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Why Your Shoulder Hurts When You Bench

After a minor shoulder injury as a 15 year old high school kid, I had an orthopedist tell me I shouldn't Bench Press or lift overhead anymore because it wouldn't be good for my shoulder. When I entered into CrossFit, I was told Bench Pressing wasn't a functional movement and it didn't need to be programmed. When I left CrossFit for Weightlifting, I was told the Bench Press didn't transfer to the Jerk and would make you to tight to Snatch. When I eventually got into Strength and Conditioning I was working with a number of baseball, softball, and volleyball players, and was told not to have them Bench Press as well.

But over the years, I couldn't help but ask, "Why does everyone say Bench Pressing is bad, and warns not to do it?"

I think if we look at it, we all know someone whose shoulders hurt. We hear of individuals having Rotator Cuff surgery (or Rotator Cup if you're in the South...), or living in chronic pain, and blaming the Bench Press as the culprit. But as I've spent the last few years around Powerlifters, and have dabbled more into Super Total training, I can't help but see where most people go wrong.

The Bench Press isn't the reason most people's shoulders start hurting. Most people just suck at programming and executing the Bench Press.

I want to touch on execution first, since this is where I see a lot of people go wrong first. The Bench Press seems easy enough, and so most people just lay down and start pressing. But many times, especially as people start to aim for specific goals in terms of weight used, they start to having mechanical breakdowns. The big three being:

  1. They don't create tension on the bar, and then end up creating unstable positions at the shoulder as they press. A really common way you see this done is when people bounce the bar off their chest.

  2. They don't warmup their shoulders well. A fair number of people will walk in and throw a whatever working weight they want to use on the bar and just start repping it out, taking no consideration into getting local tissues prepared to handle those forces.

  3. They don't control their scapula. This is also very common in people who struggle with problem #1, but you see it plenty of times where people pay no regard to what the shoulder blade is doing as the press. You'll often see the scapula elevate and dump forward on the first rep, leaving the smaller muscles to take the brunt end of the forces as they press.

The other reason many run into shoulder pain while Bench Pressing is a matter of programming. In my opinion, people tend to Bench Press with too high a volume at too high an intensity. The best Bench Pressers I know may Bench Press three or four times per week, but they rarely do more than 30 total reps per session, and they do them at a relatively low intensity of their 1 Rep Max each session. They spend a lot of time in the 60-70% range of, and have a wide array of accessories or special exercises involved to help. Contrast it with the common movement of 3x10 or 4x12 at an RPE of 8-10 (coming fairly close to failure), and we start to run into a recovery issue at the shoulder and a litany of overuse aches and pains to follow.

So what do we do about this?

First, the big thing is addressing the mechanical and technical flaws if you have them. Learn to create tension, control your shoulder blades, and find a the right leverages for your body. Then, adjust your volume and frequency. If you don't Bench Press frequently, and just jump into it relatively heavy when you do, this can be just as bad as doing it too frequently. If you're Bench Pressing more than once per week at a near maximum weight (close to or failing reps), then you may be setting yourself up for the same issues. There's a sweet spot for volume and intensity, and when you find it your shoulders will feel immensely better.

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