Relieving Bench Press Shoulder Pain

3 Methods For Pain Reduction & Coming Back From Pec Strains

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I honestly believe that there would be many more people with an impressive bench press if it was not for shoulder injuries. Nearly everyone who has made major gains on their bench press has suffered from shoulder pain at one time or another.

Fortunately, there are a few simple changes you can make in order to reduce your pain when bench pressing. Below that, you will also find some strategies for getting back into benching after a pec strain or shoulder injury.

Fix Your Form

If you are experiencing shoudler pain when you are bench pressing, the first thing to check is your form. You should be holding your shoulder blades in the down and back position as this will take a serious load off your shoulder.

Additionally, when in the down position, make sure your arm makes a 45 degree angle with your torso. Flaring your elbows is very stressful on the shoulders and chest.

More details on form can be found in our section on bench press technique

Make Sure Your Workouts Are Balanced

In addition to benching properly, you need to make sure your workouts are balanced. You want to do 1 set of a similar row for every set of bench press or overhead press that you perform. This helps the muscles on both sides of the shoulder joint stay balanced, which results in better joint stability, and ultimately less pain and a lower injury risk.

This means that each time you perform a press, you will want to not only perform a back movement, but choose a back movement that is essentially the opposite motion that you performed. For bench press, this means you need to perform a row, not a pull-up or pull-down (these are the opposite of a military or overhead press).

However, not only do you want to perform the opposite motion, but you want to try to match the width up as well. As a result, a seated row with a narrow grip is not the opposite of a barbell bench press. Instead, a chest-supported t-bar row or a seated-row with a long bar (i.e. the pull-down bar) is a more appropriate exercise choice for balance.

Using this wide grip is going to hit the upper back more as well as the rear delts (stabilizers during the bench press), whereas using a narrow grip is going to hit the lats. While it is important to work the lats, you cannot neglect the upper back or rear delts either if you want to remain injury-free with during a bench-press oriented routine.

Practice Straw Breathing

This may seem a bit ridiculous at first, but hear me out. Using proper technique will significantly reduce the stress your shoulder experiences when bench pressing. Performing more back work will help strengthen the muscle groups on all sides of the joint, making the bench press a safer and less stressful exercise.

Despite this, the pain some people develop in their shoulder never goes away even after they make these changes. It may not get worse, but it may not improve. In these situations, there is something else causing the irritation, preventing healing.

In the case of many more people than you would ever think, improper breathing technique is one of the primary contributors to this chronic shoulder pain. I do not mean your breathing technique during the bench press either - I mean all the time.

The way the human body is supposed to breath is by contracting the diaphragm. The diaphragm flattens, the abdomen expands, and this vacuum allows air to flow into the lungs naturally dur to the pressure difference.

However, many people, particularly those who have done a lot of weight training, have a chest-based breathing pattern. The various muscles of the ribs, shoulder, neck, and traps all contract to raise the shoulder blades and rib cage, creating a vacuum, allowing air to flow in.

This chest-based breathing is fine for heavy exertion - in fact when you are breathing at full capacity you are using all of these mechanisms to get the air you need. The problem is however when people continue to use chest breathing even when at rest.

The average person takes some 17,000 breaths per day, and that is a low estimate. If you are breathing through your chest all day and night for 17,000 breaths, that is 17,000 extra contractions your the muscles of your neck (such as the scalenes, which have a tendency towards irritation as it is) and upper traps are performing to help you breathe.

This becomes amplified in the case of someone who has been working out due to extra muscle mass. Extra muscle mass on the shoulders, neck, and traps, is extra mass that has to be lifted during this chest-oriented breathing. A normal person might get by with chest-breathing all day without a problem but if you have an extra 10 pounds of muscle on that part of your body, that is an extra 10 pounds that is being lifted 17,000 times a day. It is not surprising that this leads to irritation and prevents the healing of shoulder injuries and pain.

The key to correcting this is straw breathing. It is an easy yet effective drill. Each night when you lie down to go to bed, lay down on your back. Take a deep breath in through your nose, feeling your abdomen extend without letting your chest rise even a half an inch. Next, purse your lips and blow out your breath against the small hole you are making with your mouth, taking about 5 seconds to fully exhale against the pressure.

Do this for 5 minutes or until you fall asleep. After a few weeks of doing this once per day, breathing through your abdomen will be second nature and your shoulder pain will reduce significantly.

Returning From Shoulder Injury or Pec Strains

Before we get started, understand we are talking about strains that do not require surgery - just pulled muscles and the like. If you just had surgery you should follow your physical therapist's recommendations for rehab.

However, if you strained your pec or shoulder lifting, there is a certain path you want to take when getting back into bench pressing:

Incline Dumbbell Bench Press --> Neutral Grip Dumbbell Flat Bench Press --> Incline Barbell Bench Press --> Floor Barbell Bench Press --> Flat Barbell Bench Press.

These represent 1-3 workouts each, depending on the severity. In other words, you should do a few sets of incline dumbbell bench press the first time you lift. When you can do that pain free with a moderate weight, the next workout you can move on to neutral grip dumbbell flat bench press. Progress from one exercise to the next every few workouts until you are back to the barbell bench press.

Incline dumbbell bench press is done first because it is very gentle on the shoulder. It is also very difficult to injury your pectoralis muscle in this position, especially with dumbbells.

After you can do a moderately heavy incline dumbbell bench press with no pain, you can switch over a neutral grip dumbbell bench press. A neutral grip simply refers to your palms facing each other when the weight is out in front of you. A neutral grip is the gentlest rotation you can use and has a low degree of strain on the shoulder or pec.

Once you handle the two dumbbell exercises, switch over to an incline barbell press. Incline press is the gentlest angle but barbells are always tough. You do not have to go all the way down on this one if it is too uncomfortable - a few inches off the chest is fine.

Once you can perform an incline press without pain, you can switch over to the floor press. This involves you laying down on the floor in a squat rack and bench pressing. The bar only can go down about half way because your arms will hit the floor.

If you do not want to lay on the ground, you can do this by putting a free bench in a squat rack and placing the safety pins up so that you are only going about halfway down before the bar hits the safety pins. You can then lower the pins once per week until you are performing a regular bench press again. Starting with a partial range of motion like this is particularly beneficial for returning from a pec strain. 

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