Posted on 23rd Jan 2019
by Joshua Chuah
Who wouldn’t like a big bench? - Whether you’re a regular gym-goer, an athlete, a bodybuilder, or a powerlifter, it is considered one of the gold-standards for developing upper body strength and power by many, not to mention also being a great ego-booster especially for men (good news: according to an Australian study in 2017 on the relationship between strength and attractiveness, upper body physical strength turned out to be one of the best ways to predict a male’s attractiveness to females).
Back to the topic - If you’ve spent a decent amount of time under a bar with a reasonable amount of load over your face, your shoulders have likely had a few “off” days or weeks. A simple question to ask yourself : Is your shoulder health limiting the gains you should be yielding in the bench press? If your answer to that is yes, read on! If you've never experienced shoulder pain before, that's great! You will still likely pick up a few handy tips from this article that will help keep your shoulders healthy in the long term.
If you're currently experiencing shoulder pain, keep in mind that there are a multitude of factors which may play a big role in your pain (sleep, stress, recovery etc) and more often than not, the biomechanical aspect that we will be covering is just part of a bigger picture. Without diving too deep into the anatomy and mechanics of the shoulder complex, here are a few things that may be contributing to your shoulder pain during bench pressing.
• To put it simply, your pressing technique might be inefficient. This is a whole topic in itself but Stronger by Science (Stronger by Science bench guide) has a great guide on how to bench safely and efficiently, which I highly recommend you to take your time to go through
• Your pressing frequency or volume is too high FOR YOU, limiting your ability to recover and adapt in between sessions. Every athlete has a different load-tolerance threshold and a maximum amount of volume that they are able to recover from week in week out, depending on training history, age, recovery strategies, previous programming and more. Essentially, if you’re not giving your body the time it needs to adapt to get stronger and constantly surpassing how much you’re able to recover from, your performance will suffer and structures around the shoulder region can get irritated. A simple solution to that will be to get a good coach or a structured strength program that accounts for your tolerance, weekly loading progressions and more.
• Your programming ratios are off, resulting in poor upper back strength, overloaded anterior structures and poor scapula mobility. The upper back acts as a stable base to lock you in a strong position on the bench, allowing for efficient power output of the anterior structures. Without this stable base, your body will limit the amount of weight you are able to stabilize. The rule of thumb is to have a 2:1 pull to press ratio in your program (1:1 at the very least), especially in periods where your pressing volume is high. Prioritizing horizontal rows over vertical pulls within that ratio, will help in strengthening the scapula retractors that is essential for positioning throughout the press. Also allowing for the motion to be more specific to the bench press (horizontal plane of movement). (Note: This isn’t to say that anyone who doesn’t follow this ratio will end up getting shoulder pain, there are plenty of guys that are doing a high amount of pressing that are perfectly fine. But, personally the amount of lifters, especially in the novice group, who present to me with shoulder pain don’t tend to have very good programming ratios and they notice significant improvement in pain and pressing performance by adding in more pulling work.
• Your rotator cuff strength and scapula control needs improvement. Sufficient shoulder stability and proper functioning of the scapula with a strong rotator cuff complex is critical for efficient force transfer and to avoid shoulder injuries. Weakness of the scapular stabilizers can result in increased stress to the shoulders, increased risk of rotator cuff irritation and decreased performance of the shoulder complex.
• You have limited thoracic (mid-back) mobility into extension. Due to the intimate relationship between the thoracic spine, scapula and shoulder joint, a limitation into thoracic extension will affect your ability to retract the shoulder blades efficiently whilst pressing, which means your rotator cuff function will suffer. An easy example to physically test this relationship is to slouch and raise your arms overhead and see how high you can get, and sit up straight and try it again. More on thoracic mobility drills down the track, but this ties in with the topic of having good, efficient technique.
So what do I do?!
Assuming that you have the most important factors covered – efficient bench technique, good recovery between sessions and good pull to press ratios – now it is time to run through a few “bang for your buck” exercises to get your shoulder complex and upper back stronger, healthier and more resilient to load. Keep in mind, while incorporating these exercises into your program, you may need to either temporarily off-load the aggravating pressing movement, or find a way to load up your presses without aggravating the shoulder, and once symptoms settles, gradually introduce pressing back into the program.
Prime and activate the shoulder stabilizers
My first go-to exercise for many athletes would be the face-pull, and for higher level individuals or overhead athletes – the face pull & press combo. When executed correctly, this activates the posterior cuff, rear delts, rhomboids while maintaining a stable thoracic spine, and the press activates the serratus anterior, lower & upper traps. The face-pull can be performed with either dumbells, theraband, power band or a cable rope. Important tip while doing the face pull, make sure you start from a protracted shoulder blade position prior to pulling into a retracted position with every rep as shown. (If you're unsure about what protraction and retraction looks like - Protraction & retraction )
Use as a warm-up/activation drill prior to heavy pressing or can be used as a superset in between heavy pressing
- Sets : 2-3
- Reps : 15-20
- Load : RPE 6-7, RPE 8/9 if using it as a stand-alone strengthening exercise with lower rep ranges (12-15)
- Rest : 30-45 secs
Reach! - Free up your shoulder blades while getting the shoulders strong
The land-mine press is one of my favourite ways to safely maintain pressing volume, whilst facilitating serratus anterior involvement, scapula upward rotation and protraction of the shoulder. This movement pattern directly opposes the “back and down” shoulder blade position that are heavily promoted in pressing movements, providing movement variability that the irritated shoulder needs to maintain healthy.
If you’ve tried out different variations of pressing (eg. Floor press, pin presses) but it still aggravates your shoulder, use the landmine press as a substitute to maintain pressing volume (chances are the shoulder will love this movement). If you’re able to maintain a variety of pressing, great! - Use this as one of your key rehab movements.
- Sets: 3-4
- Load: RPE 7/8 (challenging)
- Tempo: Controlled eccentric, pause, controlled concentric (reach)
Get your upper back strong!
Rowing should be a staple in any lifters program. The horizontal row (using rings, TRX, straight barbell or trap bar) is one of my favourite rowing movements to perform. If you’ve ever heard the cue of “rowing/pulling the bar to your chest” for the bench press but never really understood it, this movement will be a great one to teach you how to use your upper back as a stabilizer during the bench.
- Sets: 3-4
- Load: RPE 9-10 (challenging)
- Tempo: Controlled eccentric, stretch, row and hold for 1-2 secs (chest to bar)
- Performed x2 per week
Remember - there is no “one size fits all” approach for shoulder pain and there is no single “perfect” exercise that will get rid of shoulder pain. Every individual’s injury will need to be addressed differently and accordingly to their specific situation, but these movements may just be the right one for you. Keep in mind, these movements aren’t going to resolve your pain in just one session, or even one week. The body takes time to adapt, as long as you’re addressing the root cause of the issue, be persistent and consistent with these movements and you should see some results. Give them a try, and let me know what you think!
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