Back to a Pain-Free Bench
Let’s be honest. The bench press is an awesome exercise. We all love it and have our unique reasons for it. Some aim for a new world record, some want to pump up gigantic chests, and others want to impress fellow training partners or surrounding females.
At this point, there isn’t any problem with the bench press. Actually, the reason for pressing heavy metal upwards while lying on a bench is totally unimportant right now. What’s more important is bench pressing without messing up your shoulders in the process. That’s a problem. Unfortunately, it’s what we tend to do.
“Why don’t you just learn how to fuckin’ bench?”
That’s a Dave Tate quote.
It’s actually that simple. Bench pressing isn’t rocket science and watching Tate’s brilliant instructional videos on the bench press is, without a doubt, enough to learn the technique. That being said, I’ve coached many people who have watched those videos and still can’t bench without shoulder pain. At that point, you know two things;
- They don’t “get it.”
- See above.
Now, I’m personally not a bench expert, nor a powerlifter. Far from it. There is a good chance you bench a lot more than me and most of you guys probably do. However, I personally used to bench a lot less than I do now with pain. Now I can do more without. I also have a keen eye for correct movement or should I say compensative movements after a good amount of watching and coaching athletes and clients.
Let’s get to the point. I’m writing this article for those of you who have trouble really “getting” the bench press and therefore press with pain. If you know your stuff, that’s fine and you shouldn’t bother reading this article. But I bet you can find a couple of good supplemental exercises either way, so let’s get it on!
Three keys to a successful bench
There are endless amounts of technical points you can use to improve your bench press technique. This surely isn’t a blueprint for coaching it, but the three keys I’m referring to create a foundation for understanding and that’s the first step in the right direction for a pain-free bench press.
Key # 1: The shortest possible bar path
No, this doesn’t mean stopping 20 cm above the chest. You should obviously perform the bench press after powerlifting standards. The shortest possible bar path isn’t only the strongest but the most pain and injury preventive as well. When the bar is lowered to the sternum or the point between your pecs and upper abs (or even lower) with the elbows directly under the bar at all times, that’s where the shoulders perform at their best and without pain. For this to happen, we need to look at the next key.
Key # 2: A good and tight arch
To position the elbows directly under the bar with the bar lowered to the breastbone, you have to have a nice arch in the posterior chain. In this case, that’s your lower and upper back. You really have to extend your back as hard as you can. After you have set your foot position, the distance between the shoulders and feet will often dictate the performance of your bench and definitely whether you have pain or not.
You see, when the correct bar path is in place, the shoulders won’t rotate much if you manage to keep a tight arch at all times and don’t let the shoulders slide up toward your ears or tilt forward. The closer the shoulders are to the feet, the better it is in most cases and you have to arch pretty good to make this happen.
You can often observe crazy arches in powerlifting, and I`m really not referring to those positions, but most people tend to arch more in the lower than the upper back when they hear “arch.” They forget about the upper back, which is key (number three) to a pain-free bench.
Key # 3: Stable shoulders
“You can’t shoot a canon out of a canoe” is probably the most used analogy in this case, and it’s a pretty good one. Obviously, if you’re unstable on the bench, you won’t press as much as you can, and you will probably end up with pain sooner or later. At this point, you often hear the recommendation to “pinch your shoulder blades together.” That’s a good cue, but if that’s all you’re thinking about, problems can still pop up. I`m referring to the elevation of your shoulders during the concentric phase. While you might lower the bar “perfectly,” the pressing part will quickly reveal problems or, in this case, lack of stability.
It wasn’t until I understood that you really have to focus on driving the shoulders down and not just back that I got it. Again, down, not just back! Because most of us are weak in the muscles that pull our shoulder blades down, the shoulders often tend to elevate if all we think about is to pinch the shoulder blades together. Keeping the shoulders down will in itself help you with the arch, as you have to tighten up your posterior chain for this to happen and it will help create the correct bar path without “dangerous” shoulder rotation.
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Ingrain the cues with these exercises
Cues are important, and when you understand what you should do and find words to remind you of them, things will be much easier. I’ve found the following to be the best cues for a pain-free bench to make the three keys work for you.
1. Break the bar
After discovering Pavel’s push-up trick of gripping the floor and rotating outward, I’ve found this same technique to be of great value for understanding the tension in the back needed in the bench press. By trying to “break the bar” this way, the elbows rotate inward and the shoulder blades rotate in as well. Kind of a “screw” mechanism. This also makes it easier to tuck the elbows because the rotation will place the elbows closer to the body.
Exercise: Bar break
This is an easy exercise but an important one. Stand tall and hold a stick in front of you with your normal grip width. With the arms out in front, start to break the bar upward. When holding this tension, the elbows should rotate in, and you should feel the rhomboids tighten up as well. If not, push your chest higher up to find a tall and upright position. From this position, pull the bar to the sternum while holding the tension. Make sure the elbows are directly behind the elbows and bar. Don’t ingrain a faulty pattern. I recommend 8–10 slow repetitions.
2. Pull it down
Pulling the bar down doesn’t make any sense, does it? After all, it’s a bench press. Well, if you manage to break the bar along with the “pulling down” motion, you won’t only be much tighter in the back, creating a stable base to push from, but you will also manage not to fatigue the pressing muscles as much as you would if you lowered the bar with a bodybuilder’s mindset of targeting the chest. Focus on the rotation and the pulling motion and the build-up of tension in the back and your triceps, shoulders, and chest will be “reloaded” and ready to fire the bar upward. Think about meeting the bar with the chest as well. This will help you to maintain the arch in the upper back.
Exercise: Reverse bench press
Many call this one the “inverted row,” but I like to think of it as a reverse bench press. The fact is you can make this a very specific supplemental exercise for the bench press. Every powerlifter knows the importance of a strong back for bench performance, which is why they often include tons of rows in their training regime. So why not use the exact same position as you use in a bench with the exact same grip to not only develop pulling strength but to ingrain the correct technical pattern as well?
Actually, this exercise performed alone with the understanding of the cues might be all that you need. It’s a good one.
Lay down on a bench a bit higher than you normally would. From this position, perform a row in the exact same path as during a bench press. In other words, the bar should touch the same area as your bottom bench position, the elbows should be directly under the bar, and you should pull the shoulders down. Use the ‘break the bar’ cue to engage the scapular retractors and the lats. You have to really tighten up the lats, so keep breaking the bar or rotating the elbows in while you pull. Because this pretty much is the same action that you’ll perform during the descent of the bar in a bench press, it’s a valuable supplemental exercise. I like to perform these between sets of bench pressing with isometric holds in the top position to really focus on squeezing the shoulder blades back and down. A good start is 3–5 repetitions with 3–5 second holds. You can definitely use more advanced variations as well. Just make sure that you don’t compromise technical cues for increased resistance.
3. Shoulders down
As said before, the shoulders down position is of extreme importance for bench press performance. Unfortunately, this seems to be the trickiest cue for many people. You can of course try to pull them toward your heels during the exercise, but I’ve found the following exercises to be effective to address and correct this problem.
Exercise: Chin-up shrug
With an overhand grip, pull the shoulders down and back while pushing your chest up as high as possible. Try to think about your thoracic spine as a fulcrum that you rotate around. Don’t bend the elbows as in a chin-up (some movement is OK). Just focus on the shoulder position. Your lats and scapular retractors should be tight as hell. While the reverse bench press makes it easy to understand the shoulders back position, this one creates a strong focus on the critical shoulders down position. I recommend 3–5 reps with 3–5 second holds. When you get more experienced, you can use added resistance with a weight belt as well. Just don’t compromise correct technique.
Second exercise: Lat shrugs
Lat shrugs (or kelso shrugs if you like) are an awesome exercise for learning and creating shoulder stability. You not only need strong lats to improve your bench but also traps and rhomboids. Now, you shouldn’t think of this as an upper trap shrug because it isn’t. Far from it. In this exercise, focus on the lower traps and pull the shoulders down.
Lie on an incline bench with the upper part supporting the chest. Extend your lower and upper back and place the feet in a supporting stance, as you want to be as stable as possible. Take an underhand (supinated) grip on the barbell under you. From this position, pull the shoulder blades back and down and hold this position for 3–5 seconds. Release and repeat for 3–5 reps. Make sure that you don’t let the shoulders shrug upward. This exercise will develop the supporting musculature in the bench press and obviously help to automate the correct shoulder position.
How many sets for the exercises?
These exercises can be performed as technical learning or as supplemental exercises. I recommend one round with all the exercises as part of your warm-up regime for upper body training in the beginning and between sets of your main exercises as well. In other words, use them as “fillers” until you use so much resistance that they become stressful enough to be considered supplemental exercises. At that point, you can do normal straight sets and use a progression model similar to what you do with your other supplemental exercises.
Narrow or wide grip for a pain-free bench?
When I started out as a coach, I read a lot and it became evident by recommendations that a narrow grip in the bench press was the best solution to prevent shoulder injuries. I was sold on the idea and took it to heart but didn’t really understand why a narrow grip was better. Yes, the elbows have to get closer to the body, which made sense for a more supportive position, but my own shoulder issues didn’t like that position at all, and several clients had problems with this as well.
Then it hit me that a narrow bench probably was better than a wide grip if the technical cues weren’t ingrained. In other words, it might be safer it you don’t know how to bench at all. But think about this—a narrow bench creates more shoulder rotation than a wider grip.
It doesn’t many sense to me any more that a narrow bench is better for the shoulders. “Learn how to fuckin bench” should be the first commandment. If you manage to create a good arch and pull the shoulder blades down as you should and keep the correct bar path, a narrow grip will make the bar hit closer to the navel (farther down) and a longer distance between the shoulders and the bar. I haven’t found the maximum engagement of the lats and scap retractors to be optimal with a very narrow grip, but it might be different for you.
Now, back to a pain-free bench
As you might have discovered, the title of this article isn’t a random one. The importance of the back is critical for your bench press performance and it needs to be both well developed and well activated if you want to press long term with healthy shoulders. I hope that you’ve found this article helpful. Now get back to the bench!