If something causes your shoulders to scream in pain, leaves your wrists hurting, or makes your elbows ache for days, it's probably not the best thing for you to be doing. And if it's the bench press that's leaving you banged up, you're in luck. Because these alternatives can hit your chest just as well, if not better.
1 – Bench Press With a Shoulder-Saver Pad
Do this if you must have a straight bar in your hands. The Shoulder Saver pad makes the lift similar to board pressing, but it's a lot easier to execute if you train alone, without a training partner.
The pad reduces the range of motion and the amount of stress placed on your shoulders. It can be an extremely valuable tool for continued bench-pressing, without pain. The bottom portion in the bench press is the most stressful position for the shoulders. By placing a Shoulder Saver pad on the bar, you'll never reach this critical range in the lift.
Pressing from a reduced range of motion in a power rack (pin-press) is a similar variation you can use to reduce the range of motion. But the dead stop with "metal on metal" is more aggressive on the joints. I recommend the pad (and pressing from a board) over the pin-press variations.
- Use your regular bench press setup.
- Keep your shoulder blades in a packed position – retracted and slightly depressed.
- Don't let the pad sink into your chest or relax your upper body, and do not "bounce" from the chest. Treat the exercise like a regular bench press – either with a pause or a touch and go.
2 – Neutral Grip Bench Press
Use this when internal shoulder rotation is a limiting factor. With a good bench press setup – upper back tight and shoulder blades creating a stable base to press from – your shoulders will internally rotate when the bar reaches the chest.
Lack of internal rotation in the shoulders, or upper body mobility in general, can be the reason for painful pressing. Working to increase internal rotation is one solution. Another solution is to work with and around the limitation by adjusting the grip/barbell type. The neutral grip bar allows more external rotation and will "open up" the shoulders.
- Use your regular bench press setup.
- The neutral grip position reduces the potential for torque creation, often called "breaking the bar." You have to focus more on upper back activation to keep the shoulders stable during the lift.
- For most people, a wide grip will be the least stressful on the shoulders.
3 – Suspended Push-Up
Do these when your shoulders need more freedom. Bench pressing with a straight bar locks the shoulders in place, and this may lead to problems. Having restricted movement capacity, you might end up compensating. Since bench pressing doesn't allow much wiggle room for technical errors, this can be big problem.
The tighter the shoulders and upper body are, the more you'll overcompensate. Performing suspended push-ups (from rings or straps) will create more freedom and natural movement for the shoulders. By not having to be in a "fixed" position, the shoulder blades can move more freely on the ribcage, which can reduce or eliminate pain.
Many consider push-ups more functional than the bench press. If you load this exercise, there's no reason you "have" to continue bench-pressing if it hurts you.
For proper push-ups you need to avoid spinal/lumbar hyperextension. And your abs need to be ON during push-ups, so this exercise can potentially replace your regular plank/anti-extension training too.
- Keep a straight spine in the starting position.
- Activate the abs by pulling the ribs down and tilting the pelvis posteriorly.
- Open the chest by activating the upper back. Avoid too much rounding.
- Choose a wide hand placement (similar to a bench press) if you work around shoulder issues and if you want to avoid excessive shoulder rotation in the bottom position.
4 – Chain Press
This is the alternative to do when your shoulders don't tolerate being loaded in the bottom position. When you remove the bar and switch to chains only, you take the constant resistance out of the equation. By doing this, you'll have way less resistance in the most vulnerable shoulder position.
Then, right after you've pressed past your weak area, the resistance will kick in HARD. If you use relatively heavy chains, you'll really feel this in your chest and triceps. Besides being a great alternative to the bench to build muscle, it's also a great accessory exercise to build the foundation for better bench pressing. Win-win.
Just attach chains to a pair of rings or grip handles of any sort. If your shoulders are really messed up, you can even attach EZ-straps to adjust the chains so that they don't kick in before you're above the stressful position.
- The setup for this will be similar to your regular dumbbell bench pressing.
- Keep the shoulder blades in a packed position and avoid elevation of the shoulders.
- You can either lock out the elbows for the benefit of the triceps, or you can stop short and keep more constant tension in the pecs. Go for a moderate to high rep range.
5 – Dumbbell Floor Press
This is a staple exercise for many lifters. The floor press is simply bench pressing lying on the floor. This will reduce the range of motion compared to the regular bench press, because the elbows stop when they hit the floor.
You could argue that this might be a more optimal position to press from since there's no excessive arching of the spine. Everything is set in a more "neutral" position. If you have trouble with the regular bench press, but all is fine during the floor press, the proof in the pudding is right there.
Since the range of motion is reduced, and you don't get a stretch reflex from the chest and shoulders; your triceps will be the main movers.
The floor press is used so much in powerlifting systems, like Westside, because it decreases stress on the shoulders. And it's probably easier on your joints than the regular bench press.
A bar is fine, but dumbbells are more practical. Dumbbells also allow more freedom for the shoulders, and you can choose a more neutral grip if you need it.
- Start by lying on your back with feet on the floor. You can do it like you would in a glute bridge starting position or with your legs straight. The latter takes out all possible leg drive, but there's not much leg drive in the floor press anyway.
- While pressing the dumbbells up, think about pressing the shoulders down toward the ground. This helps you avoid the typical shoulder compensations.
- Keep the shoulders as stable as possible, but the position doesn't allow you to pack the shoulders the way you would during a regular bench press. You can create more stability by lying on a yoga mat or similar.
A Note to the Benching Brethren
The bench press is a great exercise for muscle building and upper body strength. It's also a big cause of shoulder, elbow, and wrist injuries.
It doesn't matter whether the reason for this is technical, structural, or functional. If pain is present, choose one or several alternatives to keep getting stronger and keep building muscle. You can always work around and with a problem, but you can't always do it with the same strategy that caused the problem in the first place. These lifts can also be used as supplemental/accessory exercises for the bench press.
Take a break from benching, work on lagging muscles and technical issues, and you'll be on your way to pressing without hurting.