If this sounds familiar then chances are there’s either a form issue to address or you’re lacking the fundamental shoulder mobility to perform the exercise correctly. This lack of mobility or improper bench press form forces other muscles and joints to compensate and place your joints in risky positions. Don’t blame the bench press
Common Bench Press Mistakes
One of the first things I teach my clients about bench press that often comes as a surprise is that you should also be benching with your back. Specifically with your lats. Bench press press is often a heavy movement that has the potential to aggravate your shoulders if done incorrectly it’s important to stabilize that joint. Using your lats during your bench has 2 functions:
Activating or “packing” your lats at unrack and the descent of this movement helps to prevent your traps from taking over. If this begins to happen not only do you run the risk of overworking that muscle and causing strains and neck pain it puts the shoulder joint in a dangerous position. If your traps are more active during the movement it pulls the shoulders up and slightly forward. This can result in a grinding at the joint and inflammation of the tendon, and excessive pressure on your collar bone.
Packing your lats during the descent helps to maintain control of the movement as you lower the bar to your chest. Again this of course prevents overactive traps but it also reduces the likelihood of sinking into the bottom of the movement, again potentially straining your shoulders.
The second benefit of using your lats is increased strength & power production. This is actually a pretty simple concept. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, muscles are essentially just rubber bands. By contracting your lats and actively pushing and stretching your lats forward as you press the weight, you’re able to take full advantage of the contract and stretch capacity of the muscles.
Another way to visualize proper form and lat activation is just to be aware of your elbow position during the exercise. Elbows will not be able to fly out to the sides if you’re lats are properly engaged.
The second area to focus your attention during bench is actually your legs. For an in depth explanation of this, check out our blog on making bench press a full body movement. For this post I’m just going to stress the fact that allowing the full load of the movement to distribute only through your upper body increases the potential for shoulder pain. When you’re benching, you should be driving your feet into the ground and feel activation in glutes and/or quads depending on your foot position.
Bench Press Requires Mobility!
Even if you do all these things right, if you don’t have the shoulder mobility required, you are still going to run the risk of injuring shoulders. This is because a lack of shoulder mobility will cause compensations to occur in and around the shoulder joint and can lead to injury. An example of this is your thoracic spine being very tight, this leads to limited range of motion of your shoulder. This limited ROM will cause your body to find a way to get the barbell off your chest that is not ideal, such as over flaring in your ribs, shrugging your shoulders(disengaging lats), lifting your butt off the bench, etc.
1 way to assess shoulder mobility is the FMS method. If you score an even 2/2 or 3/3 on each side, you are cleared to safely perform and pressing movement. If you score a 1/1 or asymmetry, you will want to implement daily exercises to improve your shoulder mobility so you can safely bench how you want. Here are some good places to start to improve mobility. Ideally, you perform these things daily, even 2-3 times a day. The more you do the faster you will see lasting results.
Self Myofasical Release: Foam rolling, triggerpoint tools, massage, etc. are all great methods of SMR. SMR works out the tissue in your body to improve blood flow and release toxins, which helps in releasing the surrounding muscles. The tissue is not affected by doing the old school stretching you are familiar with, this only affects the muscle fibers, so SMR is a must. Specifically for improving shoulder mobility, you want to focus on foam rolling your pecs, lats, and t-spine.
Mobility Drills/Corrective Exercises: My personal go to’s for myself and clients are T-spine rotations(either quadruped or side lying), halos, and wall angels. A big factor in poor shoulder mobility is when our scapula and clavicle lose their relationship with each other. They are meant to work together to move around your shoulder joint, and if they lose that communication, stability of the joint suffers. These exercises aide in rebuilding this relationship, and thus improving your shoulder mobility.
Stretching: As stated above, stretching helps lengthen the muscle fibers themselves. There are a lot of different opinions on when to stretch, its hard to give a specific recommendation because we all have different needs, so I’ll use myself as an example. I have a very tight chest, so even though the general rule of thumb is that static stretching should not be done before a strength workout, I benefit from this because I am so tight. The stretch essentially gets me from tight closer to neutral in terms of tightness/overstretched. However, for someone who has a normal chest in terms of tightness and doesn’t have this issue, they should not perform a static stretch pre-bench press, as this would then have them going into their workout overstretched, which affects strength performance and raises the risk of injury.
2 Reasons You Should Be Benching
Horizontal push is one of the primary movements required to maintain a healthy and balanced body and prevent injury. Avoiding it altogether, especially if you’re still including any heavy back exercises can result in a severe imbalance. Severe imbalances lead to nothing but pain and injury. While barbell bench press specifically isn’t required, some sort of movement in that direction such as cable presses or dumbbell press should be present. Over working one side of your body pulls muscles, joints and bones into unnatural positions that can lead to severe complications down the line.
That’s right if your want healthy shoulders you should bench press. As I mentioned a great deal of stability and control is required during this movement. Everyone always thinks of the importance of being mobile and flexible but we tend to forget that the ability to stabilize our just is just as important. The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body, which is also the reason shoulder pain & injury is so common. Yes, it’s possible to be too mobile. Because of this extreme capacity for mobility it’s easy for the shoulder to dislocate, fall out of alignment or result in a muscle tear. The only way to prevent this is to work to maintain adequate stability in this area. Exercises like bench press that require control an object along a path help to improve that quality. This is a good time to point out that chest press machines are not an acceptable alternative in terms of improving shoulder health. During these exercises the machine stabilizes your so you’re not actually do the work yourself. This doesn’t mean these exercises are bad for you, they’re just not doing your shoulders any favors.
“Strength doesn’t come from what you can do. It comes from overcoming the things you once thought you couldn’t.” – Rikki Rogers
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