The bench press represents a staple upper body pressing exercise used to increase strength, power, and hypertrophy. Increasing your bench press press is a highly sought after goal for both athletes and "bros" alike! However, often times, nagging shoulder pain tends to get in the way of these endeavors. Here are 5 tips to eliminate shoulder pain during the bench press!
For an even more comprehensive article on managing shoulder pain during the bench press, head here.
1. Alter Your Grip Width
Altering your grip width, in my opinion, the first line of defense to combat nagging shoulder pain during the bench press. Altering the grip width can help shift stress off of sensitized structures, making it more comfortable for you overall. I recommend trying both narrowing AND widening the grip to see what works best for you.
This grip change shouldn't be drastic; start with simply moving each hand in a half-inch and re-assess. If this alone eliminates your shoulder pain, then you've found your golden ticket!
2. Keep Your Shoulder Blades Retracted
A major problem during the bench press is lack of upper back tightness. If the scapulae do not stay locked in retraction the entire lift, this can cause anterior scapular tilt at the bottom of the bench press leading to anterior shoulder discomfort.
It amazes me that people still believe scapular motion should occur during the bench press. Conventional wisdom would suggest that as one presses the weight, the scapulae should protract to promote optimal scapulohumeral rhythm. Then on the decent, the scapulae should retract once again. While in theory this makes sense, it comes at a cost of sacrificing stability.
Trying to repetitively retract and protract the scapulae while pinned to a bench against a heavy load is futile, as it is nearly impossible to perform and sacrifices stability. It would be best advised to train proper scapulohumeral rhythm with other exercises where the scapulae are actually free to rotate such as the push-up, landmine press, and overhead press.
For the bench press keep those shoulder blades locked in retraction; this is the safest and most mechanically efficient way to save your shoulders and increase performance.
3. Try the Low Incline Bench Press
For those who aren't training for a powerlifting meet and are repetitively "beat up" by the standard bench press, inclining the bench press just a tad can be an awesome solution. If you have the correct adjustable bench, set it just one notch above flat.
The slight angle allows the chest to take more of a role, sparing the shoulder joint itself. So in addition to being a great "shoulder saver", this is an awesome variation for those who can never seem to feel the bench press in their chest.
While this may not be a viable solution for the powerlifters out there who don't have a choice but to perform the bench press, this represents a great option for the average joe, weekend warrior, and athlete!
4. Increase Your Overhead Pressing Volume
Often times a culprit of shoulder pain during the bench press can be contributed to simply too much bench pressing. As mentioned in the last paragraph, bench pressing is performed with the shoulder blades locked in retraction. While this is the most efficient and safest way to perform the lift, it needs to be appropriately balanced with other exercises that train proper scapulohumeral rhythm.
Often times decreasing your bench press volume and subsequently increasing your overhead pressing work can promote balance at the shoulder joint and help alleviate nagging shoulder pain.
5. Perform Posterior Shoulder Soft-Tissue Work
A proper warm-up is key for preventing shoulder pain during the bench press. While simple exercises such as scapular retractions, push-ups, and external rotation work are all great tools to utilize, I've found that performing soft tissue work directly prior to bench pressing can also be of great benefit.
To perform, while lying on your side, roll your posterior shoulder on either a tennis ball or lacrosse ball for around 10 slow reps. After that, slowly go through the motions of internal and external rotation on top of the ball. To clarify the purpose of this, NO we aren't breaking up any "adhesions" or releasing any tissue "restrictions", we are simply providing a novel stimulus to the nervous system to decrease tone. This can transiently increase shoulder ROM (especially internal rotation) which can subsequently lead to a more comfortable bench press.
There's no need to press hard into the ball and this should NOT be painful. Again, we aren't breaking up any adhesions or digging any "knots" out.
The bench press is one of the most powerful barbell pressing exercises we have at our disposal. There's no reason it needs to cause shoulder pain. Try narrowing your grip and be sure to keep those shoulder blades locked stable against the bench. In addition, performing the lift from a small incline and increasing your overhead pressing volume can also be of benefit.
Finally, be sure to include some soft tissue work in your warm-up to help decrease tone and increase ROM. Use these 5 tips to eliminate shoulder pain during the bench press!