4 Most Common Causes of Shoulder Pain After Bench Press

When it comes to weightlifters and their passion for bench pressing, you couldn’t pry the bar out of most of their hands.

Bench press is a core lift that strengthens the upper body and is a go to exercise for anyone trying to get into shape.

When performing bench press, the weightlifter lies flat on his or her back and holds a bar that’s suspended with weights. The lifter then pushes the bar upwards.

Most people bench press in order to strengthen their chest muscles and just about every other muscle in their upper body, including their forearms, triceps and shoulders.

Quite frequently, those who bench press become obsessed with the artform. Before they know it, they’re throwing caution to the wind, lifting more weight than their bodies can handle and performing bench press too often.

Suddenly, they find themselves injured, most commonly in the shoulder area.

Interestingly,  your shoulders aren’t designed to lift heavy loads, but rather for reaching (It’s been a long time since we walked on our hands)

In addition, most people have poor bench press form and train inappropriately which often leads to muscle imbalance and overuse that  further aggravates and magnifies shoulder pain.

In general, four anatomical structures account for the majority of shoulder pain after bench press: pectoralis tendon, AC joint, subscapularis tendon, and deltoid muscle.

Sources of Shoulder Pain after Bench Press

Pectoralis Tendonitis

The pectoralis major tendon is a huge muscle located in your upper chest that reaches from your shoulders to your breastbone. The pectoralis minor is a thin muscle located under the pectoralis major.

Together, these form the “pecs,” one of the main muscle groups lifters focus on. The tendon is injured when the force on the outside of the muscle is stronger than the force that the muscle itself can create.  

This stretches the tendon too far causing it to tear. The classic bench press exposes the pectoralis tendon to this type of stretching, leaving it vulnerable to injury.  

AC Joint Injury

An acromioclavicular injury is an injury to the acromioclavicular (AC) joint. The AC joint is the joint that connects the collarbone and the top of the shoulder blade.

An injury in this area usually means that that joint cartilage or ligaments holding the joint together have been damaged.

A common way to damage your AC joint is to overstrain while lifting heavy objects overhead, which is what lifters do when they bench press. The resulting injury can reduce your shoulder’s range of motion, function, and causes intense pain.

Subscapularis Tendonitis

There are four rotator cuff muscles in your shoulder. They work together to help the shoulder move about smoothly without restriction.

The subscapularis is located at the front of the shoulder and connects to the top of the humerus. It is the largest of the rotator cuff muscles, and it ensures the upper arm rotates inward in a smooth motion.

When this tendon becomes inflamed or starts to break down your shoulder joint and shoulder blade move abnormally causing pain and stiffness.

Deltoid Strain

The deltoid is one of the largest muscle groups in the shoulder, and is made up of the anterior head, the middle head, and the posterior head.

The anterior portion works together with your subscapularis to rotate the humerus, allowing you to move the shoulder inward and flex it. The middle deltoid lets you lift your arm away from your body. The posterior deltoid connects to your shoulder blade and lets you rotate your arm laterally as well as extend it.

Deltoid strains due to bench pressing usually occur when the muscle is used continuously without warming up before lifting or resting in between sets. This not only causes swelling and pain, but it can also cause the deltoid muscle to stop working completely.

Why does Shoulder Pain Occur after Bench Press?

Some of the main reasons that people experience shoulder pain after bench pressing are overuse, overload, and underuse.

Overuse means that you’re using muscle, tendons, or joints too much. This causes fatigue and leads to injury. Overuse is often do to poor lifting technique and a poorly designed fitness program. Tendon injury such as pectoralis major tendonitis and subscapularis tendonitis are common examples.

Overload occurs when the stress placed on muscle, tendons, or joints is too much causing internal damage. This frequently occurs in the AC joint. Unlike the structures  in your lower body that have evolved for weight bearing, the structures in your upper body are very sensitive to excess load and were not designed to resist heavy weights commonly used in bench press.

Underuse of certain muscles is another key reason for pain after bench press. Bench pressing is a complicated movement pattern that involves many muscle groups. When some muscles don’t do their part this places undue strain on other muscles.

For  example,  when bench pressing, some people lower the bar with their elbows sticking out before lifting it again; this puts enormous strain on their shoulders, causing overload.

How to Treat Shoulder Pain after Bench Press?

There are several ways to treat shoulder pain after bench press injuries. But first and foremost, you should confirm with your doctor that your injury has been diagnosed correctly. You will then need to follow the treatment plan for your specific injury as set forth by your physician.

Most prescriptions involve some form of rest, technique and training modification, strengthening exercises, and stretching.

Rest

Give your body a rest from bench pressing every month and a half or so. This will help prevent overuse and give your body the time it needs to heal itself.  

Instead of bench pressing during these off times, you can do upper body aerobic exercises like swimming, rowing,  or upper body cycling.

Perfect Your Bench Press Form

One of the best ways to avoid shoulder pain during bench press exercises is to practice proper form. Some tips for making sure you’re lifting the right way include the following:

  • Tuck Your Elbows:

When you’re lowering the bar during a lift, make sure that you tuck your elbows in. If you extend your elbows outward at a right angle, you’ll run the risk of impinging the shoulder.

This could happen if the top parts of your arms are perpendicular to your lower torso. By tucking your elbows in about 75 degrees as you lower the bar, you’ll be able to lift without strain and pain.

  • Avoid Wide Grip:

A wide grip puts too much pressure on the shoulder. Alternate where you grip the bar, and place your hands closer together; this helps prevent overload.

  • Minimize Incline Bench Press:

People like this exercise because it hones in on and bulks up their pectoral muscles. It can be unsafe, however, for people who already have weak shoulder issues that affect areas like the AC joint and subacromial space.

When you do an incline bench press, you prevent your shoulder blades from having full range of motion. The weight of the press pushes the humerus down into your shoulder, reducing the amount of space in the subacromial space even further. This makes your ligaments become pinched, or impinged.

Best Exercises to Prevent Shoulder Pain After Bench Press

There are some exercises that you can do that can help prevent shoulder issues. Some of those include the following:

Isometric Exercise for the Pec Major, Subscapularis, and Deltoid: The great thing about isometric exercise is that it allows you to strengthen your shoulder and arm muscles in a way that doesn’t require you to move your arm too much. For isometric exercise to be effective you need to hold the muscle contraction for at least 45 seconds.

Concentric Band Exercises for the Pec Major, Subscapularis and Deltoid: The awesome thing about band exercises is that they’re low-impact. They allow you to strengthen and even heal your shoulder injuries without putting too much pressure on the muscles and joints. The bands are also portable, so you can take them anywhere.

Eccentric Exercises for the Pec Major, Subscapularis and Deltoid: Eccentric training focuses on the lowering phase of a lift or exercise. It is widely used for prevention and the rehabilitation of muscle and tendon injuries.

The exact mechanisms as to why eccentric training seems to optimize the rehabilitation of injured tendons are not completely understood. Some researchers suggest that eccentric exercises expose tendons to a greater load than concentric exercises and therefore induce a greater healing signal.

Another possible mechanism is that eccentric loading generates high-frequency oscillations in the tendon that is an effective stimulus for the remodeling of scar tissue. Additionally, eccentric tendon activation may “choke off” newly formed blood vessels in the injured tendon. These new blood vessels have been associated with increased inflammation, pain, and tendon non-healing.

Best Stretches to Prevent Shoulder Pain After Bench Press

Stretching is one of the absolute best ways to prevent shoulder pain after bench press exercises. You can lengthen the muscles, preventing them from tightening up.

  • Pec Major Stretch:

Stretching the pec major prevents pain and strengthens your core. Doing these stretches in conjunction with bench pressing is key to making sure that you don’t create any sort of imbalance with your muscles.

The elbow stretch is a really easy stretch that helps strengthen your pecs. Sit on the floor cross-legged (you can also do this standing). Put your arms behind your back, clasping each hand either on the opposite elbow or on the forearm. Stay in this position for about 30 seconds. While you’re in this pose, raise your collar bones and bring your shoulder blades closer together through the stretch.

  • Subscapularis Stretch: The goal of the subscapularis stretch is to prevent the subscapularis from becoming tight and shortened, causing impingement injuries.

You can use a wall that protrudes or some sort of doorway. Raise your arm up at a 45° angle on the wall with your body to the side. Push forward with your chest until you feel stretching in the subscapularis area. Hold for about 15 seconds.

  • Deltoid Stretch: Relax your shoulders and gently pull one arm across your chest as far as possible, holding at your upper arm. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds and then relax for 30 seconds.  Repeat with the other arm.

Best Natural Remedies for Shoulder Pain

There are several natural remedies that you can use to help with shoulder pain:

  • Essential Oils: Essential oils have been proven to be very effective in the treatment of pain relief, especially when it comes to muscles.

This use of essential oils is called aromatherapy, and pain relief can be achieved via inhalation or by topical application.

One popular combo is wintergreen and peppermint oil. The two oils have analgesic qualities similar to those found in aspirin, and they work together to lessen your pain.

Marjoram oil is another great essential oil that’s perfect for helping alleviate issues like muscle spasms and inflammation.

  • Natural Antioxidants and Anti-inflammatories: We already know that antioxidants help protect our cells from damage, but they have also been shown to have a positive effect on muscle pain.

Free radicals in our joints cause damage and inflammation. Antioxidants kill off free radicals, helping keep your muscles pain-free.

Curcumin is a great antioxidant that helps cut down on inflammation and pain. Quercetin protects the body from damage during and after heavy exercise, like lifting.

Final Thoughts

Shoulder pain after bench press  can be an extremely painful, frustrating, and an annoying condition. This article gave you insight on common causes of shoulder pain after bench press and why they occur.

Rest, technique modification, physical therapy, and natural remedies can all be used to effectively reduce your symptoms and help get you back to bench pressing pain free.

References

  1. https://www.physiocheck.co.uk/condition/31/subscapularis-tendinopathy
  2. https://www.physiocheck.co.uk/condition/38/acromioclavicular-injury
  3. https://www.hss.edu/conditions_pectoralis-major-tendon-injury-overview.asp
  4. https://www.sportsmd.com/sports-injuries/shoulder-injuries/deltoid-strain/