The bench press test

Bench press is a great exercise, but for anyone with a shoulder issue, it may not be ideal. How do you know if you should bench? Well for starters, if it hurts to bench, you probably shouldn’t bench. What if it doesn’t hurt during the bench, but it hurts later, you ask? Same answer. I suspect you knew that but were hoping for a different answer. Sorry.

If the bench press is painful for you, seeing a manual therapist (athletic therapist, chiro, massage therapist, osteopath, physio…) is a good idea to get you to pain-free state. But once you reach that point, then what?

Ideally you would switch to other exercises, at least for a while. When someone recovering from a shoulder injury (or has a long-standing shoulder issue) starts training with us, we often start them with a cable press, as it seems to be the most shoulder-friendly of the pressing exercises.

After that we like to work on proper bodyweight pushups (Click here for an article all about pushups), followed by Bottom Up Kettle bell (KB) bench press, and then we move to “normal” bench pressing.

I love the bottom up kb bench press because it requires a lot of stabilizing to be able to do it, which means my clients literally will not be able to increase the weight if they lack strength or stability in their shoulders. If they can’t do the bottom up KB bench press, they are not ready to bench press. Period.

The bench press is an exercise where some people can lift more than they should. Somehow their desire to make it work trumps their body’s weakness. Where there’s a will; there’s a way! Unfortunately the way often involves contorting the body, only going halfway down, or one side pushing the bar twice as fast as the other side. Quick tip: if the angle of the bar is steeper than a kid’s slide, you have a problem.

My clients have to prove that they have the strength and stability – not just the will – to bench press. They do so with the bottom up KB Bench Press, cable press, and bodyweight pushups.

Check out the bottom up kb bench press video above and give it a try. You will be alarmed at how challenging even a light kettlebell can be. In fact I suggest you start with a 10 or 15 pound KB, even if you are really strong. Seriously – it’s hard! One quick safety tip – do one arm at a time instead of two.

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada, who works primarily with athletes and active adults.

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2 thoughts on “The bench press test”

  1. Great point on seeing a trigger point therapist. I advise anyone whom is having shoulder pain that just mysteriously arrived, let a soft tissue expert work on you. Traumatic injury is different story. Nice post

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