Taken as a whole, weight training is surprisingly safe compared to other physical activities. That said however, there are 2-3 very common injury/pain issues that lifters commonly suffer, and perhaps the most common issue, especially in males, is shoulder pain stemming from the flat barbell bench press exercise.
The reasons why benching hurts your shoulders is the subject of another article, but suffice it to say that shoulder pain isn’t so much the fault of benching itself, but rather, the mis- and over-use of the exercise — lots of guys bench too heavy, too much, and/or while using suboptimal mechanics.
With my 5 strategies below, it’s my goal to convince you that you can have your cake and eat it too, IF you’re willing to make a few simple adjustments to your training program. If that sounds like a plan, let’s dig in…
One: “The Art Of Benching Without Benching”
A couple of bad things start to happen when you do a certain exercise for too long, and this especially applies to the bench: after a while (typically 6-8 weeks, especially for experienced guys) your body stops adapting to the stimulus: you don’t get sore any more (which probably means you aren’t growing any new muscle) and despite your best efforts, you can’t seem to improve upon your recent PR’s (which obviously means you’re not getting stronger).
The second bad thing that happens is that you’re stressing your joints and connective tissues in exactly the same way, week after grinding week.
So let’s recap: after a month of two of doing flat barbell bench presses, you’re no longer benefitting from the exercise, and worse, you’re now starting to damage your shoulders from chronic overuse.
And yet, you keep benching, because you just love that exercise so much — even though it’s not improving and your shoulders hurt so bad you can hardly sleep at night. May I ask you a question?
OK, lemme take a wild guess — it’s because you’re afraid if you stop benching for a while, you’ll lose all your gainz.
It’s like I’m psychic, right?!?!
Look, in all seriousness, I’ve been there — we all have. But the truth is, the best thing you can possibly do to improve your bench is to give it a break. Don’t worry, you’ll still be pressing, but you’ll use close variations of the bench in rotation. Things like close(er) grip benches, incline benches (barbell and dumbbell, and at different degrees of incline, not just 45º), pushups (possibly suspended from rings and/or with a weight vest), flat dumbbell presses, machine presses (flat and/or incline), and football bar presses (flat and/or incline).
If you press, say, twice a week, choose 1-2 of these movements per workout, but make sure you’re only doing exercises that don’t hurt. Then, in 4-6 weeks, switch out between 50-100% of those drills. And yes, once your shoulder pain has calmed down, you can put the standard barbell bench into the rotation as well.
Now I think it’s probably obvious how this strategy can help save your shoulders, but it might not be quite so obvious how you won’t end up losing your gains. There are actually a few different phenomenon involved:
First, because you’ll be doing close variants of the bench press, you’ll preserve — and probably (due to the novelty of the new exercises) increase the rate of muscle growth. So you don’t need to worry about losing your pecs or delts at all.
Second, by doing a wider assortment of (presumably less familiar) pressing movements, whatever weaknesses you have in the flat barbell bench are likely be more directly addressed.
Thirdly, just like muscle and strength adaptations slow when you do the same movement over and over, so does skill. Most people don’t realize this because when you come back to an exercise after you haven’t done it for a while, it feels “off.” But that’s OK — in fact, it’s great, because now your learning curve for that movement has been accelerated. Old technique inefficiencies that you’d grown numb to are now glaringly obvious, and after a handful of sessions, your technique is likely to be better than it ever was. And, you’ve probably got more muscle to boot due to the inclusion of some new pressing movements. That’s the power of intelligently-applied variation.
Note: Resist the temptation to do every known pressing movement discovered by exercise science in a single training block — if you do end up with shoulder pain, it’ll be tough to determine which exercise caused it. And, given the adaptive importance of novelty, if you use every pressing movement you know in one mesocycle, what new exercises will you use in the next one?
Two: The Rusin Warmup
No matter what pressing variants you’re using, I strongly recommend learning and using a simple 3-exercise superset done with elastic tubing. I do (and recommend to my clients) 3 rounds of this (a total of 90 reps) before every pressing workout, and it’s been amazingly effective. Honestly, it only takes 3-4 minutes, so even if you’re skeptical, you don’t have much to lose by giving it a try. Here’s Dr. John Rusin demonstrating the warmup:
Three: Why The Hurry?
OK stay with me guys, I’m not talking about standard “Time Under Tension” (TUT) here exactly. I’m talking about deliberately using a slow (3-5 second) eccentric phase, followed by a fast concentric, on your pressing movements, approximately every 2nd or 3rd training block.
It’s funny, but most experienced lifters already understand that the eccentric phase of the lift contributes more to strength and (especially) hypertrophic adaptations than the concentric portion, and yet, few people ever bother to use slow eccentrics. Why is this? You already know but I’ll say it out loud since I was one of those people until recently — it’s because when you use a slow eccentric phase, you can’t lift as much weight. While that’s true, two great things will take place if you decide to implement this strategy:
First, as I just explained, you’ll have an immediate uptick on your adaptation to whatever drill you’re using.
Second, in a conventionally-performed bench press, the highest forces take place when the bar is at your chest, during the switch from eccentric to concentric. And, these high forces take place in the position where your shoulders are in their most vulnerable position. So, if you slow down the eccentric phase of the lift, you’ll keep those forces a lot lower, which will serve to protect your shoulders.
More adaptation? Less pain? Yes please!
Note: for a great way to do slow eccentrics, please see Dr. Joel Seedman’s article on what he calls “The Best Way To Lift Weights” (https://www.t-nation.com/training/best-way-to-lift-weights).
Four: Save The Best For Last
Ever notice how, when an exercise hurts, it’s more likely to be the first exercise in the workout? Think about it — if you’re a powerlifter, your bench is more likely to be a source of pain than say, rows or triceps extensions. If you’re a weightlifter, your snatch is more likely to hurt than a clean pull or a squat. Not always mind you, but more often than not.
Why is this? I have a few ideas:
• Typically, your first exercise is your most important (or favorite) exercise (which is why you’re doing it first after all). Your most important exercise, by definition, probably has more miles on it than the exercise you deem to be less important. More wear and tear = more pain.
• Your first exercise probably gets the lion’s share of your energy, especially compared to your later exercises. And obviously, exercises that you attack with more energy tend to lead to more joint abuse than exercises you do later in the workout, with less energy.
• Finally, earlier exercises get less benefit from warm-ups than later exercises. This is a key point, especially for a complex, fragile joint like the shoulder.
Here’s a final thing to ponder when thinking about changing your typical exercise order: If you always do certain exercises first, you’re far more likely to have aesthetic and or performance imbalances. So by benching later in the session, you’ll not only save your shoulders, you’ll also improve your physique and your performance as well.
Five: Adopt a New “OS” About Training In Pain
I’ve often remarked that “if you show up healthy, anything is possible, but if you show up hurt, nothing is possible.”
Most of us realize, on an intellectual level at least, that we shouldn’t train in pain, but we do so anyway, because we fear that we’ll lose ground if we discontinue the painful exercise for a period of time. If your goal is to be strong and healthy, you need to upload a new way of thinking about training in pain, and I hope I’ve made the case with the strategies above that there is never a good reason to do things that hurt. And in fact, I’ll leave you with a final thought as I wrap this up: even if you had no pain at all, you should still implement the strategies I’ve laid out in this article:
• You should rotate exercises before you develop a painful overuse injury.
• You should do some joint-specific warmups before you grab the bar.
• You should regularly emphasize the eccentric component of the exercise.
• You should regularly change the order of exercises you use.
Bottom line: the smarter you train, the better you’ll feel, and the stronger you’ll be. If you’ve been dealing with achy shoulders lately, give these 5 strategies a shot — you’ll be free of pain and stronger than ever before you know it.