How to Bench Without Shoulder Pain

How to Bench Without Shoulder Pain

The bench press. It goes without saying that it’s among the most popular exercises you’ll see in the gym. And with it’s popularity comes a myriad of issues. The most common being shoulder pain.

But rather than training smarter, the typical strategy is to “fight through the pain” and hope it subsides. And more typically than not, this strategy fails.

So instead of benching in pain, here are some suggestions to make your bench press more “shoulder friendly”.

General Guidelines When Benching with Shoulder Pain

  • Refer out. The longer you ignore pain, the longer you’ll hurt. Get a second opinion from a professional. Because at the end of the day, you’re (probably) not a doctor or a therapist.
  • If it hurts, stop. Pain is your body telling you something’s off. Your body is smarter than you. Learn how to listen to it.
  • Do more push-ups. Ah, push-ups. They ain’t as easy as you might think. Do them right and your chest will blow up. And from a shoulder-health perspective, they take the cake over benching. Push-ups are a closed chain exercise, allowing more freedom of movement in the scapulae (shoulder blades). As opposed to benching, which is an open chain exercise where your shoulder blades “hug” the bench. Yes, you need to maintain scapular stability and contact with the bench during the bench press for maximal strength output. That said, overtime this may cause shoulder issues for some lifters if they neglect exercises that allow greater movement in the scapulae.
  • Train around it. There’s always something you can do. There’s more than one way to bench, and there’s more than one way to build your chest and triceps. Find what works for you.
  • Always warm up. This is non-negotiable. Think of some of your favorite bodybuilders or athletes. All of them warm up. Every single session. There’s no reason you shouldn’t do the same.
  • Do more upper back work. Your upper back is the “shelf” the bar sits on during the bench press. A strong upper back maximizes your strength output and minimizes your risk of injury. When it comes to benching, you’ll be able to press more weight while keeping your shoulders happy.
  • Do more horizontal rows. More often than not, horizontal rows are the missing ingredient in the plethora of programs out there. The general prescription is a 2:1 rowing to pressing ratio. Personally, I don’t think that’s realistic for most people. If you do 8 sets on the bench, do you really think you’re going to do 16 sets of rows? Alternatively, you can just do an extra set of rows vs. presses. For example, if you do 5 sets of bench press, do 6 sets of rows. That’s already more than most people do anyway.
  • Do more mobility work. Mobility is your joints’ ability to actively travel through their intended ranges of motion. When you can’t get into an optimal position, you compensate your form and your joints suffer. So when it comes to the bench press, mobility work for your shoulders and thoracic spine (upper back) isn’t just recommended, it’s required.

Bench Press Variations to AVOID with Shoulder Pain

  • Flat barbell bench press and wide grip bench press. The fixed position of the straight barbell on the flat bench press can cause shoulder pain for many lifters. When most people bench, their elbows are “flared” out with about 90 degree flexion. This is generally referred to as the “impingement zone”, which can cause issues if there’s already pre-existing pain/limited mobility in the glenohumeral (shoulder) joint. Generally speaking, dumbbells or the Swiss bar are better options for your shoulders.
  • Inclined bench press. The greater the incline angle, the more emphasis is put on the shoulders during the bench press. If you’re experiencing shoulder pain when you bench, it’s usually recommended to reduce the incline as much as possible. This way, you minimize the stress placed on your shoulders and emphasize the pecs and triceps instead.
  • Chest fly variations. No, this isn’t a bench press variation but it’s still commonly seen in the gym and notorious for causing shoulder pain. While chest fly’s are a great way to build a bigger chest, they’re not the only way. Remember…if it causes pain, stop. You’ve got plenty of other options.

How to Reduce/Eliminate Shoulder Pain When Benching

  1. Reduce the range of motion. Most people don’t have the mobility required to do a full range of motion bench press without putting their shoulders in a vulnerable position. Reducing the range of motion will reduce the amount of shoulder mobility needed to perform the press. Some ways you can reduce the range of motion in the bench press include:
    • Floor press: Same as the bench press, but you’re laying on the floor instead of a bench. You can use dumbbells or a barbell.
    • Pin press: Place the barbell on a couple of pins in the squat rack and perform presses. This is a great way to not only reduce the amount of shoulder involvement in the press, but to also overload the lockout of your bench. Pin presses allow you to load more weight, increasing your triceps/lockout strength in the bench. So when you go back to regular benching, you’ll be stronger as you lockout your arms.
    • Board press: This is a powerlifting staple. Have a friend hold a board on your chest and bring the barbell down to the board each rep. Similar to pin presses, this reduces the range of motion in the bench press and increases your lockout strength/triceps engagement.
  2. Use a narrow grip. The closer your elbows are “tucked” into your sides, the less stress is placed on your shoulders. This is typically a harder press variation given the lack of pec involvement and increased emphasis on the triceps. Minimal abduction of the shoulder is generally a safe idea when benching with shoulder pain.
  3. Use a neutral grip. Most people have internally rotated shoulders and a rounded posture. If you’re benching and want to eliminate (or at least greatly reduce) shoulder pain, try using a neutral (palms in) grip. This externally rotates the shoulders at the top of the press, which is generally a “friendlier” position for the shoulders.

Shoulder-Friendly Bench Press Variations

  1. Floor Press Variations
    • Swiss Bar Floor Press
    • Dumbbell Floor Press
  2. Close Grip Press
  3. Neutral Grip Press
    • Flat Bench Dumbbell Press (with External Rotation)
    • Dumbbell Floor Press (Palms In)
  4. Slight Decline Bench Press

Summary

Shoulder pain sucks, but it doesn’t mean you can’t train around it. Warm up, do more mobility work, train your upper back, try these shoulder-friendly press variations, and see a professional if you need more help.

Dan North is a personal trainer and strength-and-conditioning specialist in Toronto. He writes for several fitness publications and keeps up with his own blog.