You'd be hard-pressed to walk through most gyms in America without seeing someone using the bench press. This ubiquitous exercise, which is used by gym rats and amateurs alike, is a great way to build strength in your chest. If you're not careful, though, it can lead to bench press shoulder pain and eventually impact your arm days at the gym.
What Muscles Does Benching Work?
Regardless of whether you're a well-trained athlete or a novice at strength training, using the bench press is an effective way to target several different muscles. The primary muscle targeted is the pectoralis major. This thick, fan-shaped muscle provides the power needed to push the bar away from your body.
Secondary muscles like the anterior deltoid, which helps with shoulder stabilization, and both portions of the triceps, which aid in extending your elbows during the exercise, are also utilized.
Read more: Overhead Press vs. Bench Press
Why Does My Shoulder Hurt?
The most common reason that the bench press hurts your shoulder is a muscle imbalance. Many recreational lifters opt to emphasize exercises, such as the bench press, that target larger muscles like the pecs and biceps in the front of the shoulder.
The smaller postural muscles in the back of the shoulder, which play an important role in stabilizing the shoulder joint, are frequently ignored. This creates muscular imbalances and can ultimately lead to bench press shoulder impingement.
What Is Shoulder Impingement?
The rotator cuff muscles in your shoulder sit in a little tunnel, called the subacromial space, located under a bony prominence on your shoulder blade (also known as the acromion) and above the top portion of your arm bone (called the humeral head). When the shoulder joint becomes imbalanced and too much emphasis is placed on exercises that strengthen the chest muscles, like the bench press, your shoulders begin to protract or round forward.
This rounding decreases the height of the tunnel that the rotator cuff muscles travel through and can eventually cause pinching or impingement. Not only does shoulder impingement make bench pressing painful, but it can also lead to pain when reaching overhead, out to the side or to the back. In addition, repetitive pinching can lead to fraying or tearing in the rotator cuff.
Did I Tear My Cuff?
Tears in your rotator cuff muscles can range in severity from minor tears that cause irritation to complete tears that leave you unable to move your arm. Several signs and symptoms can help you determine if you've damaged your cuff.
According to the Mayo Clinic, rotator cuff tears can cause dull, aching pain that seems to originate from deep in your shoulder joint. This often makes day-to-day activities like getting dressed and bathing painful. It can also cause discomfort at night, especially when sleeping on the affected side. Tears that are larger in size may also cause weakness and leave you without the power needed to lift your arm in certain directions.
Eliminating Bench Press Shoulder Pain
Emphasizing exercises that strengthen your shoulder blade muscles and stretch out the muscles in the front of the joint can provide relief from bench press shoulder pain. During this time, it's best to limit or completely stop bench pressing to allow your symptoms to subside. Only after your pain subsides should you gradually reintroduce the bench press into your workout routine.
According to a 2017 study in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, the rehabilitation process can take up to 12 weeks. Early on in your recovery, the emphasis should be on light, pain free movements. Once the pain begins to subside, however, you can add weight or resistance to the workout to increase the intensity. Try the following exercises to help with bench press shoulder injury recovery.
Resisted Shoulder External Rotation
This exercise targets the infraspinatus and teres minor . These rotator cuff muscles, located in the back of the joint, help pull the shoulders down and back.
HOW TO DO IT: Holding a resistance band that has been secured in a door, keep your elbow bent at a 90-degree angle and your arm at your side. Without allowing your elbow to leave the side of your body, rotate your palm away from the door as the band's resistance builds.
When you can go no further, hold the position for a second before slowly moving your palm inward to your belly. Try three sets of 10 repetitions.
Read more: Resistance Band Chest Exercises
The lawnmower exercise targets the shoulder blade muscles that help counteract the rounded shoulder posture caused by excessive bench pressing.
HOW TO DO IT: Begin in the squat position holding a resistance band in your affected hand and securing the other end under your opposite foot. Mimic the movement used to start a lawnmower as you stand up tall while pulling the band up to your side.
Try to squeeze your shoulder blade down and back as you complete this motion. Complete three sets of 10 repetitions each.
Pec Minor Stretch
This technique helps improve flexibility in the pectoralis minor, a smaller muscle in the top portion of the chest. Tightness in this muscle restricts your ability to retract your shoulders and can contribute to shoulder impingement.
HOW TO DO IT: Stand in a doorway with the palm and elbow of the affected arm placed against one side of it. Your elbow should be slightly higher than the height of your shoulder. Then, without losing contact with the door frame, turn away from it slightly until a mild to moderate stretch is felt in the front of the arm. Hold this for 30 seconds and do five repetitions per day.
Read more: How to Increase Your Chest at Home
Warnings and Precautions
Though modifying your workout regimen and strengthening the stabilizing muscles can help resolve shoulder pain from bench pressing, rotator cuff tears will not heal on their own. If the pain persists, it's best to speak to your doctor. He or she will be able to properly diagnose the source of your pain and provide guidance on your best treatment strategy.
- Human Movement Science: Effect of Instructions on EMG During the Bench Press in Trained and Untrained Males
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: Shoulder Joint and Muscle Characteristics Among Weight-Training Participants With and Without Impingement Syndrome
- American Physical Therapy Association: Physical Therapist’s Guide to Shoulder Impingement
- Mayo Clinic: Rotator Cuff Injury
- Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation: Effects of Scapular Stabilization Exercise Training on Scapular Kinematics, Disability, and Pain in Subacromial Impingement
- Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine: Electromyographic Analysis of the Shoulder Girdle Musculature During External Rotation Exercises
- Fairview: The Shoulder Joint