Note: Miss the first ten tips? You bastard. Don't worry, you can check them out here: 30 Days of Shoulders: 1-10.
I've learned from experience that if bench pressing bothers a meathead's shoulders the last thing you should do is tell him is to stop bench pressing.
- He's not going to listen to you.
- He'd probably rather swallow live bees.
That said, for shoulder health the big player that's often overlooked is the ability for the scapulae (shoulder blades) to move. We want them to retract, protract, upwardly rotate, downwardly rotate, all of it. To lift heavy things, however, we need to pin those bad boys down.
Whenever I start working with someone and they mention how bench pressing always bothers their shoulders, rather than bog them down with a litany of corrective exercises they're not going to do, I'll instead audit their technique – in particular their initial setup.
The shoulder blades should be together and down. This is crucial to help save your shoulders during the bench press and to ensure a more stable base to hoist a barbell off your chest.
Taking things a step further, I'd be remiss not to also discuss how to unrack the barbell properly.
It doesn't make much sense to spend all that effort to get tight on your setup only to press the barbell off the j-hooks and lose it all. Learning to guide the barbell off the hooks rather than pressing it is a skill and takes some practice to master. It'll make a massive difference in helping to cement your setup for benching success.
A common technique flaw with the bench press is people allowing their shoulders to roll forward in the bottom position (or when the barbell approaches the chest). One simple cue I like to use is, "Meet the bar with your chest."
For most people, most of the time, it's far more advantageous to focus on bringing the chest towards the bar rather than the bar to the chest.
This not only helps maintain more of an arch with the upper back (which, not coincidentally, also makes it easier to keep the shoulder blades retracted and depressed or in a stable position), but it also helps reduce the likelihood of the shoulders dumping forward.
The Spoto press is one of my favorite bench accessory movements for a variety of reasons:
- Stopping an inch or two from the chest reduces the range of motion, so you can think of it as an "invisible 2-board press." This means it's a viable pressing option for those with cranky shoulders.
- It's an excellent exercise for those who have a tendency of allowing their shoulders to "roll" forward as the bar approaches their chest. The rolling motion places the shoulders in a more anteriorly tilted (unstable) position, which in turn makes you a shitty bench presser.
- Too many people fail just off the chest, so the Spoto press makes it so you spend more time within the ROM you're weakest.
This variation lends itself well to high(er) reps (8-12) using 65-75% of your 1RM.
Side Note: If anyone calls you out for doing half reps when doing this exercise, feel free to drop-kick them in the kidney. And tell them the guy who invented it, Eric Spoto, used this variation exclusively to help build his RAW bench press to a previously held world record of 722 pounds.
If a flat or incline bench press bothers your shoulders you're not doomed to a life of push-up purgatory. Instead, try the decline position.
Why? It reduces the degree of shoulder flexion you're in when you press and helps keep you out of the "danger zone" or pain arc with regards to shoulder flexion. This is huge because it allows for a training effect to be accomplished while using a shoulder-friendly pressing variation.
And as Dr. John Rusin has stated, it's never a bad idea to expose people to different angles of training to better challenge joint centration. Adding some variety in pressing motions can go a long ways in keeping shoulders healthy.
The bigger lesson, though, is having a better appreciation that you can always train around an injury. Always.
I like the back squat. However, I'm not married to it and recognize that it's not a good fit for many lifters.
One of the main contraindications would be one's ability to "access" the shoulder range of motion needed to place a (straight) barbell on his or her back. Back squatting with a straight bar requires a significant amount of shoulder abduction and external rotation.
While there are a host of screens, assessments, and correctives that can be used to help someone gain access, the quick drill above works swimmingly.
If I want to introduce more traditional overhead pressing variations into my clients' programs using a barbell, the scrape the rack press is one of my go-to introductory variations.
I like it because I'm able to get more serratus anterior activation. How? By pressing the barbell INTO the rack. And also because I'm taking joints out of the equation – in this case the entire lower half of the body, which makes it less likely to recruit or crank through the lumbar spine.
This can easily be progressed to a half-kneeling stance to standing to, I don't know, blindfolded while juggling a chainsaw. It's a fantastic way to make overhead pressing a bit more shoulder friendly.
I'm a big fan of a few things:
- People who turn right on red
- Jason Bourne fight scenes
- My wife's badonkadonk
- Bottoms-up presses and carries for shoulder health and performance
When a client or athlete of mine is working their way back to overhead pressing, a progression I gravitate towards is the bottoms-up press.
It limits the amount of weight someone can use, so they have to check their ego at the door, and it's harder to cheat.
And, believe me, a part of me wants to vomit a little in my mouth for using this word in a sentence, but the bottoms-up press is a more "functional" way to train the rotator cuff.
The main job of the rotator cuff musculature is to keep the humeral head of the upper arm centered in the glenoid fossa, not to do an endless array of band external rotation exercises, which have a time and place.
For my money, bottoms-up presses (and carries) are the clear winner because not only do they train the rotator cuff in a more specific manner, but also because they feel and look more like actual training, which is going to be more palatable for most lifters.
We often take push-ups for granted. I mean, why wouldn't we? They're a pretty easy and innocuous exercise to toss into any program. Still, it's a rare event to see someone walk into my studio on day one and bang out a set of pristine push-ups.
While there are a number of things to consider with regards to the root cause of someone's shoulder pain, it's hard to disregard exercise technique.
When it comes to the push-up there's one simple cue that can make a profound difference on how the exercise feels and how it can help keep the shoulders feeling strong and healthy.
The shoulder blades should move around the rib cage. Oftentimes people will do hundreds (if not thousands) of reps with the shoulder blades glued together the entire time.
Whenever I see this I'll often joke, "Stop making your shoulder blades make out." This can irritate the shoulder, particularly the bicep tendon and create more anterior instability.
I like to tell clients to push away or get that little "plus" at the top of each rep to create a bit more protraction and serratus anterior activity. In doing so, the shoulder blade can then learn to move around the ribcage. It's a subtle tweak but it makes a massive difference.
Guys are always chasing shoulders that look like a pair of boulders. I rarely put in much direct shoulder work for most of the lifters I work with because they're likely getting ample shoulder work with all the pressing and rowing they're doing.
To that end, one approach I like is tossing in some 3D band pull-aparts at the end of each upper body session.
I prefer high(er) reps, like 15-30 for 3-5 rounds, or I'll aim for a certain rep range, say 75-100, and they can break up the reps however they wish. Do that 2-3 times per week and you'll basically become Thor.