Over the years, I have trained numerous athletes with existing shoulder problems that prevented them from bench pressing heavy weight with a standard barbell.
If you're dealing with similar issues, your best bet would be to ditch what is thought of as the standard Bench Press exercise. Gym bros who assess their self-worth by how much they can bench will probably think I'm out of my mind, but hear me out.
There's no rule that says non-strength athletes must Barbell Bench Press. Especially if it causes pain, limits the amount of weight/reps you can perform, and hampers your performance in your sport. What should you do instead?
The common tip is to replace the Barbell Bench Press with a number of Dumbbell Bench Press and Push-Up variations. These are great exercises for building a bigger and stronger upper body and they carry a much lower risk of aggravating your shoulders.
Still, as much as I like Dumbbell Bench Presses and Push-Ups, you can't really load them properly for maximal strength work in the 1-3 rep range. It's a pain in the butt to get heavy dumbbells into place for a max effort low-rep set. Not saying it can't be done, but it's a hassle. Additionally, many gyms only have dumbbells up to 80 or 90 pounds.
Another thing you need to take into account when pressing a pair of dumbbells compared to a barbell is that your limbs are working independently of each other. More stability is required to balance and lift the dumbbells. The increased demand for stability will affect your pressing strength.
No matter how strong you are, you will always lift less weight with dumbbells than with a bar. Second, even small strength imbalances between limbs (which we all have) become obvious. You might be able to squeeze out the third and last rep of a set with your strong arm while your weaker arm fails. Do you count that as two or three reps completed?
The 5-pound jump in weight from one set of dumbbells to the next one can also make sustained progress tough. That's actually a 10-pound jump (since there are two dumbbells). If you benched a pair of 90-pound dumbbells for a maximal double today, I'd be amazed if you didn't get stapled by the 95-pounders next time.
With Push-Ups, constant progression can also be tough. Good luck trying to stack three 45-pound plates or more on your back by yourself when attempting Weighted Push-Ups. You'll need a spotter (preferably two) for that. Furthermore, when going for a true 1-3 rep-max with added resistance, your form is liable to crumble. Elbows flaring, shoulders rolling forward, lower back hyperextending—that's not what we want.
For these reasons, I prefer to use DB Bench Press and Push-Up variations in the 5-12-plus rep range with varying tempo prescriptions and time under tension. But obviously that doesn't fully address what a traditional Barbell Bench Press can offer.
There's no other upper-body lift that allows you to move as much weight. And no other upper-body lift gets (male) athletes fired up the way Barbell Bench Presses do. In terms of eliciting a high level of competitiveness among trainees, Band-Resisted Ring Push-Ups or Incline DB Bench Presses done at a 4-0-1-0 tempo don't come close.
From a coach's perspective, when training athletes in a small group setting, creating an atmosphere that fosters healthy competition is a key factor in making progress. So, it makes sense to keep Barbell Bench Presses in your program if possible.
Which brings us to the question: How can you Barbell Bench Press heavy without it bothering your shoulders? The key is expanding your mind beyond the traditional move performed on a flat bench and with a straight barbell.
Try these three exercise modifications below. I'm certain at least one of them will allow you to pack on pain-free gains while enjoying the feel of a heavy bar in your hands.
1. Floor Press
In the traditional Bench Press, your shoulders have to withstand the greatest strain at the bottom just off the chest. As a smart lifter, you'll want to find ways to avoid this zone by using movements with a limited range of motion. Floor Presses are a terrific option.
The floor naturally cuts your range of motion short, causing you to stay just above the most stressful position at the bottom. This makes Floor Presses a great alternative to regular Bench Presses, and you should be able to move plenty of weight here.
2. Bench Press off Pins
Another effective way to cut range of motion shorter is by bench pressing off pins. You can insert the pins at any height in a power rack. The lower the pins, the greater the ROM (and thus, the stress on your shoulders), and thus the less weight you can use.
Even for people with healthy shoulders, bench pressing off pins (with the bar grazing your chest) is a great way to build strength in the bottom position of the lift.
Thanks to the deadstop start, elastic assistance is notably reduced, making this movement a good indicator of your true concentric pressing strength. If you're used to bouncing the bar off your chest on Bench Presses, benching off pins will force you to go much lighter since you can't take advantage of the stretch reflex.
For lifters with cranky shoulders, you'll want to elevate the pins a bit so you don't dip into the most stressful zone at the bottom. Play around with pin height to find your optimal setup and listen to your body.
3. Football Bar Bench Press
There's a good chance your bench press shoulder problems can be tracked back to excessive elbow flare and possibly also lowering the bar to your upper chest/neck area instead of the lower chest. Learning how to tuck your elbows properly and maintaining that position when bench pressing, regardless of the implement used, is paramount for long-term shoulder health.
A specialty bar with angled handles called a football bar is perfect for this, since it keeps you from flaring your elbows out too far. Most public gyms won't have a football bar, but if you happen to find one that does, it can be a real game changer.
Bottom line? If you love benching but had bad shoulders, all hope is not lost.
You don't have to be relegated to a life with nothing but Push-Ups and DB Presses. Although you should probably forget about standard flat bench pressing with a straight barbell, at least for the immediate future, you can still bench press with a barbell and go heavy. You just have to make some smart alterations to the movement to make it happen in a pain-free manner. If none of these help the issue, you should probably step away from any movement that causes pain until you can get to the bottom of what's going on.
Photo Credit: shapecharge/iStock
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