Don’t Let Shoulder Stiffness or Pain
Undermine Your Upper-Body Mass

The bench press has reigned for decades as the upper-body muscle-building champion. Strike up a gym conversation and it’s likely to include the question, “How much ya bench?” Unfortunately, you may find yourself excluded from the discussion if you're one of many lifters whose problematic shoulders are making bench-pressng a painful grind.

So, what’s a muscle-minded person to do? It’s quite the conundrum—stay in pain and build muscle, or grow to be a bottom heavy lifter? Luckily it’s not a black and white situation. There are plenty of shoulder-friendly bench press alternatives.

I’ve compiled a few of my favorites to help you navigate the grey area between upper-body size building and bench pressing pain.

Chaos Push-ups

This push-up variation was introduced to me by strength coach Jim Smith. It sounds like a sure fire way to sign yourself up for dental work, but its controlled performance and high-tension builds muscle.

Here’s what you do:

Loop two thick resistance bands (about 2” in width) across a squat rack, hooking the loops on the j-hooks set at waist height. Add an additional 1” band on top of the two-inch bands. Set up in a push-up position, grasping all three bands in your hands. Slowly lower yourself into the bottom position. It should take you at least three seconds to descend. A five second descent is even better. Once in the bottom, pause there for one to three seconds, then press slowly back to the top position. The ascent matches the descent—taking at least three seconds, five seconds is optimal. Add up the descent, bottom pause and ascent and you have extended muscle building, time under tension.

Chaos push-ups build shoulder stability as well. The unstable pressing surface trains the supporting shoulder musculature to stabilize, making it a solid pre-hab exercise as well as a muscle builder.

Do three to five sets of three to eight reps, decreasing the reps per set as you slow your pace.

Band Resisted Push-ups

While these bad boys don’t have a sexy name like chaos push-ups, they’re still powerfully effective for upper-body development.

Rather than hooking bands on the squat rack, wrap a band around your back while looping it through your palms and around each thumb. Once you’ve achieved this set-up, lock yourself into the up push-up position and prepare for reps. The band’s tension attempts to accelerate the push-up descent and resists the press back to the top—two-way resistance that the chest, shoulders and triceps are challenged to overcome.

Band resisted push-ups allow the shoulder blades to move more freely while the back is engaged. This is opposite the bench press, which pins the shoulder blades in place. Free shoulder blade movement combined with upper-back engagement means happier shoulders.

Do three to five sets of five to fifteen reps, depending on band tension. Start conservatively with band selection. Choose a one inch band, or mini band, to start. Rep these out to determine a base line and then pick your band-resisted poison.

Eccentric DB Bench Press

Barbell pressing limits free shoulder motion while requiring loads of shoulder torque and tension. These two factors beat up shoulders. If we remove the bar, however, and press with dumbbells, these nemeses are defeated.

Dumbbell pressing limits torque while also allowing for freer motion. Add in an emphasized eccentric, or lowering, and you have yourself the perfect shoulder health, upper-body-building storm. The eccentrics increase time under tension, a size-building necessity. But wait, there’s more! Eccentrics also allow us to control shoulder positioning while also activating stabilizing musculature. Good positioning plus active stabilizers equals happier shoulders.

While doing eccentric dumbbell bench presses, keep your hands aligned at neutral or at a forty-five degree angle. Lower the weights for three to six seconds, pause for one second at the bottom and then press the weights for one second.

Do three to five sets of five to ten reps, depending on your current goals and training status. If you want to build more size and strength endurance, keep the eccentrics long and the reps at ten per set.

Supplement Suggestions

[Editor’s Note: Modifying your bench press movements is one way to protect your shoulders and avoid unnecessary pain and increased damage. Another way is to supplement proactively to support joint strength and mobility. Your joints are every bit as dependent upon superior nutrition as any other organ of the body, and yet many athletes skimp on joint-support supplementation until tendons fray, cartilage thins, and joints grow creaky. The key is to get proactive with an advanced and superior joint-support formula like ProSource’s Extra Strength Joint Command. This wide-spectrum, multi-pathway agent of joint support contains glucosamine and chondroitin, two naturally occurring components of connective tissue, as well as hyaluronic acid (in the form of HyaMax®) to keep joints hydrated, lubricated, and compression-resistant. In addition, Meriva® provides a bioavailable form of curcumin as anti-inflammatory support, 5-LOXIN™ to down-regulate the conversion of arachidonic acid into pro-inflammatory cytokines, and a number of other well-researched joint-support agents. Extra-Strength Joint Command represents your best and most comprehensive approach to supporting and maintaining the healthy joints that are the bedrock of your strength and mass gains!

For the budget-minded athlete, ProSource also offers Ultra Glucosamine and Chondroitin, a targeted and clinically indicated dosage of those two ingredients, plus ProSource Ultra Cissus, a superior form of the super nutrient Cissus quadrangularis, which provides collagen support, and may be linked to endurance, recovery, and anti-inflammatory benefits as well.]

An Alternative Pressing Conclusion

Inability to bench press isn’t an upper-body building death sentence. With a little creativity, and a bit of hard work, you’ll find a solution that fits your pressing needs. Work these three pressing alternatives into your program and you’ll be building muscle, no barbell required.

Read more about Extra Strength Joint Command.

Read more about ProSource Ultra Cissus.

Read more about ProSource Ultra Glucosamine and Chondroitin.

Use as directed with a sensible nutrition and exercise program. Read and follow all product label instructions and warnings thoroughly before use. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.