The shoulders take a beating in nearly every pressing movement we do. While many people think of a chest workout as working, well, chest, the reality of it is that the front of the shoulders take a beating too…especially when proper form and programming is non-existent.
When your shoulders are aching and it limits your ability to train the chest, you need to first evaluate why the shoulders are in pain. From there, you can then back off certain movements, address shoulder stability and technique needs, and create effective chest workouts with bad shoulders.
In this article, we will do all of that, starting with answering the question of what to do if your shoulders hurt during a chest workout, and where to go from there.
Should Your Shoulders Hurt When Working Out?
No, your shoulder should not hurt when working out.
Aside from actual muscle soreness and fatigue, your shoulders themselves (connective tissues and joints) should not hurt or ache.
If they do (and assuming you do not have shoulder issues, recovering from surgery, or arthritis), you need to make sure you are properly warming up and following the guidelines below (proper technique, not training too heavy, etc).
If you are someone who has shoulder pain history for the reasons listed above, be sure to contact your qualified medical and health professional.
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What Should You Do if You Are Experiencing Shoulder Pain?
You should stop any movements that cause pain.
If you are in pain, doing more of something 9 times out of 10 will result in MORE PAIN.
If you are experiencing pain, it is best to back off and move on.
Sometimes issues will be acute and happen because the body just is not ready for it that day.
Other times you need to back off and retrain the movement and let things heal. It is best to consult a trained strength coach or health professional if this is the case.
Related Article: How Many Chest Exercises Should You Do Per Workout
Sample Shoulder Warm-Up for Your Next Chest Workout
Perform 2-3 rounds of the below shoulder warm-up segment prior to your next chest or shoulder workout.
All-4s Scapular Mobility Circles: 5-10 per direction
Scapular Push Up + Push Up: 8-10 reps
Perform 1 scapular push up followed by 1 push up. That is one rep.
Beginners can drop to their knees if needed.
Scapular Retraction Row: 10 controlled reps
Best Pressing Exercises for Bad Shoulders
It’s important to remember that exercise selection is often not to blame for shoulder pain during chest training. Rather, poor technique and too heavy of loads are primarily the cause.
Be sure to refresh yourself on your training technique and programming as these most certainly are the issues.
However, odds are you’re doing movements that are aggravating your shoulders over and over, and without stepping away from them go for a few weeks to allow them to heal and you to correct your shoulder imbalances or technique, your issues will remain chronic.
Below are a few movements that you can use during this time to increase shoulder stability, reinforce proper positioning in the press, and alleviate stress the the shoulder (limiting range of motion, decreasing loading, etc)
Related Article: Should You Train Chest And Triceps Together?
The floor press is a partial range of motion chest press movement that is great for decreasing shoulder stress (limited horizontal shoulder abduction). It also reinforces proper scapular stabilization and retraction, with the floor providing feedback on what proper “back packing” feels like.
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REVERSE GRIP PUSH UP
The reverse grip push up forces external rotation of the shoulder joint and unwinding of the complex (internal rotation). Many lifters fail to properly set the shoulder and mid back in position when pressing. This push up variation can be done with slow and controlled tempos to increase posterior shoulder strength and stability.
Related Article: The At-Home Push Up Workout To Build Your Chest & Arms
BOTTOMS UP KETTLEBELL PRESS
The bottom up kettlebell press is a good movement to increase scapular stability, serratus activation, and provide overhead pressing and stability within a training program. While this does not hit the chest directly, it is a foundational movement to strengthen the scapular muscles which are all highly active in bench pressing movements.
Related Article: Can You Build A Chest Without Bench Press?
The Z Press, which can be done with a barbell, kettlebells, or dumbbells is a great movement to increase thoracic stability, reinforce proper shoulder stabilization, and core strength. While this movement is not a chest exercise specifically, it can help strengthen the shoulders and promote overall shoulder health. Stronger and healthy shoulders means you can start bench pressing soon enough.
TEMPO CHEST PRESS
Simply adding a tempo to any movement can help promote stability and muscle gain, without the need for high amounts of external loads. One of my favorite ways to do this is to lower the load (for example, a bench press) on a 3 second count, pausing on the chest for 1 second, and pressing upwards into the lockout position, pausing 1 second at the top. The key here is to focus on keeping the shoulder-blades together and feeling the stretch of the pecs during the tempo chest press.
NEUTRAL GRIP DUMBBELL BENCH PRESS
The neutral grip dumbbell bench press is a variation that has the lifter use a neutral grip, which keeps the shoulder joint in lower degrees of shoulder horizontal abduction. This can help to limit stress and strain to the shoulder, especially in individuals who have shoulder impingements. The key here is to set the back, and to not allow the front of the shoulders to round upwards off the bench as you lower the weight.
You can do the landmine press standing, kneeling, or anywhere in between to increase upper chest, shoulder, and scapular strength. This modified overhead pressing exercise is great to re-acclimate lifters into pressing following injury or shoulder pain. When done correctly, this exercise can build scapular stability and increase upper pec, deltoid, and tricep strength.
6 Reasons Your Shoulders Hurt When Training Chest
Below are some other reasons as to why your shoulders hurt during chest workouts. Remember, if you are dealing with chronic shoulder issues (or even acute for that matter) working through them or “it feels better as I warm up” are all warning signs that your body is sending you. Ignore them, and you will be sidelined for much longer.
Use the below section as a way to check back in with yourself and your training. Disclaimer, I am not a doctor, so the below recommendations are suggestions based on my experience. If you have issues or concerns, please seek medical and professional assistance.
1. POOR TECHNIQUE
One of the biggest reasons why people complain of shoulder pain in the bench press (and other chest exercises) is simply due to poor technique and positioning when lowering the bar to the chest.
While technique breakdowns can also occur because you are using too much weight, have little control, or have no idea how to pack your shoulder blades, it can also be due to the fact you are not positioning yourself correctly.
Be sure to watch the video tutorials on the above exercises (best chest exercises for bad shoulders) to master your technique.
2. TOO HEAVY
Odds are, if your shoulders hurt you need to also decrease the load you are using so that you can establish more control and focus on maintaining stability throughout the movement.
Many people think benching heavy builds bigger chest muscles, which sure, it does, but it isn’t the only way to have growth.
The biggest thing to remember is to allow the muscle to move in the full range of motion, keep tension on the fibers, and to not lose control and stability in the press.
3. NO CONTROL
Using tempos, pauses, and controlled lowering phases are all effective (and challenging) ways to increase muscle growth and enhance shoulder stability and strength without needing to use excessive loads.
If you are looking for muscle growth and strength, it is key to maximize muscular tension and control throughout the movement, and not resort to bouncing off the chest or momentum based lifting.
4. TOO MUCH VOLUME
Let’s assume you are training with perfect technique, loading, and control. There is a likelihood then that you are simply doing TOO MUCH chest training.
If you are exceeding 12-18 total sets of chest per week, this most likely is a sign that you are not allowing your muscles to recover which in turn will place greater stress on the connective tissues and joints of the shoulder.
This includes if you’re doing high amounts of bodyweight movements, as fatigue is fatigue, so remember to listen to the body and have a chest training plan that allows for proper recovery AND also trains the back and shoulder stabilizer muscles.
5. LACK OF SCAPULAR STABILIZATION
If you lack the ability to stabilize the shoulder blades and shoulder girdle (pack the back) during pressing movement, your shoulder joints and connective tissues could be taking a beating.
With the warm-up and corrective exercises listed above, you can retrain your body how to stabilize the shoulders and increase pressing performance and health.
6. SOME EXERCISES JUST DON’T WORK FOR YOU
Sometimes you just have to accept that there are some movements that will be good for you, and others that won’t.
If you find you have tried everything and a certain movement hurts you (while other chest exercises don’t), it may be best to just embrace that everyone’s shoulder is different, and for whatever reason “Exercise X” is painful for you.
Focus on all the movements that do not create pain, and use those to strengthen your chest and shoulder muscles. You may find that when you go back to “Exercise X” weeks or months later, you might even be able to do them pain free.
Sample “Shoulder Friendly” Chest Workouts
Following completion of the above shoulder warm-up routine, here are three chest workout ideas for all levels.
Workout 1 – Beginner
Incline Push Up: 3 sets of 8-10 reps
Barbell Floor Press: 4 sets of 8 reps, slow controlled lowering phase
Superset with Dumbbell Farmer Carry: 4 sets of 1 minute of walks
TEMPO Landmine Press: 4 sets of 8 reps, 3 second lowering phase
Supset with Band Pull Apart: 4 sets of 10 reps, slow and controlled
Neutral Grip Dumbbell Chest Press: 4 sets of 8-12 reps, slow and controlled
Workout 2 – Strength (Advanced)
Reverse Grip Push Up: 3 sets of 8-10 reps
Barbell Tempo Floor Press: find a 8 rep near max weight, then perform 3 more sets with that load, for 4-8 reps. Slowly lower the load on a 2 second count
Superset with Dumbbell Suitcase Carry: 4 sets of 1 minute of walks
Neutral Alternating Grip Dumbbell Chest Press: 4 sets of 8-12 reps, slow and controlled
Supset with Band Pull Apart: 4 sets of 10 reps, slow and controlled
TEMPO Deficit Push Up: 4 sets to failure, resting only 20 seconds between sets. Lower yourself down for 2 seconds, pause at bottom for one second every rep.
My hope is that from this article you are left with some actionable exercises and workout ideas to maintain strength and pressing performance while also addressing your needs and injuries. It is imperative that you seek medical and professional help if your shoulder pain continues.
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.
Mike has published over 500+ articles on premiere online media outlets like BarBend, BreakingMuscle, Men’s Health, and FitBob, covering his expertise of strength and conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, strength development, fitness, and sports nutrition. In Mike’s spare time, he enjoys the outdoors, traveling the world, coaching, whiskey and craft beer, and spending time with his family and friends.