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Understanding Shoulder Pain During Bench Press and How to Prevent It

“No pain, no gain” is a pretty common phrase you hear thrown around in the gym. Well weight training certainly isn’t going to be comfortable if you are training hard enough, but that doesn’t mean it should walk away from the bench with shoulder pain every week.

Your shoulder should not be sore for days after a workout. You shouldn’t feel a pinch in the front or top of your shoulder while bench pressing. And you should not have to take Advil before every bench day.

In this article, we’ll explore:

  • What’s causing pain in your shoulder
  • Reasons behind shoulder pain during bench press
  • Strategies to prevent shoulder pain
  • FAQs related to shoulder pain and bench pressing

What’s Happening Inside My Shoulder?

There are a number of reasons for the pain that develops in your shoulder during the bench press. The shoulder is a very tight space. Which means the things can get pinched very easily. Typically, the thing generating pain in your shoulder is the biceps tendon, the rotator cuff, or the bursa (a fluid filled sac that helps things move smoothly). Other structures that could be involved are the AC joint and labrum.

Some questions that your physical therapist might ask to narrow down your injury include:

  • What is the location of the pain? (i.e. front, top, or back of the shoulder)
  • Is there any popping, clicking or grinding?
  • How would you describe the pain? (i.e. achey, sharp, shooting, burning, etc.)

Why Does My Shoulder Hurt When I Bench Press?

Shoulder pain during bench press can be attributed to several factors, including:

1. Poor Form: Incorrect bench press technique, such as flaring elbows, can place unnecessary stress on the shoulder joint and surrounding muscles.

2. Muscle Imbalances: Weakness or imbalance in the muscles around the shoulder, particularly the rotator cuff muscles, can contribute to the shoulder not moving properly.

3. Overtraining: Bench pressing too often or with too much weight can lead to overuse injuries, such as tendinitis or bursitis.

How Do I Stop My Shoulder Pain When Bench Pressing?

To alleviate shoulder pain during bench press and prevent future issues, use these tips and strategies:

Proper Form:

  • Shoulders Down and Back: Retracting the shoulder blades and keeping them depressed throughout the movement will give you a stable and strong base to push from. 
  • Arch Your Back: Using some arch in your back will help put your shoulders in a more comfortable and stable position as well. You definitely don’t need to do a powerlifter level arch, but I guarantee you will feel better and stronger than just laying flat on the bench.
  • Don’t Flare Your Elbows: Play around with elbow position, most people will find a tucked elbow position more comfortable. But you may be stronger with a wider elbow.

Warm-Up Adequately:

  • Mobility: Shoulder internal and external rotation, upper back (thoracic spine) extension, and wrist extension should be the main focus.
  • Stability: The rotator cuff is the main stabilizer of the shoulder and is the main focus here. Most people think to do something like a shoulder external rotation with a band, but I prefer to use an unstable exercise like the bottoms up kettlebell press.
  • Warm Up Sets: Ramp up to your working sets with a few warm up sets to refine your movement and bar path.

Strengthen Weak Muscles:

  • Rotator Cuff Muscles: A good starting point is to strengthen the rotator cuff with some banded shoulder external rotations. But as I mentioned earlier, using unstable exercise should also be a focus because that’s how the rotator cuff works during the bench press.
  • Serratus Anterior: This is a muscle that runs under the shoulder blade and keeps it pulled up against the rib cage to maintain stability. A plus up will strengthen the serratus anterior.
  • Middle and Lower Traps: To maintain proper form we need to pull the shoulder blades down and back through the whole movement. If the lower traps are weak, it can cause you to lose this position. Try adding in face pulls to address this.

Proper Exercise Programming

  • Gradually Increase Weight and Volume: Progressive overload is a major key to reducing injury risk while making consistent strength gains. Avoid sudden jumps in intensity that can lead to overuse injuries.
  • Modify as Needed: Choosing another exercise to target your chest can be a good option. Maybe working at lower weights feels okay right now. Try shortening the range of motion by doing a floor press. There are many ways that you can train around shoulder pain.

FAQs About Shoulder Pain and Bench Press

1. Does Bench Press Damage the Rotator Cuff?

Bench press can potentially aggravate the rotator cuff if performed with poor form or excessive weight. However, with proper technique and appropriate training volume, bench press can be performed safely without causing harm to the rotator cuff.

2. Will a Rotator Cuff Heal on Its Own?

Short answer, yes. Minor rotator cuff injuries may heal with rest, ice, and conservative management. However, more severe tears or chronic issues may require the guidance of physical therapy. (Yes, even if there is a full thickness tear). In some cases surgery may be necessary, but it is A LOT less than people think.

3. Can I Still Workout with Shoulder Pain?

It depends on the severity and nature of the shoulder pain. If you can modify your bench press or find exercises that don’t aggravate the pain, then you can certainly still workout. At Limitless Performance Physical Therapy, we always find ways that you can stay in the gym while your shoulder is healing! Here is another article we wrote with tips for training around an injury.

In conclusion, shoulder pain during bench press is a common issue that can be caused by many factors, including poor form, muscle imbalances, and overtraining. By prioritizing proper technique, addressing muscle weaknesses, and listening to your body, you can minimize the risk of shoulder pain and enjoy pain free shoulders when bench pressing. If shoulder pain persists or worsens, don’t hesitate to seek professional guidance from a physical therapist or healthcare provider for personalized assessment and treatment.


Dr. Brett Dick

PT, DPT, Owner of Limitless Performance Physical Therapy

We Help Active People ​Improve Pain And Performance ​In Their Favorite Sports And Activities.
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