Squat University is known for high-quality lifting advice for athletes in multiple sports, including strongmen, bodybuilding, CrossFit, powerlifting, weightlifting, various field sports, and more, to train healthy and pain-free over the long term. One of the most common issues from consistent lifting is an excess strain on the shoulders during a bench press. Squat University has advice to remedy that.
1. “Lock 3” Shoulder Routine
For the first tip, Dr. Aaron Horschig, a physical therapy doctor and coach head of Squat University, has his assistant, Micah, lie prone on the floor. With light weights – one to two-and-a-half pounds – the routine begins with lifting the arms backward into the air, engaging the posterior muscles in the shoulders. There isn’t much range of motion, but it helps with posterior flexibility and strength, which is an important facet for weightlifters, who are typically anterior-dominant in the torso/shoulders.
Fifteen to 20 reps with lighter weight and palms up is generally enough to create more body balance. Micah then flipped their hands’ palms down. They flared their arms and lifted them a few inches while not over-retracting the rhomboids. Dr. Horschig suggested focusing on the hands rather than pinching in the back to train the rotator cuffs and lats.
The final position is a “T” formation, with straightened arms out to the sides. For all these movements – 15-20 repetitions each – Dr. Horschig implored slowly lowering the weight rather than slamming them to the floor.
2. External Shoulder Rotation
With a foam roller positioned underneath the arm while lying on their side, Micah externally rotated a five-pound dumbbell slowly. This trained the infraspinatus — a thick triangular rotator cuff muscle — keeping their shoulder immobilized while maintaining external rotation torque. (1)
The recommendation was 15 to 20 slow reps that don’t go beyond parallel to the floor or eclipse perpendicular at the top to prevent the shoulders from rotating over. The foam roller mimics the arms’ position during a traditional flat bench press. The elbows don’t flare but rather maintain a natural pressing position with a slight tuck.
3. Banded Bench Press
Dr. Horschig placed a resistance band around Micah’s wrists, who laid in the bench press position without any weight. Dr. Horschig said to “break the band,” which “engages the lateral shoulder muscles by tensioning the band.” Maintaining that tension, Micah performed a bench press comprised of a five-second eccentric and a five-second concentric.
This increases posterior shoulder support by engaging those muscles and keeping them active throughout the movement. Dr. Horschig recommended six to 10 reps or as many as one can do without shoulder pain.
4. Kettlebell Upside-Down Bench Press
Micah pressed their fingers on their off-hand into their core, ensuring the abdomen was engaged. Micah braced their core and stiffened the abs to push the fingers out. Next, they engaged their back by flexing their shoulders onto the bench. Lastly, they performed a single-arm bench press with a kettlebell facing up, creating instability. By engaging the core, back, and shoulders, the kettlebell shouldn’t fall. They performed two sets of five to 10 reps per arm.
With the weight away from their body, Micah stabilized to create an effective lift. If the lats or the core are engaged, the kettlebell wobbles and falls. This increase in stability prevents the shoulders from compensating for the poor bracing and thus lowers the risk of injury.
5. Engage Upper Back Properly
“Pull your shoulder blades back and down,” Dr. Horschig says. “This will engage your lats and your rhomboids to set your back into a strong, powerful position.” For visualization purposes, this is like putting the shoulders into the back pockets, clinching all the muscles in the middle and upper back.
For this exercise, they implemented five-second negatives and three-second pauses at the bottom. Micah performed five sets of three slow reps at 30 to 40 percent of their one-rep max. During the negatives, Micah focused on pulling the bar with their upper back to expose back and shoulder stability deficiencies.
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- Williams, J., Sinkler, M., & Obremskey, W. (2023). Anatomy, Shoulder and Upper Limb, Infraspinatus Muscle. Statpearls Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK513255/
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