If you have ever wondered why bench pressing hurts your shoulders, then look no further. We have put together the perfect fix!
Ah, the bench press.
What can only be described as one the of the most popular exercises on the planet.
Because, you know, who doesn’t want a ‘strong’ (read: large and muscular) chest?
Hell, I am pretty sure between the ages of 16 and 18, the bench press was the only exercise I did on a regular basis. Every Monday and Wednesday night after school, you would have found me out in the shed, listening to some Blink 182 (the angsty teenager that I was), and repping out some bench press.
Well, until they weren’t…
See, after a good chunk of time, my shoulders started getting a little bit niggly.
Nothing terrible mind you — the pain would go away after a couple of sets — it was just a bit annoying.
So I persisted with my training, and I ignored it completely.
And who would have thunk it, but over time it got worse.
The pain went from being a minor niggle, to a persistent ache. Then, after a couple more weeks, it progressed into a sharp stabbing pain in the front of both my shoulders. To make matters worse, it no longer only hurt when I bench pressed, but during any other exercises did as well.
This meant no chin ups, no push ups, and devastatingly, no bicep curls.
I was literally forced to take a break from weights training (well, had I actually done any lower body training I would have been fine — but i didn’t…).
Fortunately, after a couple of weeks the pain went away. But every time I tried to bench press, it flared up immediately.
So, in the end, I stopped completely.
Up until a couple of years ago that is, when I reintroduced it back into my training.
But this time, I did it in a much smarter way. I also made some other changes to my weight training routine to make sure that the pain that I experienced stayed away for good.
And now you can do the same.
So, without further ado — why bench pressing hurts your shoulders, and what you can do to fix it!
Your Technique Sucks
When it comes to pain during a specific exercise, your first point of call should almost always be technique. To put it simply, most exercises have been performed pretty successfully for hundreds of years. As a result, if you are experiencing pain during an exercise, it is much more likely that the way in which you are performing it is the issue, rather than the exercise itself.
In my mind, this is one of the core reasons as to why bench pressing hurts your shoulders.
Now, just to be clear — I am not saying that some people cannot have certain restrictions that will make a certain exercise challenging for them — because they can.
But the fact is, these restrictions often impair the ability to perform and exercise with good technique. It is this which then leads to pain and discomfort. Ill give you an example of this further down.
So, the bench press.
What does good technique look like?
Well, there are a few things you want to make sure of:
- Head, upper back, and bum are all making contact with the bench.
- Feet are behind your knees, with your heels being firmly driven towards the ground.
- Your lower back and thoracic spine are in a state of extension (yes, an arch is fine).
- You have your shoulders blades pulled together and driven down towards your back pockets.
While this may look slightly different on an individual basis, it should all result in something a little like this:
But what about neutral spine!
Now, before you blow a gasket and start screaming about ‘neutral spine’ — hear me out for a second.
First and foremost, having extension throughout your thoracic and lumber spine allows you to keep your shoulders back and down. This is a position that ensures your shoulder blades sit firmly on the bench in a retracted position (meaning that they are pulled together). This is extremely important, because it keeps your shoulders in a nice neutral position (rather than rolling forward), which enhances safety.
Moreover, this stability increases your ability to produce force at the shoulder joint, giving you a nice stable platform to work from. If you cannot maintain this position, then you lose shoulder stability, which results in less power and impaired safety.
Secondly, for the most part, lumber extension really only becomes problematic when it is placed under excessive shear force. So although this position does indeed require a large amount of lumbar extension, the amount of shear force that it is under is extremely low — meaning that it really poses no issue.
And I would also argue that the load on the spine during a bench press is markedly less than the load placed through the shoulder joint — therefore ensuring a safe and stable shoulder position takes priority.
You Need More Mobility
I mentioned above that some people will indeed have restrictions that impair their ability to perform a bench press with good technique. I should also note that this is becoming increasingly common, because these restrictions are predominantly driven by sitting.
Yep, all that time stuck at your computer is doing a whole lot more than just hurting your eyes — it is also hurting your posture.
See, when you spend a lot of time stuck in a single position, your body starts to perceive this position as ‘normal’. This means that certain muscles will tighten to ensure that this position is maintained indefinitely. While this is ideal for working at a computer, it is less so for performing most exercises. And when we consider the rounded shoulder position it reinforces, you can see why it is particularly bad for the bench press.
Those muscles that typically become tight in response to sitting include:
- Pectoralis major and minor
- Latissimus dorsi
Within this, your thoracic spine can also become stuck in a rounded position, where it loses its ability to move freely.
This means that stretching these tight muscles and increasing the range of motion you have available at your upper spine is paramount to ensuring good bench press technique.
My favourite exercises that achieve this are:
- Pec release with a lacrosse ball
- Lat foam roll
- Thoracic spine foam roll
- Side lying thoracic rotation (10 per side)
If you can perform these as part of your warm up (or even better, every single day), then it will make a world of difference!
You Lack Upper Back Strength
What do you mean I have a weak upper back? Isn’t the bench press a chest exercise?
Well, in short, yes — but it is also a whole lot more than that.
Remember above when I said good bench press technique requires you to keep your shoulder blades back and down? You know, because this keeps your shoulders in a safe, neutral, and strong position?
Yep, well that is only managed if the muscles of your upper back are strong enough to maintain that position. And if they are not? Well you can expect to have a hard time keeping your upper back tight.
Your shoulders will suffer as a result.
So, the remedy to this is the sprinkling of some upper back exercises into your warm up, and throughout your other training sessions. These exercises directly train the muscles of the upper back, reinforce good posture, and help you keep a solid shoulder position during the bench press.
The best upper back exercises (in my personal opinion) are:
As simple as each of these exercises are, they can make a world of difference. Try and train them 2-3 times per week, and reap the rewards!
Take Home Message
Despite what many would have you believe, the bench press is a actually pretty complex exercise. So if you have ever wondered why bench pressing hurts your shoulders, it could come down to a number of different reasons.
However, by improving your technique, increasing your mobility, and enchaining your upper back strength, you can cause huge improvements in your bench press. This will not only make you stronger, but keep your shoulders nice and healthy in the process!