Some call the start of the lifting week Monday, others call it International Chest Day. I love pushing heavy weight on the bench as much anyone, but too often I hear gym goers complain of their shoulders hurting while benching. This exercise and shoulder pain do NOT have to go together. So lets talk about some practical ways to improve your bench press while keeping your shoulders pain-free at the same time.
Before you start your working sets of bench press, I recommend taking a few preparatory steps. These should take no longer than 10 minutes, but can protect your shoulders long-term and help you lift more weight!
Before you move into an active warm-up phase, it’s best to release any muscular restrictions you may have.
Some of the most common “tight” spots are through the pectoralis major, pectoralis minor, levator scapulae, and upper trapezius. Restrictions in these muscles will have a direct effect on how your shoulder blade moves. Addressing this is vital if you want to improve your bench press and keep your shoulders healthy.
Start by lying supine on a foam roll with your arms at a 90 degree angle. Take a few deep breaths and let your shoulders fall back around the roller. This is a basic re-posturing exercise, but can help relax the overactive anterior musculature.
From there use either the foam roller or a lacrosse ball to apply self-myofascial release techniques to any tight pectoral and scapular muscles. I have found the lacrosse ball to be the most effective, especially for the pectoralis minor.
Not only does SMR help the muscle glide and activate properly, it allows better blood flow to the muscle. This has huge benefits in terms of injury prevention and muscle growth.
After you have released all relevant muscle restrictions, move into your active warm-up.
This phase accomplishes two really important things:
Reinforces needed activation patterns and forces blood to the area.
Since potential muscle length limitations have been addressed, you can focus on activating the correct muscles in the proper position. This is a huge component of injury prevention.
Here are two of my favorite warm-ups before any kind of heavy pressing:
This movement helps reinforce proper shoulder blade positioning for pressing exercises. Scapular retraction and depression is a hard motion for many people, due to forward rounding of the shoulders in daily posture. This teaches good muscle activation along with good joint position.
This exercise has been shown to be the best activator of infraspinatus, a key rotator cuff muscle that causes humeral external rotation. With increased rotator cuff activation, we also get better stability. This is helpful in keeping the shoulder joint secure during the bench press.
I discuss the function and anatomy of the serratus anterior in this post, but in a nutshell, it keeps your shoulder blade from winging out during pressing and overhead activities.
It’s going to be really difficult to improve your bench press, while keep your shoulders safe, if your Serratus Anterior is weak and underactive.
Along with the Serratus Anterior activation, these two exercises are great to do before starting your sets on the bench.
I know pushing multiple plates on the bench press is the dream, but in the name of shoulder safety, lets walk before we run.
If you are consistently flaring out your elbows and bending every which way to get the weight up, the risk for injury is pretty high.
Before your next few bench pressing sessions, start with the methods outlined in this article. Then make sure you are controlling the weight throughout the movement.
Develop the habit of producing controlled power. Your shoulders will thank you.
Doctor of Physical Therapy Candidate, Corrective Exercise Specialist, Certified Personal Trainer
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