Fixing Shoulder Pain when Unracking on the Bench Press

While the bench press is an extremely efficacious exercise for your upper body, it’s fairly easy to injure yourself in the lift. In fact, the bench press accounts for most barbell gym related deaths recorded as of this writing. 

You would most likely not die from the bench press, but you are highly likely to come across some sort of shoulder problem or injury as a result of consistent bench pressing. The bench press may be one of the most popular exercises in the gym, but unfortunately, most lifters don’t know how to correctly perform it – which in turn causes a myriad of possible shoulder injuries.

Why does the shoulder take the beating? Why not the chest, or the triceps?

Aside from tearing your chest muscle during an unattainable maximal attempt, there’s no way you can injure your chest on the bench press since there’s no joint involved. The triceps and the elbows may also get injured if you flare out or push incorrectly, but this does not happen as frequently.

In contrast, the shoulder joint facilitates most of the movement in the bench press, and the shoulder joint is also one of the most complicated joints in the body – so it’s fairly easy to screw it up under heavy loads like in the bench press.

Shoulder Pain While Unracking

Among the myriad of shoulder problems that may result from bench pressing, we’ll address shoulder pain specifically while unracking the barbell during the bench press, in this post. If you’re reading this, you know what it is and how it feels, and that it totally sucks! Such a constraint can feel really frustrating and will only hamper your training progress.

That said, take note that whatever shoulder pain you’re experiencing when unracking the weight is not because the weight is too heavy or your shoulders/chest is too weak. In 99% of such situations, the problem is in your unracking technique, shoulder mobility, or inherent anatomy. So you can fix it, and we’ll show you how.

Follow the 8 progressive guidelines below correctly, and you’ll surely get rid of any shoulder pain that’s hindering you from unracking the bar pain-free.

1. Position under the bar

Positioning yourself in the right area of the bench relative to the bar is the first thing you want to check. If your body is too forward or too backward relative to the axis of the bar, your shoulder will be subjected to undue torque and stress.

So as a general rule, the ideal position is when your line of vision is just right in front of the bar. That is, when you lie on the bench and look straight up, your line of vision should be just a bit in front of the racked bar. Make sure you are doing this right before looking at any other causes for shoulder pain.

2. Shoulders buried in the bench

Next, you want to make sure your upper back and shoulders are buried back into the bench before you attempt to unrack the weight. Arch your back slightly so that your lats are tight, and your shoulders are buried into the bench.

If you don’t do this, your rotator cuff (RC) will take over the load – which becomes a recipe for shoulder injury. So, make an active effort to make sure that your upper back and shoulders are tight and are pushed back into the bench.

3. Distance from unrack-to-lockout

This is one area many lifters take for granted. The height at which you set the bar at rest is very important. If you set the bar too high, you won’t be able to push through any distance to lock it out. On the other hand, if you position the bar too low, you have to push it a long way before locking it out – and the more bent your arms are while unracking the bar, the more stress incurred upon your shoulder.

Ideally, you want the travel to lockout to be not more than 3 inches. So within 3 inches of unracking the weight, you should be able to lock out your arms. If you’re positioning the bar too low and unracking with excessively bent arms, then this might well be the cause of your shoulder pain or impingement.

4. Squeeze the bar tightly

This one is the most important tip so far. Before pushing to unrack the bar, squeeze the bar tightly so much so that you feel the tension in your forearms.

By squeezing the bar tightly, it makes it easier for your neighboring muscles like the triceps, shoulders, and chest to be even more activated. And when your muscles are firing, your shoulder tendons or ligaments won’t have to, mitigating the possibility of injury.

The stronger you squeeze, the more force you’ll be able to transfer through your hands to push the bar up and unrack it. This way, your tendons, bones, or ligaments won’t have to take over. Impingement in the teres minor (rear deltoid area) or pain deep in the rotator cuff is a common symptom of a shoulder injury caused by not squeezing the bar hard enough when unracking the bar.

5. Don’t flare your elbows or rotate your shoulders

At any point in the bench press movement, never flare your elbows as this places inward stress on the shoulders. Moreover, refrain from internally or externally rotating your shoulder girdle. Stick to the natural arm position and maintain it throughout the lift. 

When the weight gets heavy, lifters tend to resort to these shenanigans of flaring and rotating their joints to cheat their way back up. This can prove disastrous to the shoulder joint and even the elbows. Remember, the bench press is not only about strengthening your chest, it’s also about making sure you don’t screw up your shoulders in the process.

6. Fix your stiff shoulders

In a good proportion of cases, the problem is not an inflamed tendon or injury, but rather some sort of shoulder impingement due to stiff, inflexible, and immobile shoulders.

And believe it or not, it is very common for lifters to have stiff shoulders. Inflexible shoulders limit the smooth motion of the entire scapula, and hinder you from effectively pushing your back and shoulders into the bench. This causes a weak point in the chain, which usually finds itself somewhere deep in the shoulder girdle, causing dull or sharp pain when unracking the weight.

Fortunately, it’s fairly easy to get your shoulders in good health and flexibility. All you need to do is 3 sets x 10 repetitions of the shoulder dislocates exercise every day. You can use a rope or stick – whatever works. Do this for about a month or so and you’ll start seeing significant improvement in shoulder flexibility, which will carry over nicely to your pull-ups, squats, and dips too!

7. Strengthen your lats

Breaking news: One of the major causes of a weak bench press is weak lats and upper back, more than a weak chest!

You may not feel it, but the lats play an important role in pushing your body against the bench to support your pushing muscles in pressing the bar back up. Weak lats will mean a weak bench – there’s no way around that.

Now, here’s the thing. If your chest, shoulders, and triceps are at strength level X, but your lats are at strength level X-2, your body will try to compensate for that strength gap from somewhere else. And you guessed it, the shoulder is most likely to take the beating, causing pain as soon as you try to unrack the weight.

So, stronger lats will let you unrack the bar easier and will decrease the probability of bringing the shoulders into the picture, more than they are needed. Wide grip pull ups are excellent for strengthening up those lousy lats.

8. Tight Grip, Big Breath, Fast Push

When unracking heavyweights on the bench press, you can’t afford to be lazy and passive. You need to proactively focus and put your energy in the lift so you don’t end up hurting your shoulders.

Here’s the 3-step process (Tight Grip, Big Breath, Fast Push) you can follow to ensure a pain-free and explosive unracking of weights.

  1. Tight grip – the first step after you lie on the bench with a slight arch and with your line of vision right in front of the bar, is to squeeze the bar tight and hold it to maintain tension in the forearms.
  2. Big Breath – while squeezing the bar tightly, take a big breath of air into your belly and hold or lock it there. When you try to lock the air in, think as if someone is about to punch you in the stomach, and brace it accordingly to seal the big breath.
  3. Fast Push – as soon as you lock the big breath in, simultaneously initiate the push to unrack the bar (while still tightly squeezing the bar), and try to do it explosively and push fast until you lock out.

Follow this 3-step process correctly and you’ll most likely get rid of any shoulder pain that’s bothering you when unracking the weight. 

The key is to practice, practice and practice. You won’t master these techniques overnight, but it also won’t take months out of your lifting career. Practice these tips over your next few bench press sessions and you’ll not only get rid of the shoulder pain, but will also have experienced your smoothest and most explosive unracking of the bar in the bench press.

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