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Why does my shoulder hurt when doing the bench press at the gym?

At Bodylogics we often get athletes visiting who have a long term training plan which focuses on increasing their muscle bulk size and who are undertaking what they believe to be structured training programmes.  Most of the programmes obtained from the internet are very good and will challenge each individual in their own way and will result in significant muscle gains.  However, even when following these programmes we still have athletes experiencing pain when doing the bench press but not necessarily other exercises.

The first thing to note here is that pain is not always a bad thing.  It is an indicator that something is not quite right in the biological make-up of the body.  That being said, too much pain is most likely causing damage, so it is important to be aware of this.  See our blog on pain for more information about this.

The question here though is why does my shoulder hurt whilst doing the bench press at the gym?  Now an assessment would need to be carried out here to confirm for sure what was happening, but a very common issue is a weakness of the Rotator Cuff.  Let’s start with a quick lesson in what the Rotator Cuff should do.

The Rotator Cuff is the main stabiliser of the humeral head.  It’s job is to basically stop your arm from falling out of its shoulder socket (not literally, but it’s an easy annotation to try and understand when thinking of its function). 

Why does my shoulder hurt when doing the bench press at the gym? Bodylogics

The Rotator Cuff consist of the Supraspinatus, Infraspinatus, Teres Major/Minor and the Sub-Scapularis.  Together they act to keep the shoulder joint together.

If these muscles do not work your arm is not going to fall out. There are many ligaments and other muscles that help support the shoulder and prevent the arm from falling out, but you will start to adapt the mechanical structure of your body in a negative way.    And this is where the issue lies….. the demand placed on these other muscles is what ends up creating your pain. 

The bench press especially causes great pain because as you lie on your back and push the weights up in front of you to perform your bench press, your rotator cuff should be trying to keep the head of your humerus as central as possible in the socket joint in which it sits.  For the bench press it would keep it centralised by pulling the head of the humerus downwards towards the bench, therefore allowing free flowing movement and no catching of any tendons, etc….. near the shoulder joint. 

When it doesn’t work/do what it should do then the humeral head starts to translate forward as it believes it is supporting the load above it (the bar and weights) and at the same time the small tendons and ligaments get almost crushed under bony structures.  Doing this once is unlikely to cause much damage, but repeating this movement as part of your training programme on a regular basis will result in the tendons becoming inflamed as you are most likely not allowing enough time for the tendon to repair due to the nature of the programme you are following.  Any programme off the internet will assume that you are lifting with correct form and good muscle balance.

If you are suffering from this type of pain then there are some really simple activities that you can do in order to reduce the pain but keep on lifting.

  1. Try reducing the initial load that you lift.  This will take away some of the compression and allow the tendons greater time to heal.
  2. Use a theraband to assist with your lifting.  This will actively engage the rotator cuff muscles and help hold your humeral head in place better. You can use a smaller band than this and have the same effect.
  3. If the pain is really bad then you may need to stop and concentrate on strengthening the rotator cuff in isolated exercises first before resuming your bench press training programme.
Why does my shoulder hurt when doing the bench press at the gym? Bodylogics

As with any injury, the context of it is the most important thing.  Understanding why something hurts is the main battle to overcome.  Once you understand how the structures of the body actually work you can make adjustments to ensure you can continue to train and reach your ultimate goal whatever that may be.  Before doing any training programme we would always ask you to consult with your Physiotherapist, Osteopath or Sports Therapist to ensure the issue is just as simple as strengthening the Rotator Cuff.

Keep a look out for further blogs here on shoulder pain and other ways to manage injuries and to understand what may be causing it.

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