If you have shoulder pain and you like to work out, bench pressing may be the underlying cause. However, I am absolutely not saying to stop bench pressing. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. Perhaps you need to bench press more often and with better technique to get accustomed to performing the movement optimally.
The bench press is glorified in our society and is often the benchmark (no pun intended) used by so many individuals when comparing strength. However, few people tap into their full potential for strength in the bench press because they do not focus on optimal performance of the movement. There are a handful of cues that you can utilize to help you get stronger in the bench press while reducing pain as well as general wear and tear on the body.
So many people have a weak upper back and lats, a grip that is far too wide, elbows that are winging out and zero core stability or leg drive during their bench press. This can put numerous tendons in your shoulder under increased stress and result in pain and/or dysfunction. So, I want to outline a few things, but mainly answer the question “what should a bench press look like?”
First of all, you need a very (and I mean VERY) strong upper back. This is to allow you to keep your back contracted throughout the entire movement (shoulder blades squeezed together). Your back is the base from which you build the movement on top of. You would not build a skyscraper on a weak foundation so why would you do that with your bench press? As soon as your shoulder blades roll forward, you close down the subacromial space (space under the shoulder blade) where several tendons reside. So, a weak back leaves you more susceptible to shoulder injury.
Secondly, you need to make sure that your grip is not too wide, and your elbows are not flaring out. The grip width will vary from person to person, but you want it to be close enough to keep your elbows tucked in under your wrists and to be able to engage your lats. Engage your lats by actively trying to bend the bar throughout the entire press and squeezing the bar as hard as you can. This grip will also make sure that you are using your triceps and not just your chest. When you see an acute injury occur during the bench press, it is more often than not a pectoral injury (rarely a tricep injury). So, you want to make sure you strengthen your triceps and grip in a position where you can use them and avoid making the movement entirely a “chest” exercise.
Thirdly, you are going to want to make sure you have a strong, stable core that is being engaged, and a strong leg drive. These two go hand in hand and improving one often means improving both. This will help you to stay “locked in” and avoid any excessive or unnecessary movement and any injury that may be associated with it. It will also help you to lift more weight which is always a bonus.
So, build your back and triceps, bring your grip in, strengthen your lats to keep your elbows tucked in, strengthen your core and work on your leg drive. Incorporate all these things into each workout and you will eventually start bench pressing without any shoulder pain. It will likely feel awkward at first but keep practicing and move better so you feel better!