Anyone who’s spent some time training will, at some point, have had a “shoulder issue”. The shoulder joint, and muscular support around it, is the most complicated joint in nature. When it works, it’s a thing of wonder – but, as with all complicated things, the fix when it goes wrong isn’t easy.
This article is assuming that YOUR shoulder issue isn’t serious – a mild bit of inflammation, some imbalances causing tightness, or a one-off knock. None of the workarounds below should really be tried until you’ve had a decent assessment of the problem and given the shoulder a week’s rest to see if it’ll sort itself out.
So – you’ve tried rest, you’ve seen a physio, and it’s nothing life-threatening. You can go back to bench pressing – only, you can’t. Because it hurts to do it. So, how do we get around that?
Well, the joint being so complicated is actually helpful here. There’s so many ways your shoulder can move, that you can almost always find an angle that doesn’t hurt. Experimenting with the kit in your gym should throw up something you can do. Here’s a bunch of things to try:
- Try an axle bar, or use Fat Grips on a normal bar.
Axle bars, or fat grips on a normal bar, usually mean you don’t need to squeeze the bar as hard on pushing exercises. Sometimes a shoulder (or elbow) problem can be made worse simply by the action of squeezing a bar. Often, a fat/axle bar bench press can be done pain-free.
- Try a football, or Swiss, bar
This is all about changing the angle – “football bars” and “swiss bars” have the grips offset from the main bar. Simply changing the angle at which you grip the bar can *completely* transform your bench press shoulder pain. Often, this’ll work on overhead presses too. Even people without shoulder issues could benefit from the angle changes that these bars facilitate.
- Try dumbbells
Dumbbells allow your arms to move independently of each other, whereas barbells mainly force both arms to follow exactly the same “bar path”. Maybe your painful shoulder simply doesn’t want to exactly track the pattern of your good shoulder? Dumbbells will allow some flexibility in how the shoulder moves. Be cautious though – the instability of using dumbbells could very well make your shoulder worse. *Always* experiment with weights vastly lower than you expect to use.
- Try cables
Not strictly pressing, but if you want to work the muscles that usually press, then a cable fly might tide you over and keep those areas mobilized, without doing the actual movement that hurts. You can also go very light and slow movements down easily.
- Try bodyweight
Try press-ups! Sounds a little boring and old school, but I’ve had plenty of clients who can’t bench an empty bar without pain, but can do press ups. There is endless variety to press-up hand positioning, changing angles by raising feet, adding weight with vests etc, that if you CAN do them with your shoulder, it’s almost as good as being able to bench. Don’t dismiss them as pointless just because it’s not a bar.
- Lots of pulling work
This is about supporting the joint. A general rule of training is to do twice as much pulling work as pushing work (or, train the muscles you can’t see in the mirror even harder than the ones you can see).
Shoulders really suffer from modern life. Everything is about rolling them forward – computer work, watching TV, driving, eating dinner. All of these things usually involve your shoulders rolling forward, never back. As a result, the stress on the shoulder joint is high, and you end up with tight “front” muscles and weak, stressed “back” muscles. Try throwing in a lot more rowing, things like face pulls, and the dreaded, boring rotator cuff work that everyone hates. It works, unfortunately.
Rules for all this? Only try one thing at once, don’t throw it all into one workout. Aching after trying something is ok, sharp pain never is. Try not to train with painkillers; it’ll just mask it and give you a false sense of security.
Given you some ideas? Great – get cracking.