All was going perfectly. I had committed to improving my Bench Press for the first time in years. It’s always been my weakest lift, so I was thrilled to hit a personal record of 265 pounds the week before I left for an early May vacation.
I had my eyes set on 315 by the end of the year—although I knew this goal may have been a bit ambitious.
I came back from vacation ready to hit the ground running. Although I was jetlagged and a bit sick, I decided to lift before heading to STACK HQ. I was well aware that I was in no condition to crush a workout, so I planned a moderate lift to get my body moving after doing nothing—and eating mass quantities of food—for a week and a half.
I started my Monday lift as I always do with some heavy Bench Press—or another variation of the lift. The first warm-up set at 135 felt heavy, so I knew I was in for a rough ride. After completing three subpar reps at 225, I decided to hit two sets of single reps at 240. It didn’t go well. The weight felt extremely heavy, and the reps were slow and ugly.
There was a small twinge of pain in my right shoulder during my final set, but it wasn’t a cause for panic. I had never suffered a shoulder injury—or any significant injury from lifting weights—so I finished my workout without giving it a second thought.
I woke up the next morning and felt pain smack dab in the middle of my right biceps. It was odd but again wasn’t too concerning. This pain lingered for a few days before it migrated to my shoulder. Two weeks later, the pain was still there. Now I was concerned.
The pain settled on the front of my shoulder. It wasn’t too bad throughout the day nor was it so much pain that I couldn’t grind through my lifts, but I didn’t want to take that risk. I couldn’t Back Squat. I couldn’t do heavy Deadlifts. And of course, I couldn’t Bench Press. It just didn’t feel right.
After having some solid results before the injury, I was disappointed, to say the least. Even more frustrating is I’ve always made it a point of emphasis to avoid doing something dumb that could cause an injury.
Long story short, after about four months of rehabbing my shoulder and avoiding the Bench Press, I am back at it. There’s still a ways to go before I get to where I was, but I believe the efforts and lessons learned from my rehab may set the stage for finally achieving 315. It might be slightly delayed, but I’m OK with that.
I’d be lying if I said if the rehab process was this awesome experience. It was incredibly frustrating and full of setbacks. However, I learned a ton of lessons that might help you handle injury setbacks in the weight room.
Don’t push it
The week after I hurt my shoulder, I thought it would be a brilliant idea to do some Pin Presses. I figured that since the exercise had a shorter range of motion, my shoulder would be fine—especially considering the most painful position was as my elbow came back behind my body.
Well, this backfired. It didn’t make the injury worse, but it definitely aggravated it. I probably could have kept doing Pin Presses week after week, but my shoulder would’ve never had an opportunity to properly heal.
Put simply, if something doesn’t feel quite right, don’t do it. This was a tough pill to swallow because that meant heavy pressing was off limits for some time, but there were no other options to fully recover.
Consult with an expert
I had a good idea of what the injury might be, but I decided to get another opinion. So I consulted with Dr. John Rusin, who offered some insight on what the injury might be and how to properly go about my rehab. This was over the phone so it wasn’t the ideal situation, but his wisdom put me on a path to recovery.
The moral of the story is, sometimes you might have an injury you think you can deal with on your own. If you’re lucky, it’s just a minor tweak that will resolve in a week. If not, you need to see an expert who has experience rehabbing injuries. Not your parent. Not a coach. Not a lifting buddy. A doctor, physical therapist or athletic trainer. This decision could be the difference between a quick rehab or an injury that never fully heals.
Don’t ignore the 2:1 back exercise-to-pressing exercise rule
I’ll admit, I got a bit cavalier with doing too many pressing exercises. That’s not to say I only did chest, but I didn’t train my back quite as much as the two (or more) back exercises for every pressing exercise rule that’s recommended.
This mistake eventually came back to bite me in the butt, and believe it was one of the main reasons why the injury occurred in the first place.
Despite all of your desires to go HAM and make every day International Chest Day, you need to prioritize back exercises. No exceptions. A shift to performing a greater ratio of back exercises with an emphasis on rear delt exercises is one of the main reasons why my shoulder is back to normal.
My favorite back exercises I used in my rehab include:
Find ways to train around the injury
After I initially realized that my shoulder was indeed injured, I had a series of terrible workouts. I could no longer perform the primary exercises in the program I was following, and it was difficult to find motivation.
However, there were PLENTY of other exercises that I could do. Rusin recommended to even perform some pressing exercises—as long as there was no pain—to improve shoulder function. Gone were heavy presses and in were lightweight, high-rep Kettlebell Floor Presses and Bottom-Up Kettlebell Shoulder Presses.
For the first month, holding a heavy barbell for Squats and Deadlifts was no bueno. So I shifted to lightweight, explosive Squats and Deadlifts and did a ton of single-leg exercises such as Lunges, Single-Leg RDLs and Bulgarian Split Squats. Shifting my focus to these exercises allowed for continued strength and power improvements without aggravating my shoulder.
Odds are if you have an injury, you can also continue to train in some shape or form. You just have to find what works for your situation.
Take time to improve your form
I can’t say for certain that poor bench press form caused the injury—I think it was more likely overuse. However, this was the perfect opportunity to hone my technique to reduce the chance of the injury from happening again.
Once my shoulder felt OK moving through the range of motion required for the Bench Press, I spent about two weeks working with the bar alone to perfect my technique. I honed in on my bar path, found my optimal grip width and practiced my leg drive, which I’ve never been good at.
Now my Bench Press form feels better than ever because of this work.
Customize exercises for your body
As mentioned above, the toughest position for my shoulder is at the bottom of the Bench Press. So rather than put stress on the injury in this vulnerable position, I’ve been benching with a bar pad to reduce the range of motion by a few inches. It’s technically not a full Bench Press rep, but this hack has allowed me to safely begin to press heavy again, so I’m not overly concerned.
Eventually, I may remove the bar pad on lighter warm-up sets and gradually work my way back to a normal Bench Press. But I’m in no rush. I’d rather sacrifice a few inches off my already super long range of motion (due to my long arms) than hurt myself again.
Unless you’re a powerlifter, there’s absolutely nothing that says you need to perform an exercise a specific way. Yes, there’s an optimal range of motion, but if you can’t do a full Bench Press without your shoulder hurting, then modify it. Same goes for squatting to parallel, deadlifting off the floor (which Rusin covers here) or any other exercise. Don’t force your body to fit an exercise. Make the exercise fit you.
Have a winning mindset
It’s easy to stop working out altogether when you suffer an injury. But this just makes matters worse and will set you further behind.
Instead, consider this as an opportunity to improve. You can still train, get stronger and become a better athlete. Your workouts might look a bit different, but that’s OK. Attack your workouts with the same intensity as before and know that your hard work will pay off in the end.