Solve your shoulder issues to have a bigger bench press

March 12th 2019

Do your shoulders get tight when you are descending from the start position of your bench press? But you need to keep benching to make progress with your bench press, right?

Well, not quite.

While we often work on mobility on our lower body, we frequently tend to skip out on many exercises that allow us to get into an optimal starting position for the bench press. As a result, we experience pain, discomfort, and a wide array of symptoms in between. So, here are several strategies you can implement in order to start hitting new bench press PRs.

Are you really in pain while bench pressing?

It is one thing to experience discomfort while lifting heavy weights. It is a new stimulus and your body is forced to adapt. It is another situation where you are unable to perform bodyweight movements or lightweight sets due to pain.

When I was first starting off in the gym, I thought that the best way to make gains on the bench press was to follow the biggest benchers in my class. They were doing about 225lbs for reps. And they were benching every day. So, I thought, why not me?

And for the first few days, I was making “progress.” My numbers were going up every day and I was going to hit 135lbs for the very first time. You probably know where this is going…

When I reached 135lbs, I felt a dull aching pain in my right back. It was not in my back back but it was around my shoulder area. It was a pain I never felt before and I knew from then on that I could not bench press anymore. I went to a physical therapist who diagnosed me with a strained rotator cuff.

So, you will know if you are in pain.

Shoulder pain impingement from bench press?

You did your research and think you might have some shoulder impingement during your bench press? Well, there are several shoulder movements that you should master before you do any form of upper body resistance training. They are:

  • Scapular retraction and depression
  • Shoulder extension
  • Thoracic spine extension

Let us dive into all these terms and some solutions.

Scapular Retraction for the Bench Press

This is where we want to pull (retract) our shoulder blades (scapula) backward. This may seem like a straightforward movement but one area of compensation that may occur is that your spine is also extending as well.

Scapular Depression for the Bench Press

You may have heard about the pull your shoulder blades back and down. In addition to doing scapula retraction, you will also need to pull your shoulder blades down.

Why do you need to do scapula retraction and depression while bench pressing?

One of the most universal goals all lifters have is to stay in the game for as long as possible. This is an achievable goal if we take injury prevention seriously and one of the most common injuries that strike down many lifters are shoulder issues.

So, one of the most important ques you hear in bench pressing is to pull your shoulder blades back and down. But why?

Let us examine the relationship between our humerus and our torso. The humerus is the long bone that is in between your shoulder joint and your elbow.

Your humerus should be in a neutral position. Period. Anything deviation from neutral will reveal muscular or even structural errors in your body. One of the most common postures today, as a result of new technology, is the rounded shoulder epidemic. But this is a whole topic that deserves its own post.

Now, imagine if you are in a neutral position; your humerus is aligned with your body. When your bench press, the bar will force your shoulders to rotate forward to compensate as the bar comes down to your chest. Immediately, you will realize that this is not a stable or safe position to be in. It gets much worse as you add more weight.

As a result, big benchers will tell you to pull your shoulder blades back and down. This will keep your shoulder blades tensed, which creates a safe position for your shoulders to be in.

Shoulder Extension (and also Internal Rotation)

Shoulder extension is your ability to move your arms behind your body. Shoulder internal rotation is your ability to rotate your shoulder towards your body.

How much shoulder extension and internal rotation do you need to do a bench press? The answer will differ depending on your goals. Generally, most people need enough mobility. Not having enough mobility will impede the bench press movement. Having too much mobility will confuse a new lifter on what to focus on when bench pressing.

From a medical perspective, a sufficient range of motion for shoulder extension is between 45 degrees and 60 degrees. A sufficient range of motion for shoulder internal rotation is between 70 degrees and 90 degrees.

Thoracic spine extension

Being able to do thoracic extension allows the lifter to be in a powerful position to bench press in. Lack of thoracic extension is shown in poor posture and some muscular imbalances in the shoulders and back.

But the bottom line is this, abnormal shoulder pain should not be tolerated. Yes, there could be some instances where pain can be managed and worked around in a workout. But for the most part, you should take a step back and not do activities that cause you pain.

There is a common form of advice that tells lifters that if they are in pain, they should just stop working out and just rest. While that is the safest advice, keep in mind you are not making ANY physical progress. And if you are a competitor that has a competition coming up, it will eat you alive that you are not doing something.

So, you have choices. Should you follow the age-old advice or do something else? In my personal experience and in doing my research on the web, I found that one of the best solutions to this issue is this - you need to still be active but do pain-free movements.

So, if you are experiencing shoulder pain while bench pressing, STOP doing bench presses like that and take a break from them. Can you do other forms of bench presses? Can you do incline bench presses? What about using dumbbells? Can you do a modified bench press? What about push ups? Dips any good?

There are so many different exercises to choose from. You are really only limited by your imagination. You are also just lazy to just give up when you experience some sort of adversity when trying to reach your goals.

Front Shoulder Pain after Bench Pressing

This should never happen during a bench press. If you do experience any front shoulder pain, do not continue the exercise. Instead, follow the checklist above and make sure you are performing the necessary exercises to ensure sufficient shoulder health.

Bad form is a common cause for pain; you are simply just doing the exercise wrong. Performing the exercise safely and correctly will allow you to make gains in the long term.

Bent Wrists

Your wrists should neither be fully straight nor bent at 90 degrees. In fact, they should be closer to fully straight but still be bent at an angle for a proper wrist ankle for comfortable and powerful bench press.

Flared Elbows

Another common error in the bench press is to flare out your elbows. When you do this, your shoulder blades are not retracted which puts your risk of injury much higher. Flaring your elbows also forces your body to use more shoulder muscles in order to press the weight. In a heavy bench press, this is not an ideal mechanic to depend upon.

Elbows are too tucked in

On the flip side, you should not be overtly tucking in your elbows. In the past decades, geared lifting has recorded some of the highest bench press records in history and many strength trainers and gym goers often look at the best for advance. For many ungeared and raw lifters, their advice is similar to comparing apples to oranges; it is two different animals you are dealing with.

In the end, your elbows should be bent around 45 degrees, not too flared out and not too tucked in.

Rounding (overextending) your shoulders at the top

When you are finishing up a rep, it is easy to forget about your form and just push with all your energy. As a result, your shoulders may round forward and you lose all the tension on the bench. This puts your shoulders in a vulnerable position for any further reps as your shoulders are not protected by scapula retraction and depression.

General Muscle Imbalances and Weakness

If you play a sport, like baseball or golf, for a long time, you may develop unilateral imbalances that favor one side. If you are not physically active for long periods of time, you may be just too weak to bench press the current resistance.

Understanding what your deficiencies are and working to correct them will allow you to stay on track with going to the gym and getting a bigger bench press. For many lifters, they are not exposed to pushing heavy weight away from them.

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