The barbell bench press is one of the single most overtrained movements in the world of strength training, but it also happens to be one of the most notorious shoulder killers across an impressively large spectrum of athletes and lifters. While the barbell bench press is not an inherently dangerous exercise for the shoulders, it is an extremely misused and misunderstood movement that many struggle with, in both pain and performance plateaus.
The traditional barbell bench press is not a one size fits all exercise. Viewing it as such is one of the biggest mistakes people make that struggle to keep their shoulders healthy while progressing this marquee lift over time. As with any foundational movement pattern, the horizontal push needs to be customized to the individual using it in terms of preparation, loading, setup and execution. So before you ditch the bench press all together and start blaming this movement for your chronic shoulder pain woes, I challenge you to dial in your pressing with these 5 key fixes that you can instantly implement into your training for stronger and more pain-free pressing.
#5 Prime The Posterior Shoulders FIRST
If you are experiencing generalized front sided shoulder pain, before you go in and start reverse engineering the barbell bench press, take an objective look at your pre-bench preparation process. If you’re like most lifters, your warm up could use a serious upgrade in terms of the movement choices, sequences and overall preparatory goal in this undervalued aspect of training. A few arm swings and some banded external rotations aren’t going to cut it here.
If you find yourself skipping out on the warm up all together, or even worse, bull shitting counter productive work to bridge the time gap between walking into the gym and getting under serious weight on the bench, I highly recommend structuring your warm up with my 6-Phase Dynamic Warm Up Sequence. Using this approach, you can get a well-rounded bench press specific warm up knocked out in a matter of 6-8 minutes and also start to work on weak or painful links that will compound over time, as you should be warming up using this program daily.
Even for those who have their warm ups dialed in, sometimes we simply need a more extended warm up period. But instead of doing more foam rolling and corrective exercises to extend this warm up period, my preferred method is including a power primer movement as the first loaded exercise of the day. Specific to the bench press, this movement should target the upper back and posterior shoulder complex, as this region is highly advantageous to build large amounts of total volume in order to improve activation, mind-muscle connection and expedite localized blood flow into the area that will also work to improve movement, feel, and overall capacity at the true gleno-humeral shoulder joint simultaneously.
Though any upper back or lat movement could fit into this power primer slot, my preferred exercise is the face pull and it’s many variations. Using bands, cables, suspension trainers and many more eclectically loaded variations, we can work the shoulder into humeral horizontal abduction and extension with slight degrees of internal and external rotation, which bodes extremely well for dynamic shoulder complex control with all four synergistic shoulder joints working together as a functional unit.
Focus on using extended ramp up sets here, with hypertrophy and metabolic stress based set and rep schemes. Once you’re primed, move on to the bench press. I can guarantee that properly priming your posterior shoulders before bench pressing will be a game changer to your pain-free bench pressing.
#4 Setup With A Slight Incline Bench Angle
It comes to no surprise that the traditional flat barbell bench press is one of the most common loaded movements in the fitness industry. But have you ever taken a step back and wondered WHY the most common exercises tend to always be executed in 90-degree angles? The thought that we must press on a flat bench OR press a barbell overhead vertically is what we call meathead geometry. And the sad truth of the matter is that this closed-minded mindset, in terms of pressing exercise variations, is what leads to chronic wear and tear on the joints. This type of thinking also doesn’t allow functional transference of being able to improve pressing performances in altered joint positions, which is a key factor to building resilience.
If you’re thinking to yourself that the incline bench is also a popular exercise, you are correct. The smartest meatheads realized that if you cut a 90-degree angle in half you have a 45-degree incline in which you can press from. While this angle offers great variation in terms of the loading and pectoral emphasis that it offers with the pressing pattern, it’s extremely short sighted to think that this traditional incline bench angle is the only one we should be training.
A majority of my athletes have high amounts of success training their heavy press work out of slight angles. This holds true for slight inclines and slight decline angles. These slight angles are found between 10-15 degrees, and not usually able to be achieved with traditional adjustable benches. This is the biggest reason why you don’t usually see athletes or lifters training these angles- it’s more of a hassle of setup. However, you can simplify the process by using 2-3 45-pound plates on the ground, positioned under the head of the bench for a slight incline angle, or the foot of a bench for a slight decline angle.
Dragging a few plates around the gym to get your shoulders in an optimally centrated position is a great investment of time and your sweat dollar. One of the best things about the slight incline and decline angles, is that these slight variations can be trained in the same power and strength schemes as the traditional flat barbell bench press would, but minus the chronic joint stress and common pain that has been notoriously associated with the king of all upper body movements, the bench press.
#3 Incorporate Accommodating Resistance Loading
As many lifters ramp up their weights to near max effort loads, it tends to piss off their shoulder joints. This can happen due to many differing mechanisms based on the athlete actually performing the lift, but many times it comes down to two faults during the lift:
Losing posterior chain stability of the shoulder complex
Not being strong enough anteriorly to press the weight
These two common faults both lead back to the same major issue with chronic front sided shoulder pain with the bench press, compensation patterns. Simply put, a lack of stability, aka instability, will lead to unwanted movements happening in the adjacent segments of the spine, hips, torso and other synergistic joints of the shoulder complex. This is not something that we want, especially when max effort loads are placed over our face.
The second fault of anterior weakness leads back again to compensation patterns hitting in order to “cheat” the rep and bring in momentum, altered joint positions or asymmetries in order to fake the weight up. This usually dies into a lack of stability, a manipulation of tempo and rhythm of a lift, and a short lived ego boost that is anything but well earned. Many lifters tend to be weakest in the first few inches off their chest, and have many methods to cheat the weight up through this range of motion, if they even choose to get into it at all.
But instead of being ok with piss poor execution of reps in a complex movement pattern variation like the barbell bench press, incorporating bench press loading variations that allows heavier loading in the strongest ranges of motion, and decreased loading in the ranges that are most common for lifters to struggle from from a strength and stability perspective in the form of accommodating resistances is highly advantageous.
The two major forms of accommodating resistance are band and chain training. While there could be an entire book written on the various forms of accommodating resistances and their usage, we can keep this extremely simple. The addition of light banding on the barbell from a traditional setup or a reverse banding setup will allow the shoulders to kick on neuromuscular stabilization patterns at increased rates if stability is again the linchpin and weak link in your bench press.
If strength tends to be the issue, chains will be the preferred method, as the loading will increase as more chains are pulled off the ground as the bar is pressed further away from the chest. While these tools are highly effective ways to train pain-free on the bench press, we must ensure that we use them as a short term fixing tool instead of a long term dependency tool. The goal will be to utilize this method, improve your shoulder stability, strength and general bench press execution, and then re-implement straight weight again showing improvements, not having a crutch for life that holds up your bench press.
#2 Bench Press Without A Bench
For the most part, generalized front sided shoulder pain during the bench press tends to occur as the bar approximates the chest. As the bar comes into contact with the chest, it naturally places the true glen-humeral joint into increased degrees of both extension and internal rotation. This isn’t inherently bad, but simply put, many athlete’s lack of stability and usable mobility over extends these positions making them compensatory in nature instead of training through an authentic range of motion.
One of the smartest ways to limit this humeral extension and internal rotation range of motion is by utilizing the floor press variation. By ditching the bench press and laying down on the floor, we can maintain stability of the shoulder blade stabilizing against the ground and the body similar to the bench press, but we have the added benefit of limiting extension of the upper arm, as it contacts the ground at the elbow and triceps before the arms can over extend.
This self-limiting position also keeps the bar from coming all the way down to the chest, essentially making it a partial range of motion bench press. The floor press can not only be intelligently utilized for training around pain, but also from a performance standpoint, being able to overload a partial range of motion or train out of a dead stop position around a lifter’s sticking point.
Upon setup for the floor press you have two main setups in terms of your lower body positioning:
Bent knee/hip position
Straight knee/hip position
While the bent knee/hip floor press position allows more of a neutral spinal and pelvic position in contact with the ground, athletes have the tendency to lift their hips during max effort bouts under the bar here as the power of the kinetic chain bringing in every available motor unit will kick on almost automatically.
The second straight knee and hip position makes it far harder to compensate with the torso or hips lifting, but is also harder on the pelvis and spine as the more arched back position without support of any leg drive can be challenging for many lifters.
Over the years I’ve gravitated more towards the bent knee/hip positions if athletes can maintain contact with their butt on the floor for a majority of sets as it allows for more natural full body, but if someone presents as a real kinetic chain cheater, we have them alter their position to the straight leg setup. Remember, altering the leg position is less about the lower back, and more about how the differing or compensatory motions of the lumbar spine travels up chain altering the strength, stability and positions of the shoulders during pressing under load.
#1 Use A Slightly More Narrow False Grip
If there were one tip that will quickly improve your bench press and stave off pain in the process, it would be the proper manipulation of grip on the barbell that allows proper shoulder packing and positioning to occur naturally. Simply put, the average lifter sets up way too wide in terms of their grip width, which places the glen-humeral joint in a tough position to stay healthy from, especially as training ratios and piss poor daily postural pitfalls interplay with training.
If you want a point of reference for approximate starting grip width, you can use your own bony anatomy of the shoulders to determine a starting point to experiment from. There’s a bony portion of the scapula that sticks out of the sides of your shoulders called the acromion. This is usually extremely easy to find and palpate, even on the biggest bodies. Find the distance between acromions and place your hands in that starting position to get the ball rolling.
This is a great starting point for healthy shoulders, but the only problem that remains is that more people are dealing with chronic shoulder aches and pains than ever before, so this traditionally well accepted grip width standard based on acromion to acromion distance doesn’t usually bode well for pain-free training. I’ve started incorporating more narrow grips into my athlete’s training the last few years with greater amounts of success. But lets be clear, this is NOT a close grip setup.
As we reviewed in the slight angle of the bench section above, the same concept can be applied to the grip width; slight variations into a more narrow grip. As the grip becomes slightly more narrow, we can take a little emphasis away from the pectorals and anterior deltoid group (which is located in a commonly painful region on the front side of the shoulders) and shift it tot he back sides of the arms in the triceps group, which acts as a secondary player in pressing based motions.
We can also optimize the humeral carrying angle aka the angle between the humerus (upper arm bone) and the side of the torso by placing the hands into a false grip on the barbell. This false grip allows the humeral carrying angle to get closer to the natural angle which allows maximum joint centration at the shoulder while keeping the overlying musculature in great positions to optimize length tension relationships. Most people will have success with a 45-ish degree carrying angle, so start there and alter from that starting point based off of pain response and pressing performance.
It’s important to mention that false grip pressing does not mean going passive at the hands and just letting the bar sit there in your palms. Quite the contrary. Safely utilizing the false grip requires you to maximize your volitional grip on the barbell in order to stabilize it in the hand and kick on the all powerful irradiation effect that travels through the hands, up chain through the arms and into the shoulder to improve stabilization. It’s also far safer as we would never want to bar to slip out of your hands due to sheer laziness on a grip. When in doubt, use a spotter on the bench that aids in the un-racking and re-racking process.
About The Author
Dr. John Rusin is an internationally recognized coach, physical therapist, speaker, and sports performance expert. Dr. John has coached some of the world’s most elite athletes, including multiple Gold Medalist Olympians, NFL All-Pros, MLB All-Stars, Professional Bodybuilders, World-Record Holding Powerlifters, National Level Olympic Lifters and All-World IronMan Triathletes.
Dr. Rusin is the leading pioneer in the fitness and sports performance industries in intelligent pain-free performance programming that achieves world class results while preventing injuries in the process. Dr. John’s methods are showcased in his 12-Week FHT Programthat combines the best from athletic performance training, powerlifting, bodybuilding and preventative therapy to produce world-class results without pain and injuries.