I’m super stoked to have a guest post from Dean Somerset for you guys. I’ve personally been following Dean’s work for at least 7 or 8 years now, and I’ve learned a lot from him. In fact, some of his tips and assessments have even shown up in the squat and deadlift guides on this site. There are very few writers or coaches whose work I trust as much as Dean’s. So without further ado, let’s get into Dean’s recommendations for the best drills for healthy shoulders.
If you’ve spent any amount of time under a bar with an appreciable load over your face, your shoulders have likely had a few bad days. Benching involves supporting a lot of weight on a couple of joints that most closely resemble a golf ball on a tee … but sideways. It’s not surprising that some people find it challenging to train the bench hard while keeping their shoulders healthy.
First, though, if you haven’t checked out the Strengtheory How to Bench guide, you should have that dog-eared and studied hard.
A powerlifting-style bench press with challenging weight requires a mobility-driven position that many people have difficulty achieving. It requires a LOT of thoracic extension, scapular retraction and depression, and an arched back in order to maximize leverage and shorten the bench stroke as much as possible. Unfortunately, this is the exact opposite of the position many people live in on a day-to-day basis, and the older the individual is, the less likely they will have the range available to get in a proper bench press position without some form of a compensation.
Age causes some degeneration to mobility, which means a 20-year-old should be able to access a range of motion more easily than someone in their 40s. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible, just that it’s challenging. Further, the more time you’ve spent under a bar, the more likely it becomes that being in that position could cause some irritation to pre-existing injuries, or lead to some tissue irritation in consistently or constantly stressed areas that get stuck in a pattern overload from hundreds of sessions of training.
We can typically see consistent problems with biomechanical discomfort due to a few reasons:
- Limited thoracic spine extension mobility, which can cause the scapulae to not retract effectively, causing some anterior humeral glide during the descent phase of the press. This also cause more of a hinge from the TL junction (where the thoracic and lumbar spine meet) in order to get the arch, which can cause some discomfort in this region of the low back.
- Limited scapular retraction and depression, which can lead to anterior humeral glide as mentioned before, as well as longer bar path motion to contact the chest, plus less activity from the lats to help with stabilization.
- Sufficient mobility through wrist and elbow to pronate enough to grab the bar without letting the elbows flare out or lose positioning under the bar.
Elbow pain with bench press? You might not have enough wrist pronation. If you can’t lay your hand flat on a bar with your elbows at your side, you’ll have to kick your elbow out away from your body to grip the bar, which could alter the stress on your elbow or shoulder during the movement. ???? One way to work on improving this is to grab the bar with more pressure along your index finger than your pinkie, then try to bring your elbow into your side without changing your grip on the bar. If it’s really restricted, you might need to go with a football bar or Dumbbells held at a 45 degree angle versus parallel with each other to reduce the stress on your joints. Also, #doublebicepforthewin
If you’re limited in these areas, your first order of business should be to work on getting the mobility needed to perform the bench press (well before loading the heck out of it and creating the compensation movements mentioned above).
One way to address the mobility requirements of the movement is to strip the movement down and work on positioning. Doing an unloaded drill with a heavy focus on thoracic extension and scapular retraction, plus focusing on keeping the humeral head pressed down and not gliding forward can itself be an effective mobility drill to prepare for the bench.
If you have the mobility to get into position adequately, yet are still having some issues with pressing, there are a few things we can still consider doing as a part of your return to the bench.
1. Don’t Discount the Power of the Push-up
Think about it like this (and this is something I hammer home all the time during our workshops): Yes, when it comes to lifting heavy things, we need to get as much stability as possible. With bench pressing, cueing a lifter to bring their shoulder blades together and down is paramount from a stability standpoint, transference of force standpoint, and not sucking at bench pressing standpoint.
Getting and maintaining upper back tension is the name of the game. However, over the course of time, this can lead to cranky shoulders because they tend to get stuck in place. The shoulder blades are meant to move, but after several cycles of heavy bench pressing, in which the shoulders are more or less locked into place, you can end up with shoulder discomfort from not allowing those bad boys to rotate, glide, or slide around the ribs.
Bench press = Open chain, and the shoulder blades don’t move.
Push-ups = Closed chain, yet now the shoulder blades can move.
I find many guys don’t perform push-ups well. Namely, they don’t protract the shoulders enough at the top. Instead, their shoulder blades tend to touch each other throughout a set, which just feeds into the main issue. It’s important to cue shoulder protraction at the top (push away) and think about the shoulder blades moving around the ribcage.
Second, at the bottom of the movement, the shoulders are often either protracted or anteriorly tilted, driving pressure to the front of the humerus. This can cause some irritation around the biceps tendon, making well-done and painless push-ups a challenge for some people.
Let’s look at a couple of shoulder-friendly push-up variations.
How to do them: Grab a monster band and wrap it around two j-hooks. Assume standard push-up position (engage glutes and abs), and lower. You have to fight much harder to stay in proper position, and it’s a fantastic variation to help work on rotator cuff recruitment/activation and joint centration.
Chaos push-ups with the feet elevated
How to do them: Same set-up as above, but now we’re upping the ante and increasing the ROM with feet up on a bench.
1-Arm Bodysaw Push-Up
Place one hand on a slideboard, ValSlide, or regular ol’ furniture glider thingamajig, and place the other hand on solid ground. Lower yourself toward the ground, “sliding” your hand up above your head. This alone makes the exercise more challenging as you’re making things less stable on one side, which helps increase core engagement.
2. Reduce the range of motion further to keep shoulders out of a “danger zone.”
The bench press checks a lot of boxes for shoulder health concepts (thoracic extension, scapular retraction, and glenohumeral retroglide). Yet, as the shoulders are such a mobile and variable system, getting locked into a single bar path can hinder the shoulder’s ability to move outside of that path. In lifters with very high bench press volumes, consistently staying in this singular path will cause some issues with the path itself, as overuse injuries begin to accumulate. So, we can adjust the range we use, as well as the angle, via exercises like decline or even incline presses, along with varying grip width in non-competition, lead-in phases of training. Here are a few exercises you can use to vary the range of motion of the press:
Spoto Press or “Invisible” Board Press
How to do them: In this variation, the lifter will lower the barbell toward the chest and stop 2-3 inches above the chest, pause for a 2-3 seconds count, and then explode back up into lockout.
Another option is a floor press to help reduce the range of motion, but watch how quickly you lower the weight so you don’t break your elbows on the floor.
“Neutral Grip” Pressing Variations
Dumbbells tend to be a bit more shoulder friendly because you’re not locked into an internally rotated position (as is the case when holding a barbell), which is a benefit of something like a football bar bench press. Holding DBs with a neutral grip tends to “open” the acromion space a bit more. This way one can still press, but not in a fashion that irritates the shoulder.
3. More Isolational or Movement-Retraining Drills
You can consider these “pre-hab” or “rehab” if you want, but they’re simply more isolational. They work to retrain a specific movement ability.
Powerlifters tend to present with a heavily internally rotated posture (from all the pressing). One drill I like to use to help “correct” it is one I stole from Jim “Smitty” Smith of Diesel Strength
How to do them: Wrap a monster or mini-band around your shoulders and then pull your shoulder blades together and down. Hold for a 2-3 second count.
Don’t let the perceived simplicity fool you. Nothing about shoulder health says we have to do advanced or cool-looking exercises.
The Band W – an exercise popularized by Mike Reinold – is a simple drill that helps promote scapular retraction and posterior tilt.
When in doubt, hammer the serratus. It’s a muscle that tends to be under-active in many lifters and is paramount to shoulder health.
The serratus helps to upwardly rotate the shoulder blade and keeps it “snug” against the rib cage (posterior tilt), and it also helps with scapular protraction.
The serratus slide – another gem I stole from Mike Reinold – not only helps with serratus activation, but is also a phenomenal core stability drill as well.
How to do them: Start by retracting the shoulder blades together and then protracting away. Then “slide” the TRX or Jungle Gym up above your head. Bring back down and repeat.
Band Wall Walk
This is another great drill which helps with improving scapular upward rotation (getting them to move!) and helps to target the serratus.
How to do them: Begin by wrapping a light band around your wrist and pulling your wrists apart. They key is to not allow the wrists to extend back. Your lower arms should make the number “11.”
Retract your shoulder blades together, then protract (push away) to engage the serratus. Then, “walk” up the wall in a controlled manner, making sure you don’t lose protraction or fall into excessive rib flair. Return back to starting point (without allowing your shoulders to roll forward), and repeat the process.
Quadruped 1-arm Protraction
This has a fancy name, but it simply means getting the shoulder blade to move forward and back.
For any of these movements, attention to detail is key. Additionally, working with as much intensity as you would with a huge weight in your hands is paramount to see the physical changes in tissues and cementing of the movement pattern in your head. Low intensity movements will breed an ability to do those movements with only low intensities.
Wrapping It Up
These three options (more pushups, adjusting the range or plane of motion, and isolational/movement retraining exercises) assume you have the necessary mobility through the thoracic spine, shoulder blade, and wrist/elbow/shoulder joints necessary as outlined above. Focus on weak points of movement aptitude as much as you would focus on a weak muscle to prepare for the bench press and you can help improve your performance when you’re under the bar.
Dean and Tony Gentilcore have put together a seminar series that covers everything you need to know to assess and correct shoulder and hip issues. I’ve seen it already, and it’s absolutely fantastic.
The Complete Shoulder and Hip Blueprint will be on sale until November 5th if you’d like to pick up more tips for bullet-proofing your hips and shoulders for the squat, bench press, and deadlift from two of the best folks in the business.
In the interest of full disclosure, that link above is an affiliate link, which means if you buy the product through the link, I’ll get a percentage of each sale. I have two rules for affiliate sales: I’m not going to hide financial incentives, and I’m not going to recommend a product that I wouldn’t also recommend if I didn’t get a dime for it.
I’ve been recommending Dean and Tony’s resources for years, they’ve helped me tremendously, and their Complete Shoulder and Hip Blueprint is every bit as thorough, insightful, and useful as I’d expect. They’ve worked with everyone from pro athletes to people with major neurological and musculoskeletal defects, so they know how to contextualize advanced ideas, make them understandable, and show you how you can use them to improve your performance.