Bench With No Bench, Save Your Shoulders
Got a sharp pain deep inside your shoulder? Trying to bench press anyway? It's common among lifters. And they'll keep the area irritated by continuing to bench. It's time to modify your pressing routine. How? By benching without a bench. Here are six floor press variations that'll allow you to go heavy, and more importantly, allow your shoulders to heal.
This is one of the most basic pain-free ways of pressing that decreases the amount of stress on the anterior shoulder girdle while also allowing you to go heavy.
Just ditch the bench and instead set up on the floor to limit the range of motion. As the barbell descends towards the chest, the upper arms will contact the ground and stop the downward range of motion before the bar reaches the chest. By limiting the bottom range of the bench press, there's less of a stretched extension and internal rotation placed on the gleno-humeral joint. This reduces the stress on the front side of the shoulder, which is the most common pain-point for lifters.
Another advantage is a more stabilized shoulder blade position. Since many benches are too narrow for full shoulder blade stabilization between the thoracic cage and the bench, stability of the scapula is lost little by little. That predisposes the shoulder to adverse protracted and internally rotated moments under loading. Because the floor has unlimited surface area, you can stabilize the scaps and relearn proper, strong, and stable horizontal pressing positions.
Trap bars are becoming more common in commercial gyms, and they're not just for lower body work. Similar to the barbell floor press, this trap bar variation limits the bottom range of motion, but allows you to use a neutral grip (palms facing in).
Many times the barbell will force you to flare the elbows out and increase the angle between the upper arm and the side of the torso – the "carrying angle." Too high of a carrying angle will cause over-internal rotation at the bottom of a press making it very difficult to maintain proper torque output at the gleno-humeral joint.
By bringing the hands into a neutral position, the carrying angle of the upper arm and shoulder girdle is decreased, making it easier and more natural to keep the elbows tighter to the sides of the body.
Everyone has an anatomical variation at the shoulder girdle which requires a customized setup. So the closer you can naturally position yourself in an authentic carrying angle during a press, the more centrated the shoulder joint will be. This is a good thing. It'll increase the activation of small stabilizers like the rotator cuff around the joint, as well as bigger prime movers, like the pecs and the anterior delt.
When pressing with the trap bar, grip the middle of the handles to keep it from tilting forward or backward. If you're one of those lucky bastards who have a Dead-Squat® Bar at your disposal, that's preferable to the smaller traditional trap bar.
Note: Loading the smaller trap bar with heavy weight and a safe setup can be a burden. If you're stuck with the little trap bar and training out of a power rack, the best way to add weight is by end-loading the bar in order to fit it into the rack. Use clips and make the un-racking and re-racking process very deliberate.
Floor pressing using a specialty bar like a Swiss bar or "football bar" can also be effective for pain-free training. If you train out of a private facility or a home gym with access to specialty accessories, try it with chains.
Chains offer accommodating resistance – perfect for training around shoulder pain. Because of the chains, the load at the bottom of the lift will be decreased, your hands will keep that same neutral position, and the range of motion will be limited at the bottom – all good for someone with bad shoulders. Any time you can slightly unload at the most vulnerable range of a lift, while adding back the load in a safer portion of the ROM, you'll ameliorate the pain and make notable progress.
Since the bar is positioned relatively close to the ground on the top of the range, and approximates the ground at the bottom, you'll need to really load up the chains in order to achieve that overload effect.
Remember, it's not about the total weight of the chains, but rather the difference of the weight between the top and bottom of the lift. The more contact the chains have on the floor the lighter your load will be, then it only gets heavier when you're in an optimal position. So don't be afraid to load these up, even with a dicey wing.
This is a simple modification. Using dumbbells allows your hands and arms to move more freely through the press. This can be a double-edged sword as more degrees of freedom means that you must also be able to stabilize those ranges.
Most of the shoulder injury cases I see have more to do with instability issues rather than mobility issues. And the dumbbell floor press can actually tap into a more sensory-rich stability environment to improve shoulder packing positions while authenticating the pressing pattern as well.
If floor pressing becomes your go-to pressing variation, you'll need to add variety. The dumbbell variation works well in higher-rep hypertrophy set schemes because of its stability requirements.
In order to tap into the maximal amount of upper body stability, keep your core and hip complex tight by squeezing your abs and glutes together maximally. Tighten your grip on the dumbbells. This total body tensioning can help spread a powerful irradiation effect through the nervous system to enhance the feel of these lifts even when challenged with reps and load.
For lifters who are battling really bum shoulders, this variation is well tolerated. The reason for its success? The setup. When getting into position with the dumbbells off the floor, you can intelligently set them down at your sides and move them into position without the need for rotating the shoulders under loading, which can irritate even healthy shoulders at times.
If you're going to train around pain and injury, your setups (positions getting in and out of the lifts) must be spot on. This movement is perfect for that. Before you go all-out and load this up with too much weight, identify your ideal carrying angle and hand position. Don't risk re-injury due to a poor setup.
Set the dumbbells at your sides so that when you go to grab them, you're already locked and loaded in your ideal angle, which for more people will be about 30 degrees away from the sides of the body.
Remember, there's no training rule written in stone saying that you must use arbitrary fully pronated or neutral grip hand positions on the press – or any other exercise for that matter. So if you find the hand position and angle that feels the most stable for you, no matter what that angle is, use it and load it with confidence.
When it comes to pain-free shoulder stability when horizontal pressing, sometimes locking into a range of motion and position can be challenging. But using the right tools and executing with more dynamic stability can fix this problem.
There's a reason many smart sports rehab pros are gravitating toward kettlebells for movement remediation and training: the shape and loading that you can get from this tool is exactly what many athletes need in order to recruit stabilization.
When you've grasped the kettlebell and positioned it over the shoulder in a pressing position, the hand and wrist are forced to grip and stabilize the augmented load that sits on the back of the wrist. This simple position helps initiate the irradiation effect signaling synergistic tension through muscular and fascial planes all the way up the kinetic chain into the shoulder girdle and directly into the core. By focusing on a max grip, this becomes a neuromuscular reeducation tool for faulty motor patterns.
Adding a small amount of rotation during this press can be a powerful mechanism for proper movement mechanics. Starting at the bottom of the lift with the upper arms in contact with the ground, the hands should be in a somewhat neutral position. As you press up, the hands can rotate internally into a pronated grip at the top.
This small tweak in the movement will be key to pressing pain-free and transferring the stability, torque, and tension you learned to generate back into the barbell bench press when you're ready. Yeah, that's right. If you load these exercises appropriately, you won't be stuck on the floor forever. Just give it long enough to fix your movement, let your body heal, and live to fight another Monday on the bench.