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Press Without Shoulder Pain

Is shoulder pain killing your workout? From my experience coaching athletes to weekend warriors, chronically achy and tweaked shoulders are the single most common ailment experienced right below low back pain.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, the shoulder pain will hurt for a few days, and then slowly dissipate. If you’re not so lucky, that pain sticks around for years and you may even carry the hefty label of “shoulder impingement.” 

The problem?

#1 Most people assume that the barbell bench press and shoulder press must be staples in their upper body exercise arsenal to get the physique they're looking for. Hate to be the bearer of bad news, this is far from the truth. The barbell bench press and shoulder press are extremely overused and, like overusing any exercise, pain can creep in.

Even if you don’t experience pain with these movements, I would always suggest changing exercises every 4-6 weeks. This helps to safeguard against overuse injuries such as tendinitis.

#2 On top of that, most include way too many pressing exercises in their routine and not enough pulling exercises—like TRX Rows, Band Facepulls, and Dumbbell Row Variations—that help safeguard the shoulder and provide balanced strength and stability around the entire shoulder joint.

In a world where we are hunched over our computers all day, overusing pressing exercises will only further exaggerate typical typing posture—shoulders rolled inward, chin pulled forward, and upper back rounded.

Pulling exercises help to set your shoulders back into a position that promotes good posture and well-rounded shoulder health.

#3 Oftentimes, shoulder pain is actually a product of an insufficient range of motion. To get more range of motion out of the shoulder, it’s useful to look at the thoracic spine (aka mid-back), which can be a huge dictator of your shoulders’ health and performance.

Poor thoracic extension capability leads to a rounded upper back and dysfunctional shoulder movement.

In turn, the shoulders will have a very hard time going through a full and healthy range of motion. The muscles that are responsible for extending the thoracic region are worth tapping into to help eliminate pain caused by dysfunction. Long story short, add more pulling movements into your routine, use the pressing exercises in this article to build strong, stable shoulders, and make sure you are mobilizing your shoulders and thoracic spine daily with these drills.

With that being said, here are 4 tips to press without pain:

Ditch the barbell and use dumbbells instead. 

Dumbbells are more joint-friendly as they allow greater freedom of motion at the wrists, elbows, and shoulders. This tip also applies to lower and upper body exercises. Here are a couple of shoulder saving swaps:

  • Barbell Back Squat >> Goblet Squats.

  • Barbell Bench >> Dumbbell Bench.

  • Barbell Overhead Press >> Single-Arm Shoulder Press

Use a neutral grip

A neutral grip means the palms face each other. This grip can be applied to exercises like pull-ups and the many variations of dumbbell presses. When you adopt a neutral grip, the shoulders tend to externally rotate better, which centers the joint and reduces the likelihood that you will run into impingement during an exercise. One of my favorite neutral grip pressing variations is the floor press shown below.

Avoid overhead work until you have the mobility to do so.

Many people lack the required mobility to lift their arms overhead. Add weight to the equation and this is a recipe for pain.

Fortunately, there are some great alternative exercises that involve pressing at a reduced angle. The best of the bunch is the landmine press. There are many variations and all you need is a barbell. I like the 1/2 kneeling landmine press because it sneaks in a little core work requiring you to brace and stabilize muscles around the hip and torso to perform the exercise without falling over—killing two birds with one stone.

The other option is an incline dumbbell press with a "v-grip". The slight incline locks the shoulder into a more stable position. The grip position aligns the wrist with the upper arm at about a 45-degree angle. The use of dumbbells allows your joints greater freedom of movement as opposed to the fixed bar path of a barbell. When you add all these components together, you get a movement that feels very comfortable and natural to perform.

Don't forget the pushup

Unlike barbell pressing, push-ups allow your shoulder blades to move freely on the rib cage. This is a lot more consistent with how your shoulders should function and ensures that the important stabilizing muscles of the shoulder blade are worked. Push-ups are also a closed chain exercise, meaning your hands are fixed to the floor. This provides the shoulder joint with a greater level of stability and reduces the likelihood of improper movement.

Most ditch the pushup once they can do 15 to 20 clean reps—that's a huge mistake. The pushup can be progressed by elevating your feet, loading a weight plate on your back, or using bands or chains to add more overall resistance.


Instead of hammering away at barbell-based pushing exercises, use a well-rounded approach that incorporates:

  • Shoulder and thoracic spine mobility drills daily

  • More pulling exercises that will engage often neglected muscles that will help safeguard the shoulder joint

  • Shoulder-friendly pushing exercises shared in this article to gradually build strength and stability without the presence of pain

This approach will ensure that you are building greater mobility, stability, and strength in the shoulder joint, upper back, and midback that will lead to improved posture with fewer aches and pains.

Coach Cameron

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