Stop Bench Pressing Now! Do the Gains Outweigh the Pains?

Warning: Read this before bench pressing again

Warning: Read this before bench pressing again. You may need a vacation from your favorite exercise.
Warning: Read this before bench pressing again. You may need a vacation from your favorite exercise..

The bench press has been a cornerstone exercise in strength programs for decades. Lifters love it because it gives a basic measure of upper body strength and bragging rights in the gym. Even though it’s a favorite exercise used by many gym-goers, it’s unfortunately abused by far more.

Remember the last time you saw a guy at the gym walking around with skinny chicken legs and an inflated chest? Men tend to over emphasize the bench press exercise in their workout routines and, as a result, they create muscle imbalances, joint problems, postural issues, and unnecessary aches and pains.

Bench Pressing Correctly

Before you perform any lift, it’s crucial to know how to maintain the proper form throughout the entire exercise to avoid injury. Every exercise has its flaws and performing any lift improperly has the potential to badly hurt you, so it’s important to weigh the pros and cons of each exercise before adding it into your routine. 

One of the biggest problems with the bench press is that people don’t do it correctly, and they end up hurting their shoulders, wrists or back. 

The main muscle used in the conventional bench press is the pectoralis major, or the chest muscle.

The muscles supporting the arms, shoulders, and chest are also used in the bench press, including the anterior deltoids, coracobrachialis, anconeous, and triceps. 

Stabilizing muscles for the bench press include the serratus anterior, trapezius muscles, rotator cuff muscles, and core muscles including the transverse abdominis, obliques, and erector spinae.

A proper bench press will activate all of these core and upper body muscles.

Shoulder Pain from Bench Pressing

Have you ever felt a sharp pain in the front of your shoulder while doing a barbell bench press? Chances are that you have had shoulder pain after doing the bench press, or you know someone who has.

Shoulder pain is the most common complaint with the bench press. This stems from the structure and function of the shoulder joint, and how it’s affected by the movement. 

The shoulder complex, or shoulder girdle, consists of the connections (joints) between the bones of the scapula, clavicle, humerus, sternum, and ribs. These joints need to work together as one single functional unit to provide dynamic stability about the shoulder complex. This stability is achieved by activation of the muscles attached to the bones of the shoulder complex. Therefore, joint positioning and form are crucial for a safe and effective bench press. 

Effects of Restricting Shoulder Blade Motion

In the bench press, the scapulae (shoulder blades) are pinned against the bench and locked into place, unable to move. The problem of very little or no scapular movement in a bench press exists whether you use a barbell, Smith machine, or dumbbells at various angles.

Using free weights is preferable to using the Smith machine because barbells and dumbbells allow for some more upper-body muscular activation and development in the bench press.

 According to studies, benching with dumbbells also allows for 15 percent more pectoralis major and rectus abdominis (core) activation than benching with a barbell. 

Replacing the stable surface of the bench with an unstable surface like a Swiss ball when performing the press doesn't make much of a difference when it comes to muscle activation in the chest and shoulders. 

How Pinned Shoulder Blades Lead to Injury

To see how your shoulder is open to injury because of the pinned down position of the scapulae in a bench press, picture this scenario: 

Imagine that you’re kneeling down on all fours and you put your right hand behind your back. Then, imagine trying to crawl around using just your legs and your left arm. The remaining three limbs supporting your weight have to work harder to move you around than if you were using all four limbs.  Those three supporting limbs now have a greater potential for injury as they take on a more unnatural and heavier workload to get the same job done. 

This is the concept of what happens in the shoulder complex during a bench press. Since the scapulae are locked down against the bench, the muscles responsible for moving the scapulae cannot be recruited. This puts an extra load on the remaining joints of the shoulder complex and creates an imbalance.

The problems associated with lack of scapular movement don’t stop there. 

Troubleshooting: Pack Your Shoulder Blades Down and Back

The scapular restriction also puts an excessive strain on the soft tissue in the front portion of the shoulder joint, which is why sharp shoulder pain associated with bench pressing is most commonly felt in the front portion of the shoulder.

It’s crucial to keep your scapulae retracted and depressed throughout the lift to provide the best support for the shoulder complex. Imagine that you’re trying to put your shoulder blades in your back pockets by squeezing them back together and pushing them down towards your midsection. Your shoulders are much less likely to get injured during the bench press if you always keep them locked down and back, anchored into the bench. 

If you keep your shoulders blades pressed down and back and you’re still experiencing shoulder pain with your bench press, take it as a warning sign to stop benching for awhile. Your problem could stem from muscle imbalances that are getting worse with more benching. You’ve most likely been focusing on pushing exercises like the bench press more than pulling exercises like the row.

You’re not alone in this, as most men fall into this trap and create a plethora of problems for themselves, including muscular imbalances and postural problems in their one-track “Quest for a Bigger Chest.”   

Save your shoulders by skipping the bench press and start to heavily emphasize rows in your workout routine. As you feel better, you can slowly start to add some push-up variations into your routine. Push-ups are a very effective and shoulder-healthy alternative to benching because they let your scapulae move around more freely.   

Troubleshooting: Slightly Tuck In Your Elbows

Hand, elbow and shoulder blade positioning are also key factors to keeping your shoulders safe in the barbell bench press.

A slight tucking in of the elbows is the desired goal. Avoid flaring out at the elbows where the upper arm is at a 90-degree angle to the torso and avoid the elbows touching the torso. A wide grip on the barbell makes it easy for the elbows to flare out. This leaves the shoulders in a compromised position which can lead to shoulder impingement because the rotator cuff tendons get squeezed and inflamed with every repetition performed in this horrible misalignment.    

A narrow or close grip on the barbell (hands roughly shoulder width apart) makes it much easier to keep your elbows slightly tucked in. Tucking the elbows in at roughly a 45-degree angle as you lower to the bottom of your press helps to prevent shoulder impingement. 

Troubleshooting: Keep Your Wrists Straight

Wrist positioning is important to help keep your wrists safe during the barbell bench press. Benching with a bent wrist causes the weight to stretch your wrists back past their normal range of motion and leaves them vulnerable to injury.  

All you have to do to keep your wrists straight is ensure that your wrists, forearms, and elbows are aligned vertically with the bar.

Always Fully Grip the Bar: No "Thumbless Grips"

Make sure to bench with a full grip, wrapping your thumbs around the bar to secure it. The thumbless grip is extremely dangerous because the bar can slip out of your hands at any moment, and there’s nothing to stop it from rolling onto your chest, throat, or even your face and severely injuring or even killing you.

There are no benefits of using the thumbless grip. You should keep the bar squeezed tightly in your hands as if you’re trying to crush and break it. This tension helps to increase the strength and stability in your shoulders. Keep the bar in the lower part of your hand, closer to your wrists and bench with your wrists straight and the bar directly above your forearm bones. 

Troubleshooting: Maintain the Natural Arch of Your Back

Maintaining the natural arch in your low back is also important for a healthy bench press.  You don’t want to overarch your lower back or keep your spine pressed into the bench at all times.

You naturally have an arch in your low back when you’re standing, so you should maintain that same arch when lying down on the bench. Your chest and low back should be ever-so-slightly arched off the bench, and your butt must stay on the bench at all times. 

Keep your feet flat on the floor to help maintain the slight arch in the back. Dig your feet into the ground to help stabilize your entire body in the lift. Placing your feet up on the bench is problematic because it eliminates the stabilizing muscles used in your hips, legs, and feet that are crucial to stabilizing and supporting your back. 

If It Hurts, Stop Immediately

If you experience any pain whatsoever during an exercise, stop immediately before you injure yourself. If you’re having trouble maintaining the proper form outlined above, it’s best not to bench press as you could severely hurt yourself while doing the exercise incorrectly.

Alternatives to the Bench Press

While the bench press is a great exercise, it’s simply not appropriate for everyone because they may not be able to execute it with the proper form due to previous injuries, weaknesses, tightness, mobility issues, or other reasons. 

The push-up is a great alternative to the bench press, and studies show that similar muscle strength gains are made with the push-up as compared to the bench press.

The standing cable press is another good alternative to the bench press. The standing cable press relies on more total body strength utilizing upper body strength and trunk stability together, whereas the bench press relies on upper body strength. Because the standing cable press is limited by the activation and neuromuscular coordination of the torso muscles, less weight can be pushed as opposed to benching. It’s just not physically possible to push the same amount of weight from a standing position as it is from a lying position.

Studies show that the bench press allows for more muscle activation in the chest and shoulder muscles; however core strength and stability developed through the standing cable press are very important and carry over into our daily activities. 

Should You Be Bench Pressing?

Maximum bench pressing strength is simply not important in daily life, as you never have to push an incredible amount of weight from a lying position in your typical day.

So, if the pains outweigh the gains for you with the bench press, it’s a good idea to substitute push-ups and standing cable presses in your routine and ditch the good ol’ bench for a while. If you experience any pain whatsoever with any exercise, stop and try to identify the catalyst driving the pain. 

For many men, the pains outweigh the gains with the bench press, and they are better off doing pushups and standing cable presses instead. Remember that a well-planned workout routine is balanced and designed to correct muscle imbalances in the individual. Every exercise has its benefits and flaws, but it’s up to you to find the best exercises to help you get stronger, move better and live pain-free. 


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