The Bench Press is arguably one of the most important lifts you can perform. As a strength and powerlifting coach, I prescribe the Bench Press in my programs for upper-body strength training. Unfortunately, this exercise has a habit of aggravating the shoulders.
It is my job to make sure my clients and athletes can perform an exercise in a pain-free range of motion. I often modify the exercise based on the following criteria:
- Comfort—the movement is pain-free, feels natural and works within the client's current physiology.
- Control—the client or athlete can demonstrate the movement technique and body positioning as provided in each exercise description.
If you feel shoulder pain during the Bench Press, all is not lost. You can modify the exercise to accommodate your shoulder anatomy and protect your health. No one modification is universal for everyone, so we recommend trying each version to find one you can perform with comfort and control. Here's what we do.
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Narrow the Grip
If you have a shoulder injury, such as an impinged shoulder, use a grip no wider than 1.5 times your shoulder-width. The narrow grip minimizes peak shoulder torque and reduces the demand of the dynamic stabilizers that stabilize the upper arm.
Use a Supinated Grip
Typically the Bench Press is performed with a pronated grip, which internally rotates the humeral head and stresses the attachment of the long head of the biceps—a common trouble spot. If you experience pain on the front side of your shoulder at the top of your biceps, switch your grip to a supinated hand position so your palms face toward your head. This takes the humerus out of external rotation.
Use a Towel or a Block
The end range position of the Bench Press places the most stress on the shoulders. If you find that your shoulders hurt when you lower the bar all the way to your chest, try limiting your range of motion. To do this, place a towel or a block on your chest to prevent the bar from lowering the final two inches. Also, you perform the exercise from the floor or perform top-half reps as demonstrated in the video below.
Find the Variation That's Most Comfortable
It's unlikely you'll know if you have anterior or posterior shoulder instability, so if you have shoulder problems, make sure to see a doctor. If he or she diagnoses anterior instability, alternate bench days between the flat and decline bench to decrease micro-trauma to the anterior shoulder. If you have posterior instability, use a wide grip that's two times shoulder-width.
- Durall CJ, Manske RC, and Davies GJ. "Avoiding shoulder injury from resistance training." Strength Cond J 23: 10-18, 2001
- Fees M, Decker T, Snyder-Macklet L, and Axe MJ. "Upper extremity weight training modification for the injured athlete." Am J Sports Med 26: 732-742, 1998.
- Pabian PS, Kolber MJ, and McCarthy JP. "Post-rehabilitation strength and conditioning of the shoulder: An interdisciplinary approach." Strength Cond J 33: 42-55, 2011.
- Wilk KE, Reinold MM, and Andrews JR. The Athlete's Shoulder. Philadelphia: Churchill Livingstone, 2009.
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