Why your shoulders hurt when you're doing a bench press - Juice Daily
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Why your shoulders hurt when you’re doing a bench press

The answer to that ever-popular question “how much do you bench?” can be heard whispered throughout the floors of gyms the world over. This seems to happen specifically on Monday nights when finding an empty bench press is akin to searching for the Holy Grail.

In our quest for masculinity, a generation of men have grown up fearing their own feelings, avoiding a trip to IKEA like trying to avoid the plague and measuring their worth via their bench press number. The latter at times to our own detriment, because attempting to achieve “peak bench” can also mean increasing the risk of injury for some people.

Increasing load to the pectoral muscles can only be a positive thing right? Well not for everyone.

Depending on the structure of an individuals shoulder joint this can cause shoulder impingement and pain. If this sounds familiar then reading on may change your bench press technique forever. And for the better.

A popular method to maximize load during a bench press is to flare the elbows out, which is a guaranteed way to increase the contribution of the pectoral muscles. In the most extreme example of this you will see some lifters perform what is called a guillotine press, an exercise where the bar basically travels over the neck area — a sure fire way to increase the fight or flight response to a movement!

But for some, this move can cause extreme pain in the shoulder joint. This is because when you lower the bar, the tendons in your rotator cuff (RC) are squeezed against your AC joint by your upper arm. This can lead to inflammation and shoulder impingement.

But luckily, these symptoms can be easily addressed simply by lowering the angle of the upper arm and tucking them in slightly.

Tuck and protect

While tucking your elbows all the way into your body will significantly reduce the amount of load lifted, due to the larger contribution of the smaller tricep muscles, it is safer and puts less pressure on the RC. It will also require a narrow grip and you may need to leave the ego at reception as your bench numbers plummet.

A compromise between the two upper arm positions is having the upper arm travel at about a 45-degree angle to your body.

This will generally mean a medium width hand position on the bar but is a nice balance between protecting the shoulder and lifting close to what you may have been lifting with the more flared elbow position. The bar will finish lower down on your chest so be prepared for this, and to minimize any extra stress on the wrist or elbow, position the bar in the lower portion of the hand and ensure the elbow sits directly underneath the bar.

Longer limbs, shorter range

For fitness fans with longer limbs, particularly if you have long forearms, these changes may still not be enough. Long forearms can at times encourage a shifting forward of the shoulder as we bring the bar down to the chest. While this is important for the sport of powerlifting, for those training with more general goals in mind, forcing a range of motion that causes discomfort makes no sense at all. Damn those long limbs!

If this sounds like your particular affliction, a safe solution would be to reduce the range of motion with a board press. This is where a board is placed on the chest to artificially reduce the range of motion of the exercise. In a commercial health club setting, if you can find a half foam roller and place this vertically down the middle of the chest, this can perform the same task.      

Michael Cunico

About the person who wrote this

Michael Cunico

Michael Cunico is the National Fitness Manager for Fitness First Australia. Michael has presented both in Australia and abroad on movement and exercise, the business of building a successful fitness culture and philosophy, and delivering personal training in commercial health clubs.

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