Bench Press and Bad Shoulders

I recently examined the workout of an old friend who has been complaining of nagging shoulder pain.  Before I looked at his workout I asked if he was doing any rotator cuff or shoulder stability exercises.  His response was “my rotators are fine; I can bench 275 for sets of ten no problem.”

This was all I needed to hear.  I didn’t need to look at his current workout to know what mistakes he was making that were causing his shoulder problems.

But I looked at his workout anyway…

And I was right.

How did I know? I knew because I used to think the same way and I made the very same mistakes.  And over the last ten years I have helped countless men with aching shoulders who thought the same way and made the same mistakes…

Bench press strength in no way correlates to rotator cuff strength or shoulder stability. Before my two shoulder surgeries I was repping 405lbs with rotator cuffs and scapular stabilizers that were garbage.   The fact is, the reason a lot of guys develop this weakness and instability in the first place is because so much emphasis is placed on the bench (I was one of those guys).

For shoulders to move (and lift) in a pain free range of motion the muscles of the rotator cuff work to hold the ball of the ball and socket joint in good position within the joint capsule.  In order to raise your arms overhead the scapular stabilizers (i.e. serratus anterior, rhombiods, levator scapulae, upper, middle and lower traps) allow the scapula (which contains the socket of the ball and socket joint) to rotate in a way that allows full range of motion of the arms while keeping the joint space open.

Rotator Cuff MusclesIf the RTC and the Scapular stabilizers aren’t working effectively, the humeral head (ball) is pulled through a faulty range of motion and can create a repetitive stress on the labrum (a common cause of labral tears) and impingement of the bursa, muscles and tendons within the shoulder joint (which creates inflammation, adhesions and can lead to RTC tears).


Labral Tear

The labrum is a lip of cartilage that surrounds the shoulder socket. It serves to increases the depth of the socket and the stability of the shoulder joint.

My buddy’s workout was the typical “guy” workout, very heavy on exercises that strengthen the muscles that pull your shoulders up and forward (pecs, anterior delts, and upper traps).  The more you work these muscles and the stronger they become, the stronger the RTC and scapular stabilizers need to be to counter the anterior force and keep the joint moving through a healthy range of motion.  Another common result of these types of workouts is the development of excessive tightness in the chest, neck and thoracic spine.  This tightness makes it difficult for the scapula to rotate efficiently and leads to faulty movement and soft tissue and joint stress.

When breaking down my friends “chest and back” workout I discovered he was doing about 50% or 80 reps more pushing than pulling.  Walk into any gym in America and this seems to be the rule rather the exception.   To most gym rats a balanced workout means, flat bench, incline, decline, dumbbell press, dumbbell fly (I guess they’re trying to balance their chest) and then a set of rows and a lat pull to work the back.  Then to make it worse they (like my friend) add a separate “shoulder” day and work more anterior delt, pecs and upper trap and further stress the shoulder joints.   It’s very important for shoulder health to make sure workouts are balanced between pushing and pulling (it is also very important for cervical spine health).

I also noticed my buddy was also doing a couple of common exercises that under any conditions are VERY stressful on the shoulder joint. First being upright rows, this exercise puts even healthy shoulders in a position that causes shoulder impingement with every rep.  The other is behind the neck press (military press).  Bringing the bar down behind the neck vs. in front to the chest offers absolutely no advantage in terms or muscle recruitment or development.  What is does do however is place a lot more stress on the shoulder capsule as well as the cervical spine (same applies to behind the neck lat pulls).

The first thing I recommended was to get rid of shoulder day altogether.  The deltoids get plenty of work with a well designed push routine.  To prevent impingement I also told him to dump the “bad” exercises and lay off any overhead pressing for a while.

I reiterated the importance of balance in terms the number of reps of push vs. pull and suggested he incorporate a few good RTC / scapular stabilizer exercises.  I also made sure that he was using good bench press and push-up form and not making the common mistake made by a lot of guys in the gym.

I made sure he knew the importance of proper warm-up and stretching and recommended he become acquainted with self soft tissue mobilization techniques utilizing a foam roll and or tennis balls.

I stressed he work on his mobility through his chest, shoulders, neck and thoracic spine and share the following exercises with him.

I told him the importance of maintaining good posture while outside of the gym and explained how lot of time in front of computers, behind the wheel of your car and such can also lead to slouched shoulders that don’t move well in the gym.

And suggested he to take a look at all the supporting data that suggests the anti-inflammatory benefit of getting between  2400mg to 3000 mg  / day of omega 3s (EPA / DHA) from fish oil and taking a glucosamine  /  chondroitin supplement.

Lastly,  I apologized for my long winded anatomy, physiology and bio-mechanics lecture but  I explained that because I know how much shoulder surgery sucks, whenever I see a chance to help someone avoid it I tend to get pretty hyped up and have a tendency to ramble on…

One response to “Bench Press and Bad Shoulders

  1. Pingback: Bench Press and Bad Shoulders - Stormfront

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