5 Ways to Make Bench Pressing More Shoulder Friendly

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The bench press. There’s no mistaking it’s popularity.  Walk into most gyms and you’re bound to see an inverse relationship between the number of bench press stations available and squat racks. Likewise, it’s no coincidence that there’s a lot barrel chested guys walking around with chicken legs than vice versa.

I get it, though. As dudes (and yes, women can enter the conversation too, but they’re not nearly as enamored) it’s almost engrained in our DNA out of the womb to bench press.

Ask any guy what he did the first time he stepped foot in a gym and nine times out of ten he’s gonna say “come on man, I benched.”

No exercise is as glamorized nor put on pedestal as the bench press.  Moreover, no exercise eats up one’s shoulders like the bench press.

That said, the bench press isn’t going away anytime soon (not that it should, it’s a fantastic exercise), but below are a few suggestions on how tweak it so that your shoulders are less likely to hate you.

1.  Uh, Stop Benching (Just for a Little While)

Whenever I start working with someone and they start to describe how much their shoulder hurts one of the first questions I’ll ask is what their benching frequency is like.

More often than not, to put it lightly, it’s a lot.

And while I realize it’s borderline asinine for me to say (because it seems so obvious), I’m going to say it anyways:  stop benching.

If bench pressing hurts your shoulder, stop doing it Sherlock!

But since most guys will react by pounding their feet to ground and screaming, “no, no, no, NO!” and then act as if I just ruined their world and said “you’re not leaving this table until you finish your veggies Mister!” I’ll usually lighten the blow by telling them that I only want them to lay low for a week or two, just to see if their symptoms subside.

In the interim I’ll suggest they ramp up their horizontal rowing frequency to the tune of 2:1 or 3:1 (pull:push) ratio and start adding in more push-up variations (which will usually end up being more of a challenge than they think).

Guys often scoff at push-ups, but you’d be surprised as to how many can’t perform them correctly, let alone be able to do ten straight.

I LOVE push-ups in that they’re a closed chain exercise (bench pressing is open chain) which allow for a little more wiggle room for the scapulae to actually move.  Conversely, with the bench press, the shoulder blades are glued to the bench itself which can be problematic down the road.

Sure, setting the scapulae in place for stability and transference of force is paramount, but considering the long-term ramifications that can have on shoulder health, it “may” not be ideal for some.

In any case, it’s amazing how much better most shoulders will feel after a couple of weeks of laying off the bench press and addressing muscular imbalances by including more rowing into the mix.

Speaking truthfully, outside of the powerlifting realm I’d be perfectly content with nixing benching altogether for most guys and just opting for push-up variations and dumbbell work.  But since pigs will fly before that happens, and guys are going to want to bench press no matter what, here are some more options.

2.  Change Your Hand Position

Utilizing more of a narrow or close grip variation will undoubtedly be more “shoulder friendly” in the long run.  When we bench with a wider grip it’s a lot easier for the elbows to flare out, which in turn makes the shoulder more vulnerable, unstable, and want to flip us the bird.

Don’t go too narrow however.  The one caveat with using a super narrow grip is that we’ll tend to “crowd” ourselves once the bar reaches chest height and the scapulae will dip into anterior tilt and cause more anterior humeral glide (which again, will lead to more instability, not to mention a pissed off bicep tendon).

My general rule of thumb for close grip is roughly shoulder width apart, maybe a teeny tiny bit less depending on the person.  For a frame of reference, here’s a picture I snaked off of Mike Robertson’s site:

3.  Get a Hand-Off For the Love of God

If you ask any powerlifter or strength coach how important the initial set-up is for the bench press, they’ll inevitably say it’s VERY important.

I don’t want to get into the specifics here – you can easily go read anything Dave Tate has written on the topic – but suffice it to say it’s crucial to set a stable base of support when benching.  And that’s going to entail setting your shoulder blades together AND DOWN!!!

A lot of guys will set up properly only to lose everything once they go to un-rack the bar.  In order to un-rack the bar they’ll have to protract and abduct the shoulders which kind of defeats the purpose of going through the trouble to set up.

For whatever reason some guys are stubborn when it comes to getting or asking for a hand-off, as if it’s some kind of hit on their manhood.

You’re asking for a hand-off, not for a pedicure.  Not that there’s anything wrong with getting a pedicure from time to time. They’re actually quite lovely sometimes.  Er, I mean, that’s what I’ve heard at least.

*runs off in the other direction*

Anyhoo, I actually dedicated an entire blog not too long ago on the importance of getting a proper hand-off and the benefits of doing so, so I won’t belabor the point here.

For those too lazy to click on the link, here’s the video component for your viewing pleasure.

4.  Board Presses

We actually have a checklist of progressions that we like our clients and athletes to go through before they actually touch a standard bench press.  It starts all the way down with push-up isometric holds (pain free ROM) all the way up to the end game of bench pressing like a boss.

Somewhere in the middle are board presses.

Board presses are beneficial for a variety of reasons

1. For the sake of this conversation they’re fantastic because they allow us to limit the ROM so that benching it’s pain free. But we’re still benching, so psychologically it’s a huge win for most guys.

We can start with a 4-5 board press and work our way down three, two, and then one…..so it’s a nice sliding scale of progressions.

2.  A bit off topic, board presses are also a fantastic way to teach the body to hold more weight.  Because of the reduced ROM, we’re able to load the bar heavier and you can program your CNS to “feel” what it’s like to hold a heavier load.

3.  Plus, board presses are an awesome exercise to hammer the triceps.

5. Decline Bench Press

Eric Cressey noted this point yesterday during a staff in-service and is something he’s goes into much more detail on in his Elite Training Mentorship series.

When we’re referencing true “impingement” syndrome with most guys, many will light up when they reach roughly 80-90 degrees of shoulder flexion.

With the decline bench, it’s not uncommon to see 10-15 degrees less shoulder flexion and subsequently guys tend to stay outside of that “danger” zone.  So, this is yet another way to make benching a bit more shoulder friendly, and serves as a nice progression leading up to regular bench pressing down the road.

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