Shoulder pain during bench press is a frustrating and common issue among weightlifters. 

For many, it takes the fun out of heavy benching and severely limits progress.

Understanding the root causes behind this discomfort is crucial to address it effectively and avoid long-term injury.

In this evidence-based article, you’ll discover why many experience shoulder pain from bench pressing, practical solutions to alleviate it, tips on preventing it, and more. 

Understanding Shoulder Pain in Bench Pressing

The first step toward fixing and preventing bench press shoulder pain is grasping shoulder anatomy. It’s also crucial to understand the most common causes of shoulder pain from bench press.

Your Shoulder Anatomy and the Bench Press

The shoulder is a complex joint with a wide range of motion, made up of muscles, tendons, and bones that all work together to rotate and lift your arm in many ways.

When you bench press, you place the rotator cuff—a group of muscles and tendons that secure your shoulder in place—under significant stress. 

If any part of this intricate system is weak, overused, or improperly engaged, it can lead to shoulder pain bench press issues. Understanding this anatomy helps pinpoint what might be wrong and informs the adjustments needed to bench press without pain.

Common Causes of Bench Press Shoulder Pain

Shoulder pain from bench press often stems from a few common culprits:

  • Poor scapular control: Failing to “retract and depress” your scapulae (squeeze your shoulder blades together and tuck them toward your butt) while performing the bench press exercise causes your humerus (upper arm bone) to roll forward as you lower the weight, putting stress on the shoulder joint.
  • Gripping too wide: Gripping the bar outside of shoulder width increases shoulder torque by 1.5 times that of a narrower grip and requires your rotator cuff muscles and biceps tendons to work far harder to stabilize your shoulders.
  • Elbow flaring: Flaring your elbows away from your sides may increase the stress on the long head of your biceps through the initial and middle portions of each rep.
  • Touching the bar too high: Touching the bar above nipple height increases the compressive forces at the distal clavicle (the outer edge of the clavicle, which forms part of the shoulder) and torque on the shoulder joint.
  • Benching too much: The shoulders are susceptible to repetitive strain injuries. Not resting enough between bench press sessions can turn minor nuisances into major issues.

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Identifying and Treating Shoulder Pain from Bench Press

When to Worry About Shoulder Pain from Bench Pressing

Not all shoulder pain bench press experiences are created equal.

Most people feel some shoulder discomfort after a heavy bench workout. In most cases, this discomfort comes from delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), the muscle pain and stiffness that occurs in the hours or days after strenuous or unfamiliar exercise.

In other words, if your muscles feel tired, stiff, and sore to the touch, you probably have DOMS, which should improve within a day or two and isn’t something to worry about. 

However, if the pain is sharp and “localized” (specific to your shoulder, but not the surrounding muscles, such as your pecs, for example), it might indicate something more serious. Swelling, any signs of instability, or pain that persists for days, worsens with time, or severely limits mobility are also red flags to look out for. 

When more concerning symptoms like this present themselves, it’s important to listen to your body; pushing through severe pain can lead to further injury and longer recovery times.

A good rule of thumb is: When in doubt, rest. Postponing a workout to assess your bench press shoulder pain is prudent. Then, if the pain doesn’t ease, try one of the following remedies. 

Remedies for Shoulder Pain During Bench Press

If you’re dealing with shoulder pain after bench press workouts, there are several remedies you can try to get back on track. Here are the best treatments for shoulder pain from bench pressing:

  • Rest: When you feel shoulder pain after bench press, take a week off all horizontal pressing exercises (e.g., flat and incline barbell and dumbbell bench press). This doesn’t mean you have to be completely inactive—complete rest actually increases pain or delays healing compared to light activity in many cases. Instead, keep your shoulder moving, but avoid exercises that exacerbate the pain.
  • Ice: Apply ice packs to the affected shoulder for 15-to-20 minutes every few hours. This helps reduce inflammation and numbs the pain. Be sure to wrap the ice in a cloth to avoid direct contact with the skin.
  • Speak to a specialist: If the pain persists, seeking physical therapy might be beneficial. A physical therapist can provide targeted exercises and techniques to address your specific issues.

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How to Prevent Bench Press Shoulder Pain

  • Strengthen your rotator cuff: Strong rotator cuff muscles create stability, preventing your shoulder joints from shifting during bench press. To learn how to strengthen your rotator cuff, check out this article: 4 Rotator Cuff Exercises That You Should Be Doing (and Why).
  • Improve shoulder mobility: Mobile shoulders are generally less susceptible to injury. To learn the best shoulder mobility exercises, check out this article: How to Improve Shoulder Flexibility and Mobility.
  • Master bench press form: Learning proper bench press form helps you to set your shoulders in a safe, strong position and avoid excessive elbow flare and touching the bar too high on your torso. To learn how to bench press properly, check out this article: The Definitive Guide on How to Bench Press.
  • Fix your grip width: A maximum grip width of 1.5 times shoulder width is safer than a wider grip and only reduces performance by ~5%.
  • Reduce bench press volume: Limit flat barbell bench press volume to 3-to-6 sets weekly to avoid overuse injuries. This doesn’t restrict you from other pressing exercises like the incline bench press, dumbbell bench press, dip, and so forth.
  • Reduce the range of motion: Place a 4-inch-thick pad or towel under your shirt while you bench press, and stop lowering the weight when the bar touches the pad. This prevents your shoulders from extending too far beyond your torso, which may reduce rotator cuff injuries.
  • Use a spotter: Having a spotter to help you unrack and rerack the bar may reduce the risk of shoulder injuries. 
  • Stop flat benching: If you can’t bench press without pain, stop trying—many other exercises train the same muscle groups to a similar degree. The best options include the dumbbell bench press, incline barbell and dumbbell bench press, and dip.

Shoulder Pain from Bench Press: FAQs

FAQ #1: Why does my shoulder hurt when I bench press?

Your shoulder can hurt for many reasons while bench pressing, but the most common causes are:

  • You’re allowing your shoulders to roll forward.
  • Your grip is too wide.
  • You’re allowing your elbows to flare.
  • You’re touching the bar too high on your chest.
  • You’re benching too much.

Fix these issues by following the advice in this article.

FAQ #2: How do I know if I tore my rotator cuff?

The most common signs of a rotator cuff muscle tear are persistent shoulder pain, especially at night or when lifting your arm; weakness in your shoulder when lifting or rotating your arm; and a cracking or popping sensation when moving your shoulder in certain ways. 

FAQ #3: Is it OK to feel bench press in shoulders?

Feeling the bench press in your shoulders is not uncommon, but it’s important to differentiate between normal muscle activation and pain. You should feel your shoulders working as part of the exercise. Still, if you experience sharp pain, discomfort, or excessive strain in your shoulders, it may indicate that you’re using incorrect form or that there’s an underlying issue.

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