The bench press has been a respected exercise in the fitness community for many decades. Simply misidentifying the common shoulder pain after bench pressing as ‘improper technique’. We do not share this perspective. In this article, we will dive into what the bench press is, the intended purpose people think they use it for, and why it is instead damaging to the shoulder joint and the body as a whole. Many people are seeking shoulder pain exercises to help alleviate shoulder pain after bench pressing. The Functional Patterns bench press alternative will also be explained in the article. How we address these inadequacies with Functional Patterns is what sets us apart and lays the groundwork for pain-free, healthy functioning shoulder joints.
Overview on the Bench press
Example of traditional bench press
Bench Pressing is a common exercise where a person will lay horizontally on their back, underneath a barbell, sometimes performed at an incline or decline. They will then have both hands on the barbell pressing from their chest away from themselves. The progression of this exercise is quite limited to varying reps, weights and rest time between sets.
The primary goals of the Bench Press are:
- To strengthen the upper body,
- To build size on the pectoralis muscles (“pecs”) and the corresponding muscles around the shoulder, and;
- To maintain healthy and functional shoulders as they age
Shoulder pain either during or following bench pressing is a common occurrence for many. A quick Google search will leave you believing the pain is caused due to improper technique during benching or insufficient warming up beforehand, but what variables have truly been accounted for? If we want to understand why shoulder pain is such a recurring theme associated with bench pressing, we must firstly understand what the primary function of the shoulder is. We must also know how the shoulder, pecs, and surrounding joints and muscles work together. This will help us uncover the shortcomings of the bench press.
How have we evolved?
Environmental stresses over thousands of years have forced human shoulders to evolve as they have. Throwing has played a huge role in our evolution, from throwing rocks and spears to utilising other tools like hammers and axes (Roach et al 2013, Kuhn 2016). When we look at these movements, we see integrated motions from the foot through to the legs, pelvis, ribcage, shoulders and arms. Weight shifts and rotations are seen through the whole body during these actions.
When you look at what is happening to the body during the bench press, you see very few of these variables being accounted for. When people participate in this exercise, what are they doing to their body in reality? To put it simply, they are disconnecting the arms from the rest of their body which removes the ability to perform basic functions at 100%. For example, this happens during the bench press when one lies on their back and presses their arms, whilst their spine stays stagnant. Now let’s say this same person wants to mop the area they were just training in. They would need to hold the mop with both hands, shifting their body side to side, rotating their hips and torso, all whilst moving their arms similarly to how they would during bench pressing. The considerable difference between the basic task of mopping and the exercise bench pressing is that when one mops, they are moving their arms in relation to the rest of their body, rather than simply pressing their arms in isolation during the bench press. Now apply this same thought process to other regularly performed tasks throughout the day such as rolling over in bed to switch off the light, or a more strenuous activity like painting a wall or rearranging furniture. These activities require you to use your arms in relation to your whole body moving along with them, not in isolation like the bench press.
The bench press accounts for few variables found in common tasks people perform in the real world every day.
Framber Valdez pitching a baseball, a good demonstration of an integrated throw from the foot to hand.
How does the bench press affect the shoulder joint?
The isolated nature of the bench press means there will be long-term effects of this disconnection. Bench pressing teaches the body that when you press you won’t move your ribs, hips, weight, etc. This isolated application of training leads to excessive joint compression and instability, not just while doing the bench press but also when performing daily tasks. A manifestation of this instability in the shoulder joint may be a scapular wing, or a shoulder joint not moving properly in the capsule. As a byproduct, this will mean every time you perform a function with the shoulder there will be excessive stress throughout the joint, likely leading to problems arising like arthritis or a frozen shoulder.
So, should we worry about ‘technique’ in an exercise that clearly isn’t addressing the function of our bodies performed in day-to-day activities? Or should we ditch the shoulder pain and look for a better alternative?
Bench Press Alternative
When looking for a bench press alternative, we are looking for movements that will consider the function of the shoulder in relation to the rest of the body. If executed well, the movement will regenerate your body and solve the shoulder pain issues at the same time. Functional Patterns focuses on exactly this. The goal at Functional Patterns is to find the most effective way to build muscle that will eliminate joint compression and pain at the roots. A good place to start is the Functional Patterns 10-week Course where you will systematically be taken through a program that has shown to achieve great results with shoulder pain and the pain in the entire body. An example of how Functional Patterns would actually achieve the same goals as bench pressing but without the pain is a reciprocal press.
Functional Patterns Reciprocal Press demonstration
A Reciprocal press like the bench press is utilizing a pushing motion to fatigue the pec muscles. However it is performed standing up, accounting for gravity. It is accounting for reciprocal motions in the arms as well as rib cage rotation and abdominal pressure just to name a few of the added variables. You also have the ability to progress into movements that account for more variables such as the Functional Patterns Step Press.
A comparison of the bench press vs a Functional patterns reciprocal press
Shoulder pain from bench pressing, burning and clicking are not due to ‘improper technique’ while doing the bench press. They are the result of executing the bench press. It must be understood that the nature of the bench press is not accounting for the variables involved in human movement, which will inevitably lead to shoulder dysfunction and pain. The body needs to be trained in relation to its biomechanical blueprint. We have a bench press alternative to get this journey started for yourself and to stop feeling shoulder pain from bench pressing, the Functional Patterns 10 week course is the best possible thing you can do for your body.
- Roach, NT, Venkadesan, M, Rainbow, MJ, & Lieberman, DE 2013. ‘Elastic energy storage in the shoulder and the evolution of high-speed throwing in Homo’, Nature, vol. 498, no. 7455, pp. 483-486. doi:10.1038/nature12267
- Kuhn, JE (2016) ‘Throwing, the shoulder, and human evolution’, The American Journal of Orthopedics, vol. 45, no. 3, pp.110-114.