The bench press isn't just a staple upper body developer. It's America's favorite lift and it has driven droves of aspiring meatheads to migrate to the gym every Monday afternoon for the better part of a century. With the common use of the bench press in high school weight lifting programs and beginner bodybuilding regimens, a trend of shoulder injuries followed. The most common interaction with any former high school athlete/big-man-on-campus goes something like this: “Yeah, I used to be pretty big, but I messed my rotator cuff up benching.”
Injuries on the bench press involves two unique factors: a.) the stability created by the bench which allows for the heaviest loads to be moved and b.) the instability of the shoulder joint which must maintain proper position through the use of numerous small stabilizing muscles. Basically, when high forces are expressed on a vulnerable joint, disaster can strike. Here is a comprehensive list of the best preventative measures you can take to keep your shoulders healthy without putting training on the back burner.
Warm Up Properly
In a seminar hosted by Brandon Lilly, the world-class powerlifter discussed his time spent at Westside Barbell, and how it was common for the bigger benchers to make jumps 90lbs at a time, starting with the bar and going plate, plate, plate, plate, plate.....
One of the epiphanies he had as he made the switch to raw lifting was the incorporation of smaller jumps into his warm up routine. As he put it, he was able to essentially double his warm up volume while also allowing more time to grease the groove and warm the shoulders up. Alternating between 45s and 25s with each jump, he credits this as a valuable method for avoiding unnecessary injury. Of course, those who are not 600lb bench pressers may wish to consider using 10lb jumps instead of 50, but the principle remains the same.
The trick is to get the muscles, joints, and nervous system ready for work without causing excess fatigue. A common warm up routine will start with 10 or more reps with an empty bar, followed by even jumps and descending reps. If I'm going to get my working sets in at 205lbs for sets of 5 reps, I might start with the bar x10 reps, 95 x8, 135 x5, 155 x 3, 175 x 2, 195 x1, and go into my first working set with 205 x5. The earlier sets were focused on getting blood into the working area with higher reps and the later sets were purely to get a feel for the weight before jumping into a challenging set, but none were taxing enough to be detrimental to the first working set.
In between dedicated warm up sets, other movements that encourage flexibility and mobility and increased blood flow should be used. Targeting the rear delts and rotator cuff with dumbbell rotations and face pulls will help prime the stabilizers to support the shoulder girdle, while stretching and rolling the front delts and pectorals will ensure that knotted tissue doesn't cause pulls or strains.
A large chunk of injuries caused by the bench press can be credited to strength athletes mimicking their favorite bodybuilders on the covers of Flex and Muscular Development. Bodybuilders will typically do the flat barbell bench press with the elbows flared out to the side, bringing the bar to the mid/upper chest. This flared elbow setup causes more fatigue and motor recruitment by stretching the chest through a greater range of motion, which is all the bodybuilder is concerned about while bench pressing. The problem occurs when lifters, who are more concerned with weight moved than having a pigeon chest, reproduce this setup with a lot of weight and an aggressive rebound out of the bottom. A violent bounce off the chest with flared elbows is similar to doing a chest fly and letting the dumbbells free fall: it is a torn pectoral muscle waiting to happen.
A more ideal setup for strength oriented lifters would be to tuck the elbows to the side just a bit, bringing in the delts to a greater degree. This tuck tends to be easier on the shoulder joint as a whole, though it requires a bit more technical consideration. The tucked elbows in a bench press will force the bar further down, at or below the nipple line. Another important technical point is the stability of the shoulder joint itself. If the lifter lies down with a flat back and proceeds to press away, the shoulder joints themselves will move upwards at the top of the lift as the pecs contract fully. This displacement of the shoulder joints creates massive instability which can easily lead to injury.
My recommendation is that even bodybuilders strive for scapular retraction (pinching the shoulder blades together) during the entire set of bench presses. In heavier sets, keeping the shoulder blades back and the elbows tucked will cause fatigue to build in the upper back; a sure sign that all of the important stabilization muscles were doing their job.
Control the Descent
Using stretch reflex (changing direction in an exercise by 'bouncing') is important for developing explosive qualities. But there is a difference between a controlled touch and go bench press and a barbell free fall into a violent heave. For one, working a slower descent prolongs the negative (eccentric) portion of the lift which is commonly thought to contribute more to muscle growth than the positive (concentric) phase.
Then there is the issue of avoiding damage to the working muscles. When muscles release under a load as the pecs do in a bench press, they freezes isometrically towards the end of the motion. Muscles are actually stronger when they are locked in to place, which allows them to turn into mini trampolines at the bottom of a lift that can build momentum onto the weight before contracting again. When the force being sustained by the external load overreaches what the muscle is actually able to sustain during this isometric contraction, a tear is imminent.
Philip Moores is a 605lb bench presser at our gym, and is frequently seen taking freakishly heavy weights to his chest as if he were taking the scenic route. With such massive loads hovering over your face, injury can cause more than just a sore shoulder, so Philip benches as if a tiny angel was asleep on his chest that he wish not to disturb. This isn't to say that efforts shouldn't be explosive. A slow descent is a great opportunity to tense the muscles of the back, put the bar in a proper position, and coil up like a spring. As soon as the bar touches the chest, begin an even acceleration in the opposite direction with the intention of an aggressive lockout. This is a great tactic for building power and strength while keeping the shoulder joint and pecs happy.
Hardly anybody does the one bench press accessory movement that should be mandatory before and after the workout: external rotation. The external rotators are the vulnerable muscles in the shoulder joint, typically underdeveloped from lack of specific use and put at odds with the internal rotators which are much stronger in virtually all cases. Keeping the external rotators strong is a recipe for bullet proof shoulders.
Grab a 5lb weight in each hand and stand like a scarecrow with the elbows straight out to the side and the hands hanging straight down. Keeping the elbows in the same position, swivel your upper arm so that the plates are now up by your head, like someone just made a field goal. Slowly descend back down, again keeping the elbows in place, and repeat. Light weight and a lot of reps are a fantastic warm up before your heavy bench press sets, but heavier efforts in the 8-12 rep range after your workout can strengthen these muscles which will greatly contribute to stability and injury prevention.
The thing about tight muscles is that they can move more weight. Unfortunately, this usually happens through a range of motion determined by the limitations of the joints mobility rather than the optimal pressing path. This type of movement dysfunction can coerce the bar into positions where the lifter 'feels' stronger, but is actually experiencing undue stress on a more vulnerable structure. To make sure that you remain supple enough to stay in control, do not let the pecs, lats, or front delts run roughshod over your bench press mechanics. Before benching, performing shoulder pass throughs, banded swimming, and pec/front delt stretches, along with rolling out tight areas can all aid in maintaining proper position and preventing aches and pains.
Work the Posterior
We already touched on the external rotators, but the muscles of the traps, rhomboids, lats, and especially rear delts are all serious contributors to the bench press that cannot be developed by solely bench pressing. This is the definition of accessory work: not doing 12 different chest exercises, but supplementing the main lift with other movements that will increase the whole.
The thicker and stronger these supportive muscles are, the more efficient the bench press will be, improving performance and reducing the risk of injury. What would you rather bench on: a solid bench or a water bed? If you paid attention during physics class, you would say the solid bench, because a rigid surface provides an efficient transfer of force, whereas force would dissipate through the squishy water bed, failing to contributing to the upward motion of the bar. The same dynamic exists within your own body. The more rigid your frame is, the more force that can be expressed on the bar. And a rigid frame is most easily made by way of a strong back.
Limit Heavy Pressing Frequency
When I hear of lifters bench pressing three or more times per week, I cringe.Young, hungry athletes will always want to push the envelope for the sake of progress. But as age compounds with wear and tear, recovery won't occur the way that it once did and the lifter will have to take inventory of what factors need to change. The most mature realization of any lifter is that consistent progress does not occur through monumental efforts, but rather consistency.
Bench Pressing multiple times throughout the week, especially with anything 80% or up of a one rep max, will keep the shoulders feeling fatigued and brittle, and it is only a matter of time before inflammation takes route. It's not so much that you are more likely to rupture something from frequent pressing, but that the compounded strain on the joints and connective tissue can lead to bursitis or tendonitis, both things that don't go away in any short period of time. My recommendation is to limit heavy bench work to once per week and, if a second bench press day is used, keep it as a lighter active recovery day to drive blood and nutrients into the surrounding area without compounding stress. If working sets are done multiple times per week, as in most linear progression programs, make sure that other compound pressing movements are phased out so that you can recover from one workout to the next.
Eliminate Wishful Thinking
More ruptures, tears, and breaks have occurred under a barbell as a result of wishful thinking than any other flaw in technique or training protocol. The simple fact is that your max does not improve because you want it to, and strength does not round up to the nearest plate. I remember the days when it felt like a PR was just a matter of taking enough pre-workout and watching 15 minutes of the Maajin Buu saga. As my strength went up and age set in, the wear on my body from constantly over reaching began to show.
As with any lift, the weight chosen is selected by your ability to complete the workload in the prescribed fashion with the prescribed technique, NOT by what you would really like to do that day. Keep yourself honest and humble and make a habit of leaving a rep or two in the tank on every working set. Above all of the other points, this is the surest way I know of to avoid injury and keep your bench press moving.