As athletes we’re going to encounter pain and injuries from time to time. It’s just part of the game and it’s going to happen if you end up training for long enough. I get it, injuries are terrible and they can really throw a wrench into our training. I’ve certainly worked with my fair share of injuries over the course of time and continue to work with my own chronic issues regularly.
If you currently have an injury or end up having pain, the smartest first step is to go get the injury evaluated by a professional. The information in this article is not intended to be medical advice or to replace guidance from a qualified professional.
That being said, just because we have some pain, doesn’t mean we should stop training. Ideally, we can troubleshoot these injuries and learn how to train smarter when these issues pop up.
The bench press can be a source of frustration for folks with shoulder pain. It can certainly both limit training performance and just plain out make your bench day miserable.
Here’s the problem, if we keep blowing through pain with our training 1 of 2 things can happen:
- The pain eventually goes away
- The pain stays the same and or gets worse over time
I think most of us have experienced this as lifters. Sometimes you can train through pain and it just gradually gets better over time. On the flip side of the coin, often times the opposite happens and we’re in more trouble then when the pain first began.
It’s a roll of the dice really. Every time we play this game we’re essentially gambling. Maybe it goes well, maybe it doesn’t. If we’re really interested in long term performance and health we shouldn’t be gambling with our shoulder injuries.
For this reason it’s incredibly important we learn how to modify our training so that we can continue working towards our training goals but also ensure our pain improves over the course of time. What’s great is that exercise helps to heal injuries through a process called mechanotransduction. What’s also important to understand is that we need to “dose” exercise appropriately to push our injuries in the right direction.
Think of the difference between taking 2 aspirin to get rid of a headache and taking the whole bottle. The whole bottle can kill you but 2 aspirin works great. The same goes for exercise. If we have an injury we have to find the right dosage to help you heal. Imagine having a shoulder injury and bench pressing 90% of your 1 rep max for 15 sets to failure. This is kind of like taking the entire bottle of aspirin.
So how can we find the right dosage? Well, that’s what the rest of this article is all about! Follow the principles below to figure out what the right dosage of exercise is right for you to start feeling stronger and less painful in the gym. How much pain is acceptable during training? Well I wrote an entire article on the subject to help you out. Click HERE to check it out.
How to Decrease Shoulder Pain During the Bench Press
- Decrease total load or slow down speed of movement – Less total load decreases stress on the shoulder.
- Increase number of reps – Increasing the number of repetitions performed in a set will decrease the total load you’re able to lift during bench press. Think of a 5 rep max vs. a 12 rep max.
- Slow down the speed of the lift or add “pauses” in the bottom of the bench press – Tempo or paused lifts will decrease the total amount of weight on the bar potentially allowing a therapeutic dose of bench press
- Press less frequently throughout the course of the week for less reps – Often times decreasing total pressing volume will be enough to get out of shoulder pain.
- Reduce total sets of bench press in a given session
- Substitute 1-2 pressing exercises for rowing exercises within your program
- Vary the pressing exercise – Changing the angle, grip or implement is often enough to get out of pain while pressing
- Try changing to an incline or decline press
- Try changing grip width or switching to a neutral grip bar
- Try using dumbbells
- Narrow the grip and limit the range of motion – A more narrow grip and less depth will decrease stress to the AC joint
- Try switching to close grip
- Try floor press, board press or spoto press
- Try some crawl variations as a modification – Crawl variations are usually well tolerated for painful shoulders and work similar muscle groups (pecs, delts, triceps)
- Bears crawls, sideways crawls and inchworms fit the bill here
- Substitute pressing for rowing – If all else fails then try substituting a pressing variation for a rowing variation.
- Seal row, chest supported row, single arm dumbbell row etc.
As you read through you’ll see the first step to help reduce pain is to slow down the reps or slightly increase the rep range for the day. If that takes care of the issue, great. That’s all of the modification you’ll need.
If this doesn’t work out for you then you’ll need a modification. I made a handy dandy infographic below to help you figure out this process below:
You’d first try the column to the far left to see if you can find any modifications that work. If not you move onto the exercises in the center. If no exercises work, then finally substitute a rowing exercise in place of a pressing exercise for the day. Now you’ve got a working plan.
As with any injury my most general advice is to initially avoid aggravating movements and once the pain is feeling better to slowly progress back to the movements that were initially painful.
For our example athlete above he may have just had pain on that specific day and the following week bench press is no longer painful and he can return to the normal programming. More often than not, this won’t be the case. You may end up having to modify bench press for several weeks (or months) and slowly work your way back up the steps until you can now bench press again without pain.
Let’s say the example athlete above ended up having to perform rowing in place of bench pressing for 2 weeks. On the 3rd week he is feeling better and performs some dumbbell bench press. Dumbbell bench press feels great but barbell bench press is still aggravating so he performs dumbbell bench press for 2 more weeks. Finally our athlete is feeling good enough to perform bench press a month later and gets back to it. Easy peasy…
Now, everyone is different when it comes to pain and injuries. That means that some people will get better faster and some slower. Don’t push through pain and again, please go get yourself checked out by a trusted healthcare professional if you’re ever thinking something serious is happening with your shoulder.
So there you have it, a simple plan for bench press training with shoulder pain. Want more information about shoulder pain? Check out my guides and other articles below:
Shoulder pain since 1985,
Dan Pope PT, DPT, CSCS