Do you have shoulder pain? That’s how to do bench presses!
The bench press and some of its variations are basic exercises for chest muscle building. This is a strengthening exercise carried out with heavy weights that considerably exerts the chest muscles, the front fibers of the shoulder muscles as well as the triceps. This is a fairly complex exercise, so numerous other muscles are additionally used in it. - Still, for many it is the most problematic part of their workout routines, because they experience pain while doing it due to a shoulder joint injury or some other reason.
The bench press is a basic exercise - or isn’t it?
This question may be approached from several aspects. It is and it isn’t. If we consider it a classic strengthening exercise, it is a basic exercise, and if we concentrate on muscle building, it undoubtedly has its advantages. But it would be a real overkill to claim that the bench press is the ULTIMATE EXERCISE for chest muscle building. Your body structure and many other factors determine whether the bench press is a good chest muscle building exercise for you. Rest assured: we can definitely build impressive chest muscles without it too. Many believe that the bench press is a ‘must do’ exercise, while others don’t perform it at all in the classic way. Doing presses on a horizontal bench may cause many types of problems even if it is performed right. Some people tend to arch their backs when pressing on the bench, which is not the best for their spine. Power lifters, however, use a more sophisticated way of doing this exercise. They do it consciously, and the set of movements they perform serves an entirely different purpose: to press the desired weight. But they don’t do it 8 to 12 times and in 3 or 4 reps, which does make a difference.
Shoulder and collarbone joint problems and bench pressing
If you’ve been doing muscle building routines for years, you have probably experienced shoulder pain while bench pressing because of your excessive workout. If your shoulder joints remain in this over-exercised state for long, the pain often becomes chronic. What’s also problematic for beginners is that they don’t perform the exercise in the right way and exert their shoulder joint ligaments so much and in such a direction that later this may lead to serious injuries. That’s why we always emphasize the importance of warm-up and of not starting a five-day muscle group specific program after just one week of general training. Getting back to the original problem, even experienced people tend to think that the pain is negligible, so it doesn’t hold them back from bench presses... Until they hit rock bottom.
This is when they make it a matter of principle not to skip workouts or avoid presses, but what they should be aware of is that an injured shoulder joint with arthritis doesn’t heal in 1 or 2 weeks. If you feel shoulder pain when doing bench presses, stop for a few weeks, otherwise you’ll end up seriously injured. We obviously don’t have to explain in detail that all exercises which work on chest muscles also exert the shoulder joints from some direction. In summary, shoulder joint problems deriving from bench presses are caused by the repeated over-exertion of the shoulder joint ligaments and their overstretching caused by too heavy weights. It is easy to overdo the pressing, for shoulder joints are not so fixed and their motion range is wider than that of other joints. Don’t panic, though! There is always a solution to rely on: we just have to stop doing bench presses in the classic way.
Do bench presses this way, if you have issues with your shoulder joints!
Main rule: make sure that you don’t feel any pain while doing this exercise. If you have an already existing injury, exclude bench presses from your workout routine altogether. Just like dips, this exercise pushes the acromion upwards. This is exactly what you shouldn’t do when doing horizontal presses causes pain in the shoulders.. If your aim is muscle building, the best alternative to horizontal presses is incline presses (preferably with hand weights): in this exercise the shoulder and collarbone joints remain in a more stable position, and the joints stretch downwards rather than upwards. Examine the picture above and visualize it! The differences are not negligible. The pectoral muscle and the place it connects to the collarbone may get the same (or greater) amount of exertion as they do with horizontal pressing. It’s the perfect deal: you can press, improve, and take care of your shoulder. You cannot imagine how many people do only incline presses.
If you prefer using a barbell, it’s wise to use a Smith machine, and determine the position in which you can work out painlessly. Almost no extra exertion falls upon the stabilizing muscles, but the shoulder joints get the right stability. There is another exercise, which I recommend as first choice for those who suffer from shoulder pain when bench pressing. In most cases, you don’t have to take a break or skip workouts. You can continue pressing, since this exercise stimulates your chest muscles in almost the same way, but still differently. This one has no name just yet, so on the analogy of hammer press I’ll call it simply: hammer press with hand weights. This is a horizontal pressing exercise where your palms are facing your body, which is a natural position for your arms and shoulders. Grasp the weights this way, and perform the exercise the same way you bench press with hand weights. Check it out:
It can bedone more nicely, for sure. With this you can work in a wider motion range than you would in classic bench pressing, since the barbell means no obstacle. You can stretch your chest muscle downwards as far as you can and it’s comfortable, and until you reach the ideal stretch. But it isn’t good with this exercise either to stretch your elbow upwards completely, because then the triceps and the shoulders’ frontal fibers do extra work, while the chest muscles don’t get any more significant exertion. The exercise can be performed on an inclined bench in exactly the same way as you do the hand weight press, but with this one success is granted. In addition to the advantages of hammer presses, here the shoulder and collarbone joints remain in a stable position, and the joints stretch downwards, not upwards.
So don’t forget: if you have shoulder problems, if it hurts when you do bench presses, you should try hammer presses, incline presses and exercises with hand weights. It’s almost certain they’ll work. Say goodbye to barbells, as they force your shoulder and collarbone joints into a position which may cause injury or worsen an already existing one. If you have had a problem with your shoulder before, and something doesn’t feel quite right now when working with a barbell, you can even do these exercises to prevent an injury from happening.
One more thing: don’t insist on doing horizontal presses. Believe me if I tell you, there’s life without them. If we put joint problems aside, we can shape chest muscles with several exercises. Bench press is a basic exercise for sure, in some circles even a must, but if you’re doing muscle building workout, you can end up with a badly injured shoulder. Don’t push yourself to press very heavy weights, for sooner or later your joints will take revenge on you.
Source of the drawings used in the article: Strength Training Anatomy by Frédéric Delavier
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