Does the bench press just hurt your joints and only make your shoulders and triceps grow? Here’s how to turn it into a shoulder-friendly chest builder.
The biomechanic lottery
Some people are built to bench press. The weight is well distributed through the pecs and arms, resulting in lots of chest growth.
I’m not one of those people. When I first got into weight training it only made my shoulders and triceps grow, at the expense of painful rotator cuff injuries.
I experimented over the years though, and found the following ways to focus training stress on the pecs in a joint-friendly manner.
Ditch flat bench if it hurts
Flat bench pressing is extremely hard on my shoulder joints. In the beginning I thought it was mandatory for chest development, so foolishly persisted in doing it. I have partial rotator cuff tears as a result.
Every so often I’ve tried to find a workable variation of it, but regardless of bar path, grip width, or body position, it always hurts.
If your goal is strength and muscle development, thankfully the bench press is optional—if it hurts, don’t do it.
Make use of different angles
As bad as the flat bench feels, incline is the opposite. For me it’s the most joint-friendly position to press from. I also feel more activation of the chest.
30º is my staple angle, 45º another favorite, and less than 30º an occasional variation (slightly more risk of shoulder pain in my case). I used to be fanatical about touching the bar to my chest on incline bench, but now think it’s safer on the shoulders to stop an inch or so short.
Decline is another angle to try. I’d suggest just a slight angle down because the range of motion is cut too much with a normal decline bench.
Flare your arms
Another angle to experiment with is that of your arms. Angling your upper arm further away from your sides places more emphasis on the chest muscles.
But be careful going much over a 45º angle between your arm and your sides. While focus and tension on the pecs increases with the angle, so does shoulder joint vulnerability and risk of muscle tear.
Widen your grip
Moving grip width out also helps shift work to the chest. The width of your elbows when you hold your arms straight out to your sides is a good place to start. From there adjust in or out depending on where you most feel your chest working, and how your shoulders feel.
Don’t lift weight, work the chest
One of the biggest mistakes I made was focussing on lifting the most weight possible. It shifted the training stress to all the wrong places—my joints, shoulders, and triceps.
Therefore, focus on the working and contracting the pecs, not lifting weight for its own sake. You still want to lift as much as you can in the target rep range, but only with form that permits the chest to work as hard as possible.
You’ll probably won’t be able to lift as much, but if your goal is pectoral growth, it doesn’t matter.
A barbell locks you into a movement that can be hard on joints. Conversely, dumbbells allow a lot of freedom to change hand angle and find a movement path that maximizes chest stimulation and minimizes joint pain.