tap your opposite shoulder. Repeat on the other side.
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. Drop a comment below with your thoughts on this article or if there are any other topics you would like us to cover!
- 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.