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Bench Press and Shoulder pain

Are there any precautions we should be taking when bench pressing? Should we be sticking to single arm standing cable pressing for maximum scapula (shoulder blade) movement to keep our shoulders ‘safe’ or do we just continue on with the big bench presses that are common in todays gyms?

Bench has long been a favourite exercise of body builders, sports people and gym goers for development of hypertrophy and strength in the pecs, triceps and anterior deltoid. This is because bench press tends to get great results due to the ability to maximally load the muscles ie weight lifted/intensity.

Lying on a bench to perform chest/bench press can lead to lack of scapula retraction (backward movement) and result in increased movement at the shoulder ball and socket joint. The forward shear of the ball on the socket will stress the joint and potentially add to joint laxity.

It is our opinion that this stress on the front of the joint only becomes problematic in cases where significant laxity is already present, for example in people with previous capsular injury such as dislocation and subluxation. As well as people with multi-directional instability.

This excessive ball and socket movement caused by lack of scapula retraction in bench pressing more commonly causes excessive (eccentric) loading in the subscapularis tendon and subsequent tendinopathy (damage to the tendon) rather than joint stress and subsequent laxity. So if you bench press heavy enough and frequently enough – areas will be overloaded and then injured.

Ensuring correct technique will help to minimise the inevitable overload.

Tips for avoiding bench press related injuries.

1) Periodisation: schedule breaks from bench pressing every 6 weeks or so and substitute exercises that allow more scapula movement such as cable press and push ups. Even dumbell pressing on a swiss ball allows more scapula movement than a bench does. Also be careful to make gradual increases in intensity and volume only.

2) Roller/Towel: place a rolled up towel or 1/2 foam roller long ways along the bench. This may also allow more scapula retraction.

3) Technique: always be careful of technique ie controlled eccentric movement (lowering) without any bouncing.

4) Range: Reduce the range so that the bar is only lowered to 10cm above the chest.

5) Grip Width: vary your grip width regularly. Generally a narrower grip width reduces loading on the above mentioned structures.