So, you just spring off the bench with a feeling of immense excitement. Today, your workout centered on the bench press. You are super excited, as you should be. For the first time since you began weight training you finally were able to fully execute a repetition with 225 pounds. This is a major milestone. Anyone who has ever lifted a weight (from the strongest power lifters and most elite athletes, to the soccer dads who relieve their work and family stress at the gym) knows the feeling of exhilaration that accompanies finally joining the 225-pound bench press club! You launch yourself off the bench feeling like you were the first man to set foot on the moon, except you just placed your flag on planet bench press. Do not let anyone fool you; what Neil Armstrong did pales in comparison to your most recent accomplishment. Your jubilation leads you to approach your freakishly strong gym partner who for the first time ever, benched 405 pounds. Basking in your achievements you both raise your arms to give each other a high-five. However, there is only one problem. You both shout in pain as you receive an excruciating sensation that shoots right to your shoulder. For the next several weeks you do not bench. Then, you get back at it, but after a few weeks the problems persist again. You continue this on and off cycle until one day you wake up at age 50 and have two torn labrums, much like my poor father. Well, Dr. Brady Blaszka and I are here to help you break this vicious cycle and lead you to a safer bench press, with reduced shoulder pain.
Essentially, the main goal here is to show you how to alleviate common pains associated with overhead activities, and also cue you to perform such activities in a way that can help you avoid pain in the first place. There are several ways to do this. Firstly, we will show you how to activate your shoulder stabilizers. Targeting the musculature of your scapular region can go a long way in improving your posture and lessening the tension placed on your acromioclavicular (AC) joint, and prevent severe injuries to your labrum and rotator cuff. From there, we will give you some cues that you can pay attention to when completing overhead movements with both dumbbells and barbells. These cues include grip, hand positioning, and the pathway of your elbows throughout flexion (eccentric or negative portion of the movement) and extension (the concentric or pressing portion of the movement).
Activating and Strengthening Your Shoulder Stabilizers
Shoulder and neck pain are some of the most common complaints of the overhead athlete, desk jockey and weight lifter. Research has shown a correlation between the importance of scapular muscles on shoulder and neck pain, in addition to dysfunction. A stable, functionally mobile shoulder blade can help improved posture along with shoulder and neck pain.
Three exercises that can active and strengthen your shoulder stabilizers along with strengthening the musculature surrounding your scapula are I's, T's and Y's. These exercises target shoulder flexion, horizontal abduction and extension. They help activate the shoulder stabilizers and are a good starting point for pain in the neck or front of the shoulder. In addition, the augmentations they provide to the strength of the muscles surrounding your scapula are key in improving posture and avoiding pain to areas such as the acromioclavicular (AC) joint. As always, be sure to consult your local physical therapist should pain worsen or persist!
Proper Hand Positioning and Grip to Ensure Shoulder Health
Now that you have some specific ways to alleviate and prevent pain through a variety of exercises, it is time to discuss your grip and finding the appropriate width and techniques to promote shoulder health. Firstly, the further apart your hands are the more strain is put on your shoulders. We will get to this next notion, but essentially a wide grip does not allow you keep your elbows tight to your lats, and makes it a necessity to drop your elbows below parallel to your shoulders in order to complete the full range of motion in flexion (also known as bringing the bar to your chest). While you do not want to have your grip become too close as it will turn into more of a triceps centered movement, you should seek to bring your hands in to a moderate distance. A good cue that I often use is to place your index fingers around the rings in the bar. Doing so will put you in a good position to allow your elbows to follow a proper path, but it will also allow you to generate necessary torque. Torque is the idea of grabbing the bar and rotating your right had in a clockwise direction and your left hand in a counterclockwise direction. Yes, you cannot rotate your hands and properly hold on to the bar, so a good cue to use here would be to pretend as if you are trying to “break the bar.” To do so you would need to rotate your hands in the aforementioned directions. Generating torque in such a manner will force your shoulders to externally rotate. In addition to ensuring shoulder health by preventing internal rotation, creating torque will also add power to your bench-press or overhead press. Would you look at that! I said I would help with your shoulder health and here I am providing you a way to better your actual bench-press and overhead press performance. I am just way too nice!
Creating The Proper Pathway For Your Elbows
One of the most common ways to put undue stress on your shoulder and neck while doing overhead or pressing movements is to improperly track your elbows throughout the duration of the range of motion. Previously I had given a much more basic explanation of how a wide grip will lead you to drop your elbows down past your shoulders in order to achieve the full and necessary range of motion. More specifically, driving your elbows out and away from your lats in the eccentric (negative) portion of the lift will almost guarantee that you will not be able to generate proper amounts of torque. As I mentioned in the previous section, not generating torque prior to the onset of the lift will leave you extremely susceptible to shoulder injuries. Think of your body as a giant circular train track. Now, in case of emergencies this big track has deviations where the train can leave the circle and take an alternate route. Based on common sense you would know that if the train takes an alternate route there must be a problem with the traditional pathway. Your body is a very smart machine that will never let you perform a movement in an unstable fashion. Basically what this means is if you do not generate torque properly your body will seek alternate ways or routes (think of the train analogy) to achieve stability. While doing so will allow you to perform movements you wouldn’t be able to otherwise, it is not efficient and will lead to problems down the road. The alternate route you take when not generating necessary torque is to internally rotate your shoulders and place immense stress on your AC joint. I will reiterate that you cannot create torque if your elbows flare out. So, your shoulders will internally rotate as a result you are heading towards major injury. Couple the cues from the previous section on how to create torque with tracking your elbows close to your lats and you will immediately be in a much safer and traditional position.
Now you have some common cues to help you achieve a much safer bench press and overhead press movement, along with some simple and effective ways to deal with the pains associated with performing the movements incorrectly. Take these tips and ensure that next time you accomplish a personal best with a pressing or overhead movement you are doing so with healthy and efficient shoulder and neck musculature.
Now Go lift and press some heavy weight and leave your shoulder and neck pain behind!
Gerry DeFilippo: ISSA CPT- CPPS, AAPS. Founder/Owner: Challenger Strength.