Why You May Be Having Shoulder Pain During The Bench Press

July 21st 2019

If you are learning how to bench press in the gym, you never want to experience any shoulder pain. Shoulder pain during a bench press will be the bane to your existence. It never seems to go away and you will be annoyed all the time. You just never seem to catch a break when it comes to staying healthy in the gym.

So, let us go over this one particular reason why you may be feeling shoulder pain during the bench press.

Bench Press Scapular Protraction

Scapula protraction is the movement of your scapula going away from your spine. Essentially, your shoulder will be rounded forward when you perform any scapula protractions. It is a very subtle movement but it has dangerous consequences when performed on the bench press.

When you protract your scapula during the bench press, you are creating an unstable base for your entire compound movement. This lack of tension during your back will cause you to utilize your shoulder more during the bench press. 

For many lifters, using their shoulders may not be such a big deal. However, the shoulder joint does not enjoy being under a ton of pressure, especially with a lot of delicate muscles holding the entire joint in a delicate balance. Notice how if you strain one part of your muscle in your upper body, you are unable to perform any upper body movements. This is one reason why rotator cuff injuries are so devastating for many lifters; the rotator cuff is made up of four smaller muscles and when one of these muscles get overused, it can cause issues with stability, function, and power.

So, powerlifters, Strongman, or any other athletes tend to bench press with better form than your average gym bro. This is no coincidence either. In order to get longevity in the weight room, you need to protect your joints and make sure you are doing the exercises well.

What is the proper bench press form?

The proper bench press form is to retract and depress your scapula, use leg drive and to pick a grip with that is 1.5-2x your shoulder width. For a majority of lifters, this will be the ideal setup. If it is your first-time bench pressing, any form changes or technique adjustments will feel a bit abnormal. As long as you are following the general guidelines mentioned above, you should be fine. If you do happen to be the 1% of lifters that need to deviate from the formula above, then you will realize that after several months of training.

Retract and depress your scapula on the bench press

Retracting and depressing your scapula during the bench press will help you stabilize your back, anchor your shoulders and minimize stress on your shoulder joints. From the available movements that your shoulders can do, this is the most effective way to prolong your lifting journey. 

Because really, you only have four ranges of motions that your shoulders can go through - protraction, retraction, depression, and elevation. We already went over why you should not do shoulder protraction during the bench press. Shoulder elevations are typically done when you activate your traps, which is exactly the type of movement when you shrug your shoulders up. Obviously, this is not the proper way to bench press since you are very unstable with your shoulder elevated on the bench.

What if I cannot retract my scapula during the bench press?

Relax and give yourself a break. Try again and make minor improvements to your form each time you go into the gym. If it is your first time bench pressing with a retracted and depressed scapula, it will be foreign. This is normal because you are not used to having so much tension on your mid-back. You are not accustomed to stabilizing your entire body so that your bench press is more efficient.

Keep on trying and you will eventually get it. For instance, it took me many months before scapula retraction actually felt normal for me. Even now, it still feels as though I could further improve my form. However, my bench press max has been increasing through my training. I have been able to train hard without major injuries for the past few years. So, something is working in my opinion and I will continue to do so until I sense that something is wrong.

And that is the thing about strength training - there is no right or wrong way of doing things. In schools, you are conditioned to believe there is only one right answer. However, life works much differently. There are multiple paths and avenues people can take in order to get what they want. Some directions will get you there faster but it really depends on your experience, education and practical application. What worked for me may not work for you but you will never know unless you try it out.

Bench Press Mistakes - Getting loose after unracking

You need to practice unracking the bench press so that you do not lose tightness. If you are having difficulty unracking the bench press, there are a ton of remedies you can implement so that you can finally bench press without worry. There will be no more hitting the pins or you being unable to unrack a heavy weight. This just means you need more practice.

Sure, there may be some elite lifters who claim that you just need to get a spotter and do not worry about the lift-off. However, this is not a great solution for everyone since not everyone can get the same spotter In the past decade, we have lost the ability to become independent in the weight room. Our ancestors definitely did not need to spot each other to the degree we see lifters do today. There were pride and toughness in being able to self-unrack a bench press and to perform the reps on your own.

Shoulder pain during scapula retraction

You may feel sore when you retract your scapula during the bench press but there should never be pain. This can be a sign of mobility issues or a pre-warnings for a future injury. One good way to make sure that you eliminate shoulder pain from the bench press is to analyze your scapula mobility. Without being under the bench press, you should be able to elevate, depress, protract and retract your scapula without pain. In fact, you should be able to do some light exercises that engage the rotator cuff muscles while still feeling no pain. There could be some blood flow happening in the area but it would never cross your mind that you are in pain.


You know now that scapula protraction is a necessary movement for healthy shoulder mobilization. At the same time, it has its place in the world and it definitely does not belong in the bench press movement whatsoever. Making sure you learn proper bench press techniques can save you years of headaches down the road. It is one less annoying problem you will face if you learn how to bench press correctly when you are first starting off in the gym.

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