The ultimate BRO exercise…the BENCH PRESS. ‘How much you bench?’ is one of the most commonly asked questions amongst ‘bros.’ I personally, never understood it. ‘How much you deadlift?’ is more my speed. To me, ripping a huge weight off the ground is cooler than laying on my back and pushing one off my chest. Nonetheless, filling out that spoon chest is crucial to building a JACKED physique, so the bench press must be addressed.
Unfortunately, the bench can cause a lot of people pain within one or both of their shoulders. Especially when it comes to guys (and even some gals) that have been lifting for any length of time. Due to poor programming over the course of their lives, daily habits, postures on the job, ect., many of us have banged up shoulders that reveal themselves when we bench press. This is the main reason I am such a BACK guy. If you have ever trained with me or have performed any of my programs, you soon realize what my priorities are when it comes to building a strong body. You will see this shortly…
Now I am not here to bash bench pressing. Just because it is not my favorite exercise like 90% of the guys out there doesn’t mean I don’t like it. In fact, I love benching! In my opinion, it can be a staple exercise when it comes to building upper body strength and I’d find it hard pressed to find someone to disagree with that. It is also impossible to look JACKED with a spoon chest! However, it is not a staple for those of you who experience pain when benching; specifically, in the shoulder. You cannot get stronger when you are being held back by pain. Its impossible. Your body will not let you do it. If this sounds like you, have no fear! I am here to help. There is a way you can give your shoulders a break, allow them time to heal, and strengthen your bench press – without traditionally bench pressing! Let’s dive in and take a look…
**Disclaimer** Obviously my protocol for fixing your pain riddled bench press is heavily dependent on what is causing your pain. Most of the time, in the people I deal with, it is poor positioning and the accumulation of that positioning over time that has caused imbalances and inflammation. If you have a legit tear somewhere in your shoulder complex or surrounding musculature, don’t be surprised when it doesn’t work. Use common sense and don’t be an asshole. You need surgery, not a workout regimen. On that same note though, (without trying to sound too hypocritical) I have used some of these methods on people with minor tears in their rotator cuff and other diagnosed issues within the shoulder to much success. Everyone is different, and the bottom line is you must make educated choices as it pertains to your situation. Use at your discretion…
Step 1: Revive the Arch
A lot of times our shoulders are held prisoner to our back position. In a seated world, our shoulders are constantly rounded. After being subjected to these positions for extended periods of time, these poor positions start to become our default positions. If you show me someone with a rounded upper back and rounded shoulders, then I’ll show you someone who is going to be having some shoulder issues. They don’t even have to be a lifter for the issues to present themselves. The act of lifting merely accelerates the process. We have got to open the back by promoting upper back extension. Upper back extension is the opposite of the rounded back position (flexion). Through deep tissue and flexibility work, we must loosen the tissues of the pecs, lats, abs, front delts and biceps, while simultaneously strengthening the muscles of the upper back and promoting exercises in the extended position (more details on this later).
The rounded back/shoulder position keeps the lifter from establishing a clean arch in the back when it comes time to bench. (And yes, you should always be benching with an arch. Don’t let the old timer in your gym tell you its cheating. The old guys that are still preaching a flat – back bench press are the same ones rubbing themselves down with Icy Hot before every workout because their joints are F*CKED!) When you can’t maintain a ‘packed’ upper back (shoulder blades pulled together and down toward the feet), with a good arch, then your shoulder cannot operate from a stable position. Benching with a flat back shoots your humorous forward in the bottom position giving your bicep tendon the job of playing safety net and taking on the stress of that position – OUCH! When you are benching, your upper back/traps anchor at one end, with your butt anchoring the other end, giving you a nice natural clean arch. We shouldn’t be looking at something from the Exorcist. This gives you a nice, safe position to bench from and once you get used to the new position, you will be pushing BIGGER weights – GUARANTEED!
I don’t think it takes a master coach to see which arch is acceptable…
Step 2: Limit the ROM
I am always an advocate of training with a full range of motion (ROM), however, when trying to eliminate shoulder pain, limiting the range of motion can allow time for the angry tissues to cool down while you still train the muscles to build a bigger bench. Some of my favorite ways to do this are with the Board Press, Foam Roller Press (if you don’t have access to boards) and the Floor Press. These are performed much like a regular bench press except you will only be lowering the bar until it meets the board or foam roller lying on your chest. In the instance of the floor press, your elbows will meet the floor before the bar meets the chest. All of these take the bottom position out of the bench press, which is the position that causes the issue most of the time. These benching variations also work the lockout of the bench press. Nine times out of 10, a failed bench press attempt comes 3-4 inches off the chest. Rarely (not never) someone isn’t able to get the bar at least a few inches off their chest. This is because midway through the ascent, the triceps take over as the prime mover and people fail to have enough strength in the smaller muscles to lock the weight out. These press variations pin point this range of motion. Introducing a steady diet of these bad boys for a few weeks at a time will not only give your shoulders a break, but also boost your lock out power allowing you to bench bigger weights when you return to full ROM – BOOM!
Step 3: BACK BACK & More BACK!
This is possibly the most crucial step of this entire process. You must build a BULLETPROOF BACK! A lot of times, depending on the situation of course, this step alone can get you 90% of the way there. If you take anything from this article, take this step. If you are to have healthy shoulders, you must have an upper back that is STRONG AF – Period. How do we do this? By doing back exercises that promote scapular retraction (pulling your shoulder blades back), and the extended position we mentioned earlier. All kinds of rows, reverse flys, face pulls etc. I’ve seen many people resort to lat pulldowns and pull ups to train their back, which isn’t wrong. However, these back exercises primarily train the lats, which are internal shoulder rotators contributing to the poor shoulder position. Joe DeFranco coined the exercises of YWT’s and Blackburns, which are phenomenal beginner exercises to embark on the journey of bullet proofing your back and can continually be done regardless of how strong you get. The upper back can handle a lot of volume and should be trained accordingly. Most people neglect their back because they cannot see it in the mirror. If they are lucky, they give it as much attention as their mirror muscles. Even this is still not good enough. Your back should get twice the attention that your front side does. That’s right – DOUBLE. That’s a minimum. You can do things and train your back every single day. For most of you out there starting with some gnarly shoulder pain, that’s not a bad idea.
Step 4: The Comeback
Once you get the back and shoulders freed up, let the tissues calm down and recover, and built a back that is the talk of legend, then it’s time to get back up on the horse. However, we don’t just jump back into the deep end. We will approach this the smart way to be sure to not undo all our hard work and sacrifice. It’s all about gradual progression. If you have been benching with the boards or foam roller, it is time now to use less boards and/or a smaller foam roller. You want to gradually reintroduce ROM to your bench press to ensure that you can control your position each step of the way. If you have been benching from a 4-inch block for the last 3-4 weeks and then jump right into a standard bench press, you are drastically challenging that position right from square one, and chances are, it won’t hold well. When you want to attempt a PR, do you grab a bar and throw the weight on there and try it? No. You warm up and build up to it. This is no different. Over the course of the next few weeks, gradually increase the ROM each week, making sure you are stable and strong each step of the way. If you’re unsure, spend another week in that range of motion until you are sure. Chances are, if you are questionable in a position, then its probably a weak position and the extra time on it will strengthen it and BOOST that bench some more!
Barbell benching is tough on a lot of shoulders, however, benching with DBs at the same time can cause no issues for people. This is fine. However, instead of exclusively using DBs for the rest of your life, employ this protocol in conjunction with DBs to see if you can get back to full functioning Bench Pressing. DBs are a terrific way to reinforce full ROM while in step 2, however, you should be able to keep the same stable position that has been preached throughout this article as well as adhering to the ever important 3rd step. Pushups are another great exercise that don’t give a lot of issues and can even help reinforce good shoulder position and mechanics. However, just like DB pressing, adhere to the rest of the protocol and follow the rules. Lastly, we have delt targeting exercises. A lot of times if someone is experiencing pain with bench press then they will most likely feel it with overhead pressing as well. If this is the case, I choose to resort to pain-free delt raises to target the deltoids. Keeping muscle on the shoulders is important to maintaining a solid and healthy shoulder girdle. But only with exercises that don’t elicit pain. However, these are mirror muscles (front and lateral deltoid) and you must give the rear delts DOUBLE the love!
Well there you have it – The Pain Reducing, Strength Boosting, Bench Press Protocol! This protocol is not the letter of the law. This is merely a proven plan that I have used many times with clients to help alleviate pain and improve their benching ability. There are also other times when this protocol was not applicable. You must be self-aware of your situation and use your better judgment when it comes to deciding what’s best for your training. Even if you don’t experience pain yet, look at your training. If your training doesn’t follow some of the basic principles in this protocol, then chances are the pain riddled shoulders aren’t far away. Get ahead of the curve and begin to fall in line with the steps laid before you. Even with healthy shoulders, this protocol can still BOOST your bench numbers, build a JACKED BACK, and fill out that spoon chest!