When it comes to the shoulder joint & girdle, there are few movements that spark more anxiety, pain, and frustration than the barbell bench press. The good news is that there is low-hanging fruit that can result in immediate decrements in pain experienced during the bench press. In addition, the changes can result in increased stability and as a result, increased force production (Bober, et al. 1981). These small changes will result in better outcomes over time as the result of less downtime from injury, and stronger musculature surrounding the shoulder joint & girdle. The low-hanging fruit can be consumed in five different components: Grip width, landing point, scapular positioning, bar path, and bench incline.
The correct grip for a bench press will have the bar directly over the wrist, which in turn is directly over the elbow and perpendicular to the ground (Fig 1). This is called joint stacking and will result in the strongest possible position to press from. If the wrists are too narrow, the triceps pick up more work (great movement, but not optimal for force production). If the wrists are too wide, it can put the pec and shoulder joint/girdle into an increasingly precarious position. The only exception to this rule is if an individual is seeking to take advantage of decreased ROM; however, I would not recommend this for most individuals. Here is an article on grip width for the more competition-oriented individuals.
The touch point will be influenced by the grip width and individual shoulder mechanics. Having said that, a good baseline is right at the bottom (inferior portion) of the sternum, Individuals should be able to “pull” the bar to this position while keeping the shoulder blades pulled back (retraction – See Fig 2) and down (depression – See Fig 3). The bar should not go in a straight line from directly over the shoulder joint to the top of the clavicle. This is mechanically poor movement, detrimental to shoulder health, and poses significant safety concerns. Instead, the bar should descend at a slight angle toward the base of the sternum, and return to the locked-out position over the shoulder joint at a relatively similar angle (See Fig 4).
On the topic of scapular positioning, individuals should learn and be familiar with the shoulder girdle movements retraction/protraction (Fig 2 & 5) and elevation/depression (Fig 6 & 3). The back represents the base of support from which we press from. If we are not “packed” and “tight,” unnecessary movement can occur that may lead to injury as well as just make it suboptimal for producing maximal forces. Learn to retract and depress the shoulder blade. This will benefit shoulder health, decrease ROM, and lead to a heavier and more efficient bench press. Juggernaut Training Systems (JTS) has a great article taking a deeper dive into scapular positioning in the bench press.
Concerning bar path, as mentioned previously, there is a slight angle on the descent and the ascent. As the bar moves inferiorly toward the feet, the pecs gain mechanical advantage and become the prime mover (as it should be). When we descend in a straight line (assuming the individual does not have above-average thoracic mobility), the anterior deltoid tends to pick up a lot of the work during the press (Fig 7). This is suboptimal for force production and can lead to shoulder impingement and other ailments stemming from the shoulder joint/girdle. As we come out of the bottom of a correctly performed bench press descent: the wrists are over the elbows and perpendicular to the floor, the scapula is retracted and depressed and the chest is pulled up toward the bar (thoracic extension), and the bar lands at the base of the sternum. As we press out of that position, the elbows stay tucked for the first roughly two-thirds of the press. If the elbows flare out of the bottom too early, the brunt of the work shifts disproportionally to the triceps and therefore becomes a limiting factor. Keeping the elbows tucked until near lockout will ensure the individual gets everything out of the pecs possible and will result in an ascending bar path that can be described as “up and back”.
Changing the incline in a bench press may be an effective workaround if you experience pain in a flat bench press; assuming all other boxes have been checked. Speaking from a personal perspective having experienced significant left shoulder pain in the flat bench press during most of 2019 and 2020 as the result of a chronic injury that originated at a competition in early 2019. During this time pain was at a consistent 6/7 out of 10 when flat benching. In a moderately elevated plane, there was virtually no pain. This is likely relatively specific to the injury I sustained and should be implemented sparingly and on a case-by-case basis. There is no rule stating that individuals must bench press. This article talks about other movements and modifications to achieve your best pain-free bench press.
All of the components that comprise a healthy bench press are not isolated, but instead are interconnected and all affect each other. Sometimes fixing one issue causes others to align, sometimes when one component breaks down, so do others. Regardless of where an individual is in terms of their bench press strength, a good bench press begins with a proper position. All else flows from this genesis. Check these boxes on your bench press, find pain-free movement, and watch your lifts soar.
- Bober T, Kornecki S, Lehr RP Jr, Zawadzki J. Biomechanical analysis of human arm stabilization during force production. Journal of Biomechanics. 1982 ;15(11):825-830. DOI: 10.1016/0021-9290(82)90047-1.